By David Reese, Montana Living
Adam Trina knows bugs.
He knows where they live in rivers, what temperature it takes to hatch them, and where fish eat them. More importantly, he knows how to tie flies that look like them. Trina studied aquatic biology for four years at the University of Montana, has had a career in fly fishing and guiding, and helped launched Montana Fly Co., Montana's largest fly-tying company, with factories in three nations.
The company is housed in a nondescript, former post office building in downtown Columbia Falls. Long shelves line the walls, filled with boxes of flies waiting to be shipped to retailers. There are boxes of Dancing Caddises and Kiwi Damsels, Velcro Streamers and Angel Hair Pheasant Tails. A faint odor of formaldehyde permeates the air from the a tannery behind the shop, where the company tans its own elk and deer hides to save money on fly-tying supplies. The company sells about 1.2 million flies a year, a figure that's grown every year since the business was started in 1998. Montana Fly Co. has tying factories in Costa Rica, Thailand and Africa, and that's one of the keys to the business's success.
"We'd be out of business in a day if we had to pay American wages," Trina, the company president, said. In fact, the firm may be looking at other countries where labor is even cheaper. "The market is extremely competitive." Originally from Lake Placid, N.Y., Trina worked his way through college in Missoula by tying 120,000 flies a year. "I learned the proper use of materials, how to be fast and be efficient," he said. He guided fly fishing in summer, fished an average of 250 days a year, and after college looked for a way to apply his aquatic biology degree to real life. "I learned a bunch of stuff like Latin names of bugs that was not directly related to fishing, but it sounded good in the boat when I was guiding people," he said. "Most of what I learned about fishing came by fishing with people who were really good at it." Trina knew someone who had tried earlier to develop a fly company, but the idea was a little ahead of the market, and the business failed, Trina said.
"There was a market, but it just exploded after the movie came out," he said. Of course "the movie" was "A River Runs Through It," a film about fly fishing and Montana. The movie spurred the creation of dozens of fly shops, guides and outfitting businesses in Montana, on rivers that had once been mainly the exclusive sanctuaries of Montana locals. By the mid-1990s, the height of the fly-fishing boom, Trina said, the time was right for a new fly company in Montana. They lined up investors, set up their factory in Costa Rica and were off and running. The fly firm now employs 35 people in Costa Rica, 25 in Africa and 15 in Thailand. It has just five full-time and four part-time employees at its headquarters. Montana Fly Co. founders felt that even with nearly 40 percent of the fly market cornered by one supplier,Umpqua Feather Merchants, there was room for a startup company that produced high-quality, hand-tied flies. Aside from Umpqua, the rest of the fly market is split up among small companies like Montana Fly Co. and individuals who make money in their spare time by tying flies. "There's a lot of competition out there doing the same thing, but the growth rate (in the industry) is phenomenal," Trina said. "There's still a lot of demand. There are lots of people using lots of flies."
Trina and co-founder David Bloom were relative newcomers to business. Both could navigate a drift boat into the tightest holes for clients, but neither had run the waters of international business. Trina spent the first year getting used to working with spread sheets, profit-and-loss statements and balance sheets. He admits he was far more educated about aquatic bugs than accounting practices, but the firm's investors, who have keen business acumen, sit on the board and lend their help. Bloom lives in Costa Rica, where he oversees production and quality control.
"He's a major factor in the success of our company," Trina said. 'Without quality, we don't have a product. "Setting up a factory in a foreign country was no small task, especially for a couple of fishing guides," Trina said. Shipping between the United States and the foreign factories can be a paperwork nightmare; shipments may be held up at customs for weeks. It usually takes only a few days, but when salmon-fly hatching is really going off and the company needs to ramp up production, any delays can be costly. Flies and fish go through several stages in life, and the Montana Fly Co. has a fly to imitate each step along the way. It has flies that imitate a trout egg and flies that imitate a cripple, which is the stage where the insect is almost ready to fly out of the water. It has flies that imitate a minnow, and flies with foam rubber that imitate a floating grasshopper. In all, the company manufactures 600 patterns of flies, with 100 more being introduced this year.
It also does custom work for clients who send in a fly for mass production. Missoulian Angler has its own PK Skwalla tied by Montana Fly Co., and Greater Yellowstone Fly Fishers has its own extended-body Henry's Fork salmon fly. Fly fishing can be extremely complicated or very simple.
More important than being able to "match the hatch" is being able to find where fish live, Trina said. To this end, Trina likes to talk about lies. Not fish stories, but where fish live — their lies in the river. There are holding lies, prime lies and feeding lies, and feeding lies that can be prime lies, too. Got it? Trina reduces success in fly fishing to this simple statement: "You need to know where the fish live and why they're living there." Once you learn that, you really need only five or six different flies to be successful, Trina said. There's no substitute for plain old experience. "You can talk to experts, but unless you get out there and fish as much as you can, and be really observant of the weather and conditions, that's the only way to learn."