Ben Bulis has a large following. A large following of acronyms after his name. As American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) chief executive officer and president, AFFTA CEO follows his name wherever it’s written.
But it’s not in writing in the Gulf of Mexico and that’s where I am with Bulis. We’re surrounded by water instead of words and snapper instead of trout, which we both cherish in our home waters of the West.
On this day in the Gulf, with Bulis busting out his saltwater fly rod among bait casting, deep sea fishers, I’m inclined to poke at the bear that is Big Ben and find out where it is he plans to take all those acronyms following him around.
You are more comfortable on saltwater than I am. Why is that?
I grew up saltwater fishing in New Hampshire and Maine. Even though I am landlocked in Montana now, I saltwater fish more than I freshwater fish and I prefer saltwater fishing due to my upbringing as a child.
What’s the first fly fishing experience you remember?
The first fish I ever caught on a fly rod was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the Swift River. I was 8 or 9 years old and I caught a brookie. Now I prefer fly because of the challenges associated with it, but that said, I’m a fisherman. I will use any and all methods to catch fish.
AFFTA asked you to come on board as general manager in 2012. You where CEO by the end of that year. Was that a bit overwhelming?
I’d never organized a trade show before and I was thrown into that role. It was like drinking from a fire hose, but it was a great learning experience.
We share our show, IFTD (International Fly Tackle Dealer show) with ICAST (International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trade show). ICAST is put on by the American Sportfishing Association. Their show director, Kenneth Andres, helped me a lot. I learned from him on the fly.
AFFTA is offering a demo day at ICAST this year. What will that new concept add to the show?
Manufacturers get designated booth space at an outdoor pond. Retail buyers and media go from booth to booth in a golf cart testing gear on the water. It’s just like golfing, but you’re fishing. Whatever exhibitors want to put in anglers hands, happens during this time. You will actually be able to catch fish in a live fishing environment and there’s nothing like feeling a fish pull on the end of the line.
What about the Fisheries Fund? Why start that?
It’s our responsibility as a trade association and as anglers to give back by protecting and enhancing what we have because that’s what our industry relies on. Access, habitat and opportunity. Without those three pillars, the outdoor industry as a whole, not just fishing, is going to disappear.
We take $25,000 out of what we make at our annual show and put it in the Fisheries Fund then we donate those funds to projects that benefit fisheries nationwide.
You’ve come up with a lot of new ideas for enticing AFFTA members in a few short years. You’ve helped AFFTA grow from 239 members in 2012 to 595 in 2015. As the organization’s solo fulltime employee, is all the effort worth it?
The effort is worth it because I believe in what our industry is trying to do and I’m very passionate about it. Our members, in a short four-year span, have become some of my best friends. I truly care about everyone involved in our industry. I’ve been invited to people’s houses, fished from their boats and met their children. It’s a close-knit group. It’s family, is what it is.
Will AFFTA still be around in 10 years?
Without a doubt. Our industry needs a strong trade group to represent them, whether it’s in D.C. or at events around the country. We will be around in 10 years and I know we will be stronger in 10 years than we are right now.