Handmade Everything, Fly Fisherman, Gear Guide 2016

HandmadeFFA cottage industry founded and grounded by craftsmen

No kidney transplant is a joyride, but Nathan Register had a rougher time than most. “I almost didn’t make it off the table,” says Register, who felt so grateful to have survived that he vowed to do something worthwhile with his remaining days. He left his corporate gig at Evinrude Johnson and took over Blue Sky Furled Leaders (blueskyfly.com), a cottage-sized company that lets the 42-year-old provide for his family by working (and parenting his two daughters) out of his Wisconsin home. From there, he designs the company’s ads, posts its Facebook updates, and ships out Blue Sky’s 18 models of hand-woven fishing leaders--all made by a crew of five craftsmen who also work from their homes. Two weave leaders while their kids are napping. Three others do the job full-time.

“Small companies have to cast a large shadow,” says Register. “Customers want to deal with a well-established business, not a hobbyist that could be here one day and gone the next.” He may be the little man behind the curtain, but Register makes Blue Sky seem as impressive as Oz by creating a respectable company presence at trade shows and using his limited advertising budget to portray a quality product. “Buyers trust big brands,” says Register.

That’s true across industries. Coke, Nike, and Ford enjoy worldwide brand recognition, and although the fly-fishing market is smaller than soft drinks or cars, it too has its dominant players. Yet the sport continues to celebrate small-scale human handiwork—even in mass-market America.

“I think fly-fishers especially can appreciate something that’s handmade, that solves a very niche problem,” says Register, who sells thousands of furled leaders every year to buyers around the world. “They’re willing to go out on a limb and try something that doesn’t necessarily come from a box store.”

After all, fly-fishing’s earliest practitioners didn’t just want to catch fish: They preferred to do it with tools they built themselves. They tied their own flies and split bamboo to craft rods. Factory automation has replaced some of those rituals, and today’s anglers now have the option to buy mass-produced rods and tackle. But more than many industries, fly-fishing has preserved an emphasis on the handmade. “It’s a culture of people who are willing to tinker, or at least they’re willing to take a chance on someone else’s innovation,” Register says.

Thus cottage fly-fishing companies manage to survive—even thrive—in a marketplace dominated by large-scale factory production. And even the brands we think of as big companies in the fly-wishing world still rely heavily on the work of skilled human hands.

Rosie the wrapper

Virginia Ungren had a long list of errands to run during her short lunch break from the Sage (sageflyfish.com) fly rod factory on Bainbridge Island, Washington, but she paused when she caught sight of my four-year-old daughter, Simone, who had just toured the factory with me, and was now pretending that the sidewalk was a castle moat.

“This was the age when I just couldn’t bear to leave my kids,” mused Ungren. So instead of putting them in day care, Ungren stayed home and took a part-time job as a rod wrapper. She’d always loved crocheting doilies and sewing clothes for the kids—crafts that developed the dexterity required to wind thread around a rod’s line guides and secure them with strong, invisible tie-offs.

Because Sage hires independent contractors to perform this tedious but cosmetically important step, Ungren could do the job from home. She set up her wrapping bench near a window, so she could keep an eye on the children while they played in the yard of her 10-acre farm. After they grew up up and moved out, Ungren looked after her aging mother, continuing to wrap fly rods in the pockets of time between her parents’ meals and doctor visits.

For 18 years Ungren wrapped rods at home, filling in the chinks between her caregiving duties with handiwork that grew her rainy-day fund. She stoped by Sage’s factory once a week to exchange her meticulously finished rods for a fresh bundle of work. Only after her mother passed away did Ungren accept full-time production work at the factory, where she now issues rods to Sage’s current roster of 19 home wrappers—which includes just one man.

“It’s tough work that weeds out the weak,” jokes Sage employee Rowena Prado, who manages the home wrappers. “Men don’t seem to survive for very long.”

Men are also less likely to need work that they can perform from home, while they’re caring for children. Most of Sage’s rod wrappers are moms who, like Ungren, fit in work around kids’ schedules.

“People seem to be happy with that arrangement,” says Prado. It also suits Sage, which saves on factory space by having wrappers work from home. The production facility maintains eight wrapping stations where workers attend to warranty claims that can’t wait for home contractors’ weeklong turnaround. Those in-house stations handle a scant fraction of Sage’s wrapping needs, yet they still occupy an entire wall of the factory--and moving all wrapping in-house would triple the required square footage.

Sage trains new wrappers by having them work full-time in the factory for two months. By then, they’re generally wrapping five rods a day, and after a year at home, they may improve to eight per day. It’s tedious work, with each rod requiring 31 to 54 tie-offs (more rod segments equate to more wraps). Wrappers earn $8 to $10 per rod, and generally complete 60 to 75 rods per week.

A few record-setters manage to improve on that average, but in general, the job defies a speedy performance and instead requires meticulous, surgical-style precision. Machines have not yet eclipsed a human’s ability to seat and secure the guides with a fastener that’s both functional and artful. For that, Sage (and all other U.S.-based rod manufacturers, such as G. Loomis and Scott rods) still rely on the human touch.

New ground

Rod manufacturers use human handiwork for nuanced tasks that machines can’t do. But in other cases, craftsmen take up the job because what they want simply doesn’t exist.

Ethan Smith launched SmithFly (smithfly.net) after wishing that his fly-fishing vests and packs used interchangeable pockets for an easier transfer of tools. Chris “Mongo” Reeder sewed his own fishing and paddling gear, then founded Mongo Products (mongoproducts.com) once fans asked to buy what he was using.

“Most small fly-fishing companies are started by an individual that has seen or used a product and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a better idea,’” says Register. He bought Blue Sky Furled Leaders from Jim Hauer, a retired Procter & Gamble engineer who figured out how to marry the ages-old furled leader design with technologically advanced materials.

All serve as examples of how small, cottage-sized companies can inject fresh ideas into the fly-fishing industry. Once those innovations enter the marketplace, however, small companies sometimes struggle to stay relevant.

Reeder’s innovation (a fishing vest hybridized with a backpack) didn’t exist before he stitched one himself, using a commercial sewing machine. It proved popular not only on his own website but also at Cabela’s, which initially sold Reeder’s vest/pack—then started producing its own version that undersold Mongo Products.

Now, the design has won mainstream acceptance, with companies such as Orvis and L.L. Bean offering takeoffs on the vest/pack concept.

“I’ve had big organizations knock us off directly,” adds Smith, who sees idea-sharing from an artistic (rather than a commercial) point of view. “Stuff develops quicker when people riff off each other,” he says.

And some small companies manage to coexist with the bigger players. Montana-based Flyvines (flyvines.com) takes discarded fishing line from manufacturers such as RIO, Scientific Anglers, and Loop and turns it into lanyards, bracelets, and eyeglass retainers. It’s a boon for the bigger companies, which save on disposal costs and get to promote the “upcycling” of their blemished fly lines. And receiving free material is an obvious benefit for Flyvines, which got its start when founder (and fly guide) Lance Gleason filled time waiting for clients by braiding trashed fly line into fishing lanyards.

Before long, other Montana guides started wearing Gleason’s handiwork. Fly shops started selling Flyvines near the checkout counter, and surf shops bought in as well. To keep his focus on guiding, Gleason handed Flyvines over to his business partner, Erin Kane, who assumed the sales and management of the burgeoning company.

Kane recruited a cadre of at-home workers (currently a team of eight moms, whom she describes as “the best labor force you can have”) to produce Flyvines products. Three years ago, the company sold 23,000 units. This year, thanks to expanding interest among sporting goods stores and a partnership with Chums eyewear leashes, Flyvines moved 115,000 units in the first quarter alone.

“We are adding something new and unique to this industry,” says Kane, who also credits the company’s success to pure passion. “It’s our blood, sweat and tears going into it, and that makes for a more creative product.”

Giant companies have their advantages, admits Smith. “They can partner with big technological innovations, like Boa lacing,” he explains. But small companies such as SmithFly can take a more daring approach to innovation. “The little guys can reinvent an entire category,” says Smith. “That’s a huge benefit to having small players like us in the industry.”

Millennials

Another common theme among small fly-fishing companies is that their founders are young. And their products tend to appeal to a younger demographic.

Kane, who is 33 years old, says she didn’t always receive an enthusiastic response from the initial round of fly shop owners, who were used to catering to the sport’s old guard. “That generation didn’t get it,” she explains. But twentysomething trout bums who couldn’t afford gleaming new fly rods gobbled up the colorful, inexpensive trinkets.

When young anglers do have big dollars to invest in a piece of gear, they prefer to buy something with handcrafted character. That trend has enabled brands such as Vedavoo to gain a foothold in the industry.

Seeing a market for a fresh take on fishing packs (and drawing upon his Babson College MBA), Scott Hunter launched Vedavoo in June 2009. He started out by stitching the gear he coveted himself. “Luckily, it’s turned out to be what other people wanted, too,” says the 32-year-old. His solo operation grew to include seven sewers who crafted Vedavoo packs in their dining rooms and garages. Now, his sleek, mod-looking slings and backpacks are also produced in a New England factory.

“We’re part of a wave of younger brands that are broadening fishing’s appeal beyond what we jokingly call the Country Club, meaning grandpa and his buddies,” says Hunter. “We challenge some of the ways that things have been done in the past,” he says. Vedavoo exaggerates color (red and orange rounds out the traditional greys and greens) and minimizes clutter (no busy pocketry here). “Our packs are different than Orvis or Patagonia,” says Hunter. “They’re not better or worse, just different—and they fill in the gaps and reach customers that maybe those brands can’t,” he says.

Large companies may serve the majority, but they can’t typically offer niche products that appeal to a handful of users. Small, nimble companies such as Vedavoo are better positioned to cater to quirky audiences. “We can make just one of something and sell it online,” explains Hunter. Vedavoo’s Little Bugger Kid Sling, for example, won a “Best of Show” award at the International Fly Tackle Dealer Show. “Whether we sell one or 100,000, we have the ability to serve a user that was largely unserved,” says Hunter. “That’s good for the industry, and the sport.”

Home Field Advantage

Vedavoo’s potential investors pushed Hunter to take production to China. But the idea didn’t sit well with him, and he made what he calls a life-changing decision: He determined to produce everything in the United States. “People said you could never get these made in America, that it’s too expensive, too complicated. But we found ways,” says Hunter, who takes pride in being involved in every aspect of production. “I’m not just sending e-files to China,” he says.

SmithFly is also made in the U.S.A. Seeking an alternative to Velcro, Smith discovered the webbing ladders that the military uses to swap out pouches on packs—and contracted with those same American factories to make his modular fishing bags. So if a fly shop orders 1,000 packs—or the Coast Guard asks for a specialized medical equipment bag—SmithFly can deliver at that scale. Yet Smith still puts his hands on every product—even if it’s just the finishing sticker.

Smith just opened a fly shop and SmithFly showroom in his hometown of Troy, Ohio, and he may move some production there as well. “There are a lot of people in this town that need work, and I would love to be the place where they could do some sewing,” says Smith.

Hand-Tied Originality

Companies of all sizes can provide significant value to their surrounding communities. Drew Chicone proves that even a business of one person can enrich an entire sport. An up-and-coming saltwater fly designer and author, Chicone makes a habit of breaking the cardinal rule of commercial fly-tying: guarding trade secrets. “I don’t think that helps anybody,” Chicone says. “It’s hard enough to keep kids’ interest in things, and when you don’t tell them answers to their questions, you’ve just turned a fisherman into a golfer.”

So Chicone published an instructional book called Feather Brain (Stackpole Book, Headwater Books 2013), gives fly-tying talks, publishes a monthly newsletter, and gives away beta versions of his flies so he can collect feedback on their effectiveness. Consequently, each of his patterns is fine-tuned to a specific species and region, considering factors such as hook style, sink rates, and movement in the water. “The big fly-tying companies overseas are only focused on how cheap they can produce flies, and how much money they can make,” says Chicone, whose goal for fly-tying is professorship and leadership.

“For me, it’s really about giving back,” says Chicone, who sees his info-sharing as a gift to his four-year-old daughter, Lucy. “I think about what I can leave behind for her and her friends,” he explains. “My motto is, give it all away, so we all get better.”

Like Chicone, Register also hopes to steer and strengthen his family though his Blue Sky enterprise. “It’s our income,” Register admits, “But it’s also a tool for teaching the value of working hard and staying diligent.” His daughters (ages 12 and 15) see him staying up late, prepping shipments and communicating with customers. “You cannot put dollar amounts on what you can get out of that,” Register says. Hoping to follow in dad’s footsteps, Register’s older daughter enrolled for a business course in her junior year of high school, saying it’ll prepare her to take over the company. Register chuckled.

His own parents were also entrepreneurs who grew their own commercial and residential lighting company. From them he heard, “Don’t expect to take over one day. You have to blaze your own trail.”

His path eventually led him to a novel furled leader that facilitates a graceful turnover and delicate dry-fly presentation. But it also introduced him to a depth of satisfaction that he’d never achieved in his corporate life. “I don’t have anything against large companies,” says Register. “But to look inside whatever you use daily and say, I can improve on that—well, that’s the American Dream.”