Outdoors shows facing chilly climate

The Baltimore Sun

For critters and humans alike, these are the quiet months, time for hibernation and rejuvenation - a little down time after the holidays and before the yellow perch run.

Traditionally, it's also the time when many of us buy new toys so that when temperatures moderate and days get longer, we're ready to go. That's why hunters and anglers swarm "The Shows," armories or convention centers or pavilions packed to the rafters with the latest must-have gear.

But these aren't normal times. The curtain is falling on many shows, a reflection of an economy with bad reviews.

The Fly Fishing Show in College Park left town even before the bottom fell out. The Chesapeake Fishing and Outdoors Expo in Upper Marlboro announced in November that it was pulling up stakes. After nearly five decades of docking an armada in downtown D.C., organizers of the Washington Boat Show said Friday that they will skip 2009 and reopen in 2010.

Timonium's Fishing Expo and Boat Show, which began its silver anniversary run Thursday and ends today, is a shell of its former self. Walking the floor of a show that used to be nearly three times as big and attract celebrities such as Ray Scott, founder of BASS, is as depressing as the news from Wall Street.

"Everybody's looking for value for the dollar," says Chuck Furimsky, owner of The Fly Fishing Show, which still appears in eight cities across the country. "Instead of a $700 rod, they're buying two $150 rods. ... There's still a light at the end of the tunnel for us; it's just not as bright as it once was."

The story is the same elsewhere, with promoters skipping cities, downsizing exhibitor space and reducing show days or hours.

"Basically, we're in a survival mode," one Ohio outdoors show promoter told the Dayton Daily News.

So we're all in the same boat, as it were, waiting for a rising tide. Small comfort.

An island among the high-end vessels at The Baltimore Boat Show, opening Jan. 21, will be the "Affordability Pavilion," filled with boats that cost less than $250 a month to finance.

"Instead of shrinking or going away, we're saying, 'Let's talk affordable, something the whole family can enjoy together,' " show spokesman Todd Scott says.

Organizers of the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show in Harrisburg, Pa., (Feb. 7-15) are banking on three things: 53 years of tradition, a quadrupling of celebrity appearances and "by February, the need to beat cabin fever," spokeswoman Debra Tressler says.

But tradition alone isn't enough to stave off economic reality, as the Washington Boat Show's Tom Stafford learned.

"We agonized over this," says Stafford, who has owned the show for 30 of its 47 years. "But I don't see a lot of people buying boats this year. We have our dates for 2010 [Feb. 11-15], and we're moving on."

But much as we would like, most of us can't leapfrog 2009. It seems we'll have to make our own fun this winter - not to say we're not up to the challenge.

There are some bright spots. On Feb. 7, Tri-State Marine in Deale will have its annual flea market, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Pasadena Sportfishing Group's annual flea market, with its usual bargains and good food, will follow, Feb. 14 and 15.

Great Feathers, the fly-fishing shop in Sparks, has revamped its free fly-tying workshop to run every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. On Jan. 21, Charles Jardine, a man informally known as "England's Lefty Kreh," will talk fishing and tying and will sign one of his many books.

Mike Kidd, who runs the place in the absence of owner Mike Watriss, says they're weathering the economic storm by choosing their inventory carefully, enticing people with workshops and being flexible.

"December is usually when we sell a lot of luggage because people are planning trips, but last year I didn't sell a single bag," he says. "That means we sell more good, local stuff."

And on weekends, when playoffs and bowl games take center stage, Kidd says, laughing, "when football is on, so is the TV in the store."

Speaking of Lefty (Maryland has the original) and Valentine's Day weekend, the dean of outdoors writers will be making an appearance along with other well-known anglers and outfitters Feb. 14 at Tony Friedrich's TieFest at the Kent Island Yacht Club.

The free event, now in its 700th year - or so it seems - is a combined teach-in, fishing hot-stove league and fundraiser, with kid and adult casting classes, lots of informal tying instruction and manufacturers' displays.

For Friedrich, it's a labor of love that gives back to the community. Proceeds from the raffles will help two Girl Scout troops pay for floats and spat to grow oysters in the Severn and South rivers.

Good thing someone is looking out for our waterways. At the urging of avid angler Bob Jago, I grabbed some wax worms and took a trip Friday morning up to Gray's Run, a tributary of the Bush River in Harford County, to see whether I could scare up a yellow perch or two.

No perch, just warning signs to stay away from the water. A 1,425-gallon sewage spill caused by a grease blockage Dec. 30 apparently prompted county health officials to post warnings to anglers. I'm guessing the coast is clear, but it would be nice for the county to give us a shout (or take down the signs) to confirm it.

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