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Fly trade: Feelgood movie on Netflix ‘is not likely to move the needle’ on numbers


It was the movie that made fly fishing sexy, sending aspiring anglers into tackle shops and onto the banks of rivers and streams everywhere.

Directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt, ‘A River Runs Through It’ connected with audiences that had previously considered fly fishing to be specialist, expensive and challenging. Filmed in Montana, the film depicts how Pitt, the rebellious son of a minister, and his brother, a professor played by Craig Sheffer, bond over their common love for fly fishing. The movie grossed $66 million at the box office.

Now, 32 years later, an industry wrestling with its own identity is hoping that a new movie with fly fishing as its central theme, will have the same galvanising impact on the sport. ‘Mending the Line’, starring award-winning veteran Brian Cox, also has a troubled theme, although in this case it is the after-effects of war that drive the plot. The story is about a marine sergeant, wounded in Afghanistan and struggling with trauma, who finds solace under fly fishing mentor Cox, himself a veteran of Vietnam.

‘Mending the Line’ has already topped the Netflix popular movies charts and some in the industry are hoping that it can do for fly fishing what ‘A River Runs Through It’ did three decades ago.

To find out, Angling International spoke to leading industry figures to ask if the trade learned any lessons from ‘A River Runs Through It’ and how it can capitalise on the interest generated by ‘Mending the Line’.

Lucas Bissett, Executive Director of the American Fly fishing Trade Association (AFFTA)

“I’m not sure if there were any lessons learned by the trade following ‘A River Runs Through It’. However, I do know that the pandemic did more in the last 20 years for the sport than anything, although we are seeing people drop back off as short-term participants. Retention is still a problem for newcomers and we have yet to figure out the key. ‘Mending the Line’, to me, is a great movie showing the healing and transformative qualities of fly fishing and being outdoors, but I am not sure it will do much to move the needle on fly fishing. It could help to get more veterans and others with mental health issues into the sport as a way of dealing with traumatic experiences. If for no other reason than that, I would say it will bring new folks into the sport.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the movie showed a clear path into the sport and in today’s society it seems people would like it laid out for them. The two movies both take place in Montana and to me that is perpetuating the misconception that fly fishing only occurs in a mountain stream or river. We need a movie or other social phenomenon that shows fly fishing happening in other locations that are more accessible in the USA and elsewhere in the world.”

John Frazier, Simms Fishing Products

“The biggest lesson learned by the trade from ‘A River Runs Through It’ was that perhaps fishing and more specifically, fly fishing has broader appeal than we all thought. Back then, the word ‘niche’ was often used to describe fly fishing, especially within the context of the greater fishing industry as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, within the greater fishing industry and community, fly fishing is certainly a niche, but we don’t really know what the appeal is until it’s exposed in a tasteful and attractive way to the general public. To me, this is what ‘A River Runs Through It’ achieved. I also feel it’s important to note that this happened organically.

“I highly doubt the film makers had any intention or appetite to dramatically increase the popularity of fly fishing. Instead, they used fly fishing as a vehicle to tell a compelling story that resonated with anglers and non-anglers alike. To me, that validates just how important good, authentic storytelling is. It also proves that when it comes to consumers, we can cast a larger net than we think. When accurately exposed to the masses, fly fishing might not be quite as niche as we believe it to be.

“Like ‘A River Runs Through It’, ‘Mending the Line’ illustrates that there is so much more to fishing than catching the biggest or the most fish. At Simms, we always say fishing is about connection and yes, we do in fact aim to connect to fish each and every time we are on the water. However, fishing connects us to so much more. I always think about the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the bonds I’ve made – all because I fish. If I didn’t fish, my life would be radically different.

“What really stands out about ‘Mending the Line’ is the therapeutic connection fishing provides. Whether it’s ‘A River Runs Through’ it or ‘Mending the Line’, both films really highlight fishing’s intangible benefits. ‘A River Runs Through It’ is over 30 years old and there’s no denying that the film had a major impact on the fly fishing industry. Back then nobody could have predicted that happening.

Now we know what can happen when fly fishing is used as a vehicle to tell a meaningful story that has appeal beyond the angling community. If ‘Mending the Line’ is in fact the next ‘A River Runs Through It’, then as an industry we have an opportunity to welcome a new wave of anglers into our community. The industry shouldn’t look at this as an opportunity to capitalise on bottom lines, but as a chance to bolster our collective voice towards conservation and sustainability.”

Jim Klug, CEO Yellow Dog Fly Fishing

“The release of the Redford movie in the early 90s was a huge gift to the fly fishing industry. It brought a serious influx of new anglers to the game – all wanting to experience the ‘magic’ of fly fishing and of being on the water. Of course, many were ‘one-and-done’ type recreationalists who simply wanted to be able to say they had tried fly fishing. But a fair number of people really enjoyed it and actually stuck with it. And because of this, the consumer base for our tiny industry experienced legitimate growth. I think the biggest lesson learned from that time was the importance of retention.

“The industry was handed this amazing opportunity by Hollywood in the form of a huge new pool of potential customers, but it was up to us to keep these people engaged and keep them in the sport. Fly shops, outfitters, guides, manufacturers, media, lodges… everyone had a role to play in this retention effort. I would say that we saw a mixed bag when it came to which businesses and players recognised this and capitalised on this opportunity, but overall, an entire new crop of engaged and enthusiastic anglers was created. The takeaway from ‘A River Runs Through It’ was that these opportunities are rare, and as an industry, we need to really take advantage of these surges in interest when they occur. An event like a major film generates mass recruitment, but none of it matters if we ignore retention.

“I’m not sure you can compare these two movies on any level, and I would argue that the interest from this latest film project is nowhere close to what we saw with ‘A River Runs Through It’. ‘Mending the Line’ is a great story and a neat project, but the exposure and awareness is nothing like we saw with Redford’s movie. I haven’t seen this latest release move the needle or create an upswell of new anglers to date, and I’m not sure that is going to happen.

“What has been huge for bringing new participants to the game was the pandemic – arguably the biggest thing to happen to our industry since ‘A River Runs Through It’. The fact that so many people were locked down and unable to travel led to a massive demand for outdoor activities, and massive numbers of people either found their way to fishing for the first time, or came back to fold. Again, this was a massive recruitment event, and yet another opportunity for our industry to retain these new anglers and keep them engaged.”

Ben Furimsky, President/CEO, Fly Fishing Show

“I have not seen ‘Mending the Line’ yet, but I have not seen anything close to the media hype that ‘A River Runs Through It’ created. I’ve actually heard more comments on ‘A River Runs Through It’ in the last year than I’ve heard about ‘Mending the Line’. Hopefully the latter does generate some outside interest. 

“The biggest lesson the industry should have learned from the hype produced by ‘A River Runs Through It’ can be related to the missed opportunity following Covid. What we did as an industry during the post boom of the movie was to shuffle as many people through as possible. Most were beginners and new to outdoor sports. 

“We tried to get them in and out as fast as possible, new shops and guide services popped up almost daily. These customers were given a taste of the sport, but not educated well, and as a result there was little or no customer retention. In today’s world, customer outreach is much easier with email and social media. Back then, we had to gather addresses and mail catalogues or newsletters. Very few people in the industry did so, and those customers came and went as the fad faded.

“Today, more people are making lifestyle changes rather than following a fad, so I do expect them to be longer-lasting customers, even without customer retention. They are able to more actively engaged and sign up for information on their own.”

Jim Murphy, Director of Fly Fishing, Pure Fishing

“The media environment has changed considerably since the first movie. The singular impact of any event, or the effect of the influencers back before social networking, has been diluted. Messages, even non-endemic, popular culture messages about fly fishing, are more difficult to justify as authentic. Let’s say there was $100 to spend on marketing of strong and effective campaigns. Maybe, four influencers and media events would share $25 each. Now the $100 is allocated to thousands of web participants and maybe the allocation of focused attention is $.01 apiece.

“The new film suffers from this dilution. That being said, even without Brad Pitt, the film has had some impact. The theme of fly therapy and redemption are strong narratives and have a real identity specific to our sport. I have seen marketing campaigns from, for example, Wounded Warriors, which has picked up on the opportunity with cable TV ads since the new movie was released.

“All in all, the messaging is good. But the acting is iffy and the story a bit trite. I expect it will have a positive effect, but given the general malaise of the marketing and messaging environment, the effect will not match ‘A River Runs Through It’.”

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