The Pros and Cons of Buying Flies Online

Fly shops are called "fly shops" for a reason.

A good friend of mine owns a shop that does several hundred thousand dollars a year in total sales. How much of that do you think fly rods account for?

About 10 percent. And premium rods that cost $500 or more account for about one third of that.

Think copy machines. The money isn't in the machine itself. It's in the ink cartridges you use to keep the thing going over time. Same is true with flies. Some shops do a third of their total business (or more) out of the fly bin. And the more you and I hang them in the trees, the happier they are.

Which leads us to a pretty interesting discussion. I think the next big issue in the fly-fishing business is going to be a boom in online sales of flies. And that's going to be a big challenge for some shops that have already felt the pressure in recent years. Sure, you can already buy flies through a number of websites. In my experience, those often come with mixed results. Sometimes the quality is not quite there. It can be hit or miss. But more reliable options are coming down the pike, and soon.

Now a fly shop that sits next to the river is probably bullet proof, because anglers like me are always going to pop in and buy specific patterns for specific waters and situations.

But do you really need to pay the retailer markup to load your box with standard patterns like Parachute Adams, or black Woolly Buggers, or pink San Juan Worms? If you can get quality bugs for half the price from an online distributor that cuts out the middle men like sales reps and shop owners, would you give that a whirl? (And I'm sorry, but nobody should buy patterns like San Juan worms that take about a nickel in materials and 30 seconds to tie, but I'm as lazy/guity as anyone.)

I think people will continue to walk into fly shops to wiggle rods, try on waders, and mess with reels. I think it's important to be your own critic of products like these, and it's hard to shop until you actually give them the once over in person. But how carefully do you scrutinize bead-head Prince nymphs when you're dropping them into a plastic cup?

There are pros and cons in all of this for anglers. I think you'll see more competitive pricing. I think fly innovation will continue to boom. Shops are going to want to carry special patterns that aren't easy to knock off. I think manufacturers of other products like rods and reels (and surely the reps) will value the role of the fly shop even more, and realize that more people buying flies online will diminish the number of folks walking into shops and wiggling 5-weights. I think the strong fly companies will continue to make the best, longest lasting, fish enticing patterns they possibly can.

On the other hand, I worry for my fly designer friends who depend on royalties as income. I don't want to see their patterns knocked off and sold as commodities. I worry for retailers, and anyone who reads my stuff knows I wear my affinity for fly shops right on my sleeve. I think shops are a slices of Americana, and there's nothing that can replace the smells, sights, and feels of visiting the great ones. I'll go down swinging on behalf of the fly shop.

But I might also want to spend $30 or $40 for flies that would otherwise cost me $50 or more, and I can't fault anyone else who feels the same way. I'm sure that in this Internet age, it's going to be pretty easy to find out which fly suppliers are selling junk and which ones aren't. It is all going to come out in the wash.

Trust me, it isn't a matter of "if," or "how." It's now about "how much" and "who." And if the big fly manufacturers feel the squeeze to the point that they decide to sell direct, that Pandora's Box will never get shut.