By Lindsey Rhynard
Great curves, smooth moves, inner strength and pure class are tough find - but Jason Cajune can show you right where to look.
Since 1996 Cajune's company - Montana Boat Builders - has revolutionized the boat-building business in Montana and around the world. That's a big feat for a guy who grew up in a state that's mostly solid ground. Cajune started working with old wooden boats as a kid, and a livelihood building boats followed.
Cajune started driving wooden boats in Glacier National Park when he was 17. Next to his grandfather Cajune helped care for the fleet of old wooden motorboats in Glacier National Park. Every summer until he was 25-years-old Cajune could be found driving, planking, framing and caulking the fleet boats. He acquired skills usually found on the East Coast.
It was 1996, in the middle of the dotcom era, that Cajune and his wife, Vedra, began Montana Boat Builders in Whitefish. Cajune recognized the need for something better than heavy, boring fiberglass and plastic fishing boats. "No one out there was making yacht-quality fishing and hunting boats," Cajune said. "There was no reason why you'd want to be in them."
Meeting an unspoken demand from the fishing world, Cajune combined traditional boat-building techniques and materials with modern technology. The result was lightweight, extremely strong, smooth and eye-catching drift boats and river boats.
Like most new businesses, especially in Montana, some time passed before Montana Boat Builders took off.
In three years it grew from a husband and wife team in a cramped shop with barely enough room for one boat, to five employees, two large shops and an office in Montana's Paradise Valley, close to all the rivers where their boats can be tested.
Cajune credits the growth and success of Montana Boat Builders to the Internet. The company's first 10 boats were sold off its Web site, which Cajune said now accounts for 70 percent of their business. Cajune sends boat plans to customers across the world including New Zealand, Australia and France. Many of his customers are father/son teams that want to build a boat in their own garage.
In fact, unlike the traditional Montana business person, Cajune rarely meets his clients in person, yet he works with each and every customer to build and customize the perfect craft. When it comes to drift boats, one size does not fit all. Each of his customers fishes in different waters, and Montana Boat Builders creates a boat to fit their style and technique. "A lot of my job is being a consultant," Cajune said. "Very few customers know exactly what they want in a boat, but 50 percent know they want the very best."
From custom shapes and widths to leather seats and built-in coolers, Cajune's boats are not average, run-of-the-mill drift boats. They are renowned for their eye-pleasing designs, exceptional toughness and outstanding performance.
Every boat uses Cajune's smart technology, "an air-filled, honeycomb core sandwiched with Kevlar, fiberglass and carbon. This "sandwich" is the only part of the boat that isn't wood. It is a super-lightweight, extra-strong layer of materials. The rest of the boat is wood which, said Cajune, "just works better." It has always - and still does - work great on boats especially because it feels smoother on the water. The inside and bottom of each boat is sprayed with polyurethane truck-bed liner to keep it strong, durable and functional.
Customers can choose a shiny or natural oil finish. There's also an oil finish that ages naturally and never needs to be sanded. The oil finish wears like an old baseball bat. It gets the patina - or richness - and you just keep oiling it like a wood floor. Cajune said many people believe that wood is bad and that fiberglass boats are a shiny, low-maintenance and lightweight alternative. All fiberglass boats come from a mold and every one is identical.
Montana Boat Builders has changed the way fiberglass boat builders do business. Cajune's heaviest boat is the Kingfisher Recurve. It's 17 feet long and weighs only 350 pounds. A fiberglass boat the same size weighs about 500 pounds, he said.
With Cajune's reputation for making eye-catching, functional boats, there's a long waiting list of clients. Since not everyone needs or wants a boat with all the bells and whistles, Cajune stressed that his boats fit a wide spectrum of fishing enthusiasts from "trout-bum guides to affluent collectors and sportsmen."
He is proud of how his boats work - of how they row and feel in water - and that they're not just a pretty face. "These boats can be used hard," he said. "You can fish, row, hit rocks all day every day and track sand in and out. They're meant to be a tool and they look good doing it."