Best Jobs

Best Jobs

Despite a subpar economy now is a great time to land a "real" job in the fly-fishing industry

  • By: Chris Santella
Shawn Combs        

Click image for slideshow.

Who, after a great day of fishing, hasn’t thought You know, I really love this. I want to work around the fly-fishing industry. By the next day, you may have come to your senses . . . but perhaps you’ve decided to pursue the idea.

Most agree that there are better industries to work in if your career objective is to make scads of money. (Just ask anyone who’s tried to make ends meet working part-time in a fly shop!) Yet there is a finite number of jobs in the industry that allow you to make a living, if not an extravagant wage. And of course there are the fringe benefits of working with people who share your passion, getting the insider’s perspective on a sport you love, good prices on gear and—presumably—lots of time to fish.

“I’ve heard more in the last six months from manufacturers and retailers looking for help than in the last six years,” said Kirk Deeter, editor of Angling Trade Magazine, the industry’s leading trade journal. “While many fly shops have closed their doors, the ones still standing are in good stead. However, I don’t think fly-fishing-industry employers are looking for folks to stand behind a counter or row a driftboat. There are tons of people who are good anglers. But to grow a business, employers want a ‘something else’ person that happens to fish—an accountant, an IT expert, someone with good sales or organizational skills. Fishing passion is not enough to make it.”

Tom Rosenbauer, marketing director for Orvis (and Fly Rod & Reel’s Angler of the Year in 2010), echoed Deeter’s sentiments. “The people we hire almost always have some kind of skill beyond being able to fish,” Rosenbauer said. “We’re often seeking inventory control people, as well as good art directors and copywriters. Whether it’s in print or online, good content is important. Given the importance of online marketing, I have to think that people with skills in e-mail marketing and search engine optimization will be more and more valuable. Talented product developers are like gold. The challenge there, however, is getting experience. You almost need to get this experience as an apprentice or in another industry. Almost everyone at Orvis was an engineer in a different industry [see Shawn Combs’ profile] or started out in retail.”

The organizations that help protect our waters—Trout Unlimited, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership among them—pose another career path.

“When I talk to people interested in careers in conservation, I make it clear that it’s very competitive to get into, and it’s not for the faint of heart,” said Dietmar Grimm, vice president of marketing and communications for Trout Unlimited. Grimm sees several growth areas in the fishing-oriented conservation world: online advocacy and communications; on-the-ground advocacy; industry experts (those who can articulate the role of conservation for specific industries); and analytical geeks. “With the increasing amount of online, science and demographic data coming at us,” he said, “we need more folks who can analyze the data and develop recommendations to help us improve our strategies.”

Is it easy to find a decent job in the fly-fishing industry? No. Do some living-wage jobs exist for mere mortals who are not Lefty Kreh or Flip Pallot? Absolutely! In the pages that follow, we’ve highlighted a few of the best jobs in fly-fishing, giving you a sense of what they entail, what you can expect to earn, and what you need in terms of skills and experience to get there.

Shawn Combs
Product Development Specialist, Orvis
East Dorset, Vermont
Age 34

As one of four product development specialists for Orvis’ 5,000-plus fishing products, Shawn Combs manages development of rods, reels, fishing packs and luggage, and sunglasses; he shares development responsibilities for lines, leaders and tippet.

Average Day: “I probably spend half of an average day at the rod factory, reviewing prototypes and testing new materials. If we’re going to change a design, we want to make sure that it’s truly improved and not merely new. The rest of my time is spent with administrative tasks—tracking rod sales so I have an ear to the market, working with our field testers, providing input on product packaging and merchandising. Listening to field testers is very important; if you don’t take their input seriously, you’d end up making gear that’s good for you, but not necessarily well-suited for your customers.”

Key Skills/Experience: “I come from a mechanical engineering background. Before Orvis, I worked with the Department of Energy developing nuclear reactors for US Navy submarines, and my materials testing experience from that job has certainly been helpful. Before the DOE job, I was a project manager at an engineering firm. I had global, multi-million-dollar projects where I had to coordinate the fabricators in the US and Asia, and clients in Europe and Japan, juggling cultural barriers and varying expectations. Pulling together this patchwork of such a dynamic system was great preparation for developing a new flyrod series.”

Best Part of My Job: “Seeing people react to products you’ve helped create. Sometimes I’ll be out fishing with friends and I’ll hand them a prototype of a rod we’ve been working on. They’ll make a few casts and then turn around. The look on their face is pretty gratifying. We have a guide rendezvous out West each year. It’s very satisfying to hear the positive feedback from people who depend on our gear.”

Worst Part of My Job: “I hate to rub it in, but there’s really nothing I don’t like about my job. My life’s like one big, long weekend.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “I easily get in over 100 days of fishing a year. Some of that is after work and weekends on the Battenkill, which is in our backyard. I also get to fish a lot when I travel for work—and I’m on the road anywhere from one to three weeks a quarter.”

Compensation: +/- $50K.

Occupational Hazard: “While having dinner with some vendors in Asia, I was obliged to eat live octopus.”

Jeff Hickman
Guide, Fish The Swing, LLC (Oregon and Alaska)
Eagle Creek, Oregon
Age 32

Jeff Hickman guides exclusively for steelhead and Chinook salmon, swinging flies using Spey rods. He splits time between the Clackamas and Deschutes rivers in Oregon, with a month on the Kanektok at Alaska West each June. He helps design Ross Spey rods and reels and Scientific Anglers Spey lines. He is also a Simms ambassador, Guideline Eyegear pro and a Signature tier for Idylwilde Flies.

Average Day: “During the winter and spring I live right on the Clackamas River. My clients meet me at my house. We wader up on the back porch and walk down to my jetboat. In the summer and fall, my commute is a bit longer. During the peak of the season I’m up before 3:30 a.m., trailer my jetboat 35 minutes to the boat launch where I meet my clients. I am running up into the canyon before it is light out, fish a full day, then drive back. Before bed, I reply to voicemails and e-mails. I’m often washing dishes and making lunch for the next day at 10:30 p.m.”

Key Skills/Experience: “Guiding at its core is a customer-service job. I was fortunate to grow up in a lodge setting on Mount Hood where my mom was the manager. This instilled a strong work ethic in me. I was cleaning rooms and taking reservations when I was 10. The experience taught me the importance of taking care of your customers. Around the same time, I started ‘guiding’ skiers and snowboarders at the lodge who wanted to fish. They’d drive and pay for gas, and I’d show them the local fishing spots. This gave me a knack for teaching. It helps that I’m completely crazed about steelheading. I think that enthusiasm comes across to clients.”

Best Part of My Job: “Meeting and getting to know so many people; I love teaching and seeing people learn and improve. Also, of course, getting to spend so much time on my local rivers. I need it for my sanity.”

Worst Part of My Job: “The crazy schedule. The lack of sleep catches up with you. Sometimes it’s hard to get motivated to go fishing when you have free time mid-season. Also, you never know when you might lose days (or weeks) to poor water conditions.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “In Alaska, I can often fish in the evening for a few hours after guiding. I also set aside a week in July to fish the Dean [in British Columbia]. In December, I’ll typically do a week or two of saltwater fishing.”

Compensation: “When I had a W-2, it was around $40K if I stayed really busy. Though with my boat and truck payments and multiple rents these days, it’s hard to say.”

Occupational Hazards: “Wading big, swift rivers with slippery bottoms, the sun, wind, rain and snow take their toll, and so can the flying (barbless) hooks. I take safety seriously. Lifejackets are a must and I’m adamant about everyone always wearing sunglasses while fishing. Eyes are the only place I won’t do a hook extraction.”

Bruce Chard
Guide
Big Pine Key, Florida
Age 38

Captain Bruce Chard has guided anglers to bonefish, permit and tarpon out of the lower Florida Keys since 1992. In addition to logging upward of 220 days a year on the water, Bruce conducts international fly-fishing schools and has developed commercially available fly lines, flies and leaders.

Average Day: “Depending on time of year, I’ll leave the dock around 5:30 a.m and return by 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. or take off around noon and fish until dark —9:00 or 10:00 p.m. I have an average of an hour of e-mails and other correspondence per day.”

Key Skills/Experience: “You need to be able to lock in with the customer when they step on the boat. You can’t get frustrated with anglers when they don’t put the fly where it needs to go. You want them to believe that the next cast will be the one, even if they’ve missed 32 shots in a row. There are some guides who will sometimes behave like jerks to clients—I love it, as they give me business. I try to look at my role as that of a teacher more than a guide. Even if a client doesn’t get into fish on a given day, they’ll leave the boat having learned something, and they value that.”

Best Part of My Job: “The freedom of it. I can take a client fishing anywhere I want—whether it’s trying a new spot or going to a spot I’ve been to a hundred times. I don’t have to answer to anyone.”

Worst Part of My Job: “The difficulty of the fishery. It’s so challenging to battle the weather, to find the fish, to get the fish to eat. You can have many tough days in a row when you don’t get fish, and it can be tough mentally to deal with that. And there are times when you simply can’t get out on the water because the conditions don’t allow it, and that whacks you financially.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “I get out 20 to 30 days a year. I’ll sneak out some evenings during the guiding season if the conditions are right, and I leave a few weeks to fish in the Bahamas.

Compensation: $40K to $70K.

Occupational Hazard: “Falling off the platform, hand and forearm cramps from poling, the threat of a 3/0 hook screaming at you, and sharks. I once had a 15-foot tiger suck a tarpon out of my hands; it nearly flipped the boat over!”

Kara Armano
Public Relations Account Executive, Backbone Media
Carbondale, Colorado
Age 33

Kara Armano spearheads media relations for several leading fly-fishing brands, including Sage, Redington, RIO (all owned by Far Bank Enterprises) and fishpond.

Average Day: “Sending out client products for review, answering e-mail and phone enquiries from editors and writers, managing client Facebook accounts. It’s not the same thing day-in/day-out, which works well for me.”

Key Skills/Experience: “You need to have good people skills—no surprise there—and good written and verbal communication skills. Before joining Backbone, I worked in retail at a general outdoors store. Having an understanding of outdoor retail has been helpful in my job. It also helped that I love to fish. I was working as an administrative assistant at Backbone when fishpond came to us. I was one of the few people in the office who fly-fished on a regular basis, so the account landed in my lap and I became an account executive.”

Best Part of My Job: “Spending time fishing with editors, writers and clients is a win-win; it’s fun, but it also solidifies the relationships that are so important in my job. It’s almost always a pleasure to spend time with people who work around fly-fishing, as the vibe is great.”

Worst Part of My Job: “Having to explain to clients why the desired message didn’t get across exactly the way they wished. My clients have a certain story they want to tell, but in the rapidly evolving world of new media—especially social media—it’s sometimes hard to control the message.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “Fifty to 75 days a year. One of the partners and I hit the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan at lunch sometimes; it helps to be based in Carbondale.”

Compensation: $40K to $70K.

Occupational Hazard: “Sending out pricey demo products to editors/bloggers to review and then having those writers disappear . . . and never return the gear. I’ve had this happen on two occasions, and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be deceived this way.”

Conway Bowman
TV Host, Fly Fishing the World<
Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California
Age 46

Conway Bowman first gained notoriety fly-fishing for mako sharks off San Diego. After stints hosting ESPN’s In Search of Fly Water, Primal Predator and Versus’s Dollar Wise Fly, Conway took the helm of the Sportsman Channel’s Fly Fishing the World in October 2011. He still maintains a “day job” managing a watershed for the city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department.

Average Day: “When we’re filming a segment, we usually start before sunrise and finish in the late afternoon. We’re usually on location for a week. I tend to get tired by the fourth or fifth day of filming. If the fishing is good, I can power through; if not, it’s tougher to get motivated.”

Key Skills/Experience: “People frequently ask me, ‘How did you get here?’ Honestly, I have no idea. My parents were thespians, and my sisters have all acted—heck, they have agents, and here’s their brother on a TV show! Maybe some of that theater atmosphere rubbed off. Being a musician [Bowman plays drums in a rock band] for many years probably helped. You’re in front of people, and you learn how to improvise. Being comfortable in front of the camera is certainly an important skill. You want to act natural, be spontaneous in your dialogue—not think about the camera. Finally, you need to connect with your audience.”

Best Part of My Job: “I get to travel and fish, and get paid for it. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Worst Part of My Job: “It’s hard being away from my family. And fishing on TV has a weird, ambivalent dynamic. Part of the reason I fish is to get away from crowds and be alone with my thoughts. When we’re filming, it’s not my space any more, as I have all the crew along, and I need to remember that I’m not just fishing, we’re making a program.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “Seventy to 90 days—not bad for a side gig!”

Compensation: $30K to $70K. “You have to negotiate hard with the networks.”

Occupational Hazard: “When I was filming in Thailand last year, I found myself playing a gig with a blues band in the middle of the red-light district of Bangkok, surrounded by prostitutes.”

ich Hohne
Online Marketing Manager, Simms

Bozeman, Montana

Age 39

Hohne began guiding in the mid-1990s. After a stint in the ski industry, he came to Simms in 2008. He now oversees Simms’ Web content, social media, film development and e-mail marketing.

Average Day: “[Projects] might include monitoring our Web and social media assets, analyzing results of e-mail campaigns, planning promotions for coming product launches, or assessing proposals from outside vendors for film (and other media) projects. I also spend time connecting with other people in the industry, trying to figure out how we might work together. Though Simms is a big company by fly-fishing-industry standards, there are not that many employees in the front office. We do a lot without a ton of people, and it’s a very collaborative team.”

Key Skills/Experience: “I have experience with HTML coding, the Adobe Suite of products and content management systems that push content out. Writing is also important; after all, a good marketer has to synthesize information and create content that resonates with target audiences. One of my strongest suits is the genuine passion I bring to my job. I really care about Montana, about fly-fishing, about conservation and about Simms. When you have genuine enthusiasm and you’re representing a brand, it shines through.”

Best Part of My Job: “I work with an amazing team that shares my values, my passions. I also love working for an industry leader. If you’re engaged in marketing or sales, it’s much easier to work for a great brand than a good brand. Working for Simms, I have an entrée to have my thoughts on conservation and the fly-fishing industry heard.”

Worst Part of My Job: “I get some great proposals from filmmakers and photographers, and I’d love to do them all. But you have to say ‘No’ to things, and that’s hard. Marketing is like fly-fishing; it’s not masterable. You do your best to make calculated decisions on how the brand can be best represented with limited resources.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “I don’t get to fish on the clock very much at all. But living in Bozeman, I get to fish many weekend days and after work. I easily get in 75 days a year.”

Compensation: “$40K to 60K if you’re at a well-established company.”

Occupational Hazards: “Carpal tunnel syndrome from so much e-mailing and clacking on the smart phone, plus strained eyes.”

Chris Patterson
Filmmaker, Confluence Films
Bozeman, Montana
Age 41

After 20 years as the go-to cameraman for Warren Miller Films, Chris Patterson turned his eye to fly-fishing. He and Jim Klug (of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures) joined forces in 2008 to form Confluence Films, and have produced three of the industry’s best-selling DVDs—Rise, Drift, and Connect. A fourth feature is on the way.

Average Day: “My day begins well before sunrise and goes until dark; the prettiest times are sunrise and sunset, and you want to be ready to catch those moments. These also tend to be good times to fish. Beyond the mechanics of capturing the day on film, I work hard at monitoring our pace. The days are long, and by the middle of the trip everyone is tired. We try not to take days off when we’re on location, but at the same time, I don’t want the anglers or the crew to be running at 10 percent when the great moment presents itself. Once we’re off the water, I spend time reviewing what I’ve gotten. I have a scorecard that I’m keeping in my head, noting what we’ve captured, what we still need to capture.”

Key Skills/Experience: “My experience with Warren Miller was a great film school. It was all about capturing the action and telling a story along the way—creating an experience or journey for the audience so they can escape. After I met Jim [Klug], I asked him if anyone was trying to capture place and stories in fly-fishing films. He said ‘There’s a couple, but not many.’ I wanted to take the Warren Miller approach to fly-fishing. It seemed like there was an opportunity to bring that kind of storytelling and high production value to the industry.”

Best Part of My Job: “I love the settings that the filming has taken me to—many are very different from the alpine environments I’m accustomed to. I also appreciate the knowledge I’ve gained from being around some of the best anglers in the world. Lastly, there’s the reward that comes from sitting in the audience when one of these films is played, and hearing people oohing and ahhing, or someone saying, ‘Wow, we’ve got to do this trip!’”

Worst Part of My Job: “The stress of trying to deliver a good film, and to continue to evolve our films. It’s great when people say, ‘That last film is the best you’ve ever done’—but it raises the ante for the next one.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “I probably get out 20 times a year.”

Compensation: “From my work with Confluence, somewhere between $50K and $75K. But I live a millionaire’s life.”

Occupational Hazards: “Hippos, crocodiles, bears, sharks, jellyfish, stingrays, army ants. You have to look out for the critters . . . and the challenges of sleep deprivation.”

Van Hartley
Co-Owner, Branch River Air Service
King Salmon, Alaska
Age 59

Van Hartley started flying anglers into the rivers and lodges of Bristol Bay in 1984. Today, he oversees a team of pilots at Branch River Air Service, and still flies regularly himself.

Average Day: “There are four components of our flying business: bringing anglers from King Salmon to the lodges and back; doing daily fly-outs for the lodges; taking anglers to productive fishing spots on the various rivers; doing fly-out fishing day-trips for outfitters based around King Salmon, as well as some bear viewing; and providing pick-up/drop-off transportation for commercial float-trip operators and do-it-yourself parties. Most days, we’re at work by 7:00 a.m., when we might meet day-trip clients or take off to service lodge clients for their fly-out. In the middle of the day, we might do lodge transfers or drop off float-trip parties. Between 4:30 and 6:00 p.m., we’re doing pick-up on the rivers for the lodges and local day-trippers. These days, I fly when we’re busy, to relieve the pressure on the other pilots. Per FAA rules, pilots can be on duty 14 hours a day, and fly a maximum of eight hours.”

Key Skills/Experience: “To fly in the Alaska bush, you need all of your FAA certifications—including commercial and instrument rating and commercial floatplane endorsement. I like to see pilots with at least 1,500 hours of total flying time, and at least 200 hours of floatplane experience. I also like to look at the pilot’s background; if they’ve worked as guides or on boats, they tend to have a better understanding of working on rivers than pilots who have just operated off of lakes. I’ve seen a lot of guides come up through the ranks to make good pilots.

“As important as good flying skills—maybe even more important—is good judgment. The weather is notorious for being difficult. Day-in/day-out, we have to make quick judgment calls on whether to continue a flight, or how to land in different conditions. Having good judgment is part of a pilot’s genetic make-up, though it’s also gained through experience.”

Best Part of My Job: “Those rare bluebird days when the weather is perfect. I think it’s one reason we fly.”

Worst Part of My Job: “Having to make the call to not fly—even if that means leaving some anglers in the bush for the night.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “Years ago when I was a guide, I enjoyed fishing. Once I started the air-taxi service, I pretty much stopped. I haven’t touched a rod for 20 years . . . though this year I might shake the rust off and catch a fish.”

Compensation: “Depending on experience and location, an Alaska bush pilot can earn between $5k and $12K a month; the season is generally four months.”

Occupational Hazards: “Low ceilings, high winds, fog, mist. Every pilot has had their moment with the weather. You learn your limitations, the threshold of your good judgment. I’ve survived doing this for 28 seasons by never getting past the point of no return.”

Park Burson
Independent Manufacturer’s Rep, Tidewater Sales, LLC
Cincinnati, Ohio
Age 38

After a stint in fishing retail at Westbank Anglers in Jackson, Wyoming, and three years guiding in Alaska, Park Burson returned south to Charleston, South Carolina and became a manufacturers’ rep. Fifteen years later his company, Tidewater Sales, LLC (along with business partner Randy Hamilton) represents Scientific Anglers/Ross, St. Croix, Winston, Chota, Abel Reels, Buff Headwear, William & Joseph, Fisherman Eyewear and Sitka Gear throughout the southeast (excluding Florida).

Average Day: “During the sales season, I’m in high gear all the time. I’m either attending dealer shows or consumer shows, or traveling through my territory, showing fly-shop owners the products for the coming year. With travel costs becoming so expensive, I push myself hard when I’m on the road, trying to visit as many accounts as I can when I come into a region.

“Not every product is right for every shop; an important part of my role is helping dealers figure out what’s going to work in their store. When I’m home, my day is taken up with returning calls/e-mails/texts to dealers, sending out demo gear and communicating with manufacturers.”

Key Skills/Experience: “Beyond a basic understanding of the fly-fishing world, you need two skills to be successful as a rep. First, you need an outgoing personality that enables you to befriend customers and gain their trust. Second, you need to have follow-through; when people ask you to do something, do it. I guess a third thing you need is staying power. In some businesses when you start out repping, you have a base salary. In this industry, it’s commissions only. Until you have a few product lines that pay the bills, you need something to hold you over.”

Best Part of My Job: “Being a conduit between manufacturers, dealers and consumers to develop new products. When a product is successful, you feel like you’ve been part of the team. And, of course, the friendships I’ve made with many of the dealers. We have some close connections.”

Worst Part of My Job: “Though the travel can be tough, the worst part is seeing some shops that are really doing a good job not being able to make it. I only have 35 to 40 percent of the shops I had 12 years ago. The market is unforgiving.”

How Many Days Can You Fish: “During the spring time, I get out a fair amount. It might only be for two or three hours, but we have good success, as my customers know what’s going on. In the fall, I’m too busy taking orders for the next year.”

Compensation: “I’m able to support a wife and three kids in Cincinnati. This is in part because Randy and I have expanded beyond fly tackle to rep some conventional gear [St. Croix bass rods] and Sitka Gear, a brand geared toward hunters.”

Occupational Hazards: “Car trouble. Last year, I had transmission problems up in the Great Smokies. Getting a tow truck up to the Cherokee National Forest was no easy matter.”

Chris Santella is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Portland, Oregon. He writes for Forbes.com, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Travel & Leisure and Delta Sky, among other publications. He is the author of Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die.