February 22, 2021
This story was originally titled “The Color of Fly Fishing: Promoting diversity on our waters” It appeared in the Feb-Mar 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman.
I was first introduced to fly fishing when Tony Sgro, CEO and Founder of EdVenture Partners, invited me to fish with him in California. We went on a float trip down the Lower Sacramento River, where I caught my first trout. The next day we went to Hat Creek, known for wild, elusive trout. We wrapped up our adventure with a magical day fishing the McCloud River Nature Conservancy property. Since then, fly fishing has been one of my biggest passions.
At the beginning of each semester at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, I tell my students a little about myself—I love to fly fish. I have taught more than 65,000 students over my 36-year teaching career, and most students are a little surprised to meet an African American who fly fishes.
It’s no secret that fly fishing is not very diverse. In 2016, 73.5 percent of fly fishers identified as Caucasian, although Caucasians made up only around 60 percent of the total U.S. population. When I walk into a fly shop or wade into a river, I’m often the only person of color, and occasionally I get a few stares.
My parents taught me that when you’re African American, you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself. Having achieved such positions as assistant dean at a 5th nationally ranked business school, I have done just that. However, the lack of exposure to diversity in fly fishing means that black fly-fishing guides and people of color like guide Anthony Grice sometimes aren’t taken seriously. “For me, at one point, it was a struggle,” said Grice. “I have had issues of other people doubting my ability. I would have clients who would doubt my ability to see fish or what flies [I recommended that] they should use, and they would challenge me throughout the day.”
Grice is not alone in having his fly-fishing expertise questioned due to the color of his skin. Alvin Dedeaux doesn’t believe his race is any impediment to his fly-fishing guide business these days, but it was a hard-fought battle to get there.
“I had one time where it was just me and Larry—my Caucasian boss—in the shop,” recounted Dedeaux. A potential customer entered and refused to acknowledge me, so Larry stepped in. Helping the customer turned into a game of ‘telephone’ where the customer would ask Larry a question, and Larry would turn and ask the same question to me before repeating my answer, word for word, to the customer. “Eventually,” Alvin said with a laugh, “he got the idea that I knew what I was talking about.”
The idea that people of color don’t fly fish or are less knowledgeable is misguided. Jack Trout (of Jack Trout Fly Fishing International) credits independent fly-fishing guides of color as a part of what has made his guide service popular.
Incongruously, outdoor sports used to be a regular part of many minorities’ cultural history. “Black, indigenous, and people of color have deep roots in fishing, no matter what type it is,” said Erica Nelson, an ambassador for Brown Folks Fishing, and a member of the Navajo tribe. “Especially in the Indigenous community, there is a history of fishing for sustenance. That story has been erased and is not reflected in the public face of fly fishing.”
The demographics in the United States are shifting. Although a typical fly fisher is male, in his 50s, white, with a household income of around $150,000 a year, Pew Research reports that 39 percent of Millennials are from diverse racial backgrounds. Generation Z is the most diverse generation ever, with around 48 percent of Generation Z from various racial backgrounds. The future of fly fishing and its related conservation work, such as clean water initiatives and trout habitat restoration, will depend on this younger generation and upon increasing diversity in our community.
Simon Perkins, third-generation president of Orvis, highlighted another reason why industry leaders should listen to the fly-fishing community’s calls for more diversity. “When it comes to Gen Z and Millennials, they don’t buy stuff. They buy into stuff; 70 percent of them consider company values when they purchase from companies. A values-led platform is important because that’s what they’re considering [in their purchase]. It is not just about people; it’s smart from a business standpoint as well.”
The changing demographics are accompanied by changing income for non-Caucasians. According to the latest Multicultural Economy Report from the University of Georgia, every racial and ethnic minority group in America is making financial gains. This translates to more discretionary income, allowing for investment in hobby sports like fly fishing.
These days, Orvis is an “enthusiastic sidekick” for diversity in the community, and works closely with partner organizations like Brown Folks Fishing. Orvis now works to identify blind spots in its organization by creating employee resource groups, keeping open communication with employees and associates, and is conducting justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion training.
“From a personal standpoint, I’m a third-generation family business owner,” said Perkins. “I’ve absolutely benefited from privilege, especially in the fly-fishing space. I can’t walk around pretending I have experienced overt racism directly, but I have friends and partners who have, and when I listen to their stories, they are very revealing and help point to a way forward.
“Racism is real, barriers do exist, even if I or others have had trouble seeing it in the past. It’s important to address and has been a very powerful and enlightening conversation to be a part of.”
In 2015, Orvis founded the Breaking Barriers Award to recognize anglers who have a passion for equity and access in the fly fishing community. In 2017, Orvis launched its 50/50 On the Water initiative aimed at increasing gender diversity in the sport. Orvis most recently committed to the Anglers for All Pledge, an initiative founded by Brown Folks Fishing in 2020.
“The Anglers for All Pledge was inspired around the question of ‘how can a Black, Indigenous, or person of color be guided through the fly-fishing industry to become an enthusiastic participant, as a gateway to conservation?’” explained Nelson. Companies that sign on to the Pledge do more than just contribute financially. Pledgers work through a curriculum designed to foster anti-racism and diversity inclusion. Afterward, pledgers join a directory of committed Anglers for All participants. Brown Folks Fishing continues to support pledgees by providing session groups, group readings, storytelling, and continued community support.
Modern elitism from fly fishing potentially derives from the expenses associated with fly fishing that ended up attracting mostly anglers from a specific demographic. The first time I went fly fishing, I spent around $1,000 for entry-level, cheap gear that ended up disintegrating after a few years. That’s no longer the case today. The quality of equipment has been improving, while the price has decreased.
“Issues of access are incredibly important to us at Orvis,” said Perkins. “We believe great products shouldn’t break the bank, which is why we offer entry-level fly rods like our Encounter for as little as $159.”
“Fly fishing seems so expensive, but you can use equipment that you bought from Academy [a sporting goods store] to catch fish successfully at world-class locations,” said Dedeaux. “I think we just need to rid the community of some of the mystique around fly fishing and emphasize the technique and artistry.”
The first time I saw an African American in a fly-fishing magazine, it was former President Barack Obama, posing with new fly-fishing gear. I have not seen any person of color as a feature in a fly-fishing magazine since then. My distinguished interviewees for this article also noted the lack of people of color in fly-fishing magazines, retail advertising, and websites. This lack of diverse representation in the fly-fishing community, especially combined with that perception of elitism in the sport, is a deterrent for potential anglers of color.
After his guide business took off in 2011, Dedeaux was content to work in the background. A few years ago, though, Dedeaux changed his mind. “I decided it’s my responsibility to not fade into the background so that people can see my face, and people with a face like mine can see they can do what I do, at the highest level there is.”
As the fly-fishing community moves to feature more people of color in fly-fishing media, companies should aim to build lasting and authentic relationships with their customers who are people of color. If people of color see that the fly-fishing community at all levels is invested in them, they will invest back into the community.
The complexity of fly fishing is what draws me to the sport. I tell my students that fly fishing is an intellectual pursuit; it requires patience and meticulous analysis in addition to physicality. But the steep learning curve can be a barrier to access on its own.
On top of planning a fly-fishing trip, navigating rushing waters, and matching the hatch, anglers have to learn technique—how to keep the line tight or slack, how to keep your shadow out of sight, where the fish like to hide within the natural landscape, and how to best position yourself and your line.
“If you go out there on your own and thrash on your own,” Tony Sgro pointed out, “you’re probably not going to like this sport.”
Additionally, new anglers, especially those of color, must learn land boundaries to ensure they’re safe while out fly fishing. “I’ve been threatened to be shot when I was maybe a foot on someone’s private property,” said Nelson. “If you set one toe on [a hostile person’s] property, it’s not safe. And if you’re new and you don’t know these rules, it’s not safe.”
Nelson noted that if young people want to get involved with fly fishing, there are resources available to learn more about fly fishing at home. Orvis has free in-person education programs in Orvis retail stores, as well as through its Fly Fishing Learning Center (orvis.com). Most fly shops have fly-fishing schools, and are constantly innovating to make these safer or virtual in this COVID era through podcasts, YouTube, and other media channels. Fly Fisherman magazine annually produces an entire special issue targeted at teaching and welcoming beginners. It’s called Fly Fishing Made Easy.
Fly Fisherman in partnership with The Fly Shop in Redding, California, is also providing a scholarship for a minority young person to attend a five-day, four-night FishCamp at Antelope Creek Ranch in July of 2021.
But you don’t have to be in business to realize that more young fly fishers are good for our waterways. Any fly fisher can contribute to diversity in the sport through mentoring youth from minority backgrounds, or financially sponsoring a spot in one of the many fine schools around the country.
When I realized that a local youth fly-fishing organization where I live was overwhelmingly white, I offered to sponsor a young fly fisher from a minority background. It’s only a few hundred dollars to be a sponsor for this camp. After the owner of the organization agreed it would be an excellent strategy to involve minority youth, I committed to sponsoring a young person twice per year.
Individually, it’s important to remember that anyone can do outreach on behalf of the sport without asking a potential angler to hike up the nearest river. If you are passionate about fly fishing and talk about it all of the time, people pick up on your passion. I’ve pitched fly fishing to tens of thousands of students. I’ve bought a good friend a subscription to Fly Fisherman as a Christmas present. While writing this article, I’ve gotten my research assistant (Olivia Lu, University of Texas School of Law 2021) interested in fly fishing as well.
Once young people and people of color are involved, they will find that fly fishing leads to a wealth of opportunities. Anthony Grice, Alvin Dedeaux, and Jack Trout transformed their passion for fly fishing into successful guide careers. Erica Nelson and a partner from her consulting agency (REAL Consulting) provide anti-racism training to the fly-fishing and outdoor industry. Simon Perkins was recognized in Forbes in 2017 for his leadership at Orvis.
As an everyday angler, I have developed good friendships in the fly-fishing community, such as my friendship with Tony Sgro, who first exposed me to the sport, and Joe Robinson, who gave me my first casting lesson. And as we head into a new era of technology and a demand for instant results, Jack Trout argues that hobbies like fly fishing that incorporate nature and health are opportunities for people to grow strong mentally by providing a much-needed outlet for stress.
I love fly fishing, and I want to share my love of the sport. It’s truly a blessing for me to be a part of the fly-fishing community. I consider myself an ambassador for fly fishing every day, and I know that many of my fellow anglers feel the same. We, as a community, are passionate about fly fishing. I encourage us all to direct this passion into inviting others to participate in fly fishing, including people of color, and for that matter, all people.
*Herb “Tight Lines” Miller is a senior lecturer at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.