Cheech - January, 2015
Here is a question that I want you to keep in mind as you read this, and I ask you all because I have heard this debate a million times.
Can you make money selling flies?
The answer is yes and no depending on how you look at it... The idea for this article came because I just got a bunch of spam comments in our Instagram feed from an account that was offering "top quality" "hand-tied" (that one always gets me) flies. It wasn't even the Kenyans this time!!! I always click on the profile link to see what kind of "top quality" we are working with here. Well, their version of quality was certainly their own opinion, and the flies looked like they had been lashed together Uncle-Ken style with Mee-Maw's sewin' thread. That's all fine and good, and I appreciate his fervor for being fly tying entrepreneur, but he probably won't sell many flies.
I started selling flies about 12 or 13 years ago, and I would let them go for $.75 each to an end customer, and I'd sell them much cheaper than that to the local Orvis shop that would cycle through some of my favorite stillwater patterns. I could replenish my supply of hooks and hackle enough to keep the hobby going strong so it was kind of a way to keep the fishing funds separate from the mortgage/family funds. It got to the point where I was starting to get overwhelmed with orders so I thought I'd be bold enough to raise my prices to $1 per fly. Long story short, I realized that I was going to set my prices at the point where it was worth it for me to sit down and tie and my prices have gradually gone up as I have gotten more busy. The most I have sold a single fly for was $27, and it was worth every penny for both me and the customer. As a custom fly tyer, it's important to realize that you shouldn't be trying to compete directly with a shop, and your prices should be based on your own personal factors.
Last year I was sitting at a fly tying expo, and I was putting the finishing touches on a Lunch Lady streamer pattern when a young guy offered to buy the fly from me. He knew that I was tying it as part of an order that I was filling so he at least offered to buy it from me instead of just walking off with it... I told him that the fly was $10, and he said "Uhhh, no - I only need one of them." When I told him that the fly was $10 each, he was completely blown away and almost wanted to argue with me. He said "Well what makes that fly so expensive??" Luckily I didn't have to respond because the other guys at the table kindly "educated" him. Another customer who was communicating through email was somewhat baffled by a quote that priced some specialty nymphs at $3.25 each. He asked "So how am I supposed to save any money by buying flies from you?" I was probably too diplomatic in my reply. Custom tyers aren't there to save you any money or to provide a discount. They are there to give you a custom, durable, and tested fly that most likely can't be found anywhere else. Buying custom flies is kind of walking into a car dealership and asking for the decked out Escalade with custom interior, audio video equipment, rims, etc. - yet expecting to pay the same price as a Kia Santa Fe. Hey a car is a car right? I'm typing this out right now because I have had to explain this on more than one occasion (As you read above). A fly is a fly right? Say this to Brent Dawson and then hold the phone away from your ear whilst in-taking a steady voluminous stream of profanity... (You know we love you Warpath) Guys like Brent Dawson of Warpath Flys, Nick Davis of 239 flies, Pat Cohen of R U Sperfly, Rich Strolis, and Mike Schmidt of Angler's Choice Flies are guys who can offer these Escalades through years of tying experience and research. Their experience and research 100% warrants the price they reflect because these guys are the top of the line tyers in our industry.
So now that I have derailed - let me get back to the question at hand. Can you make money tying flies? Yes! if you go about it the right way. There is a reason why these custom guys burn up hours on the vise, and it's not for that "feel good feeling" that they get from other guys catching fish on their bugs. It's because they can make money. I have heard lots of guys talk about how hard it is to make any money tying flies, and that the best you can expect to make per hour tying is between $5 and $6. Sure, if you are tying Prince Nymphs and Pheasant Tails for you local shop for $9 per dozen. If you are serious about making fly tying a reliable source of income it really pays to find a network of customers that you can sell to directly, or a shop that will pay you what your flies are worth because they have customers who will pay an appropriate markup in price. Whether through social media, a website, or flyers on telephone poles, you need to have a network of people who will buy your flies.
The other kicker is that you have to give them a reason to buy from you and not the local shop or another tyer. Again, the Prince Nymphs and Pheasant Tails probably won't get you very far in this arena. You need to sell your own special sauce that they can only get from you. When I first started selling flies, everyone knew that I tied proportionate midge dry flies down to #32. I tied those things until my fingers bled, and that was really the first time I started thinking outside the box. While it wasn't the most complicated fly to tie, no shops sold them and fish ate them like crazy. Win for me. The mighty Bunny Midge opened the door for all the whacked out stuff that you see me sell today.
Another critical part of selling flies is to have a goal in mind. Why do you want to sell flies? Is it to pay for gear? Is it to pay your mortgage? Is it for the satisfaction of other people using your flies? What non-tyers sometimes don't realize is that tying flies for hours and hours is very draining! Rewarding and fun, but it takes the wind right out you so, in my opinion, there better be a significant reward at the end of it. I think I have fallen into each of the above categories at one time or another, but having a goal really helps me be motivated to tie, and it also helps me set my prices accordingly.
Quality is king. Back to the ads on my Instagram account that pitched poorly tied flies. I hear guys say all the time "but they catch fish." Well... lots of flies catch fish. Remember that you have to give the end user a reason to buy from you and not from a shop. If your Wooly Buggers are tied with the hackle backward, and a trimmed tail - sure they will catch fish, but they probably wont catch fishermen. There I said it. Your flies need to put an awful beat down upon any fish that dares show his face in the presence of your fly, BUT, it also needs to have "bin appeal." Yes, bin appeal is what catches fishermen, and in other words, that is what makes them buy your fly instead of others. Tying a nice looking, well proportioned fly usually also means that the fly is well tied and won't unravel after a few casts. So yes. Tie good looking flies. As Charlie Craven said once when I was watching him give a presentation, "If it were only about catching fish, why not just throw wads of cheese," or something to that effect.
Another way to monetize your tying is to work with a fly manufacturer who will mass produce and copyright your flies and pay you a royalty. This really won't make you independently wealthy, but the more patterns you can get in with a company, the better your chances of making more serious money. This usually involves sending samples to the manufacturer and hoping that your stuff is unique enough to make it through the selection process. Then, depending on how much following your pattern has, it takes a while for your fly to gather traction. It's kind of cool see your flies being sold across the country, but it's even better to get a check for work that you did literally 10 years ago - even if its not ever going to get you to retirement status.
The main point that I wanted to get across with this post is that you absolutely can make money selling flies, and it's something that you should at least try out if you have been pondering what it would be like. Don't listen to the naysayers that tell you that you will only ever make $5 per hour and that the IRS will come haunt you in your sleep because you didn't have your taxes set up correctly. Chances are, if you try it for a while, you will quickly realize if it's worth the time and effort to slave your life away at the vise to make a couple bucks. If anything, you will have a better appreciation for the prices that custom fly tyers demand.