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20 Years in the Fly Fishing Business
This fall marks Mike Hogue's Badger Creek Fly-tying's 20th year in business. He never thought he would be in business that long.
This fall marks my 20th year in business. I never thought I would be in business this long. I started as a commercial fly tyer. I tied flies and sold them to fly shops, tackle stores and for individuals. I originally started this as a part time business I could do if I was laid off or to make a few bucks for some fishing trips. I started attending shows the first year I was in business. My earliest shows were actually craft shows in northwest Arkansas. I sold shadow boxes and loose flies. These shows were heavily attended. As I recall there were something like 20 different craft shows going on in various places in that area during the spring and the fall.
Mom counted my money
Thousands of people attended these shows with busloads of people coming from all over the Midwest. Many of the shows were held in open fields and parking lots with large banquet style tents. People from regions of the country have no idea how big a deal this is. The first show I attended was held in an old mall and the main attraction was the ease of parking and it was open later at night. It also had heat, light, air conditioning and was dry if it rained. My early show partner was my Mother. Mom helped set up, helped ring up sales, counted my money, filed my sales tax report and kept my books. She printed out signs and talked to customers. I tied flies and told fishing stories. I would select a fly pattern, demonstrate how to tie it and what materials to use. Folks started asking me how to tie stuff and then wondered where they could get the materials. I came up with the idea of selling the materials with a published list of patterns on it. Believe it or not it was quite revolutionary to sell materials, show how to tie it, and give away a pattern. For more info about the craft fairs go to: nwacraftfairs.com.
Before the days of the internet
Nobody also sold "men's" things at these shows since so many items were decorative and focused on women. Given how much fishing there was in the surrounding area, bored husbands flocked to my booth to scoop up flies, to talk about fishing and watch me tie flies. As part of the craft show I was interviewed by one of the local papers and a local TV crew did a segment profiling me. I think the article was in a regional crafters guide as well.
At one of these craft shows I happened to meet the son of the owner of a material company based in Northwest Arkansas, Swarfaco. The owner of the company Lloyd Swarf had created a new product with the help of Bill Black from Spirit River and Renee Harrop: CDC. Along with CDC he began processing various kinds of duck, geese, chicken, and turkey feathers. I was one of his early customers.
By developing industry contacts I began seeking out various other material sources. . I was one of the early Whiting dealers in my home state of Iowa and I had early accounts with R.C. Rumpf and Hareline. Keep in mind this was long before the days of the internet. Sources were hard to find, materials weren't readily available and many of the offerings were pretty limited
Many of the items I specialized in were difficult, unusual or hard to find. I had to work really hard to locate sources. If I saw something, I would write for a catalog, call the company or I would ask for samples. I developed an extensive list of names, places, and companies to buy things from, none of which were easy to find.
Along the way I meet some interesting people. One of my early partners and fishing buddies was a fellow that had a commercial fly tying contract with L.L. Bean. He tied something like 150 gross dozen of black stoneflies one season. He also tied mini jigs he sold at shows, fairs, and fishing tackle swap meets. He gave me some of my earliest advice and told me to buy, trade or swap stuff until it hurts. He also advised me not to haggle about the price, if I thought I could make money off of something to buy it on the spot. Over time, I've bought materials, reels, rods, bags, furs, hackle, hooks, vests and focused on fly fishing goods. I've traded for almost anything you can imagine.
...buy, trade or swap stuff until it hurts
I started adding more shows. Some shows were pretty good, some crappy and some okay. I attended sport shows, boat shows, outdoor shows, TU and FFF conclaves, club meetings and all sorts of events. One of the biggest I ever attended was the Omaha Outdoor show. It was held in a giant auditorium on three levels over 5 days. Something like 50,000 people went to this show. I also discovered that more people didn't necessarily mean more money or more sales. I soon focused on fly fishing shows and picked events that had good crowds. I began to like customers from Texas. They'd ask me, "How much is it and do you have change for a hunert?" ($100 bill). For a link to the Omaha Outdoor Show go to: omahaboatsportsandtravelshow.com/omaha/features
Between Tom Clancy and Supertramp
I was one of the earliest internet retailers in 1995. I believe my fly fishing site is now the oldest continuously running fly fishing site still in existence. Early on I was profiled by Apple Computer. Apple ran a series about companies and people using their products and I was put in between Tom Clancy the author, and the rock group Supertramp. I was selected as one of the 100 best internet companies by an independent website group. My website began as something of a strange combination of luck and happenstance. I contacted the editor of a magazine and pitched some fishing stories. It ended up my ideas were rejected because at the time I didn't take photos. I was just a writer. I took some of the material I intended to publish in magazines and used that as the basis of my web site.
I tried some innovative stuff like using the scanner to take pictures of flies. I had friends shoot photos and I scanned pictures, and everything I could find for images. As I enhanced the website, the sales kept coming in. Originally, if you bought something from me, you sent me a check and I'd send the stuff off. It wasn't until a few years later that Pay Pal started and I could take credit cards via Pay Pal. This was all so new it was hard to keep up. We just had to keep up as best we could.
All over the world
Over time I sold stuff all over the world. Some memorable customers included a lab tech person that was stationed at Antarctica. This young fellow that had to stay up to make sure that the station was running, otherwise some bad things would happen. He worked 6 months and took 6 months off. Imagine being a young guy not making a car payment, no rent and getting a plane ticket any place in the world. Depending on the month of the year, he'd go fishing in New Zealand, Argentina, Chile or Montana. I would send his order to his sister in Indiana, she repacked it with cookies and it went to Antarctica aboard a military transport. I suspect I am one of the few retailers that has ever sold stuff in Antarctica.
Another memorable customer was a Russian Oil executive. His partner was a fellow from New York City. The partner would come up to see me once every 6 months or so from the City and buy waders, reels, fly lines, rods, saddles, hooks, and a whole bunch of other stuff. He would take it over to Russia for my customer since it was such a pain to try and mail anything there. Communicating was tough, his English sucked and I don't know Russian. It often took many times to clarify what it is he wanted .
Another was the first "Halloween" customer that wanted one of everything I sold dropped in his "treat" bag. He claimed to be a Professor at an Asian university and his wife supposedly was the daughter of some prince. It was all quite strange and I sold and delivered hundreds of items. For some odd reason he could not understand how a spool and reel worked. I explained many times that spools interchange and he was saving money. He wanted no part of it and I was to promptly send him "empty" frames as he requested. As I recall his order involved something like 80 to 90 pages of emails for all the stuff he wanted.
At the end of the 90's my wife Laura was contacted by Cornell and asked to apply for a faculty position in the English Department. A few months later we packed up the house and the business and moved to Ithaca, NY,
Straighten up or be eaten alive
When Laura and I moved to New York, I started attending shows in the east. The first International Fly Tying Show I attended I was pretty much of a bust. I had stuff all over my tables, my products weren't organized and I took too long to make sales. My space was tiny and I had a bad selection. A friendly Bill Keough was across the way from me and gave me a big lecture. He told my display was a mess, I took too long to ring up sales and I was badly organized. He told me I wasn't in Iowa anymore and this was the World Series and Super Bowl of fly fishing shows all rolled into one. He told me to straighten up or I was going to get eaten alive. For more info about the International Fly Tying Symposium go to: nternationalflytyingsymposium.com.
He told me to straighten up or I was going to get eaten alive
After that show I thought long and hard about what he said. For the January Somerset show, I moved the cars out the garage got a tape measure and laid out my booth with masking tape on the floor. I rehung stuff, reorganized as best as I could. I also remembered an old jig tyer that sold jigs across from me at a sport show in Iowa. That old guy had a nail apron and sat in a chair, he'd scoop up cash, hand out the change and wrap the customer's order up before I even opened my cash drawer. I got a nail apron, changed my pricing and switched how I recorded daily sales. I found I was able to wait on 4 or 5 people at once, make change and complete the sale.
My hard work paid off
The night before that first Somerset show I was so nervous, I couldn't sleep. Laura came with me that trip and I think between us we got about 2 hours of sleep. The show started and customers mobbed my booth. I was sold out of a lot of stuff on the first day and was amazed at the sales. It was quite a change from the shows in the Midwest. All of my hard work paid off.
As my business grew, I had to choose between making goods or reselling them. I met several early internet tyers overseas. It took a long time for me to wrap my head around the idea of selling imported flies. I soon discovered people that were as passionate as me about making good things to sell. They had different values, a different culture and a society with wages at different levels than western society. With overseas labor I am able to provide jobs and wages to people way above their current earnings. I improved the quality of the flies I sold, I am able to offer custom designed flies that fit our region, and reduced the costs by 50-75%. The net result is I am able to sell flies with a higher return, better quality, with a locally designed product and lower prices. Some recent fishing trade magazines have been touting fair world trade. I've been doing that for years by providing work to folks that need it and I eliminated many of the costs in the product. I also have been very careful about who I work with.
The roof leaked
After living awhile in Ithaca, we bought a house in the country that had an old barn. I began the process of restoring the building that eventually would become my store. More than once I almost threw in the towel after getting really frustrated about the restoration process. The barn was leaning to one side, the footers were bad and there was a gap of around 42" in one corner of the building. The roof leaked and there were such big holes in the walls that birds flew in and out. With the help of several people I installed concrete footers and stabilized the base. We put a new metal roof on and installed new authentic New England style board and bat siding. Eventually, the place started taking shape. All through this process my wife was unbelievably supportive and put up with more than a few messes.
About this time I had some interesting sales. I had been importing tools, flies and materials from various places for many years. One of my sources had wonderful set of saltwater pliers which I sold on my site, at shows and to my mail order customers. I was contacted by a consultant that wanted to offer the pliers as a prize for new members that signed up for the club he was representing. He asked me if I could get him several thousand pliers. After some checking, I was able to order them for him at a very reasonable price. Getting them here was a bit of a challenge and I ended up going to New York City and spending a day checking them through customs. I vividly remember literally running from building to building just in time to get my documents reviewed and stamped. I barely finished the paperwork in time to get them out the door before the freight company closed. It ended up I sold around 18,000 pairs of pliers, which was a considerable sum of money for me. Because of the sale I was able to complete the building and finish the interior.
Terrorists and scammers
Just after 9-11, I got an order from an overseas tool maker. This fellow happens to live in Pakistan and has a Muslim name. When the package was delivered, it had about 50 rolls of tape surrounding the box with the words, " examined for terrorist materials " stamped all over the box. Keep in mind these were hemostats, scissors and pliers. The extra tape was many, many inches thick and took me a considerable amount of time to cut through all this junk. Finally, below this was the box that had the original banding on it. The contents of the box were clearly labeled on the customs forms and manifest. That was a different time.
Around this time I also had my first internet scam. A "customer" sent me a "washed" check and if I had not taken the time to verify it and double check it, I would have been out several thousand dollars. Another scammer had an even bigger ego to do what he did. I have published free patterns for customers to download, and use as they see fit. This fellow copied my patterns put them into his catalog and sent me a price list asking me if I'd like to buy my designs. The unbelievable gall of this pirate knew no bounds when he contacted me about another pattern of mine and asked for the source of the materials. Likewise, I've had companies and individuals steal and reuse images and written material I've created without my permission. One "author" for a major newspaper chain, copied one of my articles word for word and published it under his name in a local newspaper with no credit or by line given to me. Another famous how-to web site, copied several of my stories and posted them as original content under their name. Given the kinds and amount of piracy, I learned to respect designers, authors, artists and creative or music people. I try to always purchase and pay for anything I use. I dislike those that rip off artists and creative people in any form.
Wow, I really got this published
I started writing for an early club magazine in the late 80's and early 90's. They had a contest and wanted articles for the club newsletter. I wrote an early story about using peacock herl for the backs of flies. I was so pleased with the story that I started writing other things for the club. Keep in mind I am a business school graduate that I learned about accounting, marketing, management and transportation in college. Writing was a chore I never really enjoyed. Through technology I learned to love writing and by using new tools I was able to accomplish this. Very likely, if computers hadn't become so widely available, none of this would have happened.
I began to write about fishing trips, fly patterns and also how to tie them. I was asked to submit patterns for books, other newsletters and also several new websites. I think the first national article I wrote was for the FFF National magazine, The Fly Fisher. I wrote a piece about Dave Whitlock's cricket nymph. I contacted Dave and asked him if I could use some of his artwork and a few weeks later I got a letter back telling, sure go ahead. I sent the piece off and the editor contacted me about a few changes and about 4 months later it showed up. I must have worn the ink off that magazine looking at the article and thinking, "Wow, I really got this published."
I was officially a writer
My wife has served professionally as an editor for many different academic publications and she has published material in several books and all sorts of journals. I was contacted by Dave Hughes and he asked me to write a piece on some patterns I originated for the Fly Fishing and Tying Journal. I asked my wife to help edit the story. She reluctantly agreed. Now I don't know if you recall the scenes in the "River Runs Through It" where Norman's Father is teaching him how to write but that was pretty much the case with Mike and Laura.
I wrote the first draft which Laura told me to redo it in double space for her to edit. I did and watched patiently while the Master reviewed my article. Zing, cross, circle and finally she said "Here!"
My carefully crafted story was a sea of red ink, I looked up and she said, " It needs some work." With my head down, I went back to work. This process repeated itself several times (I think 7) until she said:
"Is that the last draft?"
"Yes", I said.
She said, "Mail it! It will be fine."
I sent if off and Dave accepted it, I was so excited. I got the check and I was "officially" a writer.
I have since published many articles and magazine stories. I've been in books, magazines, websites, regional and national publications. I have been published overseas in the UK's Fly Dresser's Guild and I did a piece for Adirondack Life which is a life style magazine. I've also learned to take photos and now include them in my stories. I'd like to experiment with video and podcasts so as stuff gets easier and more available to use, I'll try what I can.
Hundreds of newsletters
For many years, I published a printed catalog that I put in customer's orders. I spent weeks writing, pricing and adding products. I spent many more weeks mailing this and spending time at the bulk mail center and the thing cost me a ton of money to publish, mail and send. About this time I also started a monthly special flyer that I put in the orders that was very effective. I listed new products, special buys and deals customers could take advantage of. About 15 years ago I came across a bulk email program that allowed me to send out a newsletter. I gathered addresses from email, clubs and groups that allowed me to use their lists. I believe I was one of the first fly shops to offer this to customers. I traded the monthly flyer for the newsletter and it has been a big hit. I am just amazed at how successful that has been.
Over the years I've also sent out hundreds of newsletters. Our newsletter goes out more or less once a month to around 4,000 customers. What makes my newsletter different is that it is written with no photos. When I started, the internet was very slow, so you couldn't send images quickly. I find the written word is still cool. This is sort of a retro thing as a throw back to the old Herter's and Feathercraft catalogs. Both these catalogs had loads of written pages with few photos and only simple line drawings. Herter's product claims were famous for expanding reality. While Ed Story's Feathercraft catalogs often it made it sound that by using some of their products that fish would catch themselves. Customers used to love reading this stuff, so I think it appeals to them. If cross these two, toss in some PT Barnum, a bit of early Walmart merchandising and add a bit of humor, you get my newsletter.
The newsletter is about fly fishing, shows, trips, patterns, how to buy rods, tips to repair tackle. I try to avoid the main stream, old hat and or boring topics. I try to write about a fly fisher's life and also about people I meet. Recently, I discovered that my style is similar to John Gierach. My approach is somewhat different in that I also want folks to learn about different things. I also try to be upbeat, encouraging and interesting .
I make you use your imagination and I also make fun of some the crazy stuff we do as fly fishers. I'd like to think it takes you back to some of the magic of years ago when you poured over catalogs and dug through pages of stuff to find the right fly, pattern, material, rod, line or reel. While I try to have fun, my wife reminds not to be hurtful or unkind and to respect others. I think we've gotten overly sensitive as a culture and could use a few more laughs. Learning to laugh at ourselves only makes things more interesting.
Over the years we've made some good friends in the fly fishing business and met wonderful people. I've sold stuff to people from all walks of life. We've traveled to lots of places and also fished in many spots. It's been fun. Not sure what the next 20 will bring but if it's half as interesting as the past 20, we should have lots of interesting new places to see and lots of new customers to meet. Thanks to my wife, family and the many customers that have helped me get this far.