Reeling in a big fish

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Last year, woodworker Al Swanson of Helena, Mont., decided to build a prototype of a wooden fly box, pairing fine woods with precise craftsmanship. Once he and an employee figured they had the perfect box, he shipped it to Orvis, the largest fly angling retailer in the world.

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After a wait, Swanson got the reply he was hoping for: Orvis loved the boxes and wanted them in its catalogs.

Swanson has been a professional woodworker for more than 20 years and trained in Maine. He runs A.L. Swanson Craftsman Studios in downtown Helena, near some of the country’s most popular trout waters. He has a retail showroom and created the fly boxes to have something available for sale at a much lower price point than a dining room table, for example.

“I am a fisherman so I really know what I’m looking for in the quality and functionality of a box, not just the aesthetic,” Swanson says. “So it was fun to take a very utilitarian plastic container and turn it into functional art. We started prototyping and came up with the perfect sizes, the perfect weight and even a tie-off post in the corner so you don’t drop it and have it float away. We really thought of everything functionality wise.”

Al Swanson and his wooden fly boxes.

His idea to name the boxes after Montana rivers, including Blackfoot and Madison, hooked Orvis.

“They loved the fact that it was Montana, Montana, Montana,” Swanson says. “I sent them off and just prayed. They go through a rigorous testing process to check them out and they came back with a thumbs up. They wanted to feature them in their fall catalogue last year and I was completely taken back. Now we’re in the position where we went with the biggest company in the industry and they bit and now they want us to produce a pretty large number of them and that has just changed the scope of our business.”

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Swanson and his two employees have since made more than 1,000 boxes, which are selling fast. They feature inlays of flies on the front and different interiors to meet specific needs.

“Fly fishing requires varying types of lures where you try to mimic different types of flies and those are what the fish actually eat. So as a fisherman you’re going to have dozens and dozens of types of flies to attract the fish in the body of water you’re fishing in,” Swanson says.

Now Orvis wants Swanson to prototype a fly fishing net. He’s never made one but another big order would be a nice catch.

Contact: Al Swanson Craftsman Studio, 863 Great Northern Blvd. Helena, MT 59601. Tel: 406-443-3342. www.alswanson.com.

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