What I Think About Knock-Off Fly-Fishing Products

I got an e-mail last week that ticked me off, and I think it's about time that somebody said something "for the record" regarding the knock-off, cheap imported products that are now steadily oozing into the American fly-fishing market. I think the whole situation is bull.

The e-mail came from a manufacturer in China. The purpose of the note (at least as I interpreted it), was to unashamedly let me know that this company had successfully mimicked some big-name fly fishing products -- from fiberglass rods to travel rods to high-end casting rods. And for very cheap prices, I (or whoever else wants to) can presumably buy my/our own batch, maybe create a brand name, and pawn them off on whomever I/we want to. Here's a verbatim excerpt from the e-mail:

"New high end 9' LW6, fly rods developed for all regions, the rod action is duplicated from Sage Zaix fly rod successfully. The attractive place is with 2pc top quality (name withheld) agate stripping guide. The reference price is from USD53.83 to USD58.33 based on different order quantity."

I've never fished a Sage "Zaix" but I'm assuming the reference is meant to be to a Z-Axis. And no, you'll never find a real, new Z-Axis rod for under $60.

In a day and age when premium fly rods can cost several hundred dollars, I totally get the value proposition that's led some companies to take rod materials and designs overseas and manufacture there. Doing so saves labor costs and that ultimately translates to price savings for consumers.

I'm not against imported rods. I actually think they're good for the market as a whole. Lower price points open opportunities for more people, and more people engaged in the sport of fly fishing is inevitably a good thing. I'm a "made in America guy" -- I'm from Michigan, where that message resonates. But I've also talked to fly shops in Michigan where the owners have told me, point blank, that imported fly rods have literally kept their shops in business during the recent economic downturn.

If someone figures out how to build a better or cheaper mousetrap somewhere else, that's one thing. Sometimes that's a great thing. Sometimes, however, those people get burned when the overseas company they contract with duplicates the product, builds the same thing in the other end of that same factory, and then sells it for less, against the supplier who funded them and gave them the design in the first place.

That said, you're not going to see any "Fly Talk" or "KD" rods -- certainly not cheap knock-offs from Asia or elsewhere -- for one simple reason: I don't believe it's fair for anyone to copy the work and then sell it for cheaper prices. Even if it's a discontinued model like the Sage Z-Axis. No more than I think it would be fair for anyone to copy my books or stories, slap a different name on them, and then sell them on the cheap. In that case, we'd call it plagiarism. In this case, we apparently don't have a real name for it, or a way to enforce standards that would prevent someone from ripping off the thoughts, sweat and efforts of those who put a lot of time and money into developing things for anglers to fish with.

This situation doesn't just pertain to fly fishing. I've been to the ICAST show many years, and at times, I've watched firsthand as certain people looked at the conventional tackle and lures on display there, taking copious notes with the plain intent of knocking off products. It's sometimes scary just how close the mimicked designs and names that pop up mere weeks later are to the real deals.

While it can be a very fine line between less-expensive imports and blatant knock-offs, I do, however, know that there's a lot more going on in the pricing realm than most angler consumers understand. For example, manufacturers of American-made fly reels are required to pay taxes -- money that goes into a pool that ultimately is used to protect and restore natural resources in America -- and importers don't have to pay that now. So part of the money you save when you don't buy American reels is money that would be spent to improve the habitat you fish. I do think that the tackle industry and the government need to consider ways of making the playing field more level in that regard.

In the short-term, I think the responsibility of determining what's fair and what's foul ultimately rests with the angler, as perhaps it should. In the case of the ultra-bargain, super-cheap knock-off, I'd suggest to you that nothing is truly too good to be true. You're not going to get a real Z-Axis for under $100 unless a really good friend or relative cuts you a great break on a used rod. You can pretend you did but I hope you'll call bull when you see the golden calf… at least for long enough to give this industry time to get its house in order and do the right thing.