Step aside, goat yoga. The chic way for the younger generation to unwind now is fly fishing.
Millennials are flocking to a sport long dominated by old white men. For those who can afford the leisure time and some rudimentary equipment, it offers a reason to be outdoors, a closer connection to nature, an avenue for environmentalism, built-in community, opportunity for creative expression and a lifetime’s worth of niche expertise.
Fly anglers who are not vegetarian nor vegan, nor otherwise bound by the code of “catch and release,” see it as an extension of the farm-to-table movement.
Plus, it’s very Instagrammable, even as it encourages people to put down their phones.
And where millennials go, hospitality brands follow. Guided fly-fishing excursions are now offered at many trendy boutique hotels. Sage Lodge, a new nature resort just north of Yellowstone National Park, has a stand of fly tackles and nets in its lobby and daily “Fly Fishing 101” courses at its backyard casting pond. And the DeBruce, a hotel in Livingston Manor, N.Y., offers private access to a river and has waders, rods and reels all available for rental for $75 per day.
Todd Spire, 45, a digital marketer turned full-time fly guide, has built his Catskills business on this new wave of interest. Over the past four years, his guiding outfit, Esopus Creel, grew steadily by word-of-mouth and Instagram, and this year, he opened a brick-and-mortar fly shop.
“You have millennials who are drawn to experiences, looking for authentic ways to experience this place, and you have this activity which is such a big part of both this area’s history and its conservation,” Spire said.
When clients fish in the Esopus Creek with Spire, they’re waist-deep in the same waters where Babe Ruth fished during the late 1930s. Nearby, on the Beaverkill River, the inventor of the fishing vest, Lee Wulff, perfected the use of his namesake flies, while his wife, Joan Wulff, a competitive angler, brought femininity to the craft of casting them.Now in her 90s, she still teaches at the 40-year-old school they founded, run out of a cabin near Livingston Manor.
Hard to resist
“I’ve become completely addicted to fly fishing,” said Mike Kauffman, 31, a tech entrepreneur who recently bought a home in the Catskills. “I find it totally meditative — the thing I never knew I needed.”
When he started out this spring, Kauffman knew virtually nothing about the sport. But from his first guided outing with Spire, Kauffman and his girlfriend were hooked.
“We’re scrolling all day thinking we’re connecting with the world, but our minds aren’t satisfied,” he said. “Being out in that river is a deeper connection to nature I never really had — and I think a lot of people don’t have. It’s something our monkey brain needs.”
Now, the couple own all the gear. And there’s plenty of gear and apparel to own. Newcomers may require waders, vests, tackle boxes, rods, reels, creels, flies and perhaps even fly-tying equipment. Graphite rods can cost as little as $30, but classic bamboo rods — preferred by Brad Pitt in the 1992 movie “A River Runs Through It” — can cost thousands.
“I can’t put my finger on what it was, but about five years back, something changed,” said Joe Fox, 33, a manager at Dette Flies fly shop in Livingston Manor. “Especially in the past three years, we started seeing more new faces.”
According to the 2019 Outdoor Industry Association’s “Special Report on Fishing,” fly fishing is the fastest-growing category of the sport. Gender and racial diversity continues to tick upward. Age diversity encompasses both categories. Last year, one in four anglers surveyed were in the 18-34 age range.
The name of the Livingston Manor Fly Fishing Club may recall the elite private fishing clubs of the old-school angling community, but this creekside glamping village — where annual memberships cost hundreds, not thousands, of dollars, and the benefits are tailored to weekenders — is the millennial set’s take.
Tom Roberts, 33, who is British, is the founder of the Catskill club.
“My grandfather was a fly fisherman. My dad and my brother are fly fishermen,” Roberts said. “But I never touched a rod in England. My perception of the sport was that it was stuffy and elitist.”
An American friend invited him to give it a try. “We came up here and got out on the river. I was useless,” Roberts said. “But it didn’t matter.” In fly fishing, he found the same level of Zen that he loved about surfing and sailing.
“There are few things we do where our technology is not somehow part of the experience. But in this case, you’re standing in a river. Both your hands are occupied. It’s very hard to make your phone part of that practice,” he said.
Jessica McKay, a Gen Z angler and Minnesota native, recently found a job as a fly fishing guide in Estes Park, Colo. She posts regularly about fishing on Instagram, where she has about 3,500 followers.
“The fishing community on Instagram is amazing,” said McKay, 22. “I’ll have people reach out to me and ask me how to get into fly fishing, what are good flies to use, places to go — and I’ve used Instagram so many times to have my own questions answered.”
Judy Van Put, a real estate agent, has been fly fishing since the 1980s. She’s seen a big change in the fishing community lately. To wit, a recent fundraiser of the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum included a live DJ for dancing after the dinner.
“When I first began attending fly fishing dinners they were more formal.” Now there are meetups like “Coffee & Casting,” or “Women, Waders and Wine.”