Fly shops weigh in
By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – With the addition of Grizzly Outfitters’ new outfitting business this spring, Big Sky now has six fly fishing shops.

“We’re a small town, and we’ve got as many fly shops as Bozeman, more than Ennis,” said Grizzly’s lead outfitter Ennion Williams, who’s been guiding in the area for 15 years.

The other five are Gallatin River Guides, East Slope Outdoors, Wild Trout Outfitters, Lone Mountain Ranch and the Yellowstone Club.

The [fishing] reps call the Bozeman-Big Sky area “fly-landia,” said Grizzly co-owner Andrew Schreiner. “There are so many fishing shops. People come here to fish. It’s a huge business for all of Montana in the summer time.”

But can Big Sky really support that many fly shops? Fishing rep Mike Atwell thinks so.

“There’s a fly fishing culture in Big Sky that’s been there for a lot of years,” said Atwell, who’s worked in the fishing industry here for 26 years. “It’s a resort town – more so than Ennis or even Bozeman.”

He says each of the shops and outfitters in Big Sky serves a different clientele, and that Grizzly is catering to a newer type of customer: multisport. These are folks who might walk into the store looking for hiking or mountain biking equipment and walk out with fishing gear.

Many of them aren’t die-hard fly fishermen, Schreiner said. “We have a lot of first timers in here wanting to learn.” Case in point: His top-selling rod this year was a lower-priced kit that included the reel and line.

Schreiner is pleased with Grizzly’s first year, and says he thinks it will steamroll. “My goal is to be very busy in three years.”

Other shops are reporting strong seasons, as well.

“It’s been an awesome summer,” said Dave Alvin, owner of East Slope Outdoors. “If you look at historic averages, we had a summer just like we always do, maybe a little better. This year, runoff came and went. The river was down and fishable when people were here… The fishing has been killer.”

Alvin, who’s been guiding here more than 15 years, says he doesn’t see the industry in Big Sky growing exponentially.

“The pie’s only so big,” Alvin said. “Overall it has its ups and downs, and it’s all based on the tourist business. If I were to look at my last six or seven years, it all averages out.”

But Patrick Straub, who bought Gallatin River Guides this spring, says otherwise.

“If you look at the history of Big Sky, the history of the market, and the history of the shops in Big Sky, it’s pretty clear it’s a growing market.”

Straub grew up in Bozeman and has worked in the fishing industry in Montana for 16 years. He and Alvin seem to agree on most everything else, particularly the fact that the long established shops like theirs will continue to maintain and grow their loyal client base.

While there is certainly competition between the shops and outfitters, they also work together, says Lone Mountain Ranch fishing manager John McKinnie. For example, the ranch has its own guides, but uses Straub as an outfitter.

“The guide community is pretty close,” said McKinnie, who moved here a year ago from Colorado. “Everyone knows each other and we share a lot of the same guides.”

Others echo that sentiment.

“The community of shop staff and guides in Big Sky are all great,” Straub said. “That’s what’s going to make it work for everybody.”

“I think it’s all good,” said JD Bingman, owner of Wild Trout Outfitters. “Fly fishermen in general are connoisseurs. Like lovers of fine wine, they’re going to sample different guide services and shops until they find the one they like… There’s plenty to go around.”

Bingman has been guiding in the Big Sky area since 1984 and outfitting here since 1988, and says he’s seen it grow.

“We get a good number of new clientele each year and also a good number of return clientele [bringing] new guests,” he said. “Every time you introduce somebody to the sport of fly fishing, you’re growing the sport.”

“The big and the small of it,” Bingman said, is “catch and release of wild trout – showing people the resource [and maintaining it], and helping them kick off a lifetime sport.”

The more people hooked on fishing, the better it is for everyone.