Business is buzzing for downtown fly fishing shops

TRAVERSE CITY – Dave Leonhard has watched the business of fly fishing change a lot over the years. The owner of Streamside Orvis in downtown Traverse City, Leonhard was on the river casting a long rod even before the sport went Hollywood and made up only miniscule part of the total angling market.

Before Redford and Pitt did "A River Runs Through It" (1992), there were no fly fishing trade shows, no fly fishing computer games, and no such thing as the national and world championship fly fishing competition. Here in northern Michigan, according to Leonhard, you're just as likely to take up fly fishing as you are golf.

"Our demographic is hard to pin down up here," says Leonhard. "We see mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, and lots of folks looking for a new sport to keep them active as they head into retirement."

The most recent survey on the national economic impact of hunting, fishing and wildlife recreation (2001) showed that anglers spent roughly 839 million annually on fishing in Michigan-a third on gear and 62-percent (roughly $519 million) on travel. The Traverse City Convention and Visitor's Bureau says 10 percent of tourists come for the adventure sports-among them, fly fishing.

Target species include salmon in the fall, steelhead in late winter and early spring, and, throughout the summer months, wade and river driftboat fishing for trout. Even fly fishing for unlikely species like the bottom-feeding carp-a gamefish prized in Europe for its intelligence, size, and power-has become popular in West and East Bay.

Traverse City is home base to many independent fly fishing guides and currently two downtown fly shops-Leonhard's Streamside Orvis store and The Northern Angler on Union Street-which offer guided trips on area waters, fly tying and casting instruction, and, of course, all the necessary gear and fashionable-looking apparel you need to get started.

"Our two stores share business," says Leonhard, adding that here there's more than enough to go around. The Northern Angler, across the street from Brady's and within casting distance of the Boardman River, stocks everything un-Orvis: rods by G. Loomis, Sage, and Thomas & Thomas; reels by Abel; waders by Simms; and clothing by C.C. Filson.

"Elsewhere, fly fishing has been on decline for the last three or four years, but we've been seeing increased profit every year," says Leonhard, adding that with a dozen Blue Ribbon trout streams within an hour's drive of Traverse City, the region is as much a world-renown hub for Midwest fly fishing as it was in the days when Henry Ford, Charles Nash, and countless other big-business tycoons traveled far and wide to get here.

Streamside Orvis and The Northern Angler make fly fishing easy to get into by offering all sorts of programs to get the newcomer started right.

"Our winter fly tying classes are extremely popular and always fill up fast," Leonhard says. Three years ago Leonhard also teamed up with The Homestead Resort in nearby Glen Arbor, an Orvis-certified lodge and home to one of only seven Orvis fly fishing schools in the country.

"The Homestead runs a corporate school where we teach basic fly casting and team building exercises," says Leonhard.

In a couple hours, usually during long breaks between meetings, Leonhard guides people who have never handled a fly rod and soon have them casting for wall-hanger sized brook and rainbow trout on The Homestead's well-stocked trout pond.

Even more fun, according to Leonhard, are the water and lawn games where teams can square off testing their newly acquired skills.

"We cast for 'felt fish'-literally fish shapes cut out of felt with point values attached," he says. Teams can then square off and cast Velcro flies for accuracy. "Catch" the fish and rack up points. Leonhard also leads teams in "fly fishing golf" where teams move around the course trying to cast their flies for "par" into hula-hoop holes.

"Every one who comes into fishing comes wanting to learn how to simply catch fish," says Leonhard. "But soon they discover the other elements-fly casting, entomology, where to go, how to fish the various hatches, and when they occur-and find these things equally as fun and rewarding."

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