A few years back I stopped by one of my favorite fly shops in the greater Livingston area en route down the Paradise Valley to shake off some winter blues; me the defier of winter, denouncer of season- specific outdoor activities, dethaw-er of frozen appendages. That second one has given me pause for thought, like “why don’t I finally get into cross- country skiing like I have been meaning to for years?” or “remember how much fun sledding used to be, why don’t you take off those waders and put on your snow pants and moon boots?” The truth is I have no answer, while I enjoy both activities, sledding and skiing, as long as the thermometer is at least close to freezing and the rivers run open, I am more apt to suffer extremity numbness, cold induced vasomotor rhinitis (sounds way cooler than saying a runny nose) and rolled ankles from the snowballs that accumulate on felt soled boots in order to throw clunky nymph rigs to trout who themselves are working hard not to become frozen fish sticks.
Back to the fly shop. I had been looking for a new rod, I know I know, none of us need a new rod, but whatever the next step down from need is, maybe necessitate is better, that is what I was feeling, a necessity for another rod in my life. I had been looking for a short stick for the willow crowded spring creeks I fish in south western Wisconsin as I live my version of an anadramous lifestyle. In the fly shop there were 7 or so rods for sale. I may be off by one or two, but compared to most fly shops who have on display dozens of rods, this display seemed anemic at best, but I thought surely there were more “in the back.” I have not worked retail, so in my mind every store has this Santa’s Toyshop mystique to it in regards to what is indeed “in the back.” It is a magical place employees disappear into only to emerge minutes later carrying, Could it be? Yes! the exact item you were looking for. Viola. Magic. Santa.
Not seeing what I was looking for among the 7 rods on display I confidently asked what he had in the back. “That’s it” was the response, or some facsimile. Instead of being disappointed by the scant options, I found it surprisingly refreshing that as a consumer I couldn’t get exactly what I wanted when I wanted it. We live in an age of seemingly limitless variety and accessibility to goods, and I fear we turning into a culture of little Verruca Salt’s (Daddy I want a golden spey rod and I want it now!). The ease of acquisition of what ever our precious little hearts desire leads to, among other things, tough times for our small businesses. While I have been convinced that competition in business is usually good for the consumer, the problem is that often small businesses can’t compete with big chain retail stores or mega-online warehouses simply because they can’t stock and keep the same high volume of inventory big business can. So when we demand exactitude with our purchases, it oftentimes means a click of the keyboard instead of a cha-ching in a local cash register. That is why it was nice, almost quaint, to be so limited in my options.
I didn’t really want a whippy 7’6” 3wt, I instead was looking for a faster 7’6” 4wt, but I bought it anyway, less because of the rod and more because I liked the small shop that smelled of cigarette smoke. I liked the sense of “what you see is what we have” because it made the world seem smaller, older or maybe more old fashion, less plasticy. As we plunge full bore into this future of ours, it is good to be reminded that Amazon is not the end all of retail, which pertains especially to us fly fisherman who are typically equal parts philosopher and gear junky. Two things big chain stores and online outlets will never do for us: give us personalized advice and knowledge in regards to gear for a specific location or even for a specific run on a little know local creek and they will never make you feel like what you see (or what you have) is good enough, that there is always something more, something better just one click away. I guess that’s what it really comes down to: what was for sale that day was good enough.
I’m not saying we should head out to the rivers with two piece whole cane rods like we used as children just because that’s all the hardware store had in stock, but we should be aware of the economic and social effects of our consumerism. For me the point was made last year when I found out that a fly shop where I fish back in America’s Dairyland had recently closed due to slow business and flat sales. I am sure many of us have seen local stores close, and while I consider it a shame when any small business closes, especially at the hand of a box store empire, fly shops are like us fly fisherman, a little different. The big difference: how many times have you gone into the grocery, spent an hour chatting with a worker behind the deli counter, drank their free coffee, solicited advice and left without buying anything? Fly shops to us are more that brick and mortar receptacles of our passion’s paraphernalia- they are where we meet, tie flies, check fishing reports, and gossip. I was bemoaning the loss of this store at another fly shop (one that does big online sales, hint hint other small fly shops) and the owner asked me “How many times had you gone in just for a few flies or just to chat versus how many rods/reels/ other big ticket items had I bought online because they were less expensive?”
Many of us fly fishermen are tinkerers and engineers at heart and we will probably never stop inventing new products, new materials or new flies. We will always be on the hunt for a rod, reel, line, fly, pack that will work just a little bit better, and I think that’s ok as long as we try to keep that genie in the bottle. For the record, I have hunted down exact rods from online sellers because I wanted that rod (of course, probably 90% of the fish I catch could be brought in with my oldest 9′ 5wt). Consider this just a word of caution for those new to fly fishing and maybe something for you old sourdoughs to talk about at your local fly shops when you are sitting around gossiping and drinking free coffee- fly fishing has become a highly commodified activity, meaning not only you can buy a product for every aspect of this activity, you have 100 choices for each item, and just like any other activity that has been turned into a business, it is too easy to get sucked into the void of the “I need this new widget in order to fly fish.”
Part of this commodification can be attributed to big retailers for pushing new products when the old stuff we have still has life in it, partly it is on the fly fishing publications for showing us page after page of glossy color photos with fishermen dressed in cutting edge apparel (when was the last time someone in ratty old fashioned gear gracing the cover of a FF mag?), and part of the responsibility is on us as fishermen and consumers to make choices as far as where our money goes and also the image we project every time we go to the river. All of this visual representation establishes an idea of what our activity looks like, it’s image (I now own a new sling pack because vests are soooo old fashion just like external frame backpacks, straight skis, waxed cotton rain jackets, or fill in the blank with your activities highly functional yet fashionably obsolete gear).
This need for a simpler way I believe is one reason why Tenkara style fly fishing is gaining popularity- it represents an about face to the current push for more and better. Simplicity when we are shopping makes us feel more human and less like a consumer, and it’s humans who love to chase wild trout and pester big pike. Don’t be afraid to hit the waters this summer without looking like you stepped from the pages of an Orvis catalog, remember gear doesn’t catch fish, you do. And please support your local fly shops, they’re nice folks. It might mean higher prices and possibly a more limited selection compared to Amazon, but it will mean a healthier local economy, a more authentic and educational buying experience and who knows, you may even catch a few more fish.