Interview Series: Beaver Creek Fly Shop, Western MD Trout, and Conservation
I recently had the chance to sit down with Beaver Creek Fly Shop owner, James Harris. In our conversation we talk about his fly shop, what it takes to own a fishing business, Maryland fly-fishing, and conservation efforts. James is a wealth of knowledge, and provides some very interesting insights into the world of fly fishing. Please take a moment to read our interview! And, be sure to sign up for the special offer from Beaver Creek Fly Shop, mentioned below!
Surf to Stream (S2S): Tell us a little about the shop. What was the motivation behind opening the shop? Why did you choose the location?
James Harris (JH): My good friend, Matt Rosenthal, had opened the shop in the fall of 2010 and I was a regular there, to say the least. By the winter of 2011, he had a newborn, wanted to move, and decided that he couldn't keep the place going. After no luck trying to find a buyer for a brand new shop, he offered me a deal. He offered to sell me the shop for just the inventory that was there and he would take whatever little money I could pay him up front and finance the rest over a year, with no interest. So that's how I fell into the fly fishing industry. Previously, I was an electrician with a lot of free time and who's whole life revolved around fly fishing. I learned to fly fish on Beaver Creek when I was just out of high school and there was no shop here. It's kind of cool how it all comes full circle.
S2S: So, it sounds like you had little experience in starting and running a business prior to purchasing the shop?
JH: I had zero experience or education in anything related to business. It's been quite the learning curve over the years. As the shop continues to grow each year, I've had to learn new sets of skills all the time. Inventory management is the hardest part. In a not too distant second is managing cash flow. There are so many products available these days and with those products come multiple sizes, colors, etc. It can kill a shop pretty quickly to get loaded down with inventory that doesn't sell. The product selection you see from a lot of shops online is not what the majority of them actually carry in their store. They drop-ship a lot of products. I just set up a whole new retail POS this year so that we could have live inventory levels reflected in our online store. I didn't want to be a drop-ship store and I didn't want customers coming in looking for something they saw and not be able to grab it. I wanted our online store to be completely transparent and reflect what we actually carry in our store.
S2S: It sounds like you're staying busy! Do you find any time to fish? What would you tell one of our readers about life while working in the fishing industry?
JH: Working in this industry has changed fly fishing a lot for me. It was all I thought about, studied, and did for quite a few years before it became my job. What I'll say is if you think you want to do this because you'll be fishing all the time, then this might not be the right job for you. Also, if you plan on having a lot of money, this might not be for you either! Working at the fly shop becomes a part of who you are though, and now I look at things a little bit differently. I love teaching people about fly fishing or helping them solve problems, which is what I do every day - besides all the paperwork, bills, and inventory management that comes along with running the business. The most rewarding thing to me is for someone to come back and tell me how their casting lessons helped them land their first tarpon, or show me all the fish they're catching on some flies we helped them learn how to tie.
S2S: You mentioned your robust inventory. Since you have so many products, can anglers test out products in the shop?
JH: We encourage every one of our customers to try on waders and boots and to cast fly rods before they buy anything! We have a changing room for clothes or for anyone who wants to put on a pair of under-wader pants before they try on waders. We also have reels and spools with multiple line tapers for 2 through 12 weight rods behind the counter. This allows us to not only find a rod the customer likes, but also a line taper they like as well. With modern rods, changing out the fly line can completely change the way a rod feels. I don't know why anyone would buy a rod before casting one, unless they just didn't have a fly shop anywhere within a reasonable distance!
S2S: So it sounds like folks should come take you up on demoing some rods! Does the shop offer other services?
JH: We have a full time guide service run by Tom Martin called Heavy Water Anglers. Tom has 2 guides working under him and they stay busy! Along with the guide service, we also offer learn to fly-fish classes, casting lessons, and different tying events over the winter. One thing we started doing two years ago - and have increased our offerings every year - are what we call 'clinics'. For 2018-2019 we did a trout spey clinic, a winter nymphing clinic, a Western Maryland clinic, and in September we have our smallmouth bass clinic. These are multi-day trips where we are guiding clients throughout the day on the water and teaching them how to be able to do this stuff on their own. We rent a giant house - or cabins - for these events, so all of the guests and instructors are together for a few days and nights. After we fish, we make dinner, have some drinks, and go over maps. We also tie flies, work on knots, and answer questions on whatever anyone wants to learn. Then our guests wake up to pounds and pounds of bacon, eggs, coffee and toast. It is always a really good time and we sell out these events very quickly!
S2S: Tell us a little bit about the waters that surround the shop. What makes MD, VA, and Southern PA a great place to fish?
JH: Around the shop there are Limestone streams, spring-influenced freestone rivers, mountain streams, ponds, and warm-water rivers. You can drive 20 minutes and catch true northern muskellenge, smallmouth, and walleye; walk behind the shop and catch wild trout; drive 10 minutes and float a trout and smallmouth river; drive 20 minutes and fish some mountain streams for browns and brookies; or drive an hour and a half and fish some world class tailwaters. There are a whole lot of different opportunities for fishing in this area and there are a lot of wild trout around. I'm not going to give you all my secrets, but if there's a blue line running through this valley there's a pretty good chance there are wild trout in it. This valley produces some giant fish. Fishing in the Great Valley (Cumberland Valley, Hagerstown Valley, and Shenandoah Valley) is generally going to mean limestone streams (aka spring creeks). The wonderful thing about a spring creek is it doesn't freeze, so it fishes all year round. Some of my favorite fishing is generally in January and February when the fish are pretty dumb and the bug selection is simple.
S2S: Let's switch gears to conservation. What do you think are the biggest threats to our region's fisheries? Are there any conservation issues that are close to your heart?
JH: Different agencies and groups have done a tremendous job cleaning up and restoring a lot of our local streams and watersheds. There are always issues, be it agricultural runoff, the Army Corps of Engineers doing wacky stuff with dam releases, poaching, flooding - all sorts of things. My biggest concern though, for our trout streams, is access. Subdivided properties, farms being sold to new owners, current owners discontinuing access - these things can all lead to us losing what little access is left. For local anglers and our customers to come out this way and enjoy our region's fisheries, there has to be public access. For example, you used to be able to walk from the spring on Beaver Creek all the way to Antietam Creek and no one would care. These days, there is a mile and a half of fly-fishing only water and a few miles of put and take water - that is out of 16 total miles of stream. Adding yet another layer, without access no one cares about the health of that fishery anymore. Access is, without a doubt, my biggest concern for the future of our fisheries.
S2S: If our readers want to invest their time and/or money into supporting conservation efforts in our watersheds, what efforts do you think are the most impactful and where would you suggest they get involved?
JH: Trout Unlimited (TU) is always looking out for us and they do a great job improving our watersheds. If you want to make the most impact possible, I truly believe in Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) and everything they stand for. TU will take care of the water and BHA will make sure we have places to fish. The last thing I want to see happen is pay-to-play on every piece of water. Everyone should be able to get out and enjoy this wonderful sport to their heart's content. For me personally, another organization that really tugs on my heart strings is the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society. If everyone works together for better public lands access, healthier watersheds, and healthy forests, no one would ever have to talk about the good ol' days again...we'll be living in them!"
Beaver Creek Fly Shop is our blog's first sponsoring partner! James will be offering our viewers a discount code for their online purchases. To receive the discount code, please head over to our Blog Homepage and click the "Sign Up" link. We will be emailing the discount code to our subscribers in the coming weeks!