Participation on the rise

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

Fly fishing is not just what you do when you’re retired.

Walk down to the Gallatin River on a summer afternoon when the water’s running clear, and you’ll see ski bums, 9-to-5 professionals, bikers and kids tossing flies into the water. Heck, you might even run into your mom.

“A lot of people think it’s what you do when you get old,” said Shane Stalling, an avid lifelong fisherman who splits his time between Big Sky and Bozeman. But things are changing, he says, and fishing is no longer just a “yuppie old white man sport.”

“A bunch of my snowboarding and skateboarding friends have picked up fishing,” said Stalling, 30. “Friends in Big Sky, Bozeman, Utah and Washington. Tons of people are fishing now.”

Indeed, numbers are up statewide, and the face of fly fishing is changing.

With the high price of gear and guided trips in the tens of thousands, fly fishing has long had a stigma as a rich-man’s sport. But now participation is skyrocketing alongside the outdoor industry’s exponential growth, boosted by better technology in entry-level gear, clever marketing, and a new mindset spawned by the Internet do-it-yourself generation.

Last year, FWP counted 400,000 anglers on Montana waters, spending $312 million in local communities. That’s up from 380,000 in 2004, said FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim.

Fishing license sales in 2013 were also up over the previous year, Aasheim said, noting that included approximately 240,000 residents – or 24 percent of Montanans – and 160,000 nonresidents for a total of 2.8 million angler days. Three quarters of all angling in the state was for trout species.

Grizzly Outfitters, an outdoor store in Big Sky’s Town Center, jumped on the bandwagon three years ago, adding a fly fishing line next to its summer hiking and biking gear, and a second more fishing-specific shop along Highway 191, closer to the river. They carry numerous brands including SAGE at the high end, but co-owner Andrew Schreiner says it’s the inexpensive Redington packages pre-rigged with a rod, reel and line that fly off the shelves.

“They’re taking technology that everybody prizes – a buttery fiberglass rod from Orvis that sells for $500, and launching them at $200,” Schreiner said. “They’re making it more accessible for the masses.”

And the kits aren’t just going to out-of-towners, he added.

“I’m seeing young guys between 20-30, with less disposable income than the old guys – they’re almost the dirtbags of fly fishing, they have flat-brimmed hats and [cheap] equipment – but they can cast twice as far as the guys with the high-end gear.”

That’s exactly what Redington’s marketing efforts have been aiming for, says the company’s brand manager Kirsten Ashmore.

“Over the last couple years, we’ve been on this transition from bargain or less expensive fly-fishing gear, to more or less telling the story around the gear [for] fly fishing,” Ashmore said. “We understand our consumers, that they’re probably a huge advocate of the outdoors in general and are into a menagerie of sports, and fly fishing is one they’re super passionate about.”

Ashmore says the Internet has also helped make fly fishing more approachable.

“There’s this whole new generation that’s learning to fly fish,” she said. “They’re so used to figuring out how to do things on their own and utilizing the Internet to teach themselves.”

Gallatin River Guides owner Patrick Straub is also seeing a new demographic on the river.

“I think there’s a really good influx of young energy into the sport of fly fishing, and a lot of that is due to social media,” Straub said. “It’s made the appeal of fly fishing that much more obvious to folks.”

Bozeman resident Roger Layton has been living in Montana for 20 years and fishing for almost 40.

“My observation is that fly fishing, fortunately, is becoming far less a sport of snobs, and if you don’t have real high-end expensive equipment you can’t do it,” Layton said, adding that while some technical aspects of fishing can be more difficult with less sophisticated equipment, overall success has more to do with skill and mental property than gear.

“I’ve got expensive rods and low-end rods, and I’ve never had a fish spit out a fly because of the name on the rod,” he said.

East Slope Outdoors co-owner Dave Alvin says he sells a lot of Orvis and Clearwater introductory packages and expects that number to go up this summer, because his shop has moved locations from Highway 191 to the Big Sky Town Center and added a wider inventory of general retail.

“In the market of fly fishing, the low-end packages are what you sell. Tourists roll through the door here and want to try it – there’s hundreds of those as compared to your one super-experienced guy who’s looking for the new Orvis H2.”

Alvin, who’s been fishing in the waters around Big Sky for 24 years, says there are more people fishing every day.

“Case in point would be the wintertime. Back in 1992 through 1995 … there were like five different guys that fished, and that was it. Now in the first six or seven miles on a nice day, you’re lucky if you can find a spot. It’s comparable to summer traffic.”

There are pros and cons to a growing populace of anglers.

“I think the tourist aspect of Montana and fishing is getting pretty crowded on rivers like the Upper Madison, and the Yellowstone gets guided out,” Stalling said. “But [fishing tourism] also brings a bunch of money in.”

Straub says the increasing user days can put more pressure on the fishery and on tensions between user groups, but with proper education regarding stream ethics and etiquette, it’s worth it.

“The more people we have out there,” Straub said, “the more people we have willing to open up their time and their pocketbooks to help with conservation efforts.”