MONITORING S.S. FLIES SALES TRENDS OFFERS A WINDOW INTO THE ANGLING WORLD.
Blame it on the spring crunch; a wave of gotta-have-it-now orders spiking from fly shops in need of trout flies, mainly. Enough demand to eliminate the possibility of a balanced schedule. A rush that made Peter Smith, the owner of S.S. Flies, think. Logic held that people would likely be fishing year-round where it was warm, and they would call for flies outside the insane spring production schedule up north. So he went on a road trip.
The year was 2002. Saltwater fly fishing was growing. Smith headed south. He called on every fly shop along Florida’s east coast down through the Keys, up the state’s west side to the Gulf. “It was a failed trip,” he said. “I nailed one account.You could tell people were thinking, Who’s this Yankee trying to peddle stuff? We can get what’s needed from one of the big fly supply houses.” But that one account made all the difference.
Saltwater Angler in Key West was founded in 1991 by Jeffrey Cardenas, a former guide turned entrepreneur, turned writer/photographer/adventurer now on the final scheduled year of his round-the-world (primarily single-handed) sailing journey. Curtis White was manager. The shop was a clearing house and hangout for visiting anglers, guides and occasionally the beau monde of the saltwater fly fishing world.
Smith discovered a potential niche needing filling. “There were few commercially available flies that the top captains wanted to fish,” he said. “True, many tied their own, but guides like Will Benson couldn’t craft enough to keep him fishing and was looking for someone to tie for him.” The best guides had their own exacting fly patterns or concepts that needed development. Smith dived in and word spread. Shortly, captains such as Bill Houze, Scott Irvine, Tom Roland, and others long gone began ordering from him.
As his reputation spread first in the lower keys and then South Florida, Smith wondered about developing a more lucrative retail market. He took a small ad in The Angling Report, which is focused on traveling fly fishers—that ad quickly produced a $200 order in one day, a $350 order the next, commencing a steady pipeline of activity. The decision was easy. In 2006, Smith launched the retail website S.S. Flies, which now produces 25,000 flies annually.
Two other tiers—Nate Gordon and Tom Blair—form the S.S. team, which is housed in a rustic shop next to Smith’s pleasant home that sits well back from the blacktop, no sign out, in Denmark, Maine. It’s bucolic country where Smith grew up and where he and Susan homesteaded. They raise and eat their own food—chickens, pigs, vegetables. “You don’t get the usual benefits, working here,” Gordon said, “but I get half a pig a year and all the produce I can pick.”
Characteristically, S.S. patterns are known for blending natural and synthetic materials, and for the quality of their ties. Smith’s materials sources range from a New York furrier (his amazing synthetic Fox Fur) to a California costume maker who specializes in Mardi Gras regalia.
He’s cornered the market on badger tails used on his Goat Belly Shrimp (more later). Other arcane, proprietary suppliers provide the kind of perfect bucktail, ostrich, and marabou that would make anyone who ties fairly weep with envy.
Along with feeding the pipeline for shops, lodges, and guides around the country, S.S. maintains a robust directsale inventory, and with several requirements custom-ties original creations for anglers. Technical fly construction embraces not only what and where specific materials are used but building a variety of foul and weed guards that are not “fish guards” too.
Where possible they use stiff synthetic materials that veil and protect the hook gap, keeping loose fibers from catching around the shank. On feather tails they’ll often tie hard mono on top of the material, loop it around and beneath the feather, then back up and through, capturing material in the loop.
The bent VinceGuard, originated by professor Vince Maggio, is formed using a piece of 60-pound fluorocarbon bent with the flattened end directly in line with the hook point. It’s not only effective but also sensitive enough that fish rarely bounce from it. Smith cut part of the jaw from electrician’s pliers in order to consistently clone the exact size of guard needed in production. The guard is used both on streamer-style patterns and the Weed Walker poppers, which, along with obvious freshwater bass assignments, can be fished in a dirty tideline in the salt or fired back into the mangroves. With a correctly formed VinceGuard, a Walker, and especially a light streamer that looks to be hung up back in the uglies, normally worms out like one of those old steelspring Slinkies humping down the stairs. Used on a fly stripped through mainly open water, it will prevent the hook from picking up a piece of floating weed—the killer that’s happened to us all just as a fish is coming to eat.
For crabs and other flies meant to crawl the bottom, S.S. uses a Single Post guard made of 20-pound hard mono sticking straight up or canted slightly forward, trimmed to just reach the point but not click on the hook.
S.S. freshwater patterns cover the gamut from warm water (pike, bass, muskie) to trout (streamers like their Fox Wiggle and Soft-Hackles being most popular), though they make up less than 10 percent of annual sales. “Mostly, I make them because I just like tying trout bugs,” Smith said.
The saltwater arena is where S.S. has clearly positioned itself in the fly market. One wonders about most popular patterns, of course, which can indicate trends in current angler focus. When asked, Smith doesn’t miss a beat. “Permit are hot,” he said. “What blew us away is that ten percent of our entire sales this year is in Camo Crabs. Of course, that’s for the Belize–Central America area.”
The Camos are those small, nickelsize patterns with prominent, articulated legs. S.S. developed a way to create multicolored carapaces. Belly weighting is a lead-epoxy convex cast piece made in molds to a size that produces just that right plop when the fly lands.
“But everywhere else,” Smith continues, “it’s our larger-size Permit Crab that’s tops.” That pattern features tails of scarce Cree feathers, and barred olive forming the claws that are spread-mounted to simulate a crab in defense position. S.S. builds them in a regular size 1 and heavier size0/1 large—for those situations where you need to “hit the fish on the head and have the fly immediately drop.” The Permit Crabs hold prominence—they account for wins and are usually on the leader boards at high-profile fishing competitions throughout the Southeast.
The redfish market continues to be strong for S.S. “Significantly, that’s because of the wide accessibility of the fish,” said Smith. “In many places you can wade for them.” Throughout the Southeast, the hottest S.S. patterns for reds include the bizarre pink and chartreuse Electric Chicken (I first saw the color scheme on a seven-inch plastic Slug-Go years back), though the same flies tied using more subdued root beer or black/purple Estaz are popular too. The wool-centric, marabou-collared, soft-landing Woolly Toad is a close second. But in Louisiana they want larger flies, and here the four-inch, heavy-eyed Dinah-Moe Drum is hot. Barred hackle and marabou give it life.
No surprise that forage fish imitations are still the preferred dish on the Northeast striper menu. The S.S. Bulky Bunker and Punky Meadows (named for the glam rocker featured in one of Frank Zappa’s tunes) are the top sellers. What’s still a semi-closet offering among the area’s closemouthed cognoscenti is crab patterns. Especially dark green with olive. “They’d be more popular if people knew stripers eat crabs the way they do,” Smith said. Of course, fishing them right requires a lot of patience. But that’s another story.
I’ve always wondered, do more anglers target bonefish than tarpon? An accurate survey would be interesting. The S.S. inventory is about even in patterns for both species. Number one bonefish sellers fluctuate, but S.S.’s Foxy Gotchas are often in first place. However, Smith considers his Goat Belly Shrimp to be the top bonefish fly overall. It features fine cashmere goat fur belly, with sparkly, crinkly-stiff, and translucent badger tail as the carapace.
The number of tarpon patterns for niche situations seems ever growing. There are patterns for laid-up ’poons, oceanside cruisers, resident fish, migratory schools, jungle rivers, flats, channels, deep holes, happy surface rollers—it’s endless. Still, the S.S. Duke of Poons has grabbed high-bar status for multiple conditions wherever tarpon are fished. It features an inverted bunny tail, a head of sparkle-infused marabou, a Bird Fur collar, and it comes in four different colors. In use it produces a slim profile and suspends better than many skinny tarpon patterns. Yet among some of the top Keys captains, another pattern is taking over, especially for laid-up fish or those simply being contrary. It’s the Fox Fur Tarpon Fly. The pattern has a wide profile yet lands like a whisper due to the hollow-style tie of the long fiber fox fur. When stripped, the collar-body collapses, then flares out. The tail is barred bunny. Though it comes in five colors, black-and-purple is a captains’ favorite.
Most S.S. saltwater flies are tied on Gamakatsu hooks, some on Owners when a heavier weight is needed. Daichi hooks are featured on most trout patterns.
A common thread is characteristic among creative tiers and anglers like Smith. It’s the constant quest for answers—the reasons why. It’s inherent in thoughts behind the building of new patterns and in all fishing. “It’s great having a guide pole you to a place where you’re going to cast to a fish that’s going to eat,” Smith said, “but I want to know why that spot, and if that place isn’t going, why we’re going to move . . . what the right tides are for that spot. And why we should need a different fly. That’s as much fun as casting to the fish that’ll eat.”
That said, and given the man’s fortune to have fished for about everything that swims, you wonder what continues to light his fire. “Oh, I dream about trout bugs—hatches,” he said. “But tarpon still get my knees wobbling. Not bonefish, not permit. You cast at one of those big things [tarpon], you see its gills flare, and your stomach jumps. And you know havoc is going to break out.” —Jerry Gibbs