Of White Guys and Fly Fishing

Last updated on January 15th, 2024.

Scott Diel
Latest posts by Scott Diel (see all)

Yes, women probably aren’t comfortable in fly shops. But sometimes neither are men.

The last time I went into a fly shop I needed a dozen leaders. There were several name brands of the nine-foot-3X I wanted, and since none of them had prices I asked the guy behind the counter. “Oh, they’re all the same price,” he said. And so I took a few of each. But when he scanned the barcodes at the register the prices differed. Not only had the lazy bastard lied to me, but when I swapped them out for the cheaper leaders, he laughed and shook his head to make me feel like The Cheapest Guy in the World. And perhaps I am, but why should he make me feel that way?

I’m a gray-haired white guy approaching 60 who will freely recognize that my race, education, and having two loving parents opened doors for me. Am I racist? I hope not. Am I entitled? Maybe on my very worst days. But on that day in the fly shop I just kept my mouth shut, paid for the leaders, and went home to promptly write the shop owners. Yes, I should have walked out with nothing and told the salesman why, but he was a good ol’ boy, and I wasn’t looking for things to escalate. Fishing is one area I don’t want conflict.


I admit that, as I recently read in the New York Times, that if I’d been female, I might have received worse treatment. The salesman might have not even talked to me. If I’d been brown, he might have followed me around the store to make sure I didn’t steal anything. My point here is that even privileged white guys can get shitty treatment, because sometimes there’s something wrong with the culture of fly shops.

I’m sure there are a few fly shops out there that discriminate on the basis of gender or skin color. But there are many more which discriminate on the basis of whether you’re a regular. I got that treatment because I was an outsider, fishing on a river I fish only twice a year.

And I’m old enough, or possibly developed enough as a human, that I’m not willing to name drop or mention the fishing magazines I’ve published in, in order to establish my fly fishing street creds. I’d like to be treated as a Serious Customer simply because I’m a customer.

Feeling like you belong in a fly shop is not so much different than feeling like you belong when you get your car serviced. Because it’s not just a man’s world, it’s a macho man’s world. Acceptance requires an elaborate ritual and dance known only to insiders.

Woman holding a fly rod walking in a river
Hey, who let her on the river? That’s my mom, actually. It used to be when she went into appliance stores in the south, she’d ask the questions and the salesmen would turn to my dad to answer. Because what do women know, right?

A very very small minority of fly shop workers are assholes. A slightly larger percentage desperately need to be the smartest person in the room. And some are so brainwashed by the industry’s tool-for-every-occasion mentality, that they’ve lost the spirit of fishing. The vast majority are just good folk trapped in a culture that, admittedly, could be more inclusive.

If they think you’re a newbie

If you visit the Drake Message Boards, you can find an extreme example of “the fly shop an hour after it closes.” The regulars (“fuckwits,” April Vokey has called them) will gladly school you on their etiquette, which is “don’t expect to just walk in and be welcomed with open arms.” Newbies are expected to sit quietly and observe. But at least they tell you that. Walking into a fly shop you don’t know what you’ll get.

Shops aren’t against women per se. Like the Drake Message Boards, some are just cold to those they perceive as newbies, because they might not be serious. The fact is that well-adjusted anglers just don’t feel the need to explain to a store clerk how much experience they’ve had, what rivers they’ve fished, or confess that they’re the illegitimate lovechild of Dave Whitlock. But neither should that angler have to remain totally silent.

The great fly shops

Some fly shops are exceptionally welcoming. I believe the secret is that if the owner is a really good human, those he (or she or ze) employs are also likely to be. Take for instance:

Exhibit A: McClellan’s Fly Shop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Mike McClellan has enough self-esteem and humor to use the web address, mcflyshop.com. That probably says all you need to know about how seriously they take themselves and how welcome you’ll be.

Exhibit B: T. Hargrove Fly Fishing in St. Louis, Missouri. Tom Hargrove’s shop has a pot of coffee that isn’t just for the old farts bullshitting around the wood stove. You, newbie, really are welcome to pull up a chair and have a cup.

Tom Hargrove — the “T” in T. Hargrove. I think Tom sent me this in response to some fish pic I’d sent him in the ’90s. I believe “mine’s bigger” was his intended message.

I’d be surprised if McClellan’s and Hargrove’s consciously cultivate their cultures. I doubt they conduct woke worker trainings or bonding events for their employees, other than fishing together. They’re just naturally friendly places — reflections of their owners.

Dial down the macho

To be clear so I don’t get mail: I’m not asking you to pity a middle-aged WASP and I’m not defending white guys. I am saying that not all fly shops are created equal, and some of them can change radically depending on which employee is behind the counter. Fly shop owners, if they haven’t already, probably ought to employ some women. Maybe if more men saw women behind the counter they’d be less surprised when they see them on the river.

Some fly shops, like car dealerships, or even appliance stores in the American South, need to reeducate their workers, though I advocate the radical solution of just hiring more women.

I’m also saying that, in general, we could dial down the macho in the industry a little bit. After all, it is a sport where men wear rubber pants.

Author profile: Scott Diel is a Wading List contributor and full-time proprietor of Fly Fishing in Estonia.