Denver Was the Place

A meander through the annual Fly Fishing Retailer Show, Part I.

  • By: Seth Norman
The author left with FR amp R Salt Water columnist Chico Fernandez at the FR amp R booth in Denver

Fly Fishing Retailer Show
Denver, 2008


It’s the fly-fishing industry’s shining moment, our grand ball of business; also our Cannes Film Festival, sort of, for what’s new. Almost every major brand does a booth here—some build colonies—to pitch products directly to dealers and distributors, domestic and foreign. It’s also the place where new companies come to make good.

Large and small, all hope you will see their products in shops this year. And, seeing, buy.

Ted Leeson and Daryl Martin will talk up FR&R’s“New Gear.” Here, in a three-part series—Place, People, Causes—comes highly personal takes on an event that has little to do with your day of solitude on a stream, adventures on salt flat, drift down a river—unless…

You use a rod and reel. Wear waders, boots, hats, coats, gloves, sunglasses, vest or post-vest engineered soft-goods-chest thing; cast lines, leaders and tippets, flies, indicators, weight; float in tubes or on pontoons…

Unless you learn about tying and tactics from books, or find inspiration between soft or hardbound covers—include DVDs, now—or wander the Internet for former or latter or something else entirely…

You get the idea. Unless it’s home made, custom, bamboo, off-off-brand, ancient or seriously off-beat…whatever tool you fish with likely showed up here, well before you got it.

So…promotion’s most of it, for exhibitors; research, for buyers. But everybody also assesses competition, sniffs for trends, exchanges information, hears and spreads rumors. The best story of this year has legs, relayed by AFFTA (the American Fly-Fishing Trade Association, our sport’s voice of the trade) itself at the first day breakfast: that The River Why? will take to film (presuming some legal issues get satisfied, some say). Optimists think it will cast fly-fishing into the limelight again—chartreuse to you—and even the most dour would like to see a Why flick lead to revival, however modest, after a year when, per one innovative wholesaler,“Losing seven per cent felt like breaking even, given all that was going on.”

Could happen. There was a surprisingly upbeat feel on the show floor this year, among most with whom I spoke, a“cautious optimism” oiling nervous water. This was also true after a drink or two, which doesn’t always improve perspective. That spirit seemed due, in part, because not too many people presumed to know exactly what our future looks like. Said Ed Engle, guide, author and sage,“I’ve seen more changes in fly-fishing in the last couple of years than I can remember.”

But wait. Let’s look at this from other eyes.

Yours, I mean. If I might guess.

A civilian walking the aisles at the Fly Fishing Retailer Show might feel like a diver cruising channels between tropical reefs. So many cool objects—what’s this? What’s that?—some gorgeously familiar, many not. New fly-reel models lay on counters, assembled and dis-, symmetrical spools shining like anodized shells. Tying materials flash from pegboard walls, or flow, uncut, from the tail of a show tie left clamped in a vise—something nouveu Atlantic, I’m thinking. Bit of a paradox, that fishers whose play clothes run mostly from“tan” to“tanner,” olive to gray—AKA“sage,”“stone,”“dun,”“well-done” and“dunner”—employ tiny tools often so brilliant. Surely these include more colors than seen in any other sport, at least until the Amsterdam Olympics approve“Exotic Dancing with Extinct Birds.”

The gamut: from most-muted earth tones—flies dressed like us—to iridescent, luminescent, and those increasing popular fluorescents that prompt strikes from moribund steelhead and provoke seizures in small children.

Then there are rods. Ah, O, the rods—in rows at attention, aimed straight up or angled just so, as if about to take flight. (Perhaps it’s me, but fly rods never look quite static; and it’s astonishing how clearly they call my name.) Glossy black or matte; amber or deep-emerald green, subtly wrapped: rods are the show aristocrats, waiting to arch, flexed by cast or current or fish.

Rods are averaging about $1360 per pound this year, list price. That’s down from $2417 in 1995, because most are now made overseas. That re-location is also true of flies, but doesn’t change the shop retail price so much: if sold by weight, the cost of size 24 tricos would exceed almost any consumer item not measured in“carats.” While we’re on price, however briefly: one new pair of waders costs less than my third car, but only if dollars are adjusted for inflation. (That said, the company that sells them probably invests more in conservation, on an annual basis, than the White House.)

Meanwhile, back at the reef, brilliant and banal collections of minute faux creatures shelter in the cubbies of fly distributers’ booths—cubed school of streamers, hairy and furred; flights of the feather-winged; there, a submerged herd of sowbugs. An array of black tools reflects from glass shelves, like urchin images in a tidepool; others spread across a counter like collections of smooth black bones. Nets hang, bags swooped; and fleets of beached Personal Watercraft line a perimeter aisle.

It doesn’t hurt the marine effect, that photos of fish are everywhere. Enormous pictures: of trout cruising and rising, tarpon leaping, a permit putting its head down for a run that may melt a fool fisher’s thumb into hot backing. Close-ups are quite the rage: if that cutthroat was lifesize, it could eat cats…

Through your eyes, I tried to see this. It’s been 14 years since I first came; and if I’ve abused the reef conceit, I’ve so far spared you the waves of covetous lust that drowned me, first 50 hikes down these aisles—the drowning waves ohmygawdcanIwantthatsobad that could literally leave me nauseated, by the end of an overstimulated day.

Seth Norman lives in the Washington State. He is the author of Meanderings of a Fly Fisher and other books, and reviews books for Fly Rod& Reel.