Fly Fishing for Sustainability: Indifly

There is a common misconception that economic progress must come at the cost of the environment. Traditional economic thought leads people to believe that the only way to make money is by taking something out of nature and turning it into a tangible commodity, regardless of ecological impact. This may create some short term profit, but rarely provides a durable economy in the long term – especially for those who depend on the environment.

This is a problem that the 501(c)(3) charity Indifly is trying to solve through the creation of community owned, sustainable fly fishing lodges.

Indifly is a fly fishing based organization that encourages indigenous people in areas with good fly fishing to use their resources in a different way. Instead of abusing or extracting their natural resources, Indifly works with indigenous groups to build an economy around fly fishing that will provide long term employment and prosperity in the form of fly fishing ecotourism. Fly fishing tends to have a “halo effect” of good environmental stewardship, and the Indifly model even provides a scientific team to assess and manage the health of a fishery.


The Beginning

It all started with the community owned arapaima lodge in Guyana. The indigenous community in the Amazon was was able to stave off the advances of mining and forestry companies and instead opted to create a fly fishing lodge that would provide world class arapaima fishing to anglers from all over the world. The minds behind Indifly played a pivotal role in making that happen.

The success in Guyana led to the establishment of Indifly in order to bring sustainable fly fishing to other indigenous communities facing external pressures from mining, fishing, and forestry companies. “We needed a vehicle to replicate the Guyana model. That’s when Indifly was established”, said director Matt Shilling during our conversation next to Indifly’s main sponsor, Costa Sunglasses, at a fishing convention in Orlando. “Indifly can create sustainable livelihoods and protect great fisheries, all through the development of community owned fly fishing operations”.

But how does Indifly choose a location that would be suitable for a community based fly fishing operation?

“We’re looking for that perfect place, where you have a small community that can benefit, and where there’s a need. The only way we think it can be successful is if you touch the whole community and get them to embrace it, so that you’re not forcing it upon them, but they actually own it and want to do it. And Guyana was the perfect storm of that” said international angler Oliver White, who is on the Indifly board of directors.


The Process

Indifly’s first step is a scientific assessment of a fishery to see if it is a sustainable fly fishing destination. This involves a wide range of scientific tests and, of course, just a little a bit of casting. The Indifly team then meets with government officials or local leaders to establish a timeline and determine what sort of regulations must be set in place. Then, they establish a business plan and identify a local leader who has the local knowledge and the communication skills to head the operation. After that, it’s on to the marketing stage where the destination is blasted out over social media and fishing publications to attract clients.

Guyana lodge

However, none of this will work if the entire community isn’t invested in the fly fishing operation. Last year in Guyana, many of the ponds where the arapaima live were suffering from a low water crisis. The locals banded together on a rescue mission to capture the arapaima and transport them to holding ponds. This involved filling multiple canoes with water and a couple three to four hundred pound fish, and then dragging it miles through the rainforest. “We didn’t call them and say ‘hey you have to do this because that fish is worth $20,000’, it was totally self-directed because they now understand the value of that fish”, explained Oliver White.

Before the establishment of the fishing lodge in Guyana, catch and release had not been practiced traditionally by the locals. Given the new economy created around fly fishing, catch and release now makes sense and is welcomed by the community, up to the point of complex rescue missions!

tying flies

Finding New Locations

Once Indifly identifies a potential site, a team of specialists will travel there and attempt to convince local leaders, whether government or tribal, as well as the people in that community that protecting their aquatic resources and surrounding habitat is a sustainable path that will provide decades of prosperity.

“In a lot of these indigenous communities, their culture is based off their environment, and we’re introducing fly fishing as a low impact way to interface with the environment. But that relies on maintaining a healthy environment to support those fisheries, so by monetizing the resources in a slightly different way that is non-extractive, it adds that additional value to the process. We’re not only just helping to create alternative livelihoods, we’re also protecting the natural resources”, explained Andy Danylchuk, member of the Indifly board of directors and Professor of Fish Conservation at UMass Amherst.

For example, Anaa Atoll is a potential new Indifly site in the South Pacific. The bonefish population is abundant, but many of the locals use bonefish as a food source. Indifly scientists traveled to Anaa to assess the rates of bonefish consumption, as well as the cultural significance of bonefish as a staple food item. They found that bonefish weren’t culturally significant to the locals, they were just food. By encouraging locals to stop harvesting bonefish and substitute another fish, the Indifly team was able to decrease the pressure on the bonefish population and increase the likelihood of a sustainable fly fishing operation.

Giving some casting lessons to the locals in Anaa Atoll, who are likely become guides for a bonefish operation

The Indifly model allows indigenous communities to preserve their local heritage without extracting their finite resources. Many of the communities where Indifly operates are under external pressure from forestry and mining companies. The 501(c)(3) charity helps the community to understand the value of the natural resources at hand, and how they can rely on those resources in the long term.

Teaching bonefish anatomy to locals in Anaa Atoll, a potential new Indifly site

What’s next for Indifly?

If the Indifly model works overseas, why couldn’t it work domestically? Indifly’s newest project is with the Shoshone tribe in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming. The tribe has autonomy over 2.2 millions acres of prime native trout habitat, and could be a perfect candidate for a sustainable fly fishing operation. At first, Indifly spoke to tribal chiefs and government officials, which looked promising but eventually became muddled in bureaucracy. They felt that the Wind River project had lost its connection with the people themselves – a core element to the Indifly model.

Instead, the Indifly team sent famous fly angler Jay Johnson to live and fish with the Shoshone people for a few months. Jay has been learning about their culture and connecting to the Shoshone youth through fly fishing. It’s a slow burning project for Indifly, but so far it’s going well.

Get Involved

At the moment, Indifly operations are not entirely self-sustainable. The charity still operates as a back office for the various lodges they helped to create, mainly handling marketing and logistics. Eventually, Indifly hopes to fully remove themselves from the equation as the fly fishing operations become more established.

To donate to Indifly, click here.