Best Flyfishing Jobs 2013

Best Flyfishing Jobs 2013

  • By: Chris Santella
  • Photography by: Brian Grossenbacher

Click image for slideshow.

I once asked photographer and angling adventurer extraordinaire Brian O’Keefe what advice he would offer young people who were interested in working in the fly-fishing industry. “Don’t be the guide,” he advised. “Be the guy who hires the guide.” This advice underscores the enigma of working in this business—though it might seem glamorous or fulfilling to make your living through a pastime you love, it may not be the best long-term plan . . . at least from a financial perspective.

That being said, trends show that if you still decide you want to work in fly-fishing, this may be a pretty good time to do so. “Statistics [compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service] suggest that there are both an increase in the number fly anglers, and in the number of days logged fishing,” said Tom Sadler, board member of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, president of the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America and a guide with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “In our shop, the bookings for guide days are solid and increasing. Part of this may have to do with our reputation as Tenkara experts. Sales of these rods are significant.”

“We never saw much of a decline after the initial economic downturn in 2007,” added Tucker Ladd, owner of Trout’s Fly Fishing, in Denver, Colorado. “This may have been a function of being a metropolitan shop, which insulates us from some of the issues facing a destination-oriented retailer. In the last 18 months, we’ve definitely seen an uptick in business. We have more new anglers coming in the door, getting a first rod and reel or upgrading from hand-me-downs. Our instructional program, which we’ve recently expanded, seems to have helped build business with this group.”

The increase in hardgoods sales seems to be borne out on the manufacturing level. “We’ve been very busy the last year,” said Alan Gnann, president of Connecticut’s REC Components, which manufactures RECOIL guides and other parts for rod makers in the United States and abroad, as well as rod cases, wading staffs and Richard Wheatley fly boxes. “One good indicator is our number of employees. Not long ago, we had 17 or 18 workers. Now we have 25. With the improvements we’ve seen in the economy, I think a lot of consumers are going shopping.”

So if you’re looking to get into the fly-fishing business, your timing might be good. But where to begin? Below, we’ve highlighted a few jobs you might find interesting. Some require a very specific skill set; others, a strong back and a will to learn. Odds are you won’t make a mint as a member of the fly-fishing industry. But there’s something to be said for following your passion.


Sandi Irving

Head Chef, Nimmo Bay Lodge

Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia

Age 34


From May through October, Sandi Irving holds down the kitchen at Nimmo Bay Lodge, a fly-out heli-fishing lodge just east of Port McNeil, British Columbia. “My job is to stuff people,” she joked. “From the moment you step off the helicopter, we’re feeding you.”

Typical Day: “During the season, my day starts at 5:30 a.m. After some coffee in the kitchen, I’ll start making breakfast for our staff—up to 15 in the high season. Then I move on to prepare breakfast for guests, with the help of our pastry chef. Guests sit down for a plated breakfast at 8:30. For the rest of the morning, I’ll begin prepping for dinner. I’ll knock off around noon and have a few hours to myself. I might grab a nap, or take a kayak or paddleboard out on the water. I generally come back to the kitchen by 4:00 to prepare staff dinners, which go out at 6:00. Next, I’ll work on hors d’oeuvres, which are usually served out on the floating fire dock at 7:00. Then I put the finishing touches on dinner, which is served at 7:45. We prepare lots of fresh seafood (my favorite dinner to serve is Dungeness crab), but we can also make a mean steak. My day is usually over by 9:30.”

Key Skills/Experience: “I’m a formally trained chef with a Red Seal certification (which signifies 5,000 hours of work experience over three years, in combination with three six-week blocks of technical training). I’ve worked in fine dining establishments in Victoria and have solid culinary skills, though I think to work in the kitchen at a lodge, you have to have the right demeanor to succeed. You’ve got to be able to ‘hang’ in the middle of nowhere, and get along with your fellow employees. I knew I could do this before coming to Nimmo, as I’d previously worked at other lodges. Good organizational skills are also key. If we run out of something, we can send a helicopter to Port McNeil . . . though that’s a big expense.”

Best Part of the Job: “Nimmo is a magical place to be for half the year. I’d never been in a kayak or helicoptered to a glacier. Access to such outdoors amenities is a great perk. The ownership at Nimmo also allows me to offer an amazing level of hospitality to our guests—from the first thing we put in your mouth to the last. Everything is made from scratch, and made with love.”

Worst Part of the Job: “You miss your family and friends, and can’t necessarily pick up the phone or get on the Internet to stay in touch.”

Fishing Days: “Fishing’s not really a passion for me. I do get out a bit, but not as much as other staff members.”

Compensation: “An accomplished chef can earn $3 to $5K a month in season, plus room and board. My season is six months.”

Occupational Hazard: “Bears. We have a guest that comes every year, and we always try to do something special for him. One year, we decided to set up a streamside breakfast. I flew out in a helicopter at dawn, and set up a table with a linen tablecloth and began making breakfast. The bacon was just about ready when a bear appeared on the opposite bank. It reminded me that we’re in the wilderness, and we’re not in charge.”

Dylan Rose

Regional Sales Manager, Fly Water Travel

Ashland, Oregon

Age 34


After working a number of different jobs in the fly-fishing industry (retailer, manufacturer’s rep, guide, e-commerce specialist) Dylan Rose took a position as a booking agent at Ashland, Oregon-based Fly Water Travel in 2011. He currently manages much of Fly Water’s saltwater inventory, including destinations throughout the Caribbean and Christmas Island.

Typical Day: “Much of the time, my day is like that of any other office worker. I answer a lot of e-mails and phone calls and push some paper. But for about six weeks of the year, I’m on the road, fishing in incredible places. When I’m visiting a locale, my day is much like that of any guest—though I make an extra effort to meet the guides and various lodge managers, and try to experience all aspects of the lodge’s fishing operation. That might mean that I might chase bonefish even if I’d prefer to fish permit. I also spend a little extra time snapping photos of the rooms, the food, the boats and other aspects of the operation.”

Key Skills/Experience: “All of the things I’ve done have led me to this job. The most important skills I need are pretty basic: being personable to build good relationships with clients, being honest about my impressions of the destinations we serve, and following through with correspondence and phone calls. Whenever I’m working with a client, my goal is to send them to the right destination at the right time of year with the right tackle.”

Best Part of the Job: “My fellow employees—they are genuinely great people and also great anglers. My bosses are ardent outdoorsmen, and give us flexibility in our work schedule to get out and fish, float a river or go skiing if we need to. And, of course, getting paid to fish in exotic saltwater locations isn’t so bad either!”

Worst Part of the Job: “Getting back from a trip—say two weeks in Belize—and having my inbox jacked with e-mails.”

Fishing Days: “Between six weeks of work-related travel where I fish almost every day, and the fact that I live 25 minutes from the Rogue River, I’d say I get out between 70 to 100 days a year.”

Compensation: “$35K to $50K a year is a good range for booking agents . . . though as bookings increase, that compensation could go higher.”

Occupational Hazard: “Bull sharks. As mentioned above, I try to get as many pictures as possible when I’m traveling. Last year I was in Ascension Bay, and had caught a jack of 15 pounds on a popper. It clucked and croaked, as they do, as I was fighting it. All my hero shots on this trip had been in the boat, and I needed an out-of-the-boat picture. I jumped out with one of the guides and started taking pictures. The water was a little off-color from getting stirred up. At one point, I looked up at the senior guide on the poling platform, and he said, “You might want to get back in the boat.” I looked behind us, and there was a swirl of water and a huge gray shape coming in our direction. I let go of the rod and fish and heaved myself into the boat. ‘What was that?’ I asked. ‘A shark.’ ‘How big?’ ‘Thirteen feet long!’”

Simon Gawesworth

Line Designer, Rio Products

Idaho Falls, Idaho

Age 49


Technically, spey-casting guru Simon Gawesworth is on the Rio payroll as marketing manager, though for part of each year he spearheads Rio’s line-design effort and oversees taper testing, and has been doing so since 2005 from Rio’s headquarters.

Typical Day: “Line development tends to be seasonal. At this point [early April], all of our 2014 lines are designed. Before the process begins, we’ll determine by committee what’s missing from our assortment, and what we need to develop. Once we’ve established the basic specs, I’ll sketch up a rough taper based on the parameters we’ve established—whether it’s for distance, turning over big flies, for beginning or advanced anglers. I’ll send my fantasy line along to Marlin Rausch, our production manager, and he’ll work his magic to convert it into something that can actually be made. Once Marlin comes up with a production prototype, I’ll take it to our casting pond (which adjoins the Snake River), make notes and bring them back to Marlin. We’ll go back and forth a few times, fine-tuning our prototypes. Once we have something that we think will work, I’ll send it out to product testers. I might even take it out to the field to test it for myself—the Bahamas for a new saltwater line, for example. It generally takes four to five months from early concept to production, though sometimes it’s longer.”

Key Skills/Experience: “I’ve been lucky enough to have fly-fished all my life, professionally since age 16. Thanks to this, I have a good feel for casting. I was also fortunate enough to be schooled by Jim Vincent [who founded Rio] in his ethos of line design.”

Best Part of the Job: “The most enjoyable aspect of my job is product testing, which allows me to travel and fish new places for new species and collect new ideas. It’s also very satisfying when everything comes together and you produce a new line that blows people away. We have a new Skagit line coming out in August. I went through 18 different taper designs to get it to where we wanted it, but it’s been blowing our pro team away.”

Worst Part of the Job: “It can be frustrating when we have what seems to be a strong idea for a new line, but the technology is not quite there to make it viable.”

Fishing Days: “I live near some great trout streams, but don’t get to fish much at home. I’m usually able to pack on a few extra days when I’m doing testing work, and schedule a personal week each year (the last few on the Dean). On average, I’m out there about 50 days.”

Compensation: “$55K to $70K.”

Occupational Hazard: “Sometimes when I go to visit a location to test lines, conditions are less than optimal. The testing can be great, but the catching much less so. If we have a new permit line but it’s too windy in the Florida Keys to find any permit, what do we do? Schedule another trip?” [We at Fly Rod & Reel always recommend that you schedule another trip. —Ed.]

Brian Grossenbacher

Photographer, Grossenbacher Photo

Bozeman, Montana

Age 44


After 15 years of guiding out of Bozeman, Brian Grossenbacher (and his very understanding family) took a roll of the dice and committed himself to photography. It’s paid off. Today, his photography clients include some of the biggest brands in fly-fishing, and his shots have graced the covers of many outdoor magazines.

Typical Day: “Every single day I wake up feeling I’m the luckiest guy alive. I’d guided 100+ days a year before I owned a camera. I believe that every guide has a finite number of guide days in him, and I fell into photography as my guide days were running out. In many ways, a day of shooting is like a day of guiding, as I’m usually in the rower’s seat. I’m fortunate to have a number of friends who are terrific anglers and like to fish, so I have a ready cast of ‘talent.’ I’m not the kind of photographer that likes to set things up. I try to make myself invisible and capture the moment naturally as it occurs. It’s the street photographer’s creed—‘F8 and be there.’”

Key Skills/Experience: “My appreciation and understanding of fly-fishing has been very beneficial in my photography work. There are times when the light is perfect, but the angler has opened up his wrist on his backcast. I know I can’t use it, even though it looks good.”

Best Part of the Job: “On many days, it hardly seems like work. Even if we’re not getting great photos, it’s fun, as I’m out fishing with friends, and I’m an integral part of the experience. I like the fact that I’m able to help people within the industry—like providing images to help a friend build up a guide business. It’s also a very good feeling to capture people in a moment of athleticism, and in a natural setting—moments that they want to share with friends and family.”

Worst Part of the Job: “Editing. When I come back from a week-long shoot, I know I have thousands of images that need to be reviewed. After six hours in front of the computer, I realize that I’ve hardly started. It’s pretty monotonous, but I’m obsessive/compulsive enough to do it.”

Fishing Days: “I catch a lot of grief from my buddies, as I rarely fish any more. In my guide days I was fortunate to travel a bunch, see some great things and catch amazing fish. Now, my passion for photography has eclipsed the desire to catch fish. The few times I do make a cast, I’ll see something interesting and want to pick up the camera.”

Compensation: “People are surprised at how modestly editorial work pays. In the fly-fishing world, a magazine cover will generally pay $400 to $900. If you’re able to place shots in larger-circulation publications like Outdoor Life or Field & Stream, the pay is better . . . but you really do editorial work in the hope of parlaying it into commercial shoots. Catalog and advertising projects pay well, and that’s how I can make a living.”

Occupational Hazard: “Ladders. I always thought that the angles available to a photographer from a drift boat were boring, so on one occasion, I thought I’d be clever. I put a six-foot ladder in the back of the boat to get above the oarsman and the angler. It was a horrible idea. One surprise oar stroke, and I fell and broke two rods.”

Michael Gracie

Independent E-Commerce/Business Advisor

Denver, Colorado

Age: Thirty-something, he says, but we find that assertion to be unverifiable.


Michael is a recovering CPA with a gold-leaf resume. In recent years, he’s turned his keen business eye mostly to the fly-fishing industry, providing financial and operational restructuring, strategic planning, business continuity, and information technology integration for clients like Denver-based Trout’s Fly Fishing (a retailer) and the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA).

Typical Day: “I’m usually up between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m., and soon after am at my computer with a French press of coffee, scanning through fly-fishing blogs—over 100 of them. Most days I have a list of development to-dos—updating a client Web site or tweaking some analytics. I’ll work through a few of those. By 9:00 or so, I’ll roll into Trout’s, where I spend 40 to 50 hours a week. I manage the shop’s back-end systems, review sales and purchasing reports, update financial projections and help direct the developers for the Web site. When I’m working on a Web site, I don’t think of myself as a designer. I try to think of the business, creating something that generates more revenue or relieves employees of tasks so they can do other things. Around Trout’s I’m known as ‘Dr. No.’ Unless you can prove to me that an investment will have a return that exceeds certain expectations, I’ll recommend against it. I might spend an hour or two on the sales floor before heading home. Once home, I’ll crank up the laptop again and knock off a few more “to-do” items, and then scan the blogs again, trying to plan a few outings on the water.”

Key Skills/Experience: “Early in my career, I worked in the bankruptcy/reorganization group at a Big 6 accounting firm. Our role was to act as interim operators within client businesses, trying to get them on a better footing. Often, the challenge was to generate improvements with a limited supply of resources. Just the sort of challenge the under-capitalized fly-fishing industry faces. The industry should be front-facing, focused on customer service. But to make that happen, the back-end operations need to run smoothly. I’ve carved out a niche as a back-office guy.

Best Part of the Job: “There are two things I really love about my role. First, I love crunching the numbers. I enjoy playing with big databases, and the technical aspects of building Web sites and integrating them with business processes. I didn’t get into this simply because I wanted to be on the water. That being said, I can’t deny that getting the chance to go on subsidized fishing trips, rub elbows with industry luminaries and play with product prototypes has influenced me. I’d stick to working with surgeons’ groups and law firms if those perks weren’t there.

Worst Part of the Job: “I’m not the most patient person, and I find myself getting frustrated when clients are slow to move on opportunities. People lose focus on the big picture to deal with immediate challenges, and sometimes I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall trying to convince them that proposed initiatives will give them a real return on their investment dollar.”

Fishing Days: “Since I began working with fly-fishing clients, I spend less time on the water. It used to be 100 days, now it’s more like 50 or 60. Thank goodness for the South Platte and carp. They’re my savior. Though I can rarely spend a whole day on the water, I can leave work at 4 or 5 and have a chance to get into fish.”

Compensation: “I make a pretty comfortable living, but many would say I’m a workaholic. It’s safe to say a person can earn in the lower six figures doing this, but in my case that includes working on non-fly-fishing-related stuff for up to 30 or 40 percent of the time.”

Occupational Hazard: “The biggest inhibitor to getting my job done is crisis. I’m pretty methodical with schedules—perhaps even anal. Unforeseen circumstances throw me off, particularly when a lot of the time I find those ‘emergencies’ are manufactured.”

Chris Wood

Chief Executive Officer, Trout Unlimited

Arlington, Virginia

Age 47


After working as the senior policy and communications advisor to the Chief of the US Forest Service, where he was the architect of a rule to protect 58 million acres of backcountry hunting and fishing public land, and then a stint as Trout Unlimited’s head of conservation programs, Chris Wood came to the helm of TU in 2010. Here, he oversees the activities of the conservation organization, with 150,000+ members, from its national office in Arlington.

Typical Day: “I usually bike into work, and squeeze in a workout at the gym that’s in our building. It’s good thinking time. I’m at my desk by 8:30 or 9:00. I try to leave three or four hours unscheduled so I can work on priority projects—whether it’s protecting Bristol Bay or brainstorming new marketing efforts to expand our membership. The rest of the day is spent returning e-mails to members who have questions, checking in with our outdoor retailer partners and shaking the money tree. I’ll also spend quality time with members from the Obama administration, federal agencies that impact our work and members of Congress. There’s a reason, after all, that we’re in D.C., and not, sadly, in Missoula.”

Key Skills/Experience: “On a micro level, it’s important to be able to separate the ‘important’ from the ‘urgent.’ Urgent is always coming in over the transom, and it will keep you from getting important things done. On a macro level, it’s paramount to stay optimistic, especially for people in the conservation community. We need to look at the negative data sets—loss of open space, declining water quality, etc.—and see opportunity. This optimism makes us more effective, and makes others want to be part of what we’re doing.”

Best Part of the Job: “I get to spend time in some beautiful places, fishing and hunting—Alaska, Idaho, New York. But ultimately, it’s the people I work with that make this job so special, both in the office and in the field. Every morning is like Christmas . . . really! As CEO, I feel it’s my role to inspire and motivate people. This isn’t a great challenge at TU, as both our employees and volunteers are very motivated. People are here because they love the work, and this makes it a deeply inspiring place to be.”

Worst Part of the Job: “The climate of D.C., especially as summer approaches. The 100-degree/90-percent humidity days are pretty grim. In the office, we call it carp weather. We pride ourselves on going out to chase carp on the Red Alert heat/air-quality warning days.”

Fishing Days: I have young kids at home, we’ll fish every weekend in season, often for carp or bluegill. I also get a few work trips in a year when I can fish. Combined, I squeeze in at least 50 days a year. I should add that we have an annual competition at the office: The Potomac River Wild Fish Challenge. The first person to catch 10 species wild to the river gets their name on a big trophy, along with a fly rod and reel.”

Compensation: “Executive directors at local conservation organizations can expect to earn $50 to $70K. State-wide director might earn $70 to $100K. The range for directors/CEOs of national organizations will go from $150K to $300K.” [These figures speak to general conservation organizations.]

Occupational Hazard: “Trying to appeal to the broad membership of TU while getting things done. The socioeconomic and political backgrounds of our members run the gamut. We have to play it down the middle, and use that to convince elected leaders that conservation is a winning issue, that it’s not ‘jobs versus the environment.’ Unfortunately, too few elected leaders ‘get’ the outdoors or conservation, so our work is cut out for us.”

Lori-Ann Murphy

Director of Fishing, El Pescador

San Pedro, Belize

Age 54


A registered nurse by training, Lori-Ann founded Reel Women Fly Fishing Adventures in 1994. The guiding life was appealing—but when the opportunity came to lift up stakes and relocate to San Pedro, Belize in 2009, it was hard to resist. “I did say to the guide team that I wasn’t moving down and changing my whole life unless I was sure that they were OK with a woman being director of fishing,” she recalled. “There was hardly a pause before they said, ‘Why not?’”

Typical Day: “As director of fishing, I’m the liaison between the fishing guests and the guides. I run the fly shop, prepare monthly guide lists, conduct guide evaluations, provide guest feedback to guides, write a weekly fishing report/blog along with Facebook postings, and build relationships with the fly shops and wholesalers we work with. It’s also my role to make sure everyone is having a great time. I’m usually up at 4:30 a.m. I want to make sure that clients have everything they need before they head out, and that the guides are doing OK. Once all the guests have gotten out (which is by 7, though when migratory tarpon are present, there will be several boats that leave at 5), I’ll usually check e-mail, have breakfast and either go for a run, head to the yoga studio down the beach or go fishing. I’ll also put in some time on one of the projects my boss (Ali Flota) has me working on. I’m back on the docks at 3:00 when the anglers return to greet them, and to check in again with the guides to make sure that all is well in their world. At 4:30 we offer casting lessons, as well as knot-tying and fly-tying demonstrations. Five-thirty is when I do orientation for any new anglers who might have arrived, highlighting both the guided and DIY options. I join everyone for dinner at 6:45. This is our time to get caught up on stories and distribute awards: If someone has landed a bonefish, permit or tarpon or a grand slam, they receive a pin. I’m usually in bed by 8:30, unless someone bribes me to stay up later!”

Key Skills/Experience: “As a guide and an outfitter, I understand what needs to happen to make things run smoothly.”

Best Part of the Job: “Going barefoot. Seeing tailing bonefish from my door. And working with Belizeans. I really love the people, and treasure my morning conversations with the guides before the guests are ready. On the back of the El Pescador T-shirt, it says ‘Family.’ There are 45 people working at the lodge, and that’s really how we feel. We see each other every day. Through good and tough times, we are there for each other.”

Worst Part of the Job: “Having a boss, as I’ve been on my own for a long time. Still, I work with an incredible family. Ali is one of the best lodge owners in the business, and her mother and stepfather—Chris and Steve—are a huge part of what makes El Pescador work.”

Fishing Days: “I average three days a week when I’m working. The sea is always teaching me, my guides teach me—they make me want to be the best . . . or at least feel that way! When I’m back in Montana in the summer, I’ll get out more than that.” (Lori-Ann is currently doing a “job share” with Ed Blank, so she spends eight months a year at El Pescador.)

Compensation: “One could expect anywhere from $40K to $70K. In my case, my little ‘girl shack’ and food are covered as part of my salary.”

Occupational Hazard: “Life.”