If Brad Tomlinson were reborn, it would be as a bug. Not because of some punitive form of karmic justice — it’s just that Tomlinson, who with his parents owns Peak Fly Shop in Colorado Springs and Woodland Park, has spent a sizeable chunk of his life impersonating an insect.
Tomlinson’s insatiable infatuation with fly fishing started while vacationing with family in Almont, near Gunnison. At 12 years old, he discovered a pro shop and, with some pocket change, invested in starter equipment.
More than a decade later, Tomlinson would earn a law degree from George Washington University, but, following graduation, he quickly abandoned the world of suits and ties for reels and flies.
“Every year I would return from college and law school and come back to Colorado to do a little guiding,” said Tomlinson, who lived in Colorado Springs at the time because his father was in the Air Force. “There was a fly shop near where my folks lived. I’d wander over there all the time and hang out. It got to the point where the owner would occasionally toss me the keys and … say, ‘Watch the shop for me.’ He paid me in fly-tying materials that I was otherwise going to buy.”
Following law school, Tomlinson’s parents nearly bought a fishing lodge, but their bid came in too low. Tomlinson’s mentor knew of their plans and told them his fly shop was for sale.
“He said the shop is not nearly as much work and you make more money,” Tomlinson said. “I’m not sure that’s true, but that’s how he pitched it.”
Tomlinson said his parents were hesitant. He, having just finished school, however, saw it as an opportunity to turn his passion into his livelihood.
“To me, it sounded like a lot of fun. And I figured, if it doesn’t work out, I have a Plan B. Seventeen years later, here we are.”
Peak Fly Shop offers both a retail and class component and hosts fishing expeditions in Colorado and beyond. Tomlinson said his business model is a dying breed.
“Small business bait and tackle shops, at least in most major urban areas, are dead and gone,” he said. “There are a few holdouts, but not many.”
Tomlinson attributes the disappearances to the proliferation of big-box outfitters.
“There’s not much of a concern for customer service,” he said of chains, adding they often overlook intricacies that make the sport so attractive. “Relatively speaking, bait casting; spin fishing — it’s not as complex as fly fishing. There is a certain level of artistry to it. It sounds like a snobbish thing to say and I don’t mean it to be. There are a lot of snobs in this business and this sport, and sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.”
Tomlinson added equipment prices are often fixed, so the low prices advertised by big box stores are often equal, if not higher, than the equipment he sells.
“People still come in, ask questions, wiggle the rods and then run to Bass Pro because they think they’ll get a better price, but they don’t,” he said.
Tomlinson compared the fly fishing industry to the ski industry 20 years ago.
“Skiers started heading to big-box stores to find the better deal, and as a result, all the small pro shops [specializing] in knowledge and information were devalued to the point where smaller businesses can’t make it.”
Tomlinson said he supports small business, some within the state. Much of the equipment he sells is manufactured domestically, and several of his brands come from Colorado, including Scott rods and Ross reels manufactured in Montrose, as well as Whiting Farms hackle, (feathers to trim flies), from Delta.
Tomlinson added that, while elitism might stymie the sport’s growth, his boutique shops do attract intellective casters.
“It is a boon for attracting customers who like the small, professional shop that’s not hiring the 17-year-old kid who’s working for minimum wage. They want someone who lives and breathes this stuff, and you have to in this sport. Customers can suss out a wannabe in a minute.”
Many industries relying on disposable spending took a hit during the Great Recession and, Tomlinson’s business was also affected by flooding and wildfires. But anglers are a resilient bunch.
“This is a sport filled with very passionate people,” he said. “It’s an addiction. It’s not a casual hobby. Many of our customers define themselves as fly fishermen.”
He said the pastime is one of the fastest growing segments of outdoor sports, particularly with women, a segment Tomlinson is actively seeking via women guides and female-oriented classes.
“There are a hell of a lot of committed women anglers out there, and this sport is a tremendous equalizer. It’s not a brute force exercise,” he said.
“Casting is about precision and finesse and women will often out-fish the guys. … There’s something about the Y chromosome. [Men] think if we’ve done something five or six times, we’re experts. Women don’t have that wiring. … The wife will listen and follow instruction, and soon she’ll be catching fish while the husband is marching to the beat of his own drum.”
Tomlinson, also an upland bird hunter, said explaining the appeal of hunting and fishing is complex.
“The game is simultaneously the most important and the least important. Without birds to shoot, we wouldn’t hunt, but I don’t have to shoot any birds to have a good day,” he said. “There’s an element of that in fishing too. Some guys’ measure of a good day is how many fish were caught. … If that’s success, you may be in the wrong sport.”
Tomlinson said, to him, success is found in the escape.
“If you’re going to do this well, you have to let yourself be consumed by it. You have to be a student of your environment. You have to pay attention to what’s going on in the water,” he said. “We’re imitating insects [that were] born in the river and live the majority of their lives in the river. They return to the river to lay their eggs and, in many cases, die in the river. We have to know them. … There are so many things you have to be cognizant of. [Fly fishing] doesn’t permit a lot of excess brain activity to think about the mortgage or what you have to do at home. To me, that’s a great leisure activity.
“I don’t want a hobby that, while I’m doing it, I’m dwelling on all these other things I have to do. Whatever people do as a hobby, it should be done with that level of passion.”