Reeling in the fishing business

"Colorado is an outdoorsy state, but few cities are as good overall as Montrose.” ~Craig Baker Mayfly Outdoors

Millions of individuals across the United States and around the world enjoy fly fishing. Most of them have no idea that the Montrose area has quietly become the epicenter for fly fishing equipment over the past 30 years.

And why not? A river runs through it. The Uncompahgre River, the world-class Gunnison River just minutes away, and plentiful smaller creeks and tributaries provide built-in testing and proving grounds for rods, reels, and other fly fishing gear. That, coupled with affordable land, reasonable cost of doing business, extensive infrastructure, a skilled workforce, and an exceptional quality of life have helped make Montrose a contender in the fly fishing universe.

Three companies with international reach call Montrose home.

Ross Reels was the first to take root 43 years ago. Today it is part of Mayfly Outdoors, which also produces Abel and Charlton Reels, iconic brands in the fly fishing equipment industry.

Scott Fly Rod Company relocated to Montrose from Telluride in the mid90s, having begun in a basement on Cook Street in San Francisco in 1973.

Dr. Tom Whiting moved his company, Whiting Farms, from Fruita to an abandoned mink farm near Delta in 1989. The company produces highquality, exotic chicken feathers for fly tiers around the world.

Mayfly Outdoors

“Colorado is an outdoorsy state, but few cities are as good overall as Montrose,” said Craig Baker, Mayfly Outdoors vice president. “When we recruit, a big factor is the location. When folks find out how great it is here, it lends credibility to our brands because the lifestyle is symbiotic.”

In addition to plenty of places to fish, the area offers other outdoor adventures such as hunting, biking, and hiking.

“We’re a hub for the region and its outdoor lifestyle,” said Jeff Patterson, Abel Reels director of sales.

Mayfly — which takes its name from the most commonly imitated aquatic insect used in fly fishing — boasts a highly loyal following stemming from their use of exceptional finishes and fine machining details. Each product is essentially custom-made, using high-end, state-of-the-art equipment and processes located in the Montrose factory.

“It comes down to pride in making a great product,” added Baker. “Montrose has played a key role in sustaining our process.”

Ross Reels pays tribute to three of the best fly fishing rivers in the country, having named reels after the Animas, Cimarron, and the Gunnison, all western Colorado waterways.

Scott Fly Rod Company

The earliest fly fishing rods were constructed from wood, usually hickory or willow. Bamboo was also popular for a time, but graphite with its remarkable strength-to-weight ratio became the product-of-choice for rods in the ‘70s.

Scott Fly Rod was there to lead the charge under the direction of then-owner Harry Wilson, an engineer and avid angler.

Scott introduced a revolutionary new concept in fly rods: a nine-foot rod with a four-line weight. Prior, the standard fly fishing rod was eight feet, and building a nine-foot pole was considered impossible. Today it has become the industry standard.

Wilson hired his first employee in 1975, and business boomed.

“Montrose was a great fit for a small fly rod manufacturing company with employees who valued great access to fishing and the outdoors,” said Jim Bartschi, president of Scott.

The company has developed what it calls the “Scott Difference,” which focuses on handcrafting every rod it sells. The process involves cutting precise patterns from custom-made graphite materials, carefully creating cork grips, and wrapping each guide by hand.

Scott also cites access to public lands and great fishing as the top benefits of living and working in Montrose.

“The community values public lands, wildlife, and outdoor recreation, which means we have a great local pool of talent to draw from to handcraft our fly rods,” Bartschi added. “Montrose has a small community feel with growing access to the infrastructure needed to operate a business today.”

Whiting Farms

Whiting came to Colorado’s Western Slope with the idea of producing dry fly feathers and other products for the fly fishing industry. For his company, Whiting Farms, it’s all about the feathers.

In April 1989, he hatched his first Hoffman Hackle chicks. It takes anywhere from 12 to 24 months before the feathers from the specially-bred poultry are ready to harvest. They are multicolored, and some are as much as a foot long. Fly fishing enthusiasts have their pick of combinations that work best for them.

These aren’t your average barnyard “farmer-in-the-dell” chickens. The feathers are what’s important … the size, color, and amount.

From around 5,000 birds that first year, to more than 60,000 birds harvested in 2015, Whiting Farms has risen to become the largest and most dominant fly-tying feather producer in the world.

“The Western Slope is a good place to be,” said Whiting, who’s been involved in poultry breeding for decades. “I wanted to set up in a spot where I’d like to vacation. It’s nice out here.”

Whiting markets to retail consumers, usually fly fishing guides who offer fly-tying classes. He also sells to large operations such as Orvis and Cabella, but a large and growing sector of his products is making its way overseas.

Whiting says northern Europe has always been a strong market, and far-flung locations such as Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines have become homes to commercial fly-tying companies.

Whiting is one of a handful of feather producers world-wide.

Where work is play

All three companies say they have set their hooks in the Montrose area, and for good reason.

Mayfly is preparing for major expansion as it plans to bring all of its brands together under one roof in the coming years.

In March, the company partnered with the City of Montrose, Montrose County, Montrose Economic Development Corporation, Montrose Chamber of Commerce, and the State of Colorado in an agreement that made the relocation and expansion a reality and creates up to 54 full-time jobs over a five-year period.

“We feel strongly that the Western Slope is a great home base to grow outdoor product companies due to its proximity to outdoor recreation,” said Mayfly’s President David Dragoo. “It’s an attractive place to live and work.”

Mayfly’s dream of combining their manufacturing presence with an outdoor recreation and business park began to take shape this past summer when Dragoo announced his company had purchased around 125 acres along the Uncompahgre River, not far from downtown Montrose.

Beyond moving Mayfly’s manufacturing factory along the water and into a 35,000 square-foot building, Dragoo hopes the development will attract similar high-end, outdoor-focused companies to Montrose. In addition to the direct impact on the economy, the project will also benefit fish and wildlife areas along the river.

Montrose City Manager Bill Bell said a taxincrement financing district could be used to raise money to finance the infrastructure — such as lighting, utilities, and streets — with private companies financing their own facilities.

According to a study commissioned by Mayfly, the 10-year development period will add an additional 1,266 ongoing jobs and 593 ancillary jobs with a payroll impact of $81 million and an ongoing annual economic impact of $297 million.

Feeling at home in Montrose

Bartschi at Scott says his company is content in Montrose.

“In 2016, our payroll grew to more than 50 employees,” he said. “We’ve steadily grown and continued to provide more jobs in the community. Scott is invested in seeing Montrose continue to grow.”

Unlike Mayfly and Scott, Whiting said he can’t easily pick up and relocate due to the nature of his business.

“We’ve repelled several offers to sell out and move the company, but we’ve invested considerably in staff and facilities and are planning to stay,” Whiting said.

He also likes the neighborhood.

“It’s ironic that three world-class fly fishing companies, all very prominent within the industry, are within casting distance of each other,” Whiting said. He admits he doesn’t see much of his compatriots at Mayfly and Scott, but appreciates the synergy.

In addition to being home for three of the world’s most prestigious fly fishing businesses, Montrose is also home to hundreds of anglers who have discovered what these companies have known for a long time: Montrose is a place where lifestyle meets success.