BILLINGS - Some fly fishermen obsessed with dreams of becoming master anglers reach their goals.

A few more make their professional names as guides.

And a few later migrate to town to start fly-fishing shops, willingly trading the freedom of the waters for the straightjacket of a small business.

That's the career path that Jim McCall followed after working in the oil industry in the early 1970s and writing two books about that chapter of his life.

After 20 years of running the Rainbow Run Fly Shop, McCall recently loaded the last of the rod stands and bins once filled with tiny mayflies, caddis and streamers into the back of his black Ford F-250 and headed back to the dump.

"This is a good thing; I'm retiring," McCall said with the sort of forced smile masking sadness, regret, sheer exhaustion or all three.

"The first 17 years were terrific. The last three ..." he said, his voice trailing off.

Like most business closings, several cultural and economic factors took their toll:

• A poor economy.

• Two years of bad fishing weather - first, a drought that kept rivers low and trout-killing water temperatures high, followed by record flooding in 2011.

• Reduced public assess to Montana's famous trout streams and rivers, the lifeblood of a fly-fishing business.

• And growing competition from chain stores and the Internet.

Despite mastering thousands of flies, the personalities of countless streams and rivers, and the other intricate arts of fly-fishing, McCall said that in the end, not enough people paid him for his lifetime of knowledge.

"They would walk in and ask all about how the streams were fishing. I'd tell them," he said. "And then they'd leave, not buying anything."


Two decades ago, fly-fishing became cool, even sexy, due largely to Robert Redford's movie "A River Runs Through It."

The 1992 movie filmed in Montana brought to the big screen Norman Maclean's poignant story about a Missoula-area family whose lives revolve around the secret society of fly-fishing. The graceful, unhurried pace on a pristine stream and deep tradition of the sport is an atmosphere that McCall tried to bring inside at Rainbow Run.

No national statistics are readily available, but like many industries, consolidation and downsizing appear to be the trend among locally owned fly-fishing shops.

Larger stores can buy gear and flies at substantial discounts and stock huge inventories.

"But what they often lack is the knowledge of local fishing," McCall said.


Still, sales at the other two fly shops in Billings are good, according to the owners.

Duane Schreiner, owner of Bighorn Fly & Tackle Shop, said 2011 Bighorn float reservations at his second shop in Fort Smith fell off because the river was rolling five times faster than normal and people were uncomfortable. But sales in Billings were up double digits and reservations to fish the Bighorn River are up 50 percent for this year, he said.

East Rosebud Fly & Tackle owners Richard Romersa and his wife, Lori, said last year's sales at their shop, which opened in March 2009, exceeded expectations, despite the flooding.

Bozeman, at the heart of Montana's pristine trout streams, has two big stores and five locally owned shops.

Kris Kumlien, who manages Bozeman's oldest shop, Montana Troutfitters, said sales have grown every year since 2006, but the Internet is a constant challenge.

"The old brick-and-mortar business plan doesn't work anymore. You have to have brick-and-click today," he said.

Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures in Bozeman specializes in flying anglers to other countries, so it doesn't have to rely on selling flies and rods for its profits.

The owners are Ian Davis and Jim Klug, who also serves as president of the American Fly Fisherman Trade Association. Klug was guiding an angling trip to Belize, so Davis summed up sales trends.

"Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, with all the big-box stores coming in, we're seeing a lot of the mom-and-pop fly stores close down. They just can't compete," Davis said.

Before moving to Bozeman, Davis ran a Colorado fly shop for 20 years. Yellow Dog's sales were poor in 2008 and 2009, but jumped 18 percent last year because people are starting to fish and travel again, Davis said.


At Rainbow Run, customers would brag to McCall about buying equipment online for less than he could buy it wholesale.

"The Internet is the biggest challenge. We used to buy and sell some used products. Now they're all on eBay," he said.

Two days before closing, a loyal customer wandered in to buy some flies for his son, who was heading to Argentina.

Jim Lowe took the news of Rainbow Run closing hard. He recalled the time that McCall caught a huge rainbow in a Yellowstone riffle near Lowe's home between Big Timber and Columbus.

"I'm going to be really upset with you if you don't come and fish with me soon," Lowe said, continuing the tradition of an enduring friendship.

Like hunting access on private lands, about 15 years ago access to fishy water started closing down, McCall said.

"That's when fly-fishing hit its zenith and big business really moved in and bought up the old farm and ranch land and tied it up," he said.

Not only are local families spending less, but he's noticed fewer people taking up the sport.

"That's what really concerns me. A lot of guys are golfing now. Golf, of all things," McCall said with a sigh.


(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.