One of the industry’s leading fly rod makers offers his thoughts on rod design, jargon, and the sport’s “next big thing.”
[by Zach Matthews]
Scott Fly Rods is one of the leading fly rod manufacturers in the world, and one of the few remaining rodmakers to build all of its products in the United States. Its president, Jim Bartschi, began working for the firm as a teenager. Recently, he answered five questions regarding Scott’s philosophy and recent success.
1. This year Scott explicitly stated in its sales materials there is no “magic material that makes our fly rods great,” even though the marketing folks might like to use that as a selling point. In your opinion, what makes a killer fly rod?
Think of it like this: compare an accomplished chef like Joel Robuchon or Eric Ripert to other chefs. Why do these guys consistently set the bar in the kitchen, when every other chef has access to the same raw materials and tools, and even the same sources and suppliers?
The answer lies in the uncommon chef’s singular dedication to each detail of their craft, whether it’s developing a highly trained and motivated team, or a commitment to using the best ingredients, tools, and techniques, or a constant focus on improvement. Settling isn’t an option for them. Great ingredients help them achieve their goals but aren’t the determining factor in the results.
As rod designers, we can control seven major variables-—taper, fiber, resin, pattern, process, components, and presentation (or aesthetics). Each choice, and how those choices combine with each other, really determine the end result.
Even little details—like a rate of change in mandrel diameter of .0001 inches per inch, or a .01 inch change in the geometry of a pattern—can make a difference in the dynamic response of a rod blank. The same also applies to components. Guides aren’t just something for the line to go through. They impact the way the rod feels, how it’s finished, and how it holds up over time.
Anyone can go out and buy the fiber or resin systems used in any fly rod made today, and that’s really the point of my chef analogy. There is no secret material that makes a rod great. There are unique ways of applying the available materials to rod design and building, and I think that’s where you see the differences between rods.
2. Armchair quarterbacks discuss rods using terms like “swing weight,” “flex ratings,” and “fast action” versus “slow.” As a rod designer, is the peanut gallery even having a recognizable conversation, or are they all out in the weeds?
They’re absolutely having a recognizable discussion. Fly rod behavior is really complex and has never been fully described mathematically. Those terms are the jargon we have to discuss these complex dynamics, and I think most fly fishers try to keep themselves well informed. Choosing to fly fish in the first place implies some level of enjoyment of a complex subject matter. Otherwise, why not just sit on a lawn chair and wait for the bobber to go under?
3. Scott has never gotten away from its core product. You don’t make reels, you don’t make waders, and you don’t make fly lines. Why not, when so many of
your competitors have expanded into all these categories?
Fly fishing is a very small niche industry serving a very small niche sport. We’re also a sport where passions run deep, and traditions are as important as innovations.
That doesn’t say mass produced, commodity grade products and services to me. I think it speaks to small batch, finely-crafted products made from the best materials available, and to highly personalized service.
To succeed, a company does not need to be all things to all people, or to compete in every segment of an industry. Sometimes specialization, commitment, and focus can actually be more successful. I think there is something remarkable about handcrafting every Scott in our own shop since we started in 1974.
4. Do you care if Scott Fly Rods is still building rods in the year 2100? If so, how do you nurture a company for
So far, we’ve been able to thrive doing one thing for 41 years: handcrafting high performance fly rods. I think if we remain focused on innovation, quality, and our team, Scott can continue doing that far into the future.
5. We hear a lot about “disruptive” ideas these days, especially out of Silicon Valley. When was the last time fly fishing went through a truly “disruptive” moment, and do you see anything on the horizon with the potential to shake the industry up again?
I think truly disruptive innovations in fly fishing are rare. Polarized glasses in the ‘40s, plastic coated fly lines in the ‘50s, graphite in the ‘70s, breathable waders in the ‘90s, information in the new millennium. If we get one every 10 to 20 years, that’s fantastic.
That doesn’t mean fly fishing lacks innovation. I think the products we have today in each of those categories are the best ever made. I see frequent refinements and improvements in materials, design, quality, fit, finish, and information flow that certainly enhance my own fishing experience.
I think the most likely areas to deliver another breakthrough will come from the composites industry, information technologies, or the fabric industry. The rapid pace of developments I’m seeing in those industries will most likely produce the “next big thing.”
Zach Matthews is a frequent contributor to American Angler and other outdoor publications. Visit his website and blog, www.itinerantangler.com.