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The Midwest Fly Fishing School offers on and off-water instruction. Photo courtesy of Mad River Outfitters.

It’s Back to School for Fly Fishermen

Editor’s Note: Even though summer yields many opportunities to fly fish, we can all use quality instruction. Ohioans need to look no further than Mad River Outfitters, which runs the Midwest Fly Fishing School near Columbus. TFO editor Mike Hodge chatted with Brian Flechsig, who runs the school and the fly shop. Both are big supporters of TFO.

TFO: A few basics: Where do you all conduct the schools? Tell me about the venues.

BF: “We do it in a few different places. We do a lot of the two-hour classes and then we do what we call on-river seminars, which is for the intermediate (anglers). We just did the carp school last weekend. It was on some quarry ponds where we have a lot of carp. On our website there is a tab that lists the locations with a map and everything. We also work at a place called Sunnybrook trout club up near Sandusky. I do a lot of one-day and two-day schools up there. We also do some one-day schools near Columbus at Zanesfield Rod and Gun club. Those are really nice, manicured trout clubs that we have access to. The good thing is people are typically going to catch fish, which is really cool, especially if it’s the first time they’re picking up a fly rod where you get them into a fish and get a picture with is kind of priceless.”

TFO: I know this is kind of a tough thing to nail down (with fluctuating demand), but how many times a year do you have the schools?

BF: “We’re in the ballpark of 15-20 counting the beginner and intermediate-type things.”

TFO: What’s the student-to-instructor ratio?

BF: “One instructor for every four students I would say. It’s pretty straight up.”

TFO: How important is that, the low ratio, of students to instructors?

BF: “That’s really critical. Now the book-learning part, I can teach a group of a hundred in a classroom. When you put a rod in someone’s hand, putting a fly on and trying to catch a fish, (the low ratio) is critical. I rarely go beyond one for four.”

TFO: How long has the school been in existence?

BF: “I’ve been doing this since the early 1990s. It was just that was under the umbrella of Mad River Outfitters. We made it official and branched out and basically just created another name for it. It sounds more official to be the Midwest Fly Fishing School. We did also ramp things up as far as the curriculum. For example, I brought on TFO as a sponsor. They’ve helped out immensely. We brought on Scientific Anglers as a sponsor. Simms is a sponsor. Those are the three corporate sponsors we have right now. We’re in our third season as the Midwest Fly Fishing School. I think that can be deceptive. I’ve been more or less teaching these formats since 1992.”

TFO: How did the relationship with TFO come about? How much has that helped in terms of putting on this school?

BF: “I’ve been working with TFO basically since day one particularly through Lefty’s encouragement. Flip Pallot came along later. I also run Flip Pallot’s website. Flip, of course, is a big ambassador of the (TFO) brand. Basically I needed to update and upgrade our rods and reels that we use. One of our goals for the beginners’ schools is that people don’t have to buy anything. They can sign up for the school.  It’s not a sales pitch to sell them a bunch of stuff in order to take the school. They can sign up and they don’t have to make a single purchase. They just sign up for the class and everything is provided. So, it was very simple for me to reach out to our rep. And I’ve known (TFO chairman) Rick (Pope) for many, many years. He’s been a huge supporter of ours. Anything that he’s asked me for he’s always said yes. And basically TFO sent along everything I needed at no charge and they also have an amazing program where I can purchase gear at ridiculous prices. I was really helped out by them sending everything at no charge. I’ve also purchased quite a bit at ridiculously cheap prices. I could put good, quality gear in students’ hands. They could feel the difference between different rods, rod series and rod families and what not. So (the relationship) has been nothing short of fantastic. TFO has been nothing short of supportive. If I had to go out and buy that stuff, the first few schools would have been break even whereas we were able to make money right out of the chute.”

TFO: A lot of shops guide, but they don’t have separate schools, how did you come up with the idea for the schools? What was the catalyst?

BF: “Many years ago, since we started Mad River Outfitters in 1994, we’ve always done classes and schools. Education, I’ve always said, is the cornerstone of our business. That’s what we really what we do. In turn, we also have a retail store, where people can buy stuff. I really view us as educators first and foremost. I studied music and theater in school. I view it as the same thing. When class starts, I’m on stage performing.”

TFO: Tell me about your series of instructional YouTube videos, how they started?

BF: “The idea was you have this captive audience and you’re going to win them over with your personality and your willingness to share. I stayed away from YouTube for a number of years, because I didn’t want to give the information away. It’s turned out to have a reverse impact. Classes are more popular than ever. People see it on YouTube and then they want to see it in person. It’s really had the reverse effect of what I thought it would. It’s been nothing but positive. …You know now have these educated customers. You take the intimidation factor (of fly fishing) away. That’s one of the things that’s always bothered me about this industry. People were intimidated. They had all these misconceptions. They thought it was going to be expensive. They thought it was going to be hard. They thought a fly shop was going to be an elitist place, that they should shop at Cabela’s instead because the guys at the shop would turn their nose up. That’s one of things that we’ve worked to overcome through the Midwest Fly Fishing School. It’s working. Our shop, our guide business, our online business, our travel business is through the roof right now, like I’ve never seen it.”

TFO: Do you think education and teaching have been become a lost art in our sport? If so, why?

BF: “It’s a tough question, but I don’t know why. I think it’s like with anything — it’s a lost art. Part of the problem is YouTube with learning all this stuff. (People) don’t need to come and take a class, because they can learn it on their own time and they can learn it for free. I think we did see that. When the (internet and YouTube) started up 10 years ago, I thought our schools would go down the tube because people will get this for free. I think we saw a bit of that for a few years. Now it’s coming back strong and in a big way. I think part of the problem is that there’s so much stuff out there. It used to be that if I worked in a fly shop, that gave me credentials. I’ve studied with Lefty (Kreh), worked with (Dave) Whitlock and over the years done work with Flip Pallot. That gave me credentials. YouTube came along and any joker with a cell phone can edit and make a video and throw out information that’s almost fake news. It’s just crap information and it’s just wrong. I’m filming stuff on fly casting tonight and that (instruction in the sport overall) is just a disaster. You’ve got people out there telling you how to grip a fly rod. Nobody’s teaching it properly. One person says use your index finger forward. Another says hold the bottom of the grip. It’s not factual information. Here’s what’s happening: People go to YouTube, they get 10 different opinions. They close YouTube, they get on my website and sign up for a class. Now that we’ve been doing this for 30 years our authority now means something, maybe more than it used to. People get frustrated and they say they need us to straighten them out. ..They know to call Mad River Outfitters because we know what we’re talking about.”

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