Against the Current: Why US Fly Fishing is the Kingpin

Fly fishing stands alone as perhaps the only discipline in our sport that is truly global. Whether you are stalking trout on a river or stream or chasing apex saltwater predators on flats in exotic climes – the tactics, tackle and tact remain largely the same.

So why is it that the fly fishing market in the United States reigns supreme over that of its European brothers? If you have had any involvement with the market on a global scale you will know what I’m talking about – fly fishing has a totally different feel and a more buoyant vibrancy in the USA than it does in Europe. But let’s not decide anything on hunches alone, let’s take a look at some evidence.

For starters, US fly fishing is unified by the increasingly weighty work of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) and its incredibly popular International Fly Tackle Dealer (IFTD) show, which currently sits as part of ICAST. Neither of these two things exist in the same way in Europe. There is no cross-border fly fishing association to speak of and there are certainly no trade shows of the same ilk – the fly fishing sector at European trade show EFTTEX seems to have plateaued after shrinking somewhat over the last few years. If the US industry wasn’t booming, why would this association and trade show be there? The trade show in particular is soon to head out on its own two feet again in 2019, after a six year co-location with ICAST.

Next, let’s consider where the big hitters in fly fishing come from. In the North American corner you have an exhaustive list including, but not limited to: Sage, Redington, RIO, Scientific Anglers, Scott, Umpqua, Simms, Hatch, Abel, Nautilus, Fishpond, R.L. Winston, Loon, Patagonia and so-on. In Europe’s corner, we have arguably only one truly global big hitter in Hardy, but then beyond that its brands that are well-known and popular in their regions like Scierra, Vision and Guideline in Scandinavia, or Fulling Mill and Turrall in the UK – but none with true hard-hitting brand power that the American names have. Being the home of strong, globally recognised brands is another indicator of US fly fishing’s strength.

Still not convinced? Let’s look at demographics. Fly fishing is ‘cool’ in the United States (no, really) and subsequently there are far more young people getting involved in it. Sure, at its roots fly fishing is a traditional past-time, but head out to the spring creeks of Montana, the rivers of the North East or the saltwater of Louisiana and you will see young guys and girls making shapes with fly line. In Europe, with a few exceptions like the Scandinavian countries, the fly fishing population is generally ageing. You’ll see more silver haired gentlemen than you will bearded, whimsical trout bums on the water on this side of the pond.

Salmon fishing on the River Mörrum in southern Sweden

So why is this a trend? Why does it appear that the European market is slowly shrinking while the American market is healthy and perhaps even booming? I personally think there are two key drivers: access and culture. Access is incredible in the USA – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The country is huge, the opportunities are near endless and almost everywhere is public land. I’ve often come back from trips to the Unites States green-eyed and wistful about just how good the access is. It’s a very different story here in Europe – much of our water is privately owned and inhibitively expensive to fish. Our countries are also generally more densely populated. Let this be a lesson to you guys in the States to keep fighting the good fight for public land – you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

Now for culture, in the US fly fishing is deemed a much more acceptable part of daily life. It’s not seen as ‘sad’ or ‘strange’ to be a fisherman (yes I have had both those things levelled at me in the UK), because the outdoors lifestyle is more mainstream. Moms and dads take their kids fishing from a young age and it just becomes part of life from then on. In Europe (again Scandinavia is probably the exception to this), fishing is not really seen as a ‘cool’ thing for youngsters to do, particularly in urban environments. This makes it tougher to attract new people to the sport, no matter how rewarding we all know it is.

Another attribute that contributes to the identity of fly fishing in the States is social media. The accounts from the fly companies are all lavishly smothered with jaw-dropping photography, inspirational lifestyle and just down-right coolness. This again, helps to attract more anglers to the sport and ensures that the already bigger pool of anglers in the country stays large – something we are struggling with in Europe.

So, there you have it. It’s easier, cheaper, more acceptable and more valued to fly fish in the USA than it is in Europe. That’s not to say the European fly market is on it’s knees – far from it – but it is to say that the USA has got this market nailed and should be proud of its huge success. I suggest going out and casting a nymph to celebrate…