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Small Business
Getting started: Fly fishing
April 16, 2001: 10:39 a.m. ET

What could be more idyllic than going to work on a river?
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - It's hard to imagine a more idyllic place to work than under a sprawling elm tree on the bank of a mountain stream, ankle deep in fragrant wildflowers. Or bobbing down a river on a drift boat, eagles soaring overhead while you cast for trout.

Becoming a fly fishing guide appeals to so many who love the outdoors, appreciate nature and crave independence. And those people who have done it, such as renowned Montana outfitter Craig Mathews, will tell you there is no life and no job that can compare.

"This is the best job, the best business," Mathews said. "If I had it to do all over again, this is what I would be doing."

But starting a business as a fishing guide is not as simple as pronouncing yourself a guide and hoping the clients will roll in, warned Greg Tanner, executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vt. Succeeding in fly fishing requires an unusual set of skills that starts with knowing the dynamics of a particular river. A guide who can't lead people to fish is not going to do very well.

Needed: a reputation

The most successful guides, such as Lefty Kreh and Greg Lilly, are at the graphictop of their profession because they have a reputation. People want to fish with someone like Lilly, the scion of a Montana fishing family, because they know he knows where the trout are biting.

Lilly, who owns Healing Waters Lodge, a fly fishing lodge in Twin Bridges, Mont., learned the art of guiding working for his father, Bud, who was a guide and owned a fly shop in West Yellowstone.

Many guides earn their reputation and client bases in this fashion, said Lilly, working in fly shops and guiding customers there. Most fly shops have guides on staff who learn about the business, but also about the crooks and pools in the rivers that fish particularly like.

There has also been, particularly out West, a proliferation of guide schools where people interested in becoming guides can learn about operating a drift boat and how to deal with customers.

One thing that can't be taught is how to enjoy being a guide. You have to love it and have to love sharing the sport with all levels of fishermen. If your clients see that you aren't enjoying them, and if you are not personable, Tanner said, you won't be in business very long. Good guides who are also known to be good company, said Tanner, get a lot of repeat business and generally can charge higher rates.

A lot more fun than profit

Getting started in the business can be relatively inexpensive, Tanner said. On streams where the fishing is done from the banks of a river, a guide need spend only a few thousand dollars to get going. If you have a solid, reliable automobile and fishing gear tackle, waders, flies, rods and reels you can easily begin the business with less than $5,000. In places where you need a boat, the buy-in will be bigger.

Good thing, too, because most fly fishing guides don't ever get rich. In most places, guides can expect to earn about $300 a day for taking people out to fish. But that is not pure profit. Guides have to provide transportation, lunches, day permits, insurance and equipment. If you are drift boating, you also have to have hired help who will pick you up once you have reached a spot further down river.

The biggest names can easily fetch more than $1,000 a day for guided tours. Keep in mind that fly fishing is seasonal and runs only through the summer months. During that time, guides may be out on the river every day for up to four months at a time. But during the winter months, there is virtually no business in North America.

Some guides double as hunting guides and take hunters out during the winter. Others, the hard core fly fishing guides, lead trips to places like Mexico, Belize or the Bahamas. Often their regular clientele want to take these types of trips in winter. Again, however, you better be able to lead the fly fishers to fish or they aren't going to want to go out with you again.

Park permits are scarce

There is one major stumbling block that new guides may face. Those people who want to operate in National Parks or National Forests need a permit, and the federal government is not anxious to give out any more than they already have.


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To start guiding on the Snake River, which runs through Grand Teton National Park, for example, would be next to impossible, said Mathews who has been a fishing guide in Yellowstone National Park since 1979. There simply are no permits available. About the only way to get into the business in such areas is to buy an existing business, Mathews said.

In most cases the guiding businesses that are for sale in the West are affiliated with fly shops like Mathews', who started his guiding business through his shop, Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone. Buying a fly shop, because most of them have a lot of expensive inventory, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Marketing takes a different twist

Unlike some businesses, most fly fishing guides do little in the way of advertising. Mathews, who was a police officer before getting into guiding, spends a lot of time meeting with local fly fishing clubs and doing fly fishing demonstrations to drum up business.

The best marketing he does for the fly fishing business, according to Mathews, is his involvement in conservation issues. He is on the boards of several local environmental groups including the River Conservancy, which is raising $5 million to buy a portion of the Madison River. He also began sending a portion of his business' gross receipts to Yellowstone Park to help preserve the park, a move that other environmentally-minded businesses have followed.

"Getting involved with the environmental groups has been great for our business," Mathews said. "When people hear what we are doing they say they want to come with us just because they like what we're doing."

In addition, Mathews has penned well-received books on fly fishing in Yellowstone. He describes his marketing success as somewhat serendipitous. His personal interest in the environment created a great marketing tool for his company, but he didn't plan it out. And the books, he said, were not his idea but were the brainchild of a friend who is a New York City book publisher.

But as in most businesses, it is not enough just to have great talents in the field in which you work. Many guides and fly shops go under in short order, even when the owner is an experienced guide who knows his or her way around a rod and reel and a river, because they know nothing about marketing their business and planning for its future.

Even Greg Lilly, whose family is among the best known in the guiding business, went to college and graduate school to study business. Anyone in the fly fishing business, he said, from outfitters and guides to fly shop owners, could benefit from training in finance and marketing. graphic





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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.