I get a lot of messages from people who want to get into fly fishing but don’t know where to start. Most ask for book and fly rod recommendations, but fail to mention where they live or, more importantly, what they’d like to fish for. My response is always the same: start at the fish, then work back to the fly, leader, rod and reel.

But the checklist extends beyond tackle—it’s impossible, after all, to start with the fish if you don’t know the fish in your area. This is why the first step aspiring anglers should make is straight through the front door of their local fly shop.

Fly shops are typically small businesses owned by a family or group of anglers. They often function as the cultural centre and memory bank of the local fly fishing community and provide advice and equipment to visiting anglers as well.

Getting Into a Relationship
In 2019, texts seem to be replacing phone calls, direct messages overtaking conversations, and e-vites making snail mail redundant. Some people feel that walking into an actual brick-and-mortar store is an unnecessary mashup of pleasantries, vulnerabilities, even a waste of fuel. For many, it’s easier to anonymously scour the Internet for fishing tips and good deals while sitting half-naked in front of a computer screen.

While there is a lot of great information online, a good fly shop clerk can quickly determine someone’s experience level, physical condition, destination, budget, preferences and expectations—taking a lot of the guess work and intimidation out of learning to fly fish.

Your Place or Mine?
Fly shops are a great place to acquire local knowledge about fish populations, seasons, and to help new anglers get started. Many employees guide out of the shop and are more than happy to take a customer fishing (for a fee) and bring sample gear that he or she can try out before making a purchase. It’s a win-win situation.

Experienced anglers tend to forget just how daunting the initial stages of fly fishing can be. Regulations, licensing, rigging, etiquette and safety can be difficult to learn and remember. A responsible shop employee can help you look past the social media hype and obscure online theories to discuss the nuts and bolts of actual fishing.

Plus, fly shops usually have a vested interest in the community and can be ground-zero for like-minded people to gather and exchange information. Many shops regularly host barbecues and fly tying nights. They also tend to participate in conservation efforts, river clean-ups and educational events, making the employees the best available resource for quick and reliable introductions to gear, fisheries and people.

“Thanks, Just Looking”
When I used to work at my local shop, customers would frequently duck behind the rod racks as soon as they walked in to avoid making eye contact. In a game of chicken, I worked to close the gap, only to be slapped with “thanks, just looking” before I could even say hello.

Most fly shop employees are paid hourly and don’t make any commissions from sales, so such avoidance is unnecessary. The highlight of their day might be discussing how hot fishing’s been, or how well the new Sage 5-weight casts. They’re not usually desperate to sell gear.

Even though fishing equipment may be slightly cheaper online or in big box stores, it’s important to remember the value of the particular shop that helped influence your decision. I try to think of this as a small investment towards trust, friendships, knowledge and peace of mind. Personally, for the sake of $20 or $30, I’d rather support local businesses and people who see value in me. Bass Pro Shops isn’t going away anytime soon, but it’s likely the fly shop down the street operates on very narrow margins.

It’s Not Me, It’s You
Not all fly shops are equal, however. Some staff would clearly rather be on the water than stuck behind a counter. In my experience, every shop has that one crusty guy who should probably stick to tying flies, rowing boats and balancing budgets—which is quite likely what he’s been hired to do. If you’ve had a run-in with this sort of shop personality, chances are you’ve probably accidentally intercepted him on his way from the office to the front door. Have at least one more conversation with a different employee before deciding the store isn’t for you. In the event that two or more employees make you feel uncomfortable, move on to the next shop. I assure you, there are plenty out there that would love to have your business and won’t ridicule your inexperience.

Here are a few suggestions for establishing what will, hopefully, blossom into a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship.

Don’t be afraid of looking dumb
Pretending to know more than you do because you don’t want to appear stupid won’t prevent you from looking stupid. Set that ego aside, admit your ignorance and trust the professionals in the shop.

Ask for information, not coordinates
Shops don’t give away the exact locations of their favorite fishing holes to everyone who walks in the door. If they did, those spots would cease to be very good for very long. Asking them to do so makes you seem entitled and signals that you’re not willing to do the work to figure out spots on your own. Instead, request directions to access points and ask what kinds of water the fish on that particular stretch tend to favor. That kind of question will help you become a more knowledgeable angler and likely raise their opinion of you.

Buy Something
As I’ve explained, fly shops are fantastic resources that will provide you information and access to the fishing community. Don’t exploit them. When you go into a shop and they help you out, buy something. You don’t have to buy a brand new thousand-dollar set-up, a half dozen flies will suffice.

Test drive
If you’re looking for a new rod, set aside some time and ask to cast a few different models. Most (though not all) shops have demo rods ready to go and a place to cast them. Most employees would much rather be outside watching you test out rods than standing behind the counter. You can even ask for a casting tip or two. Do not, however, test out rods at your local fly shop and then go home and buy the one you like online to save 20 bucks.

Pet the dog
Most shops worth their salt have a dog somewhere on the premises. Stoop down and give it a belly scratch. Its owner will notice.

Developing a relationship with one or two specific employees in a shop can help you continue your learning process. Once they’re familiar with your experience level and ability, they can help steer your development on an upward trajectory. These people may become your guides, friends or even mentors, but mostly they’re bound to make your entrance into fly fishing much more fun and personal—something Google or Amazon are unlikely to do.

Feature image via Sam Lungren.