How Social Media Could Be Changing Fly Fishing

Jul 9, 2018

Social media has brought us lots of things - from Instagrammed food pics to the ubiquitous "selfie" and a tweeting president. And "brand ambassadors"? These are people who have huge followings on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For a price, they will highlight certain company brands when they post, but one such ambassador has set off a huge upset in the world of fly fishing, prompting responses from those who might otherwise stay quiet.

  

Ryan Hudson would describe himself as a bit of a hermit.  

"I don't like to deal with people. I hide out," said Hudson.

He lives in the small town of Daniel, Wyoming—population 150. For the last 14 years, he's worked as a fly fishing guide, but a recent cover photo on the January edition of the magazine American Angler caused Hudson to step out of his quiet world and write an op-ed.

Hudson said, "I just thought, 'boy this is going to create a lot of nonsense in my life.'"

He was right. His op-ed criticizing the photo of a well-known angler and brand ambassador went viral. In the picture, the angler is showing off the roughly two-foot long brown trout he just caught.

"The cover clearly depicted the bones coming out of the fish's tail," Hudson said.

Any skilled angler will tell you that means it's spawning. Fish are particularly vulnerable at this stage of their life cycle and easier to catch. Hudson said it's not unusual to see inexperienced anglers targeting them. It's not illegal. But for experienced anglers, it's a shady practice.

"Why do we want to interrupt them when they are putting eggs in the ground that have a small chance of survival to begin with? That's why they lay hundreds, if not thousands, of eggs," said Hudson.

In his op-ed, Hudson said the lengths so-called brand ambassadors will go to get the perfect picture concerned him.

"Social media is your own personal bragging board," Hudson said. "We all have the right to post a picture of something really cool we were just involved in."

But not, he said, if you have to do something unethical - like catch a spawning fish - to get the shot. 

The angler at the center of this debate is Patrick Duke, a brand ambassador from Colorado. He declined requests for an interview, but in a public Facebook post, he apologized and said, "I hope that those who know me as a person of high class and moral character will not formulate a new negative opinion about me or the brands that I am affiliated with."

Brand ambassadors have made their way into almost every market, telling people how to dress, what to eat, and where to stay on vacation.

The January/February issue of American Angler.
Credit American Angler

"[Brand ambassadors] post information, sometimes it's the brands that they’re using, the activity they're pursuing. It's the best spots that they're going to. It's their latest adventure. And a lot of times it will inspire their followers to try to do the same thing," said Elizabeth Minton, a marketing professor at the University of Wyoming.

Minton said they're really effective for brands, especially smaller ones because their followers are usually the exact consumers the company wants to reach. Minton also said people are more likely to trust them.

"They're perceived by a lot of people to be an unbiased entity, even though we realize there is a lot of bias that actually goes into it," said Minton. "But they're perceived as unbiased, more trusted, than a lot of other sources of advertising. So a smaller brand can get their name out there more easily and potentially increase sales that way."

Probably the most visible brand ambassadors in angling circles though, are with Orvis - one of the largest and oldest fly fishing companies in the world. Company spokesperson Steve Hemkens said the company depends on brand ambassadors to help encourage newcomers to the sport.

"It's not something that you're just going to wake up one day and say I want to fly fish," said Hemkens.

From gear to difficult techniques, it's a steep learning curve and Hemkens said brand ambassadors are relatable and credible figures who can help newbies with those hurdles.

"People look at the signals that we send as an industry leader, and then they use that as guardrails for their own behavior," said Hemkens.

He added that Orvis does not support targeting spawning fish as part of that behavior, but he doesn't think brand ambassadors are to blame for an apparent uptick in unethical practices like this.

"Everyone has a DSLR camera in their iPhone in their pocket. Many people carry really great cameras and so there's tons of content flying around in every direction," said Hemkens.

At the same time, he said it will be up to the companies, the brands to fix the problem.

"We're not doing our industry, our shareholders, or fisheries any favors by putting another untrained angler on the bank of a crowded river," Hemkens said.

Interest in fly fishing is on the rise. With more men and women wading out into moving rivers, ethical and sustainable fishing practices may become more of a moving target.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.