There is a cliché image of what fly fishing ought to be. Perpetuated by retirement plan advertisements and stock image photos, it is the wicker-creel toting, floppy hat wearing, “traditional” fly fisher. Not incidentally, anglers of all demographics maintain this stereotype.
Stepping outside of these orthodox visuals is a risky proposition. Incremental steps in new directions or variations on common themes are often accepted in the name of “something fresh and different.” But branching out into innovative territory has the potential to offend the sensibilities of consumers.
Or, if the direction that fly reel design has been going for the past few years is any indication, garner the acclaim of an industry.
The reel may very well be the most stalwart component of the fly angler’s arsenal. For a long time, it has been referred to as “something to hold line.” While this may be true for many simply pursuing trout, the diversification of fly fishing opportunities has necessitated a significant change in what goes into making a reel. Stouter drags and higher capacities have to be balanced with reasonable weight. Porting reels and skeletonizing frames achieved this equilibrium. The results also created some very nontraditional designs. And anglers loved it.
Manufacturing reels in different colors was the next logical step. For literally centuries, anything outside of greyscale was an outlier. Blacks and silvers dominated the market. New reel silhouettes, new fishing opportunities, and new angler demographics fostered a demand for something brighter than black.
“The sport is changing,” says Grant White. White is the associate business manager at Cheeky Fishing, a Massachusetts fly fishing company that has made quite the impact in the industry in only five years. “Anglers are pushing the limits of how and where they fish. They are finding new ways to fish, and we think that (our colored reels) fit into that.”
To be clear, Cheeky reels are all about performance. Their three fly reel series are all precision engineered and manufactured, with exacting specifications for drag components, rigidity, and tolerances. “After we get all that where we want it, we make it look cool,” says White.
Cheeky was founded in 2009 by four college friends that grew up fishing in New England. After graduating and spending time in the corporate world, they wanted something different. Realizing that there were opportunities for independent companies in the fly fishing industry, they started a business based upon their passion.
Like most New Englanders, the guys in Cheeky are skiers. They personally observed a shift in the ski trade in the 1990’s. A broader and often younger generation got involved, leading to an overhaul in that trade’s aesthetics. They brought a similar concept that to reels. It resulted not only in bright colors, but in colors that were specific to a particular model. The Ambush 375, their premium reel for 5 to 7-weight lines, is green and bronze. The next model up, the Mojo 425, is gold and blue.
You can’t get the Ambush in gold and blue, or the Mojo in green and bronze. “Each reel has its own identity. The product descriptions are different because each reel is different. It has led to each reel having its own following, its own culture,” White says. Even though the drag and general design is consistent across the series, each reel’s function differentiates it from its brethren. Cheeky realizes that a steelhead angler and a tarpon angler have unique needs in tackle. The colors being unique emphasize that truth.
Cheeky did release all silver reels, but they didn’t sell nearly as well as their brighter offerings. White explains: “The muted color was an attempt to ‘cover’ everyone. But we found that people that wanted our reels wanted our reels. Customers across the board, from all demographics, wanted something fun and energetic.”
Personal expression, choosing fly fishing gear that an angler can identify with, isn’t new as a whole. Rod actions reflect sensibilities, vests speak to tendencies, and clothing on the stream is sometimes as carefully considered as what is worn to Sunday worship. For n item that must be comprised of a metal circle with a central point of rotation and a small handle, color is one of the few ways that a reel can stand out. Looking good isn’t inherently wrong.
The joy derived from looking at a bright red large arbor isn’t any less dignified than happily observing a classically styled click and pawl. Cultural tastes evolve. Just like there are always devotees to the latest and greatest, there are ardent followers of the imagery that evokes heritage. Bright colors, like so many other developments in the sport, may rub people the wrong way. Fly fishing is a pastime that is irrevocably linked to its visuals. How anglers and their gear look can be esteemed as highly as the actual fishing.
Developing new technology is the primarily force driving manufacturers. These innovative products are then the platforms for cutting edge visuals. Across athletic, automotive, and many other industries, the faster/stronger/lighter is being packaged in lively palettes. Ironically the individuality that many are seeking to achieve by using something unconventional is, to an extent, part of a progressive cultural whole.
It isn’t coincidental that the wave Cheeky is riding, along with a number of other companies creating reels, rods, and other gear with dynamic design elements, has risen alongside the growth of social media. Fly fishers of all ages, pursuing all species, are utilizing platforms that allow for images to be shared instantaneously and globally. Discerning anglers will seek out a reel with high-end function, but the form seen in a picture online might be the catalyst for investigating a certain brand or model.
Ultimately, function will always trump form in the long run. Flash will sell, but it won’t sustain. Cheeky is seeking to do both, without compromising on either. The two-tone reels were distinctive at their release in 2011, and continue to be the hallmark of a powerful and expanding brand.
Fly fishing, at its core, hasn’t changed. Fiberglass rods are experiencing a resurgence and sling packs are essentially fancy nylon creels. A quality, machined aluminum reel will perform in its task of slowing a surging striper whether it is gunmetal grey or green and blue. Today, fly fishers have more choices in every facet of their gear. There is absolutely no reason why appearance, even personal expression, shouldn’t be a part of that.