Does Fly-Fishing Have a Generation Gap?

Does Fly-Fishing Have a Generation Gap?

This isn't the first time this question has been asked and we aren't the first to ask it. It's been floating around the fly-fishing world for years now.

  • By: John Gierach
  • , Ryan Davey
  • and Kelly Galloup
This isn't the first time this question has been asked and we aren't the first to ask it. It's been floating around the fly-fishing world for years now. Every person has a different take on the state of the sport and how it got that way, but most of the conversations touch on the same issues: aging participants, fewer new anglers and the myriad other activities that compete with fly-fishing for anglers' time. The question is not idle navel-gazing. Not only are retailers' and manufacturers' livelihoods directly affected by this issue but, as two of our essayists point out, the current state of affairs touches all anglers in several ways.When soliciting responses to this question we attempted to get a broad a representation of the sport and its participants, and we received responses from one well-known writer, a longtime guide/retailer, and a filmmaker who is relatively new to the scene. Is there a definitive answer to this question? Probably not, as every person's experiences and views are different. However, by presenting these essays we hope to get fly fishers thinking about the future of our sport. If you have an opinion on this, visit flyrodreel.com and join the discussion. --The Editors Not to fit the stereotype of my generation (I'm 26), but I procrastinated a long time before finally sitting down to write this essay. Between fishing, filming, editing and work, I didn't have a whole lot of time to ponder a possible generation gap in our sport. In fact, when first presented with this question, my gut reaction (preceeded by general apathy, of course) was "There isn't a generation gap and, even if there were one, why should I care?" I tossed the question to some of the guys in the Angling Exploration Group and the consensus we reached was that there is indeed a generation gap within fly-fishing, and it continues to grow, which is something to pay attention to. You can see all kinds of anglers on any given day on my local river in Washington state: A drift boat rowed by a 20-something guide floats past with two middle-age clients. Both are decked out in the latest fishing fashions. As the boat drifts by two guys in their early twenties emerge from the woods. They spread out along a run and begin to fish. After they catch a few they wade back to shore and crack open some beer. The scene I described is a good illustration of the generations (and the resulting gap) that exist within fly-fishing: The well-off older anglers who perhaps picked up the sport after watching a certain movie, and the younger anglers who recently entered the sport. The post-movie boom attracted many anglers like the guys in the boat who spent lots of money on gear. But as the magic of fly-fishing wore off (and careers and responsibilities demanded more time)--the waders came out of the closet less often and a "year's" worth of fishing became squeezed into a three-day trip to the Bighorn--the fly-fishing industry was left in a lurch. However, while the industry was focusing all of its attention on attracting the middle-age, upper-middle-class angler, a younger generation quietly picked up the sport. Up until the last couple years this demographic of anglers, say 18 to 34, had largely been ignored by the industry and retailers, which is part of the reason we're seeing this generation gap. When everything from the media to the retail pricing structure is geared toward one specific demographic, it's easy to feel intimidated and out of place. Furthermore, with all the distractions that compete for young people's attention these days--and no, I am not talking about just video games and computers but of things like kayaking, rock climbing, snowboarding and mountain biking--fly-fishing is just one of many ways young people like to spend time outdoors. What fly-fishing needs to attract and hold onto younger anglers is to promote the sense of excitement and entertainment that exists whenever you step into a new river in a strange land. And all of the emphasis on the nostalgic refinement of fly-fishing has got to stop. That may have held water with the middle-age set, but it is lost on the younger guys. Contrary to the stereotype, it isn't illegal for a fly fisherman to laugh. So yes, there is a generation gap, and yes, you should care. There certainly is a new generation that has been attracted to this sport, and if we are going to avoid an even wider generation gap in the future, we have to stop ignoring these guys. If we don't continue to attract fresh blood to our sport, there won't be anyone to look after the places and fish we care about. And there certainly won't be anyone to fish with. -Ryan Davey In all my years of listening to fly-fishers complain about how crowded the rivers get in July and August, it is always "the Baby Boomers with the shiny new gear and $800 rods" whom they rail against. I've never heard anyone say, "It's all those damn kids learning to fish who are ruining the river." As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I've heard anyone comment about young people on the river--ever--and that is a problem. For much of its history fly-fishing has been mythologized as the refined pastime of gentlemen. More recently, just about every aspect of fly-fishing--the marketing of products, price points and the media--has sought to capitalize on this "nostalgia factor." The receptive audience, consequently, has been the Baby Boomers with money to spend. We shouldn't be surprised, then, about the scarcity of young people taking up fly-fishing. It is this lack of new blood entering our sport that has created the generation gap, and if we don't attempt to address this soon, we risk losing our voice in the debate over river access and resource protection. Part of the problem is that what you would consider the "average angler" has changed over the past 20 years. It used to be that people engaged in all the different styles of fishing. Today you're either a fly fisherman or you are a "gear head." This division perpetuates the elitism that fly anglers wrap themselves in. For instance, if you walk into a fly shop and begin talking about pitching a lure or eating a fish, you have a pretty good chance of receiving a smirk, a cold shoulder or worse. Although this division and the idea that fly-fishing is superior to other styles has done wonders in attracting an older, wealthier demographic, it has failed to draw in much young, new blood. No discussion about the current state of fly-fishing can avoid mentioning A River Runs Through It and its effects. On any given day following its release in 1992, my parking lot would be filled with Beamers and SUV's driven by well-off Boomers. Sure, I saw an increase in anglers coming into my shop, but what I did not see was an increase in the number of future anglers. I didn't see any 16- and 18-year-olds who were equally smitten with the allure of becoming Brad Pitt. If anything, the post-movie boom solidified the perception that fly-fishing is an expensive sport, and this perception is a serious threat to drawing in younger anglers. Today I still see this being played out in my shop on the Madison. Although I see some guys in their 20's, their numbers are not that high. Most of them are hard-core anglers working as or aspiring to be guides. These are the anglers who have come to fly-fishing organically. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them. This trend may not be such a bad thing for the angler who wishes to have the river to himself. However, it does matter when we have to lobby to maintain our access to rivers and protect our watersheds. Thirty years ago we did not have to worry about whitewater groups, anti-fishing lobbies and private development taking away our water. I recently saw a sticker at a fly shop that said "bait fishermen suck." I think that says it all. Personally, I don't believe bait fishermen suck, but I do believe this attitude does and that it may end up being the root of our demise. My father was a fly-fishing guide, as was my great-uncle and grandfather; you might say it is in my blood. They all fly-fished and bait-fished and gear-fished. I don't think they sucked because of it and I don't think the sport of fly-fishing would be worse off if we decided to welcome all anglers as equals instead of looking down on them and creating a social gap as well as a generation gap. Where our sport is going remains unclear. As a fly shop owner, I personally have to keep a positive outlook and believe that fly-fishing will continue to grow, but I think without a kick in the pants to attract more anglers we will slowly lose access to rivers, and we will be sharing or renting the water with other users. This is a less-than-ideal arrangement, but without increased use by anglers we will lose our voice and as such our ability to demand access to rivers. Remember: No voice, no fish. -Kelly Galloup When viewed from the vantage point of a certain age, it's tempting to say that there is, in fact, a generation gap in fly-fishing, but when it comes to the particulars, it's not so easy to pick out any differences that matter between young fly fishers and old ones. To say that some of us remember when things were different is to state the obvious. Every morning is different, which is why any of us bother to get out of bed. We older fishermen do tend to drone on about the old days, but it's not so much that the old days were better as that we were. So there's a purely biological gap in the sense that people in their 50's and 60's are different kinds of animals than those in their 20's or 30's. When I cut my shin badly while wet-wading a local trout stream recently, my friend A.K. Best--13 years my senior and an inveterate wise-ass--asked, "Is your skin thinner now that you're older, or are you just clumsier?" There's a point in one's life when that becomes a fair question. But although the sport itself has changed in the last 30 or 40 years, along with the business of fly-fishing (which isn't always the same thing), fishermen still seem to be fishermen, regardless of age. A friend who runs a fly shop says that fly fishermen typically spend as much as they can afford on the sport, however old or young they are, and that beginners are beginners, whether they're 18 or 65. (You can tell that they've caught the bug by the diagnostic thousand-yard stare.) Another fly shop guy says that fly fishers of all ages tell the same kinds of self-aggrandizing fishing stories and, in one way or another, ask the same two questions: "Where are they biting?" and "What flies are working?" Even in the traditional arena of bamboo fly rods, I'm told there's nearly as much interest from young fishermen as from older ones. A rod maker I know who has an especially long waiting list recently told me about a young customer of his who placed an order when he started medical school, figuring that by the time the rod was done, he'd be a doctor and would be able to pay for it. Some say that for many younger people, fly-fishing is just one of several outdoor sports they practice--that as well as a fly rod they'll also own skis, a snow board, a mountain bike, a kayak and so on, and that they'll use them all every chance they get. But then many of my contemporaries are also generalists with basements and garages crammed with specialized gear, and many of them came up working with equal competence as fishing and whitewater guides in the summer, hunting guides in the fall, and ski instructors in the winter. Someone recently suggested that younger fly fishers are more casual about the sport, while many older ones--especially those of us who came of age in the notorious 1960's--take it more seriously, see it in almost religious terms, and often use it to define their very existence. Well, maybe so, but I can't help thinking of a young friend of mine--a guide and former fly-shop manager--who's now on his way to Argentina to guide for sea-run browns for a few months. When he gets back, we'll try to slip in a steelhead trip before he heads to Alaska to guide for king salmon. At present, he has no car, no known address and no visible means of support, but he has all the tackle he needs. In the few years I've known him, we've had brief conversations about things other than fishing, but always while driving to a river. In short, it's hard to picture anyone of any age who takes fishing more seriously than this guy or who uses it more profoundly to define who he is. Admittedly he's a fanatic, but otherwise he's not an especially isolated case. Fishermen's visions of the sport and their expectations of it also seem to straddle the generations. We all use fly-fishing in part as just an excuse to see new places and to be outside in wild country, but at the same time we'll go to great and sometimes even ridiculous lengths to catch fish. Both young and old fly fishers think the sport is worth doing for its own sake without any further justification. If you ask any of us why we fly-fish, we can all come up with something that sounds plausible, but really it's one of the few things in our lives the value of which we never question. Asking a fly fisher of any age why he fishes is like asking a banker what's so interesting about money. I think it is true that etiquette on the stream has eroded some in recent years, especially on the more crowded rivers. There are those who say it's the young guys who are pushy and impatient, while others claim it's the old farts who are stubborn and possessive, but from what I can see, age doesn't seem to have anything to do with it. Some fly fishers are polite, generous and laid-back while others are egregious creeps, age notwithstanding. Naturally, I'd like to think that age brings some patience and wisdom, but unfortunately there seem to be as many old fools on the water as there are young ones. The only difference is, a young fool still has time to grow out of it. -John Gierach