Mill creek at East River Road 1-2004
Mill Creek at East River Road Pray, Montana
Notice: the creek has frozen from the bottom up.

The Founding  of a Business
Part One 
of a trilogy

Many of you may already know, I am not one to mince words or blow smoke up the pants of my fellow anglers. I call a spade a spade and I‘m certainly not, as many of you have told me,  “politically correct for fly fishing.”  However, I am continually asked, by the kind people who publish my  articles about different product lines. This list  would include everything there is in your locker and tackle box. To begin one small facet of this assignment, I must first explain a few thingss so the newer readers of my articles may understand my very opinionated attitude. It is this attitude which has gotten me in trouble every so often… but that is quite all right. I‘ve learned to live quite comfortably with speaking truths and not by creating fairy-tales which are laced with product names and products which we are continually exposed. 

I’ve fished ever since I can remember. During some phases of my life, such as during my  rock and roll days of the sixties, I have to admit that my attendance from the waterways  may have slacked a little.  I was a young and impressionable teen who lived just  an hour and fifteen minutes from New York’s Greenwich Village.  I managed to see some of the top rockers do some of their best (or worst)  at places like The Back Fence, The Village Green and the Fillmore East. I also had a kick ass band so some things had to take precedent. Anyway, as time went on I did all sorts of things which I am proud of and some which I cannot talk about unless I am in discussion with the people who were there. But fishing always dwelled somewhere in the presence of  “Doc.”

By the time I managed to  relocate to Montana life had been good to me. I had a few bucks in the bank. I had a couple of smart and well mannered kids who were attending college. A few of my more redneck neighbors thought I was in the witness protection program because they still worked while I thankfully fished everyday. And, for that jealous attitude  I say, “tough… you should have worked harder.”  That leads me to the monumental decision I had to make.  I was  not near enough to be dead.  I still had enough time to create another  new and interesting business while I had the time. However, this business had to be tourist related since the expression here in Montana goes something like, “the mountains may be pretty but you sure can’t eat them.”

Then one day, while I was in a SW Montana fly shop I happened to enter the shop along with a mother and young son. Anybody watching us would easily assume we were a family.  I  watched, in disbelief,  as the proprietor charged the small five or six year old kid , who had just cut a lawn for some money, five bucks for two flies. The flies weren’t even good ones for the creek he said he would fish. Imagine that. The shop owner ripped the kid for two fifty for  a horrible fly not even good for the creek the boys said he was fishing. The bastard in the shop was hustling a kid. The mother of the boy just stood there but what was she to know? Not everyone fishes. Yes,  I  did remain silent as I watched the future of fly fishing being taken by this self-interested bastard. Yes, I was pissed. However I followed the mother and son outside and slipped the kid a few good flies because I‘m such a nice guy. I began to feel sorry for anyone visiting Montana and being directed to whatever this shop owner sold regardless of product or service.

Soon afterward another incident happened in another shop where I was charged a small fortune for a bottle of floatant. This proprietor hustled me with a smile as he attempted to sell me a well named but worthless rod for six hundred dollars. Then ironically on the same day, while fishing the Yellowstone on a small island which was behind my house,  I listened to a visiting angler tell me  how he had been “taken” for a small fortune for a float trip which was totally unproductive. It was even less productive then the fish he was catching  on my small stretch of river. The reason was simple. The fly shops were going for the money. No longer were fly shops a thing where old knowledgeable tiers and anglers  hung out  and passed out wisdom and harmless lies. Today, as well as on that day the majority of the shops were high tech, glossy articled, truth stretching, give me your money merchandisers. Bingo! I knew from that moment in 1991 that  if done correctly I would be the one to make a difference in fishing or get my ass whipped trying. But,  I was willing to take a shot at it. A shot at it my way.

Time progressed. Little did I know that many people involved in this hobby were ruthless.  No make that “bush league” in their dealings. My childhood memories of stories told  to me by members of my family  of  businessmen who worked the New York garment market surfaced.  I was soon to find,  that the rag merchants were far fairer and kindly  when compared to the mannerisms of the elitist and hungry souls who lurked behind friendly smiles in some fly shops. But let me say this early on in this three part story not everyone is out to get you. However, a  fishing shop owner who was not provided with a silver spoon and   wants to run with the “big boys” can become everything I despise about the human condition.

The Beginning

My income for much of my life was in construction. I designed and built really neat homes in the hills of  Southern California  and suburban New Jersey. The commercial properties which I helped develop,  fortunately all made money so I knew a little about foundations. My college degree in marketing and accounting  finally came into play after many years of hidden seclusion.  My new fishing venture’s foundation was invested in a flock of genetic hackle birds to which I purchased after  being  turned on to by a  friend and proficient Florida salt water guide, Captain Lenny Moffo. He thought I was a little nuts to want to raise birds but my logic was simple. If  I owned the birds used to tie premium flies then the anglers and fly tiers should come directly  to my farm  where I could treat them fairly and with honesty. With the birds as my  business’ foundation  I wouldn’t even have to open a shop on the main road.  Life was good. The fly tiers came first  and as predicted other anglers followed. I was now Montana’s “fishing chicken rancher”  who began to take a few  bucks away from some of the people who took advantage of the novice fly fishers with platinum cards and little kids who cut lawns for spending money. My business grew I made friends of visiting anglers.

My flies instantly became well known for their quality. Many of my patrons tell me they are the best the US has to offer. They are priced fairly. My tiers made money. My anglers saved even more.  I even started a hook company to reduce my costs again. Within a year or so other area businesses were asking me to place my flies with them. That was fine with me especially since  I think flies should be found like Snicker Bars. They should be found everywhere. So, right now I probably sell more flies then anyone in the Yellowstone Area.  I guess that is when the “games” began.

I’m part Italian, I don’t get mad…

One day I decide it would be nice to have a “better” line of fly rods in my shop. I contacted a rod company’s representative  and we decide Saturday would be a good day to meet. However on Friday I get this call. The rod  rep decides to  queer the deal stating that I was too close to another dealer. I was eighteen miles too close. This comment was bogus for numerous reasons which I do not need to relate but trust me it was just a bunch of   bull. So I asked the rep, “since I’m Italian and a little stupid  do you  want me to become a competitor instead of being  a partner?”  He really didn’t get it. Maybe I was speaking too fast with my New Jersey accent or maybe it was the altitude up here.  I do not know. Regardless of his problem,  I’m not one to wait for nothing to happen,  so I started designing my own line of rods on that very day. I quickly contacted old friends. My rod line was off and running. It took several years to hone and perfect it  into a rod series I would put my name on. If you come into the shop I still have the prototypes.

Several other little things happened over the years while I was getting my shop to become a shop which  I myself would want to visit. Each of these petty and ‘bush league” incidents, which were very similar to the above mentioned  rod incident,  lead me every time to develop another line of products for fishing. Today I am at fourteen different product lines. The bottom line is that I make a lot of good stuff. I use the expression  “just good fly stuff” to describe what I do around here.  So let’s explore what it is that I do on a more individual basis.

Take for instance my flies. These are tied on our hooks using my own  premium feathers. Even most of my elk and deer hair comes from local sources. My logic is if someone wants  to play fly wars I’ll win because I do not need to rely on others to supply my tier’s needs.  I‘m willing to supply my retail shops with  a better product for less money. It’s a win win situation for both the retailing shop as well as the customer. I’m told and the sales dictate that fly fishers who come to Yellowstone Park do look for the “ I sell Knoll’s Flies” sign in front of the local shops.

 As far as my hackle goes  I do not produce thousands of birds and then beat myself up trying to find sources to sell them. I know what my tiers need and what my retail outlets need on an annual production. I will not tax my efforts by raising an over abundance to justify what ever.  Newcomers, meaning new fly shops,  have to get in line. But after these new dealers acquire a full line of  Knoll Fishing Products they find that the profit they make is greater then when they were purchasing extremely well advertised lines that often slaps the buyer in the face with high end cost  (consumer) pricing. But getting back to something else.

After many years, my rods now come in different mediums. Carbon fiber and two series of rods which have graphite bases. Are they good? Well I fish with them and since I do not want to jack up the price to some ridiculous level I do not advertise all that much. In fact you just read my advertising. I feel if you want to spend more of your hard earned money buying something that doesn’t meet or exceed my products go ahead. I’ve just given you an alternative to what the “glossy ad boys” are selling. Shops which sell my rods also experience larger profit margins because I’m not greedy on my end . But retailers will have to contact me. I’m really not out to beat down doors. It isn’t my style.

The list goes on to nets, floatant, tying tools, vices, vests and vest accessories. All of these products are just a little better or made so an angler need not be afraid of using his gear to the optimum levels. For instance,  if you smash a Knoll's landing net by falling over  a rock. Just go a buy a new one. Your still ahead of the many brands which overcharged you for a heavy varnish.  The concept didn’t happen overnight. I’ve been developing these simple attitudes and items for quite some time.

True or false? 

That brings me to the basis of this article. What products are good and what products are not. I think the best way to formulate this into a practical view point is to step back and become a novice angler for a moment. And then,  I’ll tell you what I’d tell you if you came to my shop in the middle of the summer in Pray, Montana 59065. Everyone around here knows where I am. Just ask.

The first thing you would notice as you came down my driveway and approached the shop is that I’m not on a principle road. The road is one mile of  gravel. Many city anglers  would say,  “I’m off the beaten track.” and that’s quite all right. I like it this way.  It keeps the rent down so I don’t have to drain your budget just to pay a landlord or a bank their share. But the Yellowstone river is right over there and  Mill Creek is right over here. Hell, what appears to be “distant and far from the action”  actually becomes closer and more in tune with the action. I can‘t expect everyone to understand what is close and what is not. I am well aware that many people who visit SW Montana  thinks that what he does is correct only because he read somebody else’s advertising.

The next thing you might notice is that the view from my place  is spectacular. I’m not in a mall. I also have a casting pond  to try out different rods. The only sound you will hear are the hackle birds crowing and the ducks on the pond quacking. The shop is well stocked but only with things I feel you might need. The selection of flies and feathers is probably larger then any other business in the Rocky Mountains. Hell, I don’t even show but about 25% of my flies on display. Every one of my customers know that the flies which I have displayed are the fly patterns  you may need to fish this area of the Rockies.  And, my customers know I have flies, necks and saddles  boxed by the hundreds or thousands  in the back room. That’s good for me and good for you. Most of my “stuff”  is considerably less in cost then other fly shop “merchandisers” who are pushing  to clear their inventory before the season has ended.

Now let’s  read about my beginner’s line of products. First off, most of the products which are being sold to trout fishermen are in the “seriously over kill” bracket. I believe a  beginner simply needs a beginner’s rod. That way if he or she wants to leave it in the garage in lieu of a tennis racket no one is seriously harmed in any financial aspect. And frankly, and I’ll pick on a few companies right now, there really isn’t too much of a difference between an expensive rod and a beginners rod. I’ll jump off track and cite a common occurrence which happens every season in the shop.

Each summer more then one angler comes through the door telling me that their “expensive rod” was broken due to a big fish. Well, again blame the glossy boys. I imagine every year countless thousands of people succumb to the beaconing call of advertising dollars and purchase these “spendy rods” to catch hatchery stocked trout which are about eight to ten inches long.  All these “spendy rods” can stand up to all the stress that these  midget fish can inflict. Then again,  when these same rods are brought into Western waters, many of them snap like twigs. The cost and design ratios which are calculated with a loss scenario for a guarantee and defect returns just doesn’t hold up well when the rod is fished in true “native” waters.  In other words, a lot of these rods are trash which the unsuspecting buyer, who has been reading all the useless dribble written to sell these  specific products, was unfortunately swallowed.

Some of these “spendy rods”  can not even cast well due to poor tapers and or material choices. But the ads and  societal attitudes attest for the sale of these inferior rods. It’s sad but true. Heck, some retailers won’t even consider selling a rod that is less then the exaggerated priced rods regardless if the rod sucks or not. They feel they might be giving up a few extra dollars in profit. What do the politicians say? “If you tell a lie enough people will begin to believe it.” It’s sad but true. I have people come in my shop and they won’t look at my rods even though they would lose a bet on their rod and my rod’s performance. These people  bought the advertising and not the product.  

Here’s another one regarding fly reels for trout. When you consider what a trout reel really does it simply holds the line in a convenient location between the time the angler leaves the stream on day one and reenters the water on day two. Graphite, platinum, stainless, titanium it really doesn’t matter what the reel that you use is made of. Chances are, if you are like millions of other anglers,   you will never hear the sound of the drag releasing line  other then when you pull more line off the reel for a greater distanced cast.   When I sell a reel in the shop I have the buyer listen to the sound  the reel  makes because this will be the difference of you and your fishing partner’s reel. Surprisingly,  there are a few models ( even my reels)  which sell for beginner’s prices which will suffice most anglers needs for many seasons. Then again you can be trapped by the spendy brands and the profit ”price points” which entice merchandisers in numerous ways to get a novice to purchase the pricier reel. Greed sometimes works in mysterious and opposite ways.

Now  back to the beginner. Once a beginner has selected a rod and reel,  which are within their price range and they are not “embarrassed” into buying,  a fly line is needed. Weight forward works well. You can fish nearly any creek , stream or pond or salt flat in the US with weight forward line. All of these other line products are for specifics and  to have a beginner sold a variety of lines “for additional spools” is utterly pointless. Basically either the line  floats or it sinks and a beginner doesn‘t need anything else. I’m sure right now some fly shop owner who is reading this is having a hissy fit. Sorry, but there is a new kid in town and he’s looking for your customer.

Lines are another interesting medium of advertising. By the end of the season all of my rod’s fly lines usually need to be replaced. This is due to constant use and the abrasive power that the lines receive on freestone streams and all the logs and obstacles I throw the line against or what they are dragged over by the water’s current. The major point where line has  become worn,  is the area of friction points from a “standard” cast. Let me explain.

I fish is the same areas for most of the summer. The casts on a daily basis are pretty much the same distance. Therefore the line will wear out first at the rod’s tip and at the point where the line is coming off the reel and wearing against the reel’s housing. Even the abrasiveness of my own fingers will cause wear.  Lines which are sporadically used can go through numerous seasons without too much attention. I instruct my patrons who ask what I do with my “still good” lines at the end of the season. Wipe these lines down with Knoll’s floatant, a jell based medium that is laced with some good stuff. This wiping will naturally fill any abrasions and slow down the oxidation process that naturally extends  the life of any vinyl, pvc or any  super secret fly line coating.

So have you had enough?  I can go on. Wait a moment I have to answer the phone.

Back again. Okay where was I? Oh,  fishing products.  In this day of  quick communication and  the practice of  saturation advertising,  which is  used by many of the corporate execs to embellish their products as well as their own egos,  is quickly coming to a close. Let me give you another example.

The phone call I just received was from a tier from Ohio. He was planning to tie  a few dozen  patterns for a trip out here next season. He knew what he wanted.  I was able to e-mail him a photo of the cape he was desiring. It was a cree/badger variant which makes a very tempting fly for Rocky Mountain creeks. He saw this particular fly in my shop last season.  This same angler  has now  side stepped the process which was the norm for so many years. He is now purchasing a product from a retailer a half a continent away and is having communication with this retailer on a very personal level. Maybe even more so then if he went into a local shop and got to speak with someone who just wanted to sell a stale neck that has been hanging on the wall for too long a time. But while the computer was running  I took a picture of a live bird. I sent it to him and he could see the feather count as well as color.  Good products,  communication  and service with a limited overhead can only make for a winning combination. Couple this with the fact that the local shops which handle my products are financially healthier then if they provided advertised products simply because word of mouth is a very powerful medium. Just wait until I begin to network my supplied shops and we begin to direct our customers to distant locations.  So now you know.

 Section two of this trilogy begins when you are ready.
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