Fair Flies

We tie flies to catch fish, but what if I told you that fly tying could also transform lives? That would be a story worth telling.

[by David Klausmeyer]

A FELLOW ONCE ASKED HOW MANY ARTICLES I HAVE WRITTEN. That’s a tough question to answer, but I think I can come up with a ballpark number.

I’ve been at this outdoors-writing gig for 30 years. (That sounds like a long time, doesn’t it?) I’ve written magazine and newspaper articles, as well as short pieces for those hooks-and-bullets rags you will find on the newsstand of your local grocery store. Let’s say that over the years I have averaged a minimum of two articles per month. (That’s doesn’t sound like much, but hold on.) That equals 24 articles per year. (The number is adding up.) Do some simple multiplication, and the total is more than 700 articles!

I think, however, that the article you are now reading is one of the most important pieces I have ever written about fly fishing. Yes, it’s about flies and fly tying, but not entirely. Fish are mentioned, but they are not the point of the story.

This article is about the power of tying flies to bring positive change to some of the poorest people on our planet.

And the Winner Is

I met Jeff Coffey, the founder of a new company called Fair Flies, this past July at the International Fly Tackle Dealer show in Orlando, Florida. IFTD, which is sponsored by the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, is the annual trade fair for the fly fishing industry. It is the place to wag the newest rods, spin the spools on the newest reels, slip into the latest waders, and see anything else you might need to get on the water and catch fish. One of the key events at IFTD is the Best of Show Awards. This past year, Fair Flies won the award for the best new fly tying material.

Well, maybe…

Fair Flies is based in the United States, but the hub of its operations is in Nepal. Fair Flies is producing a limited line of steelhead patterns and fly tying brushes, but the goal is not pure profit. Jeff Coffey sees Fair Flies as a way to improve the lives of some of the most disadvantaged people on our planet.

“I wanted to do something more meaningful with this business, and started looking at the sort of model the coffee industry has with the concept of fair trade,” Coffey explained. “Look, everybody supports some sort of nonprofit, but in my mind I juggle with the nonprofit concept. I thought we could do something more sustainable than just come back every year and ask for more money. We started looking at flies as a possibility to do something important.

“If you think about it,” Coffey continued, “dry flies have more than ten times the value of gold by weight, and all fly fishermen need flies. I thought manufacturing flies might be a way to help people earn livable wages. I’m talking about working with people who have been compromised in some way, such as due to poverty or human trafficking.”

On the surface, it sounds as though Jeff is a starry-eyed idealist, but don’t be misled: he is a sharp businessman, but he also wants to make a positive contribution that transforms lives.

“We’ve started several software companies, but at the end of the day, that was all about the money: you build it, you profit from it, and you get out. Fair Flies is something different. This is a life’s purpose.”

The Business Model

Coffey’s goal is to produce a quality line of flies and fly tying materials, and see to it that the employees are paid a fair wage for their labor. Key to his plan is helping people who have been disadvantaged in some fundamental way. He is especially motivated to help those people, especially women, who have been the victims of human trafficking. He emphasizes that there are all sorts of trafficking.

“Look, this isn’t just about the sex trade; it’s not that at all. Sometimes people travel overseas to work, have their passports taken away, and are forced into slave labor. Right now we are concentrating on Nepal. The Nepalese are the most trafficked people in the world. Sure, the majority of the people in this side of the fly fishing industry are women, but we also have a few men working with us. But I don’t want you to think that all of these women have been taken advantage of sexually; there are different forms of human trafficking. The basic problem is that people are lured away from their homes with the promise of a better life, and they end up being trafficked. Our goal is to help these people earn a livable wage so they can remain in their communities; that’s the key.”

How did you get started?

“I was approached about a year and half ago from someone in our industry to start a fly tying group in Nepal. I thought about it, and it sounded like a great idea. We got on the phone about a month later, and then raised the funds in forty-eight hours. My family and I moved to Nepal for about three months to get the project off the ground.”

As an American, it’s easy to get my mind around the concept of starting or owning a business—you lease a building, hire employees, and manufacture and sell a product. Once again, however, Jeff is taking a fresh, more sustainable approach that will hopefully have a lasting impact.

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