Technology and resources available to anglers are constantly evolving. Today, we are a long way from your grandfather’s casual jaunt up a stream with a split cane rod and a sheep’s wool patch of dry flies. Technologies such as social media and advanced GPS have caused the sport of fly fishing to flourish and stretch into new areas never before anticipated by anglers of the past. For many anglers, the expansion of the sport raises concerns surrounding their personal sanctity when exploring the lakes, rivers, and streams they once occupied unaccompanied and unchallenged. Today, most of us have adjusted to the understanding that we will rarely be truly alone on even our home waters, and to still seek solace in the act of standing in the current and enjoying nature’s finest delights. Yet still, we wonder exactly what the future holds for fly-fishing with the inevitable advancement of technology…
Recently, mapping apps have come to the forefront of such conversations. Apps designed for anglers to e-scout, and find new places to fish without actually having to visit a physical location to see whether or not a stream is navigable. Understandably, these apps such as OnX, originally designed for hunters, or newer, more fishing-focused apps such as TroutRoutes, have raised a lot of eyebrows. These mapping applications, not to be confused with “spot-sharing” apps such as fishbrain, offer anglers new methods of exploring waterways, and are presented as a solution in order to make fly-fishing increasingly accessible. However, the obvious elephant in the room is whether or not services like these are truly helpful, or harmful to the sport they aim to enhance…
It’s in this vein of curiosity that we reached out to Zach Pope, founder of TroutRoutes, a new mapping app that has taken over the fly fishing scene in many states, to explore his thoughts behind this new moral conundrum, and how he feels his app fairs in the conversation. Pope is an avid fly angler with home waters in the Driftless, an active TU member and on the Board of his local TU chapter in Minnesota, and has been pursuing the TroutRoutes startup project full-time for a few years now.
FL: Before we get to the various issues anglers care about, tell us a little bit about yourself and TroutRoutes?
ZP: I’ve been fly fishing for about 15 years, and my home waters are mostly in the Driftless area of the Upper Midwest. Anyone who’s out there could see that the community was growing, even way before the pandemic. It seemed clear to me that there was way more water than anglers, and too many of us focus on only a few well-known fisheries. But we needed a better tool to explore these new waters.
I was familiar with other mapping apps like Alltrails and OnX Hunt, and thought we needed something like it, but strictly for trout streams. So I built TroutRoutes. At first, I built it for Minnesota just to see what it might look like. Buddies liked it, so I kept going. More states, but also more information. Like where can I park? Where can I hike in? Where are the public and private lands? Which streams hold trout and which ones are worth driving to? All of the information we have to research and think about when we’re looking for new streams.
So TroutRoutes is a multi-layered mapping tool that brings all of that information together into one easy-to-use app. Think of Google Maps for trout streams, with a bunch of enhanced layers to help you scout trout streams.
We’ve spent years putting together relevant mapping layers and insights on cold water fisheries so the angler can focus on being on the water, instead of looking for it. We consolidate information from hundreds of different sources – government agencies, proprietary data sets, and our own on-the-ground research into one single app – TroutRoutes. So no more Atlas maps in the passenger seat. Our maps are really intended to contain every piece of mapping information a trout angler could need – all available offline as well.
FL: What purpose do you feel TroutRoutes serves to the fly fishing space? What role can mapping apps, in general, have in the fly fishing space?
ZP: I’ve mentioned the growth over the last several years. That’s great for our guides and fly shops, and that’s important. But that growth can be very hard on our streams.
The primary purpose of TroutRoutes is to help anglers explore new waters. We know that overcrowding is becoming a very real issue in many of the more popular watersheds like the South Platte in Colorado or the Driftless in the Upper Midwest. Anglers who use the TroutRoutes platform can make new choices about new waters they hadn’t otherwise fished. And that directly reduces overcrowding and all of the problems that come with it.
But we also have to talk about conservation and education. And we have to educate newcomers on the delicacy and importance of issues like fishing easements on private land, and what the proper etiquette is when you’re on the water.
And we need to more effectively connect anglers with resources such as fly shops, guides and conservation groups. TroutRoutes can help you find the water, but that’s just the beginning. The fly shops equip you, the guides teach you. So fly shops and guides are important resources that we connect to anglers in our maps.
For example, we spent a considerable amount of time mapping out every fly shop in all our supported states, which now includes about 400 fly shops. We’ve mapped out the location, website, phone number and even made custom logos for each shop, allowing traveling anglers to quickly identify and contact these shops as local resources. We’ll be doing the same for independent guides down the road.
FL: Can you walk us through some of the ways your app differs from some of the other fly fishing apps in the space? Also, how is TroutRoutes different from some government-based resources?
ZP: TroutRoutes is really the first and currently only mapping platform completely dedicated to the fly fishing (trout fishing) space. There have been other smaller projects in the past, but they’ve typically been limited to specific watersheds or regions. We have focused on being “comprehensive and national”- we have over 24,000 trout streams mapped out across 23 states, each with an incredible amount of detail and more layered than any project in the past.
Local government resources are great options as far as they go. But many have a specific layer that they offer, such as designated fishing easements or a specific type of access point. Others offer just the stream regulations. TroutRoutes puts all of this information- and much more- from every state and region into one mapping platform. And we’ve done so in a really easy-to-use app that has GPS and a bunch of other features like note-taking and offline maps.
Last and most importantly, we are NOT social. Everything you do in the app is private. There are other fishing apps – like FishBrain and Fishidy. They rely on a very strong social component, kind of like Facebook for fishing. We focus on cold-water trout stream maps and all the info that comes with it. That’s it. We don’t teach you how to fish- that’s the role of the guide. We don’t teach you about what equipment you’ll need- that’s for the fly shops. We tell you where you can access streams and what you can expect when you get there. The best comparison would be OnX Hunt or HuntStand for fly fishing.
FL: Do you think this app encourages spot burning? If not, why not?
ZP: I don’t. When it comes to ‘spot burning’, mapping apps are not the problem. When you take a picture of yourself and your trophy fish, post it on social media, and name the specific spot where you caught it, you’ve burned it. It’s reckless, thoughtless, and leads to a poor angling experience for the rest of us.
TroutRoutes is the opposite. We provide detailed access maps of all the streams- not just one. We show where to park, where to hike in, where to find public access for all the streams- not just one. We provide them to all our subscribers- not just some. But that’s it. Nothing else. No shared notes, no shared pins, no shared trophy pics.
So let’s be clear, we are absolutely against the act of spot burning and will continue ensuring our app can’t enable or encourage this. The TroutRoutes mission is about diffusing pressure, educating anglers, promoting conservation stewardship. Everything that spot burning is not.
FL: Do you feel using an app like TroutRoutes takes away from the fly fishing experience?
ZP: I actually think it has the opposite effect. For me, fly fishing has always been about intimacy with the outdoors. I like the experience of exploring a new area as much or even more so than the fishing itself, and I think that’s true for a lot of us. Our maps have helped me find new streams and areas I would have never found otherwise, and I hear this story over and over from our users. I was recently in North Carolina testing some new regions for our maps and found myself exploring some incredible areas that I never would have known about nor found without our own mapping system.
So for me, it’s not technology vs the joy of nature. It’s not either-or. TroutRoutes frees me up to spend less time driving around, looking for spots, and more time in the water.
FL: What role does TroutRoutes have in the overcrowding issue? Do you see pressure increasing on lesser-known streams that wouldn’t normally see this pressure because of mapping apps such as TR?
ZP: I believe TroutRoutes is actually the solution to overcrowding. We reduce pressure by spreading out the anglers.
We know the angling community is growing. It’s this growth that’s contributed to the overcrowding and stream pressure, especially on the well-known fisheries. Here’s the thing: the first streams that new anglers go to are often the most known. They’re the easiest choice, the lowest-hanging fruit. That’s what leads to bigger crowds on small but well-known streams. So how do we reduce that pressure?
Once again, we reduce pressure by spreading out the anglers. We have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that every trout stream is included in our maps – today there are over 24,000 individual trout streams mapped out across 23 states in our system. So far. Every week I hear stories of our anglers finding new waters by using TroutRoutes, effectively reducing overcrowding on popular streams- and we’re proud of the role we’ve played in that.
As the anglers spread out, it’s also true that we’re seeing a marginal increase in pressure on smaller streams, but we’re talking about a very small increase in pressure on any given stream. And I think its important that we include in the discussion other factors that affect the health of our fisheries, such as increasing water temperatures, lower stream flows, improper fishing etiquette, and suboptimal regulations. I think this wholistic discussion on factors is where we can make a meaninful impact. We see TroutRoutes addressing overcrowding now, and potentially helping in these other contributing factors down the road.
FL: How do you think an app like TroutRoutes will affect guides? What about fly shops?
ZP: No website or app will replace the value of a good teacher on the water or the local information found at a fly shop, so fly shops and guides are an absolute necessity for the sport.
In the first few states we developed, we saw a fair amount of pushback from some guides and fly shops. Some of them saw us (and the internet in general) as a threat. Some still do. We’ve seen this much more intensely in states like Colorado where crowding is a much bigger issue and competition between guides and fly shops can be pretty fierce. But in other states, like Wisconsin, guides and fly shops have come all the way around to embracing and even promoting TroutRoutes as a tool that keeps anglers more engaged, in regions they didn’t know existed. So both fly shops and guides have actually seen an increase in clients as a result of TroutRoutes, not the other way around.
That’s why we’ve invested so much to support local fly shops by incorporating them into our maps and helping drive angling traffic to them for business. We’re seeing a ton of anglers engaging with fly shops because our maps led them there, and we offer this as free advertising for local fly shops. We’re working on the same opportunity for independent guides as well, and we should have something we can roll out publicly at some point next year.
FL: TroutRoutes is a membership-based service, do you think this further incentivizes a “pay to play” culture?
ZP: I would actually argue the low cost of our maps helps reduce the pay-to-play culture. In my experience, getting into the fly fishing scene years ago didn’t feel as inclusive or welcoming as I think it can be, and I don’t think my experience is unique. This comes from high prices of gear, limited access to the techniques of the sport, and poor access to critical information like where to find legal access to water. Even the environment in some of the fly shops can be intimidating to a newcomer. One of our goals is to make fly fishing more inclusive by making access to information more accessible. So we feel that of all the investments an angler makes, the information that TroutRoutes provides should be one of the first tools in the toolbox, and the low cost of the membership is very affordable.
FL: Is TroutRoutes doing anything to encourage or contribute to conservation?
ZP: A lot. We ourselves are anglers and active in conservation as volunteers with organizations like Trout Unlimited, and we’re always looking for ways to ensure our platform can be used to further conservation efforts. I personally have gotten a lot of great ideas and constructive feedback from TU members on what we can do differently. We actually removed a sharing feature early last year based on feedback we received from some of our early users, which I agree is in better alignment with conservation.
Fast forward to this year, we announced a partnership with Trout Unlimited, where we donate a portion of every dollar we make directly to the Embrace a Stream Program. We are super excited about this – we feel this is the most direct and immediate way we can align ourselves with the conservation of the waters we fish and map out on TroutRoutes.
But I also think there is a lot more we can do. I’d like to see TroutRoutes play a larger role in education, especially for those newer anglers that are coming into the sport and using TroutRoutes as a tool. I think that is a great opportunity to get newcomers aligned with best practices and conservation early on. You’ll see more from us on this next year.
FL: Where do you see areas you could improve upon with TroutRoutes? Where do you see TroutRoutes going in the Future?
ZP: I see every bit of feedback we get and the two main themes are 1) anglers wanting to know when their state will be added to our platform and 2) anglers wanting more information in the states we already cover; such as stocking schedules and regulations. In the last 10 months alone, we’ve added 16 new states, which has been a ton of work. But now it’s time to add more localized information to the states we already cover. And that’s what we’ll be working on this winter, in addition to adding new regions like the Northeast and West Coast.
But as I’ve said, I think TroutRoutes can play a bigger role with conservation and education. More and more anglers are using tools like TroutRoutes as a mapping resource, and that could be an opportunity to educate and promote conservation-based concepts like stream etiquette, fish handling, and alerts on fishing closures like we saw out west this past summer.
FL: Thanks for your insights and time Zach, any closing thoughts?
ZP: We’ve worked very hard in the last several years to develop an app that exposes our cold water anglers to stream information they didn’t previously have. I’m told by our users that for trout streams, our app is far and away better than anything else out there. That’s always exciting, but we can be a lot better. The most effective way we can improve the app is by paying attention to the feedback we get from both the angling community and our users and acting on it. Discussions like this, that concern the health of our sport and the responsibilities we have as stewards of it, are important for all of us. To that end, we’re grateful to Flylords, Trout Unlimited, and other responsible organizations that provide them
Our Closing thoughts…
Here at Flylords, we pride ourselves on telling the stories of the people and places that make up the sport that means so much to us. However, because much of our reach is through social and online platforms, we often face similar conundrums when deciding whether or not our work is benefiting the finite resource we all rely on. One of the most important values we at Flylords practice and hold ourselves to is us is to leave things better than we found them, and because of this, we find ourselves having a similar internal discussion on an almost daily basis.
Initially, we were a bit weary to even explore the nature of mapping applications such as TroutRoutes in the fly fishing space at all. However, after getting to sit down and chat with Zach and his team, as well as actually try out the app for ourselves, the purpose for such a service became clearer. While nothing in this industry is perfect (take for instance the fact that we still use non-degradable monofilament leaders and tippet whose clippings often times get discarded on stream shores…), we do see apps such as TroutRoutes as a positive evolution in technology. Resources like TR are a great tool for anglers to utilize, period. In allowing people to explore new waters, we don’t only encourage newer anglers to become more invested in the sport and conservation of it, but we also encourage people to go further, care more, and de-pressurize already known “honey holes”.
Of course, there are some negative sides to this as well, and unfortunately, just as you can bring flocks of people to the fishing spot your guide showed you, or you spotted in the background of someone’s Facebook post, apps like Trout Routes can be abused. This is where we have to rely on our fellow angling community to head the call of a practice we shout from the mountains: “recreate responsibly”. Any resource can be abused by the morally impaired, so when utilizing a service like Trout Routes, it’s up to the individual angler to decide whether they’re going to make it helpful or harmful…
Thank you again to Zach Pope from TroutRoutes to take the time to sit down with us and answer our questions. If you’re looking to learn more about Zach’s project, feel free to check him out at Troutinsights.com, or on social. With any opinions, you can also email Zach at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece was published in partnership with Trout Routes. All opinions expressed are unbiased and for the purpose of educating and promoting conversation surrounding the utilization of our resources.