July 11, 2023
It might not bring the same impact that the movie "A River Runs Through It" once had on America, but the pastime of fly fishing is flying high again at the annual mid-summer ICAST fishing trade show.
Fly fishing has often had a presence in the 66-year history of the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades show (ICAST). From 2013 to 2018, fly rods, fly reels, fly lines and fly guys were an integral part of the Orlando show as ICAST and the International Fly Tackle Dealers (IFTD) show joined forces, holding a joint trade show with ICAST on one side of the Orange County Convention Center and the IFTD on the other.
On one hand, the concurrent trade shows put on by American Sportfishing Association and American Fly Fishing Trade Association was a pretty cool experience. On any given day, one might see a variety of fly-fishing legends roaming the show floor such as Lefty Kreh, Bob Clouser, Bob Popovics, Orvis ambassador Tom Rosenbauer, tarpon-fishing legend Andy Mills, and former “Walker Cay's Chronicles" television show host Flip Pallot.
And with booths like Simms Fishing Products often choosing to straddle the imaginary line between the two show-floor spaces—they sell goods to both fly fishers and conventional tackle enthusiasts—you were likely to see fly-fishing royalty mingling with other sportfishing legends.
It seemed like good business, too. "By joining forces with ICAST and ASA to bring IFTD to Las Vegas in 2013, we are collectively creating what will truly be the largest recreational fishing show in the world," former AFFTA president and CEO Ben Bulis, said back in 2013. "By combining both shows in one venue, we can expand the business opportunities for both trade shows in terms of increasing international attendance as well as buyers and media located in the U.S. which will benefit both organizations," said Mike Nussman, the former longtime president and CEO of ASA. "If an individual is on the fence about attending one show or the other or both; we've now eliminated that barrier."
For a few years, everything seemed fine. Enthusiasm was good and attendance was strong in Las Vegas in 2013 when the alliance began, and that remained true when ICAST relocated to Orlando in 2014. The 2015 ICAST/IFTD show was strong, and in 2016, the IFTD portion of the show reached a new milestone as space for 232 summertime booths —the largest in IFTD history according to organizers—sold out before mountain snow runoff had even begun.
"This is the first time in the history of IFTD that the show has sold out the first week of March," Bulis said at the time.
The Parting of Ways
On the ICAST side, the numbers were onward and upward, too, with 582 exhibitors, 1,982 booths and more than 200,000 square feet of show floor space being occupied. So good was it that the 2017 concurrent ICAST/IFTD show lured in more than 15,000 attendees into the Orlando area. And that included more than 1,500 coming to Florida from 73 foreign countries.
But while the concurrent shows worked for some, the idea didn't work for all with both real and imaginary problems working to scuttle the alliance after the 2018 show. Depending on who you ask, the shows parted ways because mid-summer is the height of fly-fishing season out West, Orlando is a long way from the epicenter of trout fishing (the Rocky Mountains), and the two groups didn't seem to mingle too much.
With time, the idea of creating a joint fishing show powerhouse faded away as the ICAST/IFTD marriage dissolved and became a fond memory.
Since that 2018 separation, ICAST has remained in Orlando, and in 2019, the show had a big gathering with more than 12,000 attendees a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic began upending the world. IFTD moved out West again, returning to its Denver trade show roots in October 2019 and planning to do the same in 2020 before the coronavirus superbug started shutting the world down.
"The decision to move IFTD to Denver for 2019 and 2020 was based solely on the desire of our membership and what the majority wanted," Bulis said at the time. "This was an extremely difficult decision, it's not easy to just up and move a show without weighing all possible outcomes and one being our relationship with ASA."
"Our industry thanks ASA for welcoming IFTD as a partner in our first ICAST back in 2013," Bulis added. "AFFTA is committed to making sure our relationship with ASA continues regardless of where IFTD or ICAST is located.”
Over the last few years, ICAST has weathered challenges from the pandemic, changing business practices and more. In 2020, the show was forced into the virtual world because of the pandemic, returned to an in-person gathering in 2021 with more than 10,000 attendees, and rebounded even more in 2022 with 12,000 traveling to Orlando.
Since the 2018 split, IFTD has seen challenges too. The 2019 show in Denver had a good vibe and attendance, but the 2020 show was cancelled by the pandemic. IFTD was set to return with a visit to Salt Lake City in the fall of 2021, but the Delta variant of COVID-19 surged, and that show was scuttled too. Organizers rescheduled the show over the winter and IFTD was successfully held in Denver during April 2022.
Expanded Fly Fishing at ICAST
What’s IFTD’s show status this year? Well, after so much change and challenge, AFFTA listened to its members and the industry at large and the show has been renamed the AFFTA Confluence event. That show is scheduled this year for the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Sept. 26-28.
“I think it’s important for AFFTA members to know that this is their trade association and trade event," said AFFTA Trade Show Director Kenneth Andres. "This is their voice and more importantly, this is their community. We are a proud and strong group that can stand for what we believe in which is advocacy, conservation and trade in fly fishing. Our strength comes from a unified voice, not a single person or single brand."
At this fall’s Confluence event, AFFTA is slated to roll out a renovated New Product Showcase, new press room for the media, a new Artist Alley leading onto the show floor, an updated seminar area, adjusted show-floor hours to allow more brand participation in industry roundtables and a first-ever outdoor day with live music, food, competitions and more.
Back east in Florida, ASA announced last fall that it will "enhance the fly-fishing sector at ICAST 2023." That will happen with fly fishing being introduced as a main category at the show, with the New Product Showcase containing an expanded fly-fishing presence and six award subcategories. Show organizers also note that the ICAST Fly Fishing section occupies prime show-floor real estate on the show’s main aisle, and that there will be a FLYCASTing Pond adjacent to the New Product Showcase and the traditional ICASTing Pond.
At last glance, the Fly Fishing section of the ICAST show floor contained a huge anchor booth with Simms Fishing Products, along with TFO (Temple Fork Outfitters), Douglas Outdoors, G. Loomis, Maxxon Outfitters, Sight Line Provisions, Cheeky Fishing, Renzetti fly-tying vises, Duck Camp apparel, raft-maker Abstract Watercraft and iconic flat's skiff maker Hell's Bay Boatworks, among others.
"We are thrilled with our exhibitor’s response to the opportunity to showcase their fly tackle, gear and apparel in the ICAST Fly Shop booth,” said ICAST Trade Show and Membership Vice President Blake Swango. "Located adjacent to the New Product Showcase we recreated an actual fly fishing "store," with support from Orlando-area guides and fly-shop owners, where show attendees can check out the products as well as tie a few flies.”
What does all of this mean? Simply that while fly fishing isn't as big as bass fishing or saltwater angling, it's still gaining the attention of the fishing industry leaders. That's understandable since Fishing Tackle Retailer writer Ben Scuderi reported last year that "fly-fishing participation continued to grow in 2020. In fact, it’s estimated that 7.8 million people went fly fishing in the U.S. in 2020—up a whopping 42 percent from the 5.5 million who fly-fished in 2010. Fly-fishing participation is also up 20 percent from 2016 levels.".
The fly-fishing market has gotten bigger, business remains reasonably robust despite the economy and dueling trade show emphasis on the sport seems to confirm all of that.
In a way, it almost seems like the ICAST/IFTD old times again, even if it’s not.