May 12, 2020
By Bill Bowers
The global COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns have wrought havoc on the fly-fishing industry, according to multiple sources. Retail specialty shops across the country are closed (although many are fulfilling orders through mail or drive-up fulfillment). U.S. manufacturing has been shut down. Scientific Anglers and RIO Products fly line factories are shuttered, as are U.S. rod shops like G.Loomis (Woodland, Washington), Orvis (Manchester Vermont), Thomas & Thomas (Greenfield, Massachusetts), and Sage (Bainbridge Island, Washington).
But because of travel restrictions, perhaps the most widespread damage in the fly-fishing industry has been in the travel sector. Booking services, fly shops, lodge owners, and individual guides have reported canceled trips, drastically reduced business, and—at least in some cases—the near total loss of the 2020 fishing season. Even so, most fly-fishing industry professionals we spoke with remain optimistic about the future.
Pat Pendergast is director of the Travel Department at The Fly Shop (theflyshop.com) in Redding, California. In operation since 1978, The Fly Shop—strategically located in the northern region of California’s Central Valley—is within an hour’s drive of eight prime trout and steelhead rivers: the Lower Sacramento (flowing through Redding and arguably the best tailwater rainbow trout fishery in the West), Upper Sacramento, McCloud, Fall, Pit, Trinity, and Klamath rivers, as well as Hat Creek. And there are countless smaller, local waterways and lakes filled with gamefish.
The majority of The Fly Shop’s customers pursue steelhead and Pacific salmon, plus stream rainbows and brown trout. Abundant populations of largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass are also available. Beyond the superb local angling opportunities, The Fly Shop arranges travel to fresh- and saltwater fly-fishing destinations around the globe. Pendergast said the COVID-19 crisis has had a profound effect on The Fly Shop’s business, and 75 to 80 percent of previously reserved trips have been canceled or rescheduled.
“The high percentage of cancellations over the last eight weeks are directly due to COVID-19,” said Pendergast. “The good news is 95 percent of those cancellations are being rescheduled for a later date. The State of California is under a mandatory shelter-in-place order from the governor.”
Pendergast said that The Fly Shop has weathered storms before, but the pandemic came out of the blue. “We had the Carr Fire in 2018, flooding rains and snow in 2019, and now COVID-19 in 2020. All of these unprecedented events have adversely affected our local fishing and business,” he explained.
The Fly Shop has done everything possible to keep the business thriving despite the pandemic. “We mailed our annual fly-tying catalog right before the shelter-in-place mandate, and it’s been a big hit,” said Pendergast. “We are finishing up our local fishery magazine to be mailed in a couple of weeks. After that, we plan to publish and mail an international magazine in the fall. We have modified our local full-service lodges and private waters properties to housekeeping programs to promote proper social distancing and safety of guests.”
Despite the current crisis, Pendergast remains optimistic about both The Fly Shop’s business and the sport in general. “We are fly fishermen. We are optimistic by design, and this will pass and we will move forward to more normal times and back on our favorite waters,” he said.
Based in England, sporting travel agent Tarquin Millington-Drake is managing director of Frontiers UK (frontierstrvl.co.uk) and arranges fishing trips for clients who travel all over the world. His most popular destinations are Russia, Iceland, the Seychelles, and Alaska. Clients pursue Atlantic salmon, multiple species of trout, and—in the Seychelles—flats species such as milkfish, permit, and trevally. Because of the pandemic, Millington-Drake said, he’s had to cancel “hundreds and hundreds” of bookings—100 percent of the trips that were to take place between late March and late June this year.
“Our business has stopped,” said Millington-Drake. “There’s no other way to describe it. We may or may not get a third and fourth quarter this year.” Still, he added, most of his customers have rolled over their trips to 2021. But that has not solved the immediate problem, and Frontiers has been forced to reduce staff hours by 70 percent.
“At present it seems to be out of touch to be trying to sell trips,” Millington-Drake said. He remains guardedly optimistic about the future, but added: “It’s not going to switch back on the way it switched off so quickly.”
Capt. Randy Jacobson has guided saltwater fly anglers on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound for more than 20 years. His clients primarily pursue striped bass, bluefish, Atlantic bonito, and false albacore, as well as hickory shad. The COVID-19 crisis has had a terrible impact on Jacobson’s business.
In his 20+ years of guiding, Jacobson has always had dozens of trips spanning the entire season booked before April. “But to this moment, I have not had one phone call and do not have one trip on the books, so I do not think it is going to be a very good season for me,” said Jacobson.
Jacobson remains cautiously optimistic that his business will rebound once the crisis has passed. “But what is lost is lost, and there’s no recovery from that,” he said.
Bristol Bay, Alaska
Wayne McGee owns Alaska Trophy Adventures Lodge (atalodge.com) on the Alagnak River in Alaska’s renowned Bristol Bay region. His clients pursue coho, Chinook, sockeye, chum, and pink salmon, plus Arctic grayling, Arctic char, and rainbow, Dolly Varden, and lake trout, as well as northern pike. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, McGee’s business has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from trip cancellations—and stands to lose a lot more.
“We have lost bookings that were in the process of being made by clients refusing to pay deposits until they get clarity,” said McGee. “We were 80 percent booked and still dealing with new booking inquiries. But new bookings have ceased.”
A few clients have canceled as a result of travel restrictions, either within Alaska or in their home countries. Some countries are already closed through August. McGee says he now has staffing, supply chain, and provisioning issues. Normally he would be buying supplies and sending them to the lodge on a barge. Now everything is on hold.
McGee explained that he needs a definitive (Alaska) state government decision about whether his fishing season will happen or not—Opening Day is normally June 8—in order to plan and make decisions. “The present restrictions will not allow us to operate at all if they are not lifted,” he said.
McGee said he is trying to remain optimistic about the future, despite the current crisis. “This is unprecedented in our tenure, and the impacts will be enormous,” he said. “We are grateful our staff and clients have remained cooperative and supportive. We will do all we can to weather this storm and continue to provide the high-quality Alaskan fishing experience for which we are known.”
Colorado River, Arizona
Terry and Wendy Gunn own Lees Ferry Anglers and Cliff Dwellers Lodge (leesferry.com) in northern Arizona. Their business consists of a fly-fishing guide service, fly shop, boat rental company, kayak launch service, hotel, restaurant, bar, gas station, and convenience store. The Gunns employ a staff of 43 people. Fly fishers pursue rainbow trout on the renowned Colorado River tailwater below Glen Canyon Dam.
Because of the pandemic, the Gunns have lost hundreds of reservations for all the services they provide. Worse, they were planning to sell their businesses and retire, and had been working with their prospective buyer and a bank for more than a year, with closing set for May 2020. Because of the uncertainty created in the current climate, both the buyer and the bank backed out of the purchase.
“This has cost us the sale of our businesses and our retirement for now,” Terry Gunn explained. He added that the month of April (normally accounting for 17 percent of the Gunns’ annual gross revenue) was a total loss. More cancellations are coming in for the rest of the season, which runs through November.
The Gunns also provide housing for many of their staff members, and at the start of the pandemic they decided not to terminate anyone. Instead, their employees are spending the lockdown performing cleaning, maintenance, and beautification tasks, so the businesses will be ready to go once the crisis ends. The Gunns remain optimistic, partly because their facility is one that North American anglers can reach by driving.
“Our business was rocking before all this happened, and I expect it to be again once the smoke clears,” said Wendy Gunn.
Key West, Florida
Capt. Tony Murphy, a longtime guide, owns The Saltwater Angler (saltwaterangler.com), an Orvis-endorsed fly shop and outfitter, and Key Limey Charters (keylimey.com) in Key West. His customers fish the flats of the Lower Keys for tarpon, permit, and bonefish, and target multiple offshore species, including sailfish, blackfin tuna, mahi, and wahoo.
The COVID-19 crisis has been “devastating” for Murphy, and for the guides he employs. The City of Key West ordered his businesses closed March 22. He was forced to cancel 90 percent of the fishing trips that were already booked. Murphy returned his customers’ deposits for the canceled trips. He remains hopeful that most customers will rebook their trips once the crisis has passed.
For Murphy’s business, the COVID-19 crisis could hardly have come at a worse time: March, April, and May are his busiest months of the year for charter bookings, as well as for sales in the fly shop. He remains hopeful his fall season might be busier than normal, but fall in the Keys presents another problem: the possibility of hurricanes.
“Expectations are very low at this point,” Murphy said. “Maybe the fall will be busier than normal, but you just can’t replace your biggest three months of the year. And then there is this little thing called hurricane season.”
Fly-fishing industry veteran and book author Pat Straub (dryflymontana.com) has been an outfitter and guide for more than 22 years. His clients fish primarily for brown and rainbow trout on Montana’s Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison, and Missouri rivers, as well as Paradise Valley spring creeks. But Straub also knows and fishes many smaller, less famous waters in his neck of the woods.
This year, because of the pandemic, Straub was forced to cancel all his popular pre-runoff Montana trips in April and May, when his customers normally hope to capitalize on local hatches of Skwala stoneflies, Blue-winged Olives, and Mother’s Day Caddis. Straub has lost all of his April and May business. For now, he’s adopting a wait-and-see attitude about June and beyond. But he remains optimistic that restrictions will be relaxed and people will find a way to go fishing in Montana this summer.
“With the likelihood of social distancing and truly needing to get away from people being the new normal, I am expecting my oddball style of searching out intimate places could very well be a big benefit this upcoming season,” said Straub.
Straub explained that trips canceled because of the COVID-19 crisis go far beyond the financial damage inflicted on guides like him, but have a ripple effect on other businesses. “Because I am not on the water, losing that trip booking is all amplified: the additional guides I hire, the fly shops I visit with my clients, the shuttle drivers who move my rig, the bartenders who pour our celebratory shots at the end of the day, the servers who bring us our steaks, and the list goes on and on. Like a big-ass strike indicator that all these young guides use these days, when it plops down, it ripples,” he said.
Straub pointed out that the staff at Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures (yellowdogflyfishing.com, also in Bozeman) have been working hard within the fly-fishing industry and beyond to help both professionals and the anglers they serve navigate the COVID-19 crisis. “I can’t say enough good things about the folks at Yellow Dog,” he added.
North Carolina Coast
Lee Parsons guides saltwater anglers on the southeastern coastline of North Carolina from Bald Head Island to Morehead City, where his primary target species are redfish, spotted seatrout, and flounder. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted his business: All trips, but one, he had scheduled between March 15 and May 30 have been canceled.
“Most of the clients who canceled said they are interested in rebooking later, but at this point it’s on a wait-and-see basis,” Parsons said. “This is what we along the coast go through when we have a hurricane, only it’s lasting a lot longer.”
Parsons fears his 2020 season will be a nearly complete loss. Despite this, he remains optimistic about the future. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “I have been in this business longer than most, full time. Over the years I have had to steer this business in a couple different directions to stay ahead of the crowd. With a little luck, I should be able to keep it going forward.”
Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota
Bob White (bobwhitestudio.com) is both a successful sporting artist and a fly-fishing guide. He has guided for many years in Alaska (for rainbow trout, Arctic char, all five species of Pacific salmon, and Arctic grayling) and in Argentina and Chile for brown and rainbow trout. He guides in Minnesota and Wisconsin for smallmouth bass, trout, northern pike, and muskellunge. Bob and his wife Lisa White also act as booking agents, hosting international fly-fishing trips to South America, Cuba, Kamchatka, and other destinations. They also host an annual muskie-fishing trip in Wisconsin, for which they hire six guides for the dozen anglers who attend.
Because of the pandemic, the Whites expect to lose their planned two weeks in Alaska this summer, possibly this year’s annual Wisconsin muskie event, and a planned hosted trip to Argentina in January 2021. Two anglers have already canceled their participation in the muskie trip, and the Whites have halted all marketing attempts until the pandemic situation becomes clearer.
“Even if restrictions are lifted, discretionary income will be down, and client confidence will need some time to bounce back. Once consumer confidence has been regained (read: vaccine), I believe folks will want to go fishing to shake off the shack-nasties, and bookings will return strongly,” Bob White said.
The Whites fear that Argentina will be a hard sell if a vaccine isn’t in the picture, and they don’t anticipate one being widely available in time, which means they are likely to lose commissions on the dozen anglers who would normally be expected to participate. Despite the pandemic, the Whites remain positive about the future.
“We remain optimistic. We have the resources and a plan to survive,” said Bob White.
Capt. David Bitters (baymenlife.com) has been guiding anglers for striped bass and bluefish on Duxbury, Kingston, and Plymouth bays on the South Shore of Massachusetts for more than 27 years. Bitters’s 2020 fishing season is about to begin, and he said that (as of the first week of May) no clients who have already booked trips for 2020 have canceled them—at least not yet—but all are anxious to learn when his season will actually start.
Bitters often books trips two years in advance, and normally would hope to have many of his trips for the 2021 season reserved already. But many clients, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, have not booked yet for next year.
“I would like to have 2021 booked up right now, and began booking 2022 this past fall. So far 2021 is very sluggish, and bookings are way down,” Bitters said. “The 2020 season has been booked solid for some time. But the following season—that typically books up a year or more ahead—is not booking up. I rely on that income to carry the business from season to season to cover operating costs, and that money just is not there this season so far, due to the coronavirus.”
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
Tom Sadler guides fly fishers—primarily for brook, brown, and rainbow trout—out of Mossy Creek Fly Fishing (mossycreekflyfishing.com), a well-known shop in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Sadler is also deputy director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network (conservefish.org). His clients book their trips through Mossy Creek Fly Fishing.
“At this point, 100 percent of my trips are canceled because of the coronavirus,” said Sadler. As a result, he’s had zero income from guiding since March 15—and the spring is normally a busy part of his fishing season. “The spring season is likely to be a bust. Perhaps I’ll be able to guide this summer or fall.”
Despite the grim outlook, Sadler remains cautiously optimistic. “We are a resilient people. If the economy can hold on and we don’t fall into a depression, then I think we can rebuild. The therapeutic nature of fly fishing will continue to offer customers new and old the salve for these wounds, as it has in the past,” he said.
Tim and Joanne Linehan have operated Linehan Outfitting Company (fishmontana.com) in Troy, Montana for more than 20 years. They employ ten guides, and their clients fish primarily for rainbow, westslope cutthroat, and bull trout on the Kootenai River.
The Linehans report that the “devastating” COVID-19 crisis has already cost them about 40 percent of their gross annual revenue, and they expect the losses to get worse. Despite the dire situation, they are trying to tough it out and focus on the future. Like many of the other guides and outfitters profiled here, they hope for better days in the late summer and fall.
“I am optimistic about the future of our business once the crisis has passed. I believe people still want to travel. It will take a while, and business will be slow. But it will return,” said Tim Linehan.