Large schools of free-spending novices were swept away by the brisk current of A River Runs Through It, the 1992 film that romanticized fly-fishing as a metaphor for life. There's not a fly shop employee in the country who can't recall the time an Izaak Walton wannabe, returning from the local multiplex, parked his BMW outside the store, plopped his gold card on the counter and demanded top-of-the-line gear. But six years later the fly-fishing industry is grappling with the reality mat celluloid is a hook with no barb. Even with an unending stream of ethereal fishing-as-religion literature, the boom has been largely illusory.
"Most of those people aren't fly-fishing anymore because they underestimated how complex it is," says Jim Butler, editor of Fly Tackle Dealer, the industry's trade magazine. "The movie may have given the industry a short-term boost, but it didn't make it a fast-growing sport. There's definitely a perception that fly-fishing is wildly popular, but a lot of us question whether that was ever accurate."
Indeed, finding definitive statistics on the popularity of fly-fishing is harder than double hauling 100 feet into the wind. A survey commissioned in 1994 by Fly Fisherman estimated that more than 21 million Americans fly-fish at least once a year, a figure that, the magazine says, still holds. Another survey, sponsored by Fly Rod and Reel, puts the figure under seven million. Regardless, there is little debate among guides, large retailers and small shop owners that reports of the sport's 900% growth spurt, like those of Mark Twain's death in 1897, have been greatly exaggerated.
"It is pretty unbelievable, some of the numbers out there," says Tom Rosenbauer, vice president and catalog manager for Orvis, which claims the largest market share in the $250 million industry. "There may have been as much as a 20-percent increase in sales earlier in the decade, but for the past two years, we've hit a flat period."
Fueling the myth that fly-fishing is the hottest sport this side of golf has been the emphasis on its new appeal among women. While female participation has doubled from earlier this decade, women still represent a mere fraction of all anglers.
Given that fly-fishing is growing only marginally, if at all, retailers have redoubled their efforts to "match the hatch" and target thriving niches within the sport. Orvis and other companies now offer fly-fishing adventure vacations that cater to the most passionate (and affluent) anglers. Another burgeoning sector is fly-fishing in saltwater.
Finally, there are those who think the phantom popularity of fly-fishing is a disguised blessing. "It's the solitude and peacefulness that make fishing so special," says Mark Williams, a fly-fishing author from Dallas. "If growth means that when I go to the San Juan River, I find myself fishing elbow-to-elbow with other folks, well, I'm just as happy things have leveled off."