Diversity Will Grow Fly Fishing

Fly fishing, like a great many other sports has long been elite, predominantly enjoyed by white men, middle to upper class folk, who have the wherewithal to travel to remote places where trout live and afford the many items of gear necessary to experience the sport.

According to the 2016 Outdoor Recreation Participation Summary report published by the Outdoor Foundation (an nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association), fly fishing was enjoyed by a little over 6 million people in 2015. In general that number has not changed for the last ten years and there has been only a .5% change in the last three years. The 2015 Special Report on Fishing further shows that 3.6 million fly fish in freshwater. That’s not a lot of anglers compared to the 40 million other Americans, or 15.8 percent of the U.S. population ages six and older, who participated in fishing in 2014. That’s just 9%.

But while the overall numbers of fly anglers can seem static, the group is not monolithic and its in flux. In 2014, about 13% of fly anglers where new to the sport. Precisely one third of fly anglers were women, and African Americans and Hispanics were just over one fifth of fly anglers (about 10.5% each respectively). Of course, if your a member of the IFF or TU, two organizations that draw heavily from the core of fly anglers for members, you might not see the diversity reflected. If you don’t fly fish that often, or travel often to fly fish, you might not see that diversity. But you don’t have to look far. There are now over two dozen women’s fly fishing groups, the most popular have hundreds of members. TU also has a thriving women’s initiative aimed at recruiting and engaging more women members -not all, but many who fly fish or want to learn.

And increasingly, women and people of color can be seen on the water, both as anglers and guides. They are typically younger and as such are more likely to engage in different mediums than the previous generation of mostly white anglers – instead of subscribing to American Angler they are following dozens of their peers on Instagram. And that’s not to say they aren’t following fly fishing’s icons (predominantly white men) – pick one – McGuane, Gierach, Apte – but they are also watching videos by like Through the Guides, featuring well-known guides Alvin Dedeaux or Hilary Hutcheson (who is also the co-owner and host of the largest cable fly fishing show, TROUT TV).

If you go to the Somerset Fly Fishing Show in New Jersey, its noticeable how diverse the crowd has become. Saltwater fly fishing is attracting Hispanic and latino anglers who are reflecting their unique stamp on the culture back through video and social media content – DJ Dan Decibel’s films come to mind of young latinos fly fishing for peacock bass and tarpon around southern Florida. And then there’s Chad Brown, owner of Soul River Runs Deep fly shop in Portland Oregon and charismatic veteran, teacher and fly fishing guide – if you’re an outdoor enthusiast and you haven’t heard of his groundbreaking work with veterans and inner city youth (predominantly people of color) then you really aren’t following the fly fishing culture.

Many new brands are lowing the cost and barrier to entry while not sacrificing the performance necessary to enjoy the sport – Redington, Rise, Tenkara USA and TFO come to mind. Wal-mart is selling fly rods! Orvis has created an indispensible online library of fly fishing instruction and offers free classes to anyone in most of their locations. And of course the target species has also diversified – bass, carp, and other “rough” fish are now worthy targets on the fly thanks to a new generation of anglers (still mostly white) but younger and less tied to the traditions, who just believe the tug is the drug – any tug.

Still, it comes as no surprise that like golf, surfing, even hunting, there is a reaction to the change in the sport, who shows up in the locker room (or on the river) and the fact that it isn’t a sport of priviliedge any longer. The same social media and online tools that democratize the experience of the sport, can be used to flail against the change. Such is the case last week when Chad Brown received a nasty Facebook post, racist and ignorant, railing against black people entering the sport. Chad shared it widely and the community – every part of the community – women, men, young, old, black, white, brown, guide, outfitter, business owner – rallied behind Chad to shout down the prejudice. Frankly, I think it was a turning point in our sport. As a highly positioned person of color in the industry (I’m CMO of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation nonprofit) and often time the only African American in the room at fly fishing events, or on the water, I can sometimes sense the unsaid statement – “this guy is evidence that my sport is changing and I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

Well, I could just say, “get over it, the world has changed.” The U.S. electorate this year will be the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse ever according to Pew Research. Nearly one-in-three eligible voters on Election Day (31%) will be Hispanic, black, Asian or another racial or ethnic minority, up from 29% in 2012. By around 2020, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group,” the Census Bureau says. Minorities will be 56% of all Americans by 2060 at the current pace.

But simply dismissing ignorance with facts is not enough. Considering that growth in fly fishing is stagnant, I would offer that the future to the sport lies with diverse anglers. So it was heartening to see the fly angling community leap to Chad’s defense. Someone was eventually going to react (and ignorantly) to the inevitability of the changes that are symptomatic of the shift in the demographics of the US. The outdoor community in general suffers from a diversity problem, but there is no shortage of good will to see it change, but change has been slow. These outbursts, attacks and temper tantrums against change (and there will be more) give us an opportunity to voice our own thoughts about how much we love fly fishing and for so many reasons, why we want to share it with the next generation, no matter who they are, the color of their skin, or the gender they identify with. These moments also give us a chance to ask ourselves – what am I doing to give others – everyone – the chance to experience this fun and positive connection to nature? Finally, and not the least of reasons we must come together to help bring more diverse people the joy of fishing, is that it can lead to an equal passion and commitment to conservation of our beloved outdoors.

Everyday I do my part as a member and lead marketer at TU (I recently initiated a grant to increase women’s representation in fly fishing films with partners Orvis, Costa and the Fly Fishing Film Tour). I also teach and guide just a bit when asked by nice people. I got my brother and his buddies into the sport – they’re Japanese American, African American. I think the key to this – is to spot an opportunity with one thought in mind, if you don’t teach others to take it up, then you well, you’re just using the resource for own pleasure, and really that’s not at all what fly fishing is about.


Shad on My Mind

Potomac Shad

Yes I have shad on my mind. I anxiously look out the window from my offices in Rosslyn overlooking the Theodore Roosevelt memorial, an island on the Potomac river. The TU National Capitol Chapter recently helped the National Park Service and local government to refurbish docks at the historic Fletcher’s Cove boathouse to ensure anglers will be able to pursue this worthy fish in just a few weeks. Shad really were the food item that fueled the birth of this nation.  You’ve got to pickup The Founding Fish by John McPhee if you’re an angler or care about fisheries management.  Melissa’s Lesh’s film just won first runner up at 2015 RVA Environmental Film Festival. Produced by VCU Life Sciences’ Outreach Education Coordinator Anne Wright for the Science in the Park website, and narrated by former James River Park Manager Ralph White, the film documents the plight and management of blueback herring and American shad in the James River. The film features interviews with Michael Odom, Hatchery Manager of the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery, and Alan Weaver, Fish Passage Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Salmon River for First Great Lakes Steelhead

So I turned 40 last year and my wife was gracious enough to allow me not one but two fishing trips with buddies. I took them throughout the fall and early winter. My first trip was to Pulaski in NY to the famed combat-fishing stream known as the Salmon River. For many East Coasters this is as good as it gets. An easy flight from the Eastern seaboard to Syracuse will land you within a 2-3 hour drive of several good migratory rivers off Lake Ontario for big browns, Chinook, Silver salmon, big resident rainbows, and two varieties of lake-run Steelhead (Skeena and Washington-strain). And because Canada stocks just about as much as the US, there’s the genetic drift of their stocked salmonids as well. All this adds up to thousands of fish making runs into the Ontario tribs on both sides of the border to do one of two things – spawn, or eat spawn.



Daniel and Joel Steelhead Salmon River

I called up my two closest fishing buddies, Mark and Daniel of the original Gowanus Noodlers, and we hit it in early November. Guests of the wonderful, new and luxe, Tailwater Lodge, we had impeccable accommodations in a converted schoolhouse that sits on the river. We were also guests of the Douglaston Salmon Run, a fine fishing camp that has the first two miles of the Salmon river. The camp’s manager Garrett Brancy runs a tight ship. DSR as its known, belies the stereotypes of the combat fishing perception this river has. Yes, you’ve got to work hand in hand with your guides to stake out some water early and essentially park there to hold your spot in the river. And yes, you’ll see lots of sports on the water (solitude this ain’t). However, DSR is catch-and-release, has several riverwalkers to ensure regulations are being followed, and a very comfortable reservation system that creates fairness among anglers. An interesting fact, the Barclay family opened DSR as a private water sport fishery in 1989. The property has been in the family since 1807, when it was settled by Colonel Rufus Price, an aide-de-camp to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The Barclays advocate sound environmental practices in fisheries, farming, forestry, and natural resources management and are heavily involved with how the Salmon river is managed by the State.




With a very affordable day rate, I recommend you use DSR on your visit to the Salmon, especially if you are a fly angler. DSR is also a TU endorsed business and the same family is behind the new line of rods and reels from Douglass Outdoors. DSR has top notch guides who are experts in single and double-handed spey casting. We were most fortunate to hook up with Mike DeRosa and Dave “Rocky” Rockwell of Zero Limit Adventures who got us up early and on the water in the best position to fish by no later than 5am. Mike was one of the best guides I’ve ever had frankly – he was a patient instructor and guide and got 3 guys spey casting within just a few short hours. Importantly, he gave us the necessary tips to hook and land big fish. Sure, learning the fundamentals on the water cost us a few fish initially, but the river had more than enough to spare and soon we were into steelhead that would come in waves throughout the day, following the big chinooks that ran upstream often in front and behind us. Though it was cold and overcast, and often wet, we barely noticed it because we were so dialed-in to the fish. Our 11′ 7wt switch rods would zip out line in a steady rhythm between roll casts and spey casts. The line would come taut as our guides nymphs were sucked down by compliant chromers. Many fish were brought to hand by each of us.



In true fish-story fashion, at the very end of the second day after hot and heavy fishing, I had taken a long break to sit back and watch my buddies fish. I wanted to savor the moment and eventually went for the proverbial “last cast” and caught my largest great lakes steelhead of the trip. Rocky yelled “big fish! big fish!” when the feisty rainbow cartwheeled twice out of the water and then zipped downstream. We were desperate to keep her out of the rapids. With a dive Rocky went in and netted here. Words failed us all as we just soaked in the moment.



I know we were lucky, that this type of fishing just doesn’t happen often, but I figured you know what, maybe I as due. I’ve prayed to the fish gods long and hard these many years, and all I really wanted was for my friends to have a good time. I smiled down on the steelhead before me, and gently released her back in the water, thanking God for such creations on this beautiful earth. And I think he smiled back on us.



Orvis X TU Collabo

Another interesting project to share with you – this time we collaborated with Orvis to offer the ultimate dry fly rod in the H2 family to our newest Life Members. It was an honor and pleasure to work with the head designer Shawn Combs and fly fishing legend Tom Rosenbauer on this one.  …now I really ought to work on getting my posts on Alaska and Pulaski up!

R. L. Winston and Trout Unlimited Collaborate on Bamboo Rod

Stoked about an important project at TU – we are now creating maker films for our collaborations with the fly fishing industry. The first features a limited edition Bamboo rod designed and built by R. L. Winston Rod Co. Bamboo junkies will find this highly collectible rod intriguing. We’re only building 59 in honor of TU’s birth year, 1959. Zero is spoken for!

Wild Steelheaders United Launches

Be Steelheaded Logo


Yesterday launched the new Trout Unlimited wild steelhead initiative known as Wild Steelheaders United. Across the nation and especially in the native range of steelhead (anadramous rainbow trout), we celebrated an invitation and a call-to-arms to come together to protect and conserve this most precious salmonid. In Boise, Juneau, Portland, Seattle, and Santa Cruz, TU threw a launch party where we screened some new films about the campaign, and shared the Wild Steelheaders United credo. We saw packed houses at each event, full of concerned anglers of every stripe who care deeply for steelhead.

In my short time at TU, I’ve been blessed to visit with TU members in over a dozen states, to fish for salmon in Bristol Bay, to fish with our TU Business members in Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico. I’ve been a part of engaging new corporate partners to support TU’s mission and programs ranging from Far Bank (Sage, Redington, Rio) to Cortland Line. Each and every day I get to talk to our volunteers who continually amaze me with their tireless energy and passion. And I know we are making a difference. The Wild Steelhead Initiative has given me an opportunity to add to that rich well of experiences. We took a different tact with branding our campaign, reaching out to filmmakers, branding and digital marketing creatives who were steelheaders themselves to breathe life into the look and feel of this campaign – and we tapped the passion and expertise of our staff and volunteers to provide guidance on the substance. This campaign has only just begun, and it will truly come to life when anglers and people who love steelhead come together, take the pledge, and help us to ensure wild steelhead are around for the next generation of anglers.



Wild Steelheaders United believes…

  1. Wild steelhead must be protected, restored and sustained.
  2. Wild steelhead can thrive and support fishing opportunity.
  3. It is not the type of fishing gear you use that counts, but how you fish and how you care for the resource.
  4. In using sound science to manage steelhead.
  5. In respectful dialogue to solve problems, not rigid ideological positions.
  6. In short-term sacrifice for long-term, durable progress.
  7. It is not possible to rebuild fishable wild steelhead populations in every river and that some rivers should be set aside for hatcheries.
  8. Wild steelhead — and steelhead anglers — cannot wait for Providence or government agencies to deliver solutions.
  9. Together we can make a difference.
  10. Comebacks are possible.

Take the pledge and support Wild Steelheaders United.

Follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter @wiildsteelheaders and with #besteelheaded, and visit Wildsteelheaders.org for more information.


Thank you.