*We are going live on Instagram with David and Tailwaters at 5:00 PM EST on Thursday, May 14th*
Introducing the Staying Afloat Series, where we take an inside look into the lives of many different fly fishing guides, shops, brands, and lodges across the world in hopes of finding out how the COVID is affecting them, what they are doing to help, and how we can do our part to help them.
Meet David Leake, the owner, and operator of Tailwaters Fly Fishing. David has nearly fifteen years of experience in the fly fishing travel and retail industry. In addition to being the owner of the company, David manages the travel department at Tailwaters.
Flylords: What is Tailwaters Fly Fishing?
Tailwaters Fly Fishing Co is located on the Trinity River in the “Design District” neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. We moved to our existing building on the river in January 2016 following ten years in another Dallas location. We operate both the Fly Shop as well as our travel booking agency – which has actually been around since the Westbank Anglers days in Dallas in the late 1990s. Further, we have a vibrant fly fishing instruction and locally guided trips program as well. Our business model is similar to other shops/agencies in that we represent 60+ destinations around the world and enjoy the symbiotic relationship between the travel department and the retail brick and mortar. For nearly twenty years we have orchestrated trips for our clients to all the usual destination fisheries from Seychelles to Kamchatka to South America, all throughout the Caribbean, etc. We also enjoy the exclusive sales and marketing responsibilities for The Palometa Club on Ascension Bay – as well as send hundreds of anglers a year to Southeastern Louisiana for redfish. The shop is an active dealer for most of the industry’s primary vendors, and we have a very unique warehouse space outfitted with a bar and a huge backyard on the river – both very unique to Dallas.
Flylords: How has the CO-VID outbreak impacted your business?
Dallas’ “Shelter in Place” orders effectively closed our doors entirely until last week. All of March and April we ran a skeleton crew working the phone and online orders as well as curbside service. Many of the crew are back in the office and we are now “open at 25% capacity” in keeping with the Governor’s plans for reopening the economy in Texas, but we are of course not turning the door as much as we would like. Revenue from the in-store and online sources is obviously a fraction of what we planned or bought for. Our travel business grinding hard finding resolution to all the canceled trips (so far) and obviously new bookings are non-existent. However, we are guiding a number of local trips enjoying the lovely Springtime Texas weather and some awesome bass fishing.
Flylords: Tell us a little bit about the CO-VID Shelter in Place Raffles you guys have been doing?
The raffles have been a complete lifeline for us. When the shit hit the fan, we all met at the shop to kick around ideas. Within 45 seconds of the “now what?” conversation about survival plans, one of our guys pitched the idea of the raffle. Ten minutes later we threw up an Abel Texas Flag reel on Instagram and it sold immediately. The winner of the raffles donated the reel back and we auctioned it again with the same result. Since then, the raffles have expanded their reach with huge engagement – and are the only reason we are able to remain solvent and make payroll.
The raffles have also exposed us to hundreds of new customers and revealed a youthful movement of guys and gals that we did not even know were out there supporting us. Folks that normally don’t book (or cannot afford) high priced travel or throw down on a Sage / Hatch outfit or some G4Z waders have come out of the woodwork to participate and contribute to keeping us afloat. I assume part of it is the platform and the typical demographics that are active on Instagram, but you simply would not believe the amount of well wishes, love, kindness, and put your money where your mouth is to support this campaign has generated from the younger generations. It has been the single most refreshing and humbling customer interaction in nearly 20 years. I don’t think there is any way I can express enough gratitude towards our customers participating and the staff supporting this historic grind.
Flylords: Being in the fly fishing travel business how have you been coping with the pandemic?
Step one was overcoming the monster wave of communication required with hundreds of traveling clients who’s trips are immediately effected. Next is the ongoing process of understanding options and finding solutions for credits and reschedules for everyone. Every destination/operator has set forth different policies relative to their individual circumstances, the timing, their location, and their balance sheets. Some lodges are able to “just roll it over” while others simply don’t have that option. The grind of finding solutions and seeing through revised plans and financial outcomes for everyone is a full-time job. Hopefully, travel restrictions and COVID anxiety will not extend into the summer season – or we will start that whole process again with domestic summer trips to Alaska and the Rockies, Kamchatka, Russia, and other saltwater destinations. It is obviously very hard to make any long term plans or formulate any strategies until we have a better picture of what is in store with this mess. For now, it is truly a one week at a time approach.
Flylords: What have you been telling your travel customers?
Not that any business is immune, destination fly fishing travel is uniquely NOT well suited for a global pandemic. Unlike huge hotel chains or airlines, the mom and pop fishing lodges are not getting any bailout money from Uncle Sam. Further, the fundamental economics of how fishing lodges operate create huge challenges that we try to make resonate with our travel customers. We try to make it clear that your trip deposit and final payment are what actually capitalize on your trip. Each season’s expenses including payroll, mortgages and other debt, private water concessions, food and fuel, and much more are funded by trip deposits… Most of which is already spent long before you arrive at the lodge. For that reason, refunds are unequivocally NOT an option. Some operations have instated more flexible policies than others, of course, depending upon their individual circumstances. It is our job to share this information with our clients hoping for a peaceful resolution that will allow all parties to remain solvent and ultimately carry on and go fishing one day. At the same time, we are very sympathetic to our clients’ individual health and financial circumstances as well. We understand the emotions including the anger and the attitude that their options in some cases are “not fair”. At the same time, we also try to send the message that it is also not fare to the lodge owners and employees who are having their businesses and financial well being completely destroyed. While all lodges are making huge concessions to find a common ground, enforcing some version of their existing cancellation policies is the only way to survival for so many of these lodge owners who have sunk their whole life’s work into their program.
Flylords: Have the travel customers been understanding of this?
A solid 97% of all travel customers have been super cool and understanding. The fallout has also been an interesting case study in revealing true colors. Often times the guy you are worried about calling is the one that says, “no worries man… good luck and charge my card for another $1000 and send it down to the boys as a tip”. Other times, the guy you think is going to be the easy one completely comes unhinged. While there have been too many credit card chargebacks and uncomfortable conversations than I ever want to relive, my memory of this mess will be about all the kind and understanding folks that rose to the top.
Flylords: How are some of fly fishing brands helping out fly shops during these times?
ALL OF OUR VENDORS HAVE BEEN AMAZING. They have all been communicative, supportive, and understanding of the financial burden this has caused. First and foremost, despite their own financial woes, just about all vendors have suspended A/P for the time being. Others like Hunter Harlow and the crew Sendero Provisions have organized LIVE concerts online to raise funds for Texas-based companies like us. Sightline Provisions also organized a Retail Shop Takeover and donated a proceeds of online sales to us as well. So freaking cool! Another cool example of community support was organized by Patrick Duke (@artandangling) who held a raffle for his painting of Iguana Island on Ascension Bay. Patrick raised $7300 from the raffle that is being given directly to the guides and staff of the Palometa Club in Punta Allen to help them weather the storm. I envision more and more of these kind and selfless campaigns happening down the road. Finally, being asked to participate in this interview is also super flattering – so thank you for allowing us to share our message with Fly Lords and your audience.
Flylords: How can your customers support you right now?
The lowest hanging fruit is to shop us online, play on the Instagram raffles, or just give us a call to place an order. We have been asking folks to dust off their tackle and gear to see if anything needs replacing, bite the bullet and ditch the leaky waders or rain jacket a season sooner, and generally “get in front of” your gear-up session for your next trip or day on the water that is or is not yet on the books. Furthermore, while I understand that booking travel at the moment does not have much appeal, also consider getting in front of that bucket list trip or 2022 or 2023 and make a deposit! Availability will surely be a piece of cake, and cancellation/refund policies will be relaxed for the time being. Lodges, guides, and outfitters all around the planet are needing deposit funds to remain solvent. It is a win-win if you can swing it financially.
Flylords: What do you guys look forward to most after this pandemic passes?
Selfishly, I CANNOT WAIT to go fishing/traveling. I am already hearing stories of tarpon laid up where they have not been in 40 years, permit floating in front of the house on the beach, cleaner water, and other oddities only made possible by less human traffic. How cool will that be to check out? From a business perspective, I am sure anyone self-employed is daydreaming about this opportune time to hit the reset button. During moments when the glass feels half full, I can envision life and work after COVID-19 as simpler, more nimble, less stressful, and smarter.
Cheers to Fat Tire and New Belgium Brewing for making this series possible. Throughout the “Staying Afloat Series,” we will be sending beer to people who are really in need of a “pick me up”. If you have a good story for someone who deserves some beer shoot us an email firstname.lastname@example.org.