Months ahead of our initial trip I sent a box of materials down with some vises and tools for Patrick to get familiar with the catalog of flies. We knew Patrick loved tying for the lodge and would be the best person to get a team of tiers interested in the new jobs we would be trying to create.
Fast forward a year after Steve and I spoke on the dock about starting a fly company in Guanaja. Before I knew it, I was dragging a dozen Regal Revolution Vises in my backpack and two 50 lb+ cases of materials through Newark Airport, Houston, Roatan and finally to Guanaja. TSA and Customs officers globally do not love a brass Regal Pocket Base or 7 in your carry-on luggage. This had gone from a concept to a real-life trial run for Guide Flies in less than a year. Steve and I were all in at this point.
“If you build it, they will come.” It was a line from Field of Dreams that I use to watch as a kid and it must have stuck with me. We had the confidence in our flies, a network of fly shops and customers that wanted to support us and we knew our flies were proven. With space to start up at the new lodge, it was something we had to try. Honestly, there were some moments in the days before the first trip down I started questioning my own sanity. Organizing and packing down all the materials, regular travel gear and fishing gear was no small task. I had no idea how fast we would initially tie through our supplies. At least our friends and families believed in us.
For me, there were still a few big questions to answer like who would our tiers be? Would enough people even want to be fly tiers in Guanaja for us to start a sustainable company? What potential challenges had I not planned for? It was going to take a three week trip to the new Fly Fish Guanaja Lodge and Guide Flies Headquarters to see what we could achieve.
I actually had a really good feeling that finding great tiers wasn’t going to be our biggest challenge. Steve and I came up with the initial selection of flies to supply the Fly Fish Guanaja and Faraway Keys Heli Salt clients, and with that the concept for our custom fly boxes was born.
I could see from the pictures they were sending me back that we already had the most important parts covered, leadership and talent. Patrick was teaching his wife Claudia, Rankin’s son Oddy and lodge staff who were interested in the finer points of fly tying. Together they were learning and building each other's skills.
The flies were already better than 95% of the stuff you could ever buy from a commercial fly company, and they were getting the local guide’s touch. Our guides taught us how to add just the right amount of weight, with the right color materials, and the perfect rubber legs to match the creatures crawling on the Guanaja flats. All those components normally get standardized for every single “catalog fly”, and never get matched to the local bonefish and permit behavior and preferences. That’s kind of where the name for Guide Flies came from.
Our tiers were motivated to learn and naturally held each other to very high standards. These were the flies that their family members or fathers would be making their living fishing with. These were much more than just flies to them. Each one was being treated like a reflection of their reputation. If eyes or legs pulled off the fly you tied, you could be very sure that Rankin or any of the other guides would be giving you some real honest feedback! If the hook ever flattened out and caused a missed hookset, there was going to be something to hear about when they came in. It made all the difference in the world to start a fly-tying company with some of the best flats guides in the game sitting at the table as we refined each fly for the new catalog.
After three plane and short boat ride, we were at the new Fly Fish Guanaja lodge property in Mangrove Bight. As it turned out, we had no shortage of interest in jobs at Guide Flies.
We got all the gear set up in the downstairs office until the beach “cabin” was cleared out for us. It was time to test my fly instructing skills. This wasn’t any old Saturday morning tying class at the local fly shop. This took every bit of skill I had ever acquired in instructing, communicating, listening, patients and leadership.
It was time to see who just wanted a job and who really wanted to work. I had chosen right off the bat to start off with a complex but important fly for the lodge, the Kung Fu Crab. Our version uses a body wrap, instead of cross tying EP material like is usually called for. I also used a different material to harden and shape the claws, so there was a learning curve associated with the expensive UV resins. I was quickly learning that not every material behaves the same in tropical humidity as it does in our cool, dry tying rooms at home.
A big focus on teaching production tying is the steps and prep. I also wanted to make sure we set small, achievable goals for the new tiers so that I wouldn’t overwhelm them. If you took 45 minutes walking them through their first Kung Fu Crab and told them they should be able to tie 45 in a day, you’d have some major stress. It takes years for most people to tie a dozen of anything perfectly, let alone an entire catalog of saltwater and trout flies.
These students were showing that they could go from basic tying 101 to Ph.D. level fly tying in a matter of days. Granted, some people did learn that this might not be the best fit for them and that’s ok too.
Some people immediately stood out to us as natural learners and mentors. Nathalie Moore was one of the people. In particular, she has an eye for fly design. I could tell the main difference between her and some of the guys that initially showed up was her attention to the details. Each Kung Fu claw wasn’t just getting painted red tips, it was getting a French manicure if Nathalie was making them. Eyes were painted perfectly, bodies trimmed to perfect proportions.
We had a blast getting to know each other. You get to know people very quickly when your hover over them for 8-10 hours in the heat. There was endless laughter and sweat. Long, extended training sessions were better with frequent breaks for stretching and refocusing. It gave us time to talk about big picture ideas and the long-term vision we shared for Guide Flies. We needed to keep a sense of humor across the team. Heat, sandfly bites and random power outages could get to you if you let them.
The tiers found a real tempo, always pushing me to show them one more fly for the day. That usually turned into evening sessions. These tended to be the most creative times for working on new fly ideas.
As the lodge opened that first week, we moved our tying location to the new beachside building. This was Guide Flies home for the next 6 months. We were able to spread out and work in stations. The team worked hard to make sure we were ready to start supplying the lodge guests with our custom Guide Flies Faraway Keys Boxes and Guanaja Boxes. We also started to dabble in some basic trout flies, but that's a blog for another time.
We were tying flies between the jungle and 25 yards from the ocean. Very ideal for fly development but horrible on equipment! I learned that things better be made of stainless steel, titanium or well coated in WD40. Also, I learned that you need to seal the materials in something airtight like a cooler in bear country. There are critters in the jungle and they love fly tying materials.
We could tell that these jobs were having an immediate impact on the community and the tier’s lives. There were not too many jobs that were fun, stress-free and taught entrepreneurship on the island. Each tier was taught how to run their vise and tying station like their own business. You could see their pride go up as they were given responsibility for more difficult flies or jobs. Some of them were here to make careers out of this opportunity. People like Nathalie, Patrick, and Sheera Amaya had natural leadership skills and were developed as trainers and managers.
We could not run year-round without trusted managers to oversee the day to day operations when we couldn’t be there. We communicate daily to make sure we have the inventory in materials, orders and operations running smoothly.
The real payoff for the tiers was seeing clients come back after catching a bonefish or permit on a fly they tied. Guests absolutely loved that they could stop in the cabin before going to their boat to grab flies. Faraway Keys was also proving that our new fly patterns were world-class performers. This was the first official season for Faraway base camp and they were taking multiple permit a day on flies like the Psycho Mantis and Predator Mantis.
This was all in just the first few weeks. Our initial mission was accomplished and all expectations were exceeded. We had a lot of work to do back home and it was time for us to leave Guide Flies in the trusted hands of our managers. I’d be back in a few weeks and get to experience the Fish for Change Student Program.
Over the next few months, I would build lifelong relationships and learn more than any other time I can remember in my life. I was starting to get the big picture of how our fly-fishing industry could make a bigger impact and change lives if it was willing to put in the effort.