The Sur-reel Life: the business of fly fishing

An unlikely gamefish. An ex-marketing man turned fishing guide and fly casting instructor. Put them together and what do you get? A couple great new reasons people are coming to northern Michigan to fish.

Back in March, when Field & Stream-the nation's largest and most respected outdoor publication-named Traverse City one of "America's Best Fishing Towns," one local fishing guide was not surprised.

"John Merwin, Field & Stream's fishing editor, booked a carp fishing trip with me last year," says Dave McCool, founder of McCool Outdoor.

Not trout, not salmon or steelhead. That's right-carp.

Michigan ranks 5th in the nation in numbers of resident and non-resident anglers who contribute $2 billion annually to the economy. Roughly $500 million of that comes from fishing-related tourism centered right here in northern Michigan, according to figures from the Michigan DNR. But up until recently, anglers came to the Grand Traverse area solely to fish for more glamorous gamefish, not reputed bottom-feeders like the carp.

Now, people come to the Traverse City area to not only fish but to learn how to fly fish, too. Before founding his own fly casting instruction and guide service, McCool-a dual-certified fly casting instructor with a degree in marketing from Ferris State University-was the "Director of Instruction" for the Orvis Michigan Fly Fishing School.

Streamside Orvis (now downtown located on Front Street, Traverse City), was once located at the Grand Traverse Resort. Streamside Orvis now runs a summer classes and fly fishing corporate school at The Homestead Resort in Glen Arbor. The Northern Angler (another fly fishing shop on Union Street in downtown Traverse City) offers personalized fly casting instruction and fly fishing guide trips, too. All of these venues cater to large groups and/or individuals looking for basic to advanced fly fishing instruction. And all of them offer guide trips for everything from Blue Ribbon trout fishing to open-water fly casting for 20-pound carp on beautiful Grand Traverse Bay.

"Thanks to coverage in the national outdoor media, fly fishermen are now coming here from all over America and discovering what the rest of the world already knows-carp are big, intelligent, and powerful fighters," says McCool. "I've had clients some from all across the country and even the U.K. tell me that the scenery of the Grand Traverse Bay is every bit as beautiful as what they find wading the sand flats for bonefish of Mexico or off the coast of Belize."

McCool has been featured in no less than a half-dozen national and regional magazines and periodicals over the last few years-everything from The New York Times to Fly Rod & Reel-fishing for what has arguably become the greatest "new" game fish to hit the American fly fishing scene since flat-style fishing for bonefish became popular in the mid-1970s. With the laughing gulls overhead-the open water windy and waves and blue skies-the experience of stalking and casting to huge, submarine sized, reel-shattering fish is the epitome of all things coastal. It's just another reason why Traverse City is arguably the fly fishing capital of the Midwest.

"In addition to corporate trips and fly casting seminars, more than half the fly fishing trips I do every year now involve clients who come here specifically to try flats-style carp fishing," says McCool.

Last year, when the Grand Traverse Resort was looking for a headlining instructor to help establish a new fly fishing program, McCool with his expertise, industry contacts, and local name recognition was an obvious choice.

"Most people come to northern Michigan to experience our beautiful outdoor environment," says McCool. "But some people-namely baby-boomers-who come to the area to learn how to fly fish are not looking for an intensive school. They want to learn how to fish, but they're also here to relax, see some scenery, and experience some of the other good things our region has to offer. They want a 'softer' experience. So the Resort has come up with a way to combine fly fishing with the best in the area's food and wine-another big reason why people love it up here."

This one-day fly fishing and culinary experience, according to McCool, starts with a little casting instruction and fishing on the Boardman River and ends at the Resort with an evening of local wine tasting and fine dining with dishes inspired by the region, prepared with local produce, and served up with classic northern Michigan elegance and style.

"The focus of the day is learning to fly fish for trout," says McCool. "But if people want to find out more about how to catch carp, I can certainly talk about that, too."

The business of fly fishing is no different than any other: to succeed and survive, it's about marketing, creativity, and recognizing opportunity when others don't. For McCool, it's also about diversifying and spreading your talents around. In addition to his work at the Resort and his guide service, McCool is also teaching two classes on fly fishing at NMC starting this year: the first, in June, is a river-oriented fly fishing class; the second, in May, centers on how to catch bass and bluegills on inland lakes and ponds. According to McCool, a carp fishing class may be in the works for next year.

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