Central Casting

A passion for fly fishing has guided Bob Shannon since college

by Rosie Wolf Williams

bob_shannonRobert Shannon’s longtime passion for fly fishing has netted him a life doing what he loves, capped off by the purchase, in 2002, of The Fly Rod Shop in Stowe.

Herbert Hoover once said that all men are equal before fish. Bob Shannon understands that statement. For him, fishing is much more than just fish — it is his passion, and his business.

The owner of The Fly Rod Shop in Stowe, Shannon has always been an avid fisherman, but he became passionate about fly fishing while attending Paul Smith’s College in New York. When he was a child, Shannon’s family moved from Massachusetts to Clinton, N.Y. He graduated from Clinton High School in 1979, earned an associate’s degree in hotel and restaurant management in 1981, then headed to Vermont for a job at Topnotch Resort. He took on a second job as part of the ski patrol at Mt. Mansfield, which he did for 13 years while continuing to move up in resort management.

In the late 1980s, knowing of Shannon’s passion for fly fishing, Topnotch’s corporate sales manager asked him if he could take some of the corporate people out for a fishing tour. There was no guide service in Stowe at the time, and Shannon saw an opportunity to create a side business.

“My first season, I offered a private, four-hour fishing tour for 45 dollars. I added 10 dollars for each additional person. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven that I was getting paid that much money to take people fishing,” Shannon says, laughing. “I took a look at that and said, ‘Wow! I’m getting paid $4 an hour to ski in the winter and $45 for a half-day fishing trip in the summer. I’m on my way!’”

He eventually took on the name of Fly Fish Vermont Guide Service. Still offering trips as an employee of the hotel — and their popularity was growing — he decided to print business cards.

“People would come into the lodge and say, ‘Jeez, this is such a great place. What would you recommend we do for the summer while we’re here?’ And I’d pull out a business card and say, ‘Why don’t you go on a fishing trip?’”

He worked evenings as beverage manager and managed the guide service during the day. After doing that for three or four years, he decided to quit his job and start a full-time guide service.

The guide service blended well with Shannon’s work as a member of the ski patrol — and he was doing something he loved. “It was the perfect seasonal/year-round job for me,” he says. “What better way to promote your guide service than riding up on the chairlift with people all day long? I developed a pretty robust summer business by just having the opportunity to hand out business cards at the mountain.”

With a background in the hospitality industry, Shannon understood the need to develop relationships with local hotels. Around 1990, he approached Smugglers’ Notch Resort’s managing director and owner, Bill Stritzler, about adding his fly-fishing tours to the activity list.

“When I met Bob,” says Stritzler, “I couldn’t believe I had met someone who had the same level of passion for fly fishing that I had. I also found that Bob was very interested in business, as I am. That led to a natural conclusion that we should establish a relationship at Smugglers’. We are very family-oriented at Smugglers’, and fishing is a great way to bring families together. Bob has been providing Smugglers’ with his services for 25 years. To find an outside vendor with whom we have mutual respect, and a relationship that lasts that long — it speaks volumes.”

In 1992, Shannon decided to make his guide service a full-fledged business, registering the company as Fly Fish Vermont Inc. He had been working at The Fly Rod Shop, the retail facility of The Diamondback Co., which manufactured fly rods in Stowe. He persuaded the owner, Bill Alley, to promote fly-fishing tours, and the guide service continued to grow.

Alley moved The Fly Rod Shop to its current location on Vermont 100 and built a casting pond for demonstrations, and Shannon was running his own business from a 400-square-foot space in his home in Stowe. Alley eventually sold his retail business to another party. But in 2001, the new owner called Shannon and asked if he was interested in purchasing the building and the company. He declined.

The owner closed down The Fly Rod Shop and sold the real estate to a completely unrelated business. But the deal fell apart at the last minute, and in 2002 she called Shannon again, offering him the real estate plus the business and brand of The Fly Rod Shop. They had a deal.

Shannon moved the inventory from his tiny store to the new location. “I was sitting in the shop eating pizza that night after everyone left,” he remembers. “I almost cried because I thought, I’ve got nothing in here; I have to buy a lot of stuff. I could literally hear an echo as I sat in the shop. The next day we were open for business. People started walking in and they said, ‘There’s nothing in here.’ But I kept saying, ‘Imagine what it’s going to be like in another year.’”

He immediately set to work on the upstairs storage area of the building, knocking off the roof and creating a 1,000-square-foot apartment for his living quarters to save money. He moved in about 12 months later.

Had The Fly Rod Shop continued to use the same business model, it would not have survived, he says. But the guide business runs off a much higher profit margin, and it supplemented the fragility of the retail business over the years. The explosion of social media and the Internet has also driven the business to another level. He saw consistent sales of approximately $350,000 each of his first five years of business, but in the last three years, sales have grown by over 40 percent. He currently has three full-time employees, with an additional nine summer employees in 2015.

“We’re trying to appeal to a very small niche market of the fishing industry,” he explains, “but fly fishing also has a romance. We’ve partnered up with virtually every lodge that’s within a 25-mile radius of the shop to let them know what we have to offer and then we let them offer our services to their guests.”

Shannon says he is always open to new ideas and gives The Fly Rod Shop the freedom to evolve outside of the normal model. He offers a three-hour Family Gone Fishing program in the summer for parents and children. Teenagers often come into his shop saying they had gone to that program as young children and are back to learn how to fly-fish.

“If you had told me 25 years ago that I would be taking kids every day of the week in the summer spin fishing for yellow perch and pan fish, I would have said there’s no way that people are going to pay us to do that. Well, it’s so busy we offer that camp six days a week from June 15th through the end of August. It wouldn’t surprise me this year if we did over 500 people on just that one program.”

He continues to run tours, which have expanded into other fly-fishing areas of the world such as Canada and the Caribbean islands. He is divorced and the father of two: daughter Leslie, 19, a student at Virginia Tech, and Alexander, 17, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. He no longer lives above the retail store, but next door to it, on a hill that overlooks the casting pond.

He recently finished 11 years on the Vermont Fish and Wildlife board. Col. Jason Batchelder, chief warden of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, met Shannon in 2009 through a colleague, but when he moved to Lamoille County in 2011, Stowe fell into his patrol area.

“It’s not easy being a warden and moving into an area where, like most of Vermont, folks have been rooted for generations. I also realized long ago that it’s a delicate balance to align oneself with an enforcement agency and still be loved/successful in your community as a business owner. Bob displays the department’s patch with pride and actively participates in biological data collection, selling licenses, live bait, and many other thankless programs that benefit the department much more than it does him and his business.”

Shannon is also adjunct fly-fishing professor at Johnson State College, a program he developed more than 25 years ago as part of the environmental science program, but is now a core requirement of the outdoor education program.

When asked to share his biggest success story, Shannon smiles. “I’m still here,” he says quietly. “I know I’m lucky. And I still jump out of bed every morning. I go out in Vermont, and some mornings we’ve got that postcard picture-perfect day and I just stand there and go, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m still doing this.’ That’s probably been the best part of the run.” •