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Spokane fly fisher, FFI president, angling for sport’s future

Thu., Sept. 14, 2017, 5:55 a.m.

Len Zickler of Spokane is a two-term president of Fly Fishers International. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Len Zickler of Spokane is a two-term president of Fly Fishers International. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

Len Zickler jokes that his wife made “the mistake of a lifetime” in buying him a fly rod as a gift in 1995.

Certainly it changed the course of his life, and maybe the course of a North American fly fishing organization.

Zickler, who retired three years ago, could be pursuing his passion for fly fishing full time. Instead, he’s pursuing people with a passion for fly fishing.

“We’re trying to develop a larger community to work for the future of the sport,” said the Spokane resident and president of Fly Fishers International. FFI is an umbrella organization for affiliated local clubs across the country. Washington alone has 21 fly fishing clubs.

Formerly known as Federation of Fly Fishers, FFI is being energized by a group of leaders including Zickler. They saw a critical need to find new leadership and rally for causes important to fly fishers, from headwaters to estuaries.

“We had no strategic plan,” he said. “We hired a consultant, surveyed anglers and started addressing what anglers want.”

After infusing some fresh blood and rousting some of the old guard from their comfort zones, FFI launched a new course, with Zickler at the helm in an interim role until a CEO is found.

“Of the 48 million anglers in the country, about 4 million people identify themselves as fly fishers,” he said. “Our membership was only 11,000.

“The survey found that 90 percent of fly fishers who were not members had never heard of FFI.”

The survey showed other issues to address. Many of them are the same issues plaguing a wide range of service organizations. For example, of the FFI membership:

69 was the average age.

92 percent were male.

“It goes without saying that we need to be more diverse,” he said. “We have to appeal to younger fly fishers and women.”

Public access weighs heavily on anglers minds regardless of age or gender, the survey found.

“Losing public access is the angler’s equivalent of ‘taking away my gun’ among sportmen’s concerns,” Zicker said.

Conservation and education also are at the top of fly fishers’ concerns, the survey found.

“We already have a great start here,” Zickler said. “The instructors and level of expertise running the clinics at our annual Fly Fishing Fair is world-class and we’re producing videos to link on our website. We have an incredibly strong education program.”

The annual fair, formerly called the conclave, has been held the past two summers in Livingston, Montana, where FFI has its headquarters. Zickler spearheaded the fair in Spokane in 2012. Next summer it will be in Boise.

Attracting younger people is a goal of just about every sport and service organization, and FFI is no different. “Our education program appeals to novices and families with kids, but most people seem to come into the sport after reaching the point in their careers where they have some time and disposable income.”

Younger anglers are organizing more through social media, he said. “There’s a group in Maryland called the Titled Potomac Fly Rodders; average age is 32. Rather than the traditional social hour, business meeting and program format, their meetings are at a brew pub or something like that. They might give sponsors five minutes to make a pitch. They might have a Brew Tie where some members demonstrate tying patterns.”

Survival of an organization hinges on remaining relevant to its members, he said.

FFI is venturing into social media as well as revamping Fly Fisher magazine with a new publisher, ever aware that connections with the industry are invaluable.

“There’s also a tremendous wealth of experience in the ranks of the membership, which is already starting to grow,” he said.

That first fly rod his wife bought him sat in Zickler’s closet for a year until a co-worker heard about it and invited him to go fishing. “He took me under his wing, taught me basics,” he recalled, noting that he quickly upgraded his gear under his mentor’s tutelage.

“On my first cast with that new rod on the Little Deschutes in Tumwater (Washington), I dropped an Adams dry fly into a seam, hooked a sea-run cutthroat, and just like that I was on my way to being a fanatic.”

The value of being mentored has never escaped him. “I joined the Puget Sound Fly Fishers to meet other fly fishers,” he said. When he heard about the Federation of Fly Fishers casting certification he went for it, not only to master the double-haul but also to be qualified to help others step up their skills.

“I took classes form Mel Krieger and Joan Wulff and other icons in the sport,” he said.

He was hooked.

Becoming more involved, he accepted the invitation to be the FFF’s conservation chair. Zickler, a former city planner and landscape architect, found a direct connection between his training and professional experience and the angler’s environmental checklist required to protect clean water and fish.

“I fell head over heals for the fly fishing and what it was about,” he said.

As he devoted so much of his energy, Zicker began to realize the group itself needed help.

“We’d been doing a terrible job of beating our own drum. I went to the clubs in Spokane and members didn’t know that FFI insurance would save them a lot of money from what they’re paying for liability and give them better coverage,” he said.

Manufacturers are seeing the changes and want to buy in, he said. Rod companies are working through FFI to offer rods to clubs that sponsor events and education that promote conservation and education programs.

FFI is partnering with other groups to take stands on national issues of importance to fly fishers, including public lands issues and defense of the Clean Water Act.

“We want to help local clubs, too, on issues such as securing public access for a mile of Wenatchee River shoreline,” he said.

Dealing with these issues can avoid wading chest deep into politics, he said, quoting Randy Newberg, the Montana public lands advocate and host of Sportsman Channel hunting programs. “I couldn’t agree more that we all belong to the party of anglers, hunters and recreationists.”

Asked why he doesn’t just go fishing like a lot of retirees and relax, Zicker said, “ I have the time right now, and I still have the passion. I love the people in FFI organization and I want it to make a difference.”