Made in (SW) Montana

It’s no secret that Montana is Mecca to fly fishermen. With hundreds of miles of wild rivers spread across an area the size of multiple Eastern states, supporting a healthy fishery with relatively little human population density, Montana remains the place to chase trout.

But many of the characteristics that make Montana a destination for fishermen—small towns, great distances, and wild country—make it unappealing to traditional manufacturing businesses. Which is why it’s all the more impressive that Montana—and southwest Montana in particular—has become a central hub and proving ground in the big business that is fly fishing. Fly fishing and its associated industries generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually—equipment sales alone totaled $151 million in Montana in 2011 (time of the most recent report).

The list of companies based in southwest Montana is long and respected: Winston, Ro Drift Boats, Bozeman Reel Company, Blue Ribbon Nets, Big Sky Rod Box, Sweetgrass Rods, Dr. Slick, and Simms, to name a few. The cost of living and working in the area is certainly higher than in more traditional manufacturing hubs, labor is harder to find, and shipping is costly and difficult—yet these companies and others like them are successful not only in spite of their location, but perhaps because of it.

Mike Westfall, who’s been making heirloom-quality Blue Ribbon Nets in Bozeman since 2000, was lucky enough to be born in southwest Montana. “It’s where I was raised,” he says, “and it’s where I choose to raise my family, to recreate, to work. Probably the greatest challenge of running my business here is balancing work and recreation—they’re always competing for my time.”

But beyond quality of life, fishing businesses in southwest Montana have another unique advantage: the ultimate R&D department. “Our backyard is our proving ground,” explains Bozeman Reel Company’s Dan Rice. “It’s tough to find a place where fishing takes such a center stage locally and nationally. There are a lot of people here who are enthusiastic (borderline obsessed) with fishing, and that community has helped us to prove our products.”

The area’s ubiquitous passion for fishing is also responsible for producing a uniquely educated and talented workforce—uncommon in most fishing destinations. “Bozeman is not a central manufacturing location nationally,” Rice admits, “but with the MSU engineering program and the talented people who are drawn to Montana, we’ve been able to assemble a high-quality team of professionals who are interested in seeing this business thrive.”

Finally, there’s a singular, almost mythic quality that is associated with products made by anglers, for anglers, in the heart of Montana’s finest water. “When you think of Montana, you think about fishing, hunting, boating, hiking, skiing,” says Westfall. “Being ‘Made in Montana’ definitely lends credibility to our products—I wouldn't want to build fishing nets anywhere else.”