Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Fly Shop Experience

Lately I have been thinking about fly shops. I was up in West Yellowstone the other day. I got up early and drove up to fish Hebgen Lake in morning. The wind blew me off the lake at 9:30 in morning (which was disappointing to say the least), so my backup plan was to head to the Madison and spend the day casting hoppers and ants and the like while waiting for a nice evening rise.

I stopped by one of my favorite fly shops on the planet—Blue Ribbon Flies. I wanted to buy a few flies because I hadn’t had time to tie. As usual, I ended up quite happy that I had stopped by.

I first visited Blue Ribbon Flies in college. A good friend was getting married, and instead of a bachelor party, he wanted to go fishing. So four of us piled into a pickup truck at 4 a.m. and drove to West Yellowstone. We arrived just as Blue Ribbon was opening. We looked at the board outside for the latest report and wondered where to go fishing.

Finally, the guy who was getting married walked into shop and said:

“We wanna catch some fish on dries, where should we go?”

The Blue Ribbon guys talked it over with us a little and finally decided we should go over and fish the Yellowstone below the lake (this was before the lake trout disaster had done much of tis worst damage). In many shops we would have gotten only a little more info, guessed at a few flies and went on our way. But the BRF guys got out a map and told us where to park. Then they told exactly what type of water to search for rises in, and finally they made sure we left with a few cups full of X-Caddis, which we were assured would outfish our beloved Elk Hairs (this was my introduction to the magical powers of Craig Matthews' flies).

Maybe we got lucky, but the fish were right where they said they would be, and they were tripping over each other to eat an X-Caddis. Even now I have never had a stop at a fly shop pay off in such a way. It was like a free guided trip.

My local shop is equally great, though in a different way. Jimmy's All Seasons Angler doesn't outfit, Jimmy just owns and operates a fly shop. And he manages to stay afloat in a town with both a Sportsman's Warehouse and a Super Wal Mart that shoehorned a fly shop* in next to the customer service desk.

*Yes, a Wal Mart with a fly shop is a sign of the apocalypse.

I've never talked to Jimmy about how he does it, but from my own experiences in the place he does it by really putting his customers in front of his bottom line whenever he can reasonably do so. Every time I walk in he asks me where I am going fishing next and where I have been fishing lately. He knows all the great out of the way places and he even talked me into midge fishing with a bobber on a local lake, something that sounded so boring I never would have considered it before I walked in the door.

Once, when I was in the middle of building a new rod, I needed a rod turner to finish the job. Jimmy didn't hesitate to offer one of the turners he keeps in the back for rod building classes. Then he gave me the guide finish for free, and even let the rod turn on a table in the back of the shop overnight so the finish could dry. Its still my favorite rod.

So the other day, when I went into Blue Ribbon on my way down to fish the Madison, they gave me the lowdown, and it wasn't real pretty. It was tough fishing and they made no bones about it. The terresterial fishing was tough unless you were there early and the evening fishing had more or less passed on for the season. In fact the clerk tried to talk me into fishing the Gallatin, but I didn't have time to add the extra miles to a day trip.

Still, I got excellent advice on how to approach the water and what to use. And we talked about Hebgen and the Henry's Fork and it was a little like we were old friends (or at least it felt that way to me, but then I have so few friends that I tend to imagine such things). I walked out with some flies and some zelon (I always have to buy fly tying gear when I am in that shop). The fishing on the Madison was about like they said it would be--tough and hot and slow, but I did manage a big rainbow on one of the flies they sold me.

Later that day I walked into Kelly Galloup's Slide Inn and bought some gargantuan streamers and talked meat fishing with the kid behind the counter. Kelly has expanded the shop so there is more room in there, and he's still got the best streamer selection in the West. 

I realized that one of the things I love about fly fishing is the experience of a walking into a great fly shop. Sure, they don't all compare with Jimmy's or Blue Ribbon Flies or the Slide Inn (some of the shops in West Yellowstone leave me a little cold, although I enjoy the old school charm of Jacklin's place), but there is something about crossing the threshold and seeing those rows of flies and the waders on the rack and whiteboard with the fishing report, something about all of that adds to the magic of the sport, at least for me.

Like the first view of a river, walking through the doors of fly shop gets my pulse racing just a bit, no matter what.

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