Large schools of free-spending novices were swept away by the
brisk current of A River Runs Through It, the 1992 film that
romanticized fly-fishing as a metaphor for life. There's not a
fly shop employee in the country who can't recall the time an
Izaak Walton wannabe, returning from the local multiplex, parked
his BMW outside the store, plopped his gold card on the counter
and demanded top-of-the-line gear. But six years later the
fly-fishing industry is grappling with the reality that
celluloid is a hook with no barb. Even with an unending stream
of ethereal fishing-as-religion literature, the boom has been
"Most of those people aren't fly-fishing anymore because they
underestimated how complex it is," says Jim Butler, editor of
Fly Tackle Dealer, the industry's trade magazine. "The movie may
have given the industry a short-term boost, but it didn't make
it a fast-growing sport. There's definitely a perception that
fly-fishing is wildly popular, but a lot of us question whether
that was ever accurate."
Indeed, finding definitive statistics on the popularity of
fly-fishing is harder than double hauling 100 feet into the
wind. A survey commissioned in 1994 by Fly Fisherman estimated
that more than 21 million Americans fly-fish at least once a
year, a figure that, the magazine says, still holds. Another
survey, sponsored by Fly Rod and Reel, puts the figure under
seven million. Regardless, there is little debate among guides,
large retailers and small shop owners that reports of the
sport's 900% growth spurt, like those of Mark Twain's death in
1897, have been greatly exaggerated.
"It is pretty unbelievable, some of the numbers out there," says
Tom Rosenbauer, vice president and catalog manager for Orvis,
which claims the largest market share in the $250 million
industry. "There may have been as much as a 20-percent increase
in sales earlier in the decade, but for the past two years,
we've hit a flat period."
Fueling the myth that fly-fishing is the hottest sport this side
of golf has been the emphasis on its new appeal among women.
While female participation has doubled from earlier this decade,
women still represent a mere fraction of all anglers.
Given that fly-fishing is growing only marginally, if at all,
retailers have redoubled their efforts to "match the hatch" and
target thriving niches within the sport. Orvis and other
companies now offer fly-fishing adventure vacations that cater
to the most passionate (and affluent) anglers. Another
burgeoning sector is fly-fishing in saltwater.
Finally, there are those who think the phantom popularity of
fly-fishing is a disguised blessing. "It's the solitude and
peacefulness that make fishing so special," says Mark Williams,
a fly-fishing author from Dallas. "If growth means that when I
go to the San Juan River, I find myself fishing elbow-to-elbow
with other folks, well, I'm just as happy things have leveled