With much of the country on lockdown, or preparing to go on lockdown, as part of an effort to stop the spread and rapidly intensifying growth of COVID-19 cases in the United States, small businesses are already feeling the sting of a contracting economy. Chances are, like me, you already know a handful of small business owners that are struggling to figure out how to keep workers paid or even employed, doing the math on whether to take on more debt (in the form of loans) during an economic downturn, or even those that have already made the decision to shutter their operations.
Fly fishing is a unique subculture in that small “mom-and-pop” businesses—fly shops, outfitters and guide services—still form the heart of our sport/avocation. In an increasingly corporatized and online world, there are few other industries left in America where small businesses continue to predominate the landscape. It is hard to imagine a world of fly fishing devoid of local fly shops, and it seems safe to say that none of us want to.
As of this writing, with Congress seemingly poised to pass a coronavirus stimulus bill that offers mega-corporations huge, no-strings-attached bailouts but largely leaves small business owners and everyday Americans hung out to dry, it is increasingly reasonable to wonder where support for small businesses will come from.
Who will help local businesses like the fly shops that pepper the nation from coast to coast and are the touchstone of American fly fishing?
For fly shops, for now, it seems like the answer is fly anglers .
What fly shops need most right now is continued cash flow. Without such, the challenges of meeting payroll, rent, servicing debt and other essentials can quickly become overwhelming, resulting in layoffs or, even worse, shop closures.
Here are some ways you can help support fly shops while respecting the coronavirus-related guidelines and restrictions put in place by local, regional and state public health officials.
Purchasing gift cards and gift certificates is a direct and safe way of helping fly shops keep the lights on during the pandemic. These purchases put cash in the register now, without requiring any other action. Think of it as a way of investing in both your and your local shop’s fly fishing future. Your shop gets the cash it needs now and, down the line, you get the flies, gear or even guide trips you’ll inevitably need down the road.
According to Nick DelVecchio of Wildwood Outfitters in northwestern Pennsylvania, “gift certificates are huge right now. We've seen an incredible amount of cash flow exit, and absolute zero come in. Folks purchasing a gift certificate to be used at their leisure can go a long way in keeping us afloat.”
Ben Freeman, who owns Trident Fly Fishing in Windham, Maine, also touted gift cards as a great way of supporting fly shops, noting “Gift cards are a great option. We’ll have those live this week ... know that you're probably going to want to get outfitted for next year and that a gift card will definitely help support us through these tough times.”
While there are still local shops that are still strictly brick-and-mortar, over the last few years, countless shops have invested in building an online presence. Most of those shops have now turned their focus to expanding, promoting and processing online orders as a way of keeping cash flowing and shop employees working, given that many areas have mandated shops to close their doors.
“Closing the brick and mortar to walk-ins was the only option we had that would allow us to continue to serve our online customers while maintaining the cleanliness and sanitation standards that the CDC and WHO have been demanding over the past couple of weeks,” said Alex Bradberry of Waters West fly shop on Washington’s famed Olympic Peninsula, noting that his shop is now focusing primarily on online orders—especially the shop’s extensive collection of house-dyed fly tying materials which Bradberry says Waters West ships all over the world.
Online orders are traditionally shipped directly to customers’ homes, and many shops are now offering free shipping on all orders. “We have always provided free shipping of orders over $100. We decided to offer free shipping [on orders totaling] less than $100 to encourage people to limit their social interactions,” said Carl Martens, who owns and operates Aventuron in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
But shops are also looking for ways for customers to shop online and still shop locally. “The first thing we changed was to set up curbside pickup as an option on our website,” said Tony Gehman, owner of TCO Outdoors, which owns and operates four fly shops in southeastern and central Pennsylvania and employs more than 40 people. Gehman also added that TCO is encouraging online shoppers to call the shop or use their website’s online chat feature to personalize their shopping and get real-time advice from shop employees, rather than just going it alone on their website.
“We have even made a few home deliveries,” noted Blake Jackson, who owns the Ugly Bug Fly Shop in Casper, Wyoming.
Both shops that offer online shopping and those that don’t are also encouraging anglers to give them a ring. Jackson, whose shop offers both online and phone ordering, stressed that “now is the time to call and talk about future plans or ask questions about gear and tactics. Due to us being slow, we are able to dedicate more time to interested anglers and provide an even higher level of customer service.”
TCO’s Gehman shared similar thoughts, noting that “with the current situation, our team has more time to work with each customer and phone shopping has become a great option. Our guys are talking through specific fly patterns and curating fly boxes for upcoming trips.”
Guides have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with many shops and independent guides seeing a rash of cancellations for not just trips in the near future, but even months down the line. For guide services that typically face high demand and take deposits as far as a year in advance, like Gill and Mandi Mckean who run Westcoast Fishing Adventures in the steelhead-mecca that is Terrace, British Columbia, giving refunds isn't an option. But, “we are allowing our guests to reschedule their trip at another time ... at a later date when it is safe to travel,” notes Mandi Mckean.
Most guide operations, however, don’t take advance deposits or have more liberal cancellation policies and are seeing a dramatic cash flow reduction resulting from customers cancelling future trips.
“We’ve had hundreds of cancellations,” said Colby Trow who co-owns Mossy Creek Fly Fishing in Harrisonburg, Virginia with his twin brother Brian. “We take out thousands of clients during the season,” Trow said of his shop, which employs 10 different guides and does not take advance deposits for guided trips. He also stressed that guide trips cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic—especially during the upcoming prime months of fishing season—is revenue that can’t be replaced. “If you have an outstanding deposit with a shop or guide, consider donating it to the guide as this is lost revenue,” Trow added.
For some, donating the cost of their guide trip won’t be financially feasible, as recent events are hurting almost everyone’s pocketbooks. But, if you’re unable to donate your trip cost, consider rescheduling instead of asking for a refund—possibly during times of the year without high-demand.
Remember, it’s about the people
Mostly, Mossy Creek’s Trow highlighted those that depend on his shop to pay the bills. “We are focused on our employees,” he said. “We need to keep enough cash flowing to keep them afloat. That is our main focus right now—keeping our team happy and healthy.”
Fly shops don’t just serve as the heart of our sport, as tangible fixtures without which the world of fly fishing would look immeasurably different, they also provide a livelihood for countless shop employees, guides, and more.
Do what you can.