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.