Earlier this week, the Gulf Coast Council (GCC) of Fly Fishers International (FFI) announced that their 2018 Fly Fishing Fair has been cancelled. The event was scheduled for September 14 and 15, once again at the Ocean Springs Civic Center. It would've been the GCC's 10th "conclave" since formation. Whether you call them "fair", "festival", "expo" or "conclave", these events feature seminars, casting clinics, fly tying demonstrations, workshops, exhibitors, and other activities. Most important, they are fundraisers for the council's conservation and educational projects.
FFI members in the geographic region of the GCC - Louisiana, Mississippi, south Alabama and extreme northwest Florida - received an email citing reasons. "Support for putting on the show has waned in the last several years. The same small group of people tasking themselves with all of the show responsibilities. Therefore the GCC Executive Board decided to not have a show this year.". The email went on to say that the facility has been booked for September 13-14, 2019 in hopes that there will be an "increased level of volunteerism".
Just twenty years ago, the Federation of Fly Fishers (now FFI) council conclaves were the biggest fly fishing events each year across the country, with attendance at each in the hundreds. Vendors, exhibitors and fly tiers would flood the floor space. Fast forward to present and only four councils have held, or will hold, a conclave this year. One of those is the Southern (Council) Fly Fishing Fair set once again for the first weekend of October in Mountain Home, Arkansas.
So what has led to the demise of the council conclave? Armchair analysts cite the decline of fly fishing and the "graying" of it's participants. FAKE NEWS! According to AFFTA surveys, our sport has been GROWING at a clip of nearly five percent the last six years. Furthermore, much of that growth has been in ages under 35, among both men and women.
In our observations, there are many reasons for demise of the conclave. However, we'll list our Top Six.
1) The internet. Back 20 years ago, conclaves were the ultimate learning experience. The internet was in it's infancy. Getting started or advancing one's knowledge in our sport could be done via books and VHS/DVD, but nothing came close to human interaction. The internet and Youtube has changed much of that, especially with the large number of young flyfishers.
2) Lack of volunteers. Simply put, "time conflicts". There's just a lot more things going on these days that occupy the time of folks. Especially young people with kids.
3) Growth of kayak fishing. In the late 90s, kayak fishing began it's rise in popularity. Most of the pioneers of the sport were flycasters. Today a large number of flyfishers also kayak fish. The rise in kayak clubs and tournaments has given rise to yet more "time conflicts". Many young flycasters who might otherwise be involved in an FFI council are occupied with kayak fishing activities.
4) Growth of other events. Twenty years ago, there was one commercial event and only a trio of club conclaves across the South. Now there are a couple dozen club events and four commercial shows. If learning is your main consideration in attending a fly fishing event, why travel several hours and spend a couple hundred dollars (or more) when there's a similiar event an hour or two away?
5) Lack of exhibitors. The ICAST and IFTD trade shows are not open to the public, but if they were, the attendance might approach a million! People want to see and buy products, and at one time, conclaves offered that opportunity. While retailers have hit hard times due to competition from big box retailers and internet stores, product companies are at an all time high. Yet most do not exhibit at council conclaves. I've been told a myriad of reasons, but none make sense but one - that getting pro-staffers and reps to do these shows is like getting a bear into a box!
6) Fewer superstars. The 1960s was the Golden Age of American Fly Fishing thanks to numerous books, magazines and the American Sportsman TV show. Folks like Lee Wulff, Joan Wulff, George Harvey, Joe Brooks, Stu Apte, Lefty Kreh, Flip Pallot, Dave Whitlock, Mel Kreiger, Gary Borger and many others became icons. There were not only great writers and pioneers, but they all had personality. A conclave with any one of them drew attendees like gnats in Delacroix! Today many of those icons have passed or have greatly limited their event schedule. And while there are many young experts, only a handful have their charisma.
As mentioned, there are other reasons. But these six are enough to make any conclave organizer pull their hair!