Taking Aim at Hook & Bullet
More backpackers, fishers, and hunters are meeting up at camp, and increasingly using the same type of gear. What's the crossover potential?
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Anyone who has spent time in a mountain town isn’t surprised to find out that the local ski bum is a fly fishing guide in the summer. Or that the woman who bartends and backpacks also has a bunch of elk meat in the freezer from last hunting season. Even Aldo Leopold, the originator of the idea of American legally protected Wilderness, experienced those lonely places through the view of a gunsight — and saw the need for conservation as entwined with hunting and fishing. So why do hunting and fishing get sidelined in the halls of Outdoor Retailer?
The long answer to that question has more to do with what type of consumers outdoor specialty retailers, traditional “hook and bullet” stores and fly-fishing retailers are courting. Each demographic tends to look for different advice at retail. Most climbers who can help a customer choose the right-sized cams for a particular route, for example, are not well versed in the evening’s caddis hatch. The short answer? They are not being sidelined at all. Many outdoor companies, such as Camelbak and Arc’teryx, have thrived on tactical and military sales, they just don’t promote that face to outdoor retailers, though they do business with military buyers at the show. And many brands increasingly are developing fly-fishing as a new addiction for outdoor customers who seek their thrills via human-powered recreation.
“I think there is a swell of presence from brands with roots in tactical and hunting looking for new distribution and partnership potential, and they are finding that among OR attendees,” said Kenji Haroutunian, Outdoor Retailer show director.
Outdoor Retailer certainly has been proactive in bridging the gap between these two worlds, especially when it comes to fly-fishing. In 2009, Outdoor Retailer made an attempt to fold the terminally declining Fly Fishing Retailer show into OR, but the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) board stoutly refused. AFFTA since has incorporated its International Fly Tackle Dealer Show into the much larger ICAST show in Las Vegas. That is most likely a good thing for pure fishing retailers, but it has not slowed OR’s effort to bring more fishing under its tent. Starting last summer, the show expanded its focus on fly-fishing, creating a Fly Zone, promoting fly-fishing at the Open Air Demo and even courting fly fishing retailers to visit the halls of the Salt Palace while at the same time hoping to encourage more outdoor specialty retailers to carry fly-fishing (and even, gasp, tactical- or hunting-oriented) product.
On the bullet side, you won’t find a shooting range out by the Pavilion any time soon, but with military and tactical business on the rise for major companies in the industry, traditional outdoor brands are looking at creating performance technical gear for hunters that goes beyond a camo treatment. Take Slumberjack — a brand under the American Recreation Products umbrella — which will debut its SJK Hunting brand at the show.
“Our outdoor industry has a lot more in common with the hook and bullet industry than maybe a lot of us would like to admit,” said Scott Kaier, spokesman for American Rec.
Beyond the usual outdoor players moving into the hunting game, at least 35 companies are exhibiting at summer market that consider hunting a primary category. Among those are Tenzig (a pack brand that caters to athletic gun and bow hunters), 12 Survivors (a brand that is integrating survivalist and hunting mindsets within outdoor sports) and Mystery Ranch (the Bozeman, Montana brand that speaks to hunters while also selling avalanche air bags). Then there are accessory brands that manage to straddle both worlds: think Gerber and SOG knives or Yeti.
“There’s an upsurge in a greater range of outdoor pursuits, including fishing and hunting, which in reality, are the ‘original outdoors,’” said Rick Wittenbraker, chief marketing officer at Howler Brothers and former head of marketing at Yeti Coolers. “While I don’t think you’ll ever see a rack of firearms at Outdoor Retailer — a lot of people seem to draw the line there — there is definitely room for things like [hunting-oriented] Yeti Coolers and camouflage packs.”
The real bridge between hunters and the outdoor retailer crowd won’t be found in the trade show aisles, however; it lies in conservation, protecting the resource everyone who loves the outdoors enjoys.
“We share the same love of trails and wilderness,” Haroutunian said. “That’s something that can be a strength for the industry. When it comes to negotiating in D.C. or discussing the impact of the recreation economy with lawmakers, there is strength in numbers that is manifested on the show floor.”
One impediment to understanding the synergy between the hook-and-bullet and outdoor specialty worlds has been that the emerging market of outdoor retailer consumers looking to fish or hunt has yet to be tracked. Researchers at Boulder, Colorado-based, Leisure Trends Group, which analyzes quantitative data when it comes to outdoor dollars, has not yet been looking directly at the intersection of “hook and bullet” and what senior retail analyst Scott Yaeger called “nut and berry” sales and customers. But one area where he has seen a massive influx of hook-and-bullet customers in the outdoor retail space is paddle sports. “Fishing kayaks are driving recreational kayak growth,” he said.
Indeed. In 2011, fishing kayaks represented 13 percent of all kayaks sold. By 2013, that number jumped to 19 percent, and year-to-date in 2014, fishing kayaks account for 23 percent of the recreational kayak market. Unit sales of fishing kayaks were up 24 percent in 2012-13, with other kayaks up just 2 percent (albeit of a larger market share) and so far this year, fishing kayak unit sales are up a whopping 36 percent. Savvy retailers will realize that their sales force can better explain what an angler needs in a boat than a pure fishing retailer. Those swelling numbers are evident in the Paddle Zone, where nearly every brand is showcasing a fishing kayak, and even some fishing SUPs. Take Wilderness Systems, a brand that has cultivated an image based on long-distance touring, which rolls out the Thresher, a high-performance offshore fishing kayak.
The biggest proof of a synergy between core outdoor and fly-fishing comes from Japan via an iconic outdoor brand. Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard became obsessed with the art of tenkara, a stripped-down form of the sport that requires no reel and is easy to learn. Chouinard is passionate about fishing and the brand has been able to maintain an authentic image with both green-focused outdoor consumers and hardcore fly anglers.
“The more we can expose the sport of fly-fishing to outdoor people in general, not just anglers, the more we can benefit the industry as a whole,” said Bart Bonime, Patagonia’s director of fishing.
This April, Patagonia began selling Simple Fishing Kits — which include a tenkara rod, line, flies, and a book about the sport — in its retail stores alongside alpine climbing apparel and other non-fishing gear.
Tenkara U.S.A. was the first company to bring the form to North America, spearheaded by Daniel Galhardo, a climber who fell in love with the simplicity of tenkara and the way he could bring the outfit into difficult-to-reach canyons, combining climbing and fishing. And tenkara is catching on with non-anglers. Malcom Daly — a veteran climber, former head of Great Trango Designs and executive director of Paradox Sports, and current sales associate at Boulder, Colorado retailer Neptune Mountaineering — will be manning the Tenkara booth at the show alongside Galhardo. Therein lies the future: hook-and-bullet and outdoor don’t have to be two separate categories. They can evolve together into new ways to enjoy the wild.
“It’s about expanding the playground,” Galhardo said. “There’s this idea you need to set aside two full days and drive far to fish, that it takes this huge commitment. But it can be much more spontaneous than that, especially when it’s affordable and quick to set up. You can fish when you hike, raft, backpack [or] climb. Just bring a rod along and if there’s a piece of water, just fish and enjoy that and then continue on.”