A Barbless Entrepreneur

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Fish hooks have been around for a long, long time. The basic form, function and design of the fish hook was settled centuries ago. Like knives, forks and spoons, there’s not a lot of room for revolutionary change. Probably the single most notable innovation was the addition of a looped “eye” to what were then call “irons” in the mid-19th century. Today, the fish hook is a global commodity with at least a dozen major manufacturers in Asia and Europe. Many of those brands, especially in Asia don’t even compete in the U.S. market where the likes of Eagle Claw, Mustad, Tiemco, Daiichi, Gamakatsu and others hold most of the market share. One would think that an entrepreneur investing in a new business wouldn’t chose fish hooks as their first product. However, recently I had the pleasure to meet one such entrepreneur—Joe Mathis of Firehole Outdoors in Bozeman, Montana.

Though the thoughtful consideration of Kate Vick, part of the J. Stockard brain trust, I was introduced to Joe Mathis over the holidays. J. Stockard had just become a Firehole Outdoors dealer and Kate thought Joe and I might like to meet. Unbeknownst to me, Joe and his wife Deb had lived just a few miles away in Bozeman for about as long I had. Although I’d seen Joe’s product in a few fly shops, I really knew nothing about this company called Firehole Outdoors. Joe and I agreed to meet and talk about fish hooks. I’ve talked with Joe many times since, but our first meeting was a real education for me and the story of Firehole Outdoors is an interesting one.

When I first met Joe at a local coffee shop we spent over an hour talking all things Bozeman and more importantly fish hooks. Joe had this “Duck Dynasty” look with a long beard and Montana State University sweat shirt. At the time I guessed he was in his mid-40s but have since learned he is 53. When you are my age, its tough to judge the age of anyone younger. Joe started his career as a professional engineer working in production management and manufacturing for Dell Computers in Austin, TX. He worked in Denver for a few years and his son started college at Colorado State. For a variety of reasons—his son transferring to Montana State University, a great fly fishing trip to the San Juan in New Mexico and a job in Livingston, Montana—Joe moved his family to Bozeman in 2009, a year after I moved to Bozeman. Early on in our first talk, I asked Joe if he was a fly fisher. Of course, he was, but it was obvious that fly fishing was a secondary pursuit. Yes, he tied flies, he had the gear and he got out on the water occasionally. But at heart, Joe was an engineer. For that first hour, neither of us shared any “fish stories” or the inevitable parade of big fish pictures. We talked about fish hooks and how Joe and his wife started Firehole Outdoors.

Somewhere between Austin, TX and Bozeman, Joe had already dabbled in the fly fishing business conceiving and marketing a product called “Bug Collars”. These were a different type of bead for weighted flies. But like many entrepreneurial pursuits, for a variety of reasons, the business didn’t work out and Joe sold out. But “Bug Collars” turned out to be just another part of Joe’s journey into the fly fishing industry. As Joe tells it, one day he walked into a local Bozeman fly shop looking for some barbless hooks. Although he found them, he couldn’t believe the price. At the time, at least for him, it was a lot of money to pay for 25 barbless hooks, even if the quality was high. Walking out of the shop, Joe the engineer thought “I can do this better. I can design and manufacture a barbless fly hook at a far more affordable price.” The genesis of Firehole Outdoors had begun.

There is a reason barbless fly hooks tend to be more expensive than similar barbed hooks. Pure and simple it is supply and demand. Twenty-five years ago, finding barbless hooks specifically made for fly tying was a hopeless pursuit. But over the last few decades, the pros and cons of barbed versus barbless hooks have been well documented. Moreover, increased regulation at the federal, state and local level mandating the use of barbless hooks has driven demand higher. Even though barbs can be pinched to comply with regulation, in response, major hook manufacturers have introduced more barbless hook models. But demand for barbless hooks is probably less than 5% of the entire fly hook market. For mainstream manufacturers, this means barbless fly hooks are a small niche, an afterthought. But for the fly tier—amateur or professional—it means the right barbless hook, in the right size is harder to find and may come at premium over the same barbed hook. Joe Mathis decided to fix that.

Starting a new business and committing capital, time and marketing energy to a product that was clearly a niche within a niche is a big decision. Sometime in 2014, Joe started the process in earnest. Designing the first series of barbless hook models that he thought would appeal to the market was the easy part, but he had to find a manufacturer that he could work with, ensure production quality and consistently deliver the product in a timely manner at a price that made economic sense. Working with over a dozen manufacturers in Asia and the U.S., Joe settled on a small manufacturer in China. The first prototypes were rigorously tested by outfitters, guides and fly tiers Joe had become acquainted with in the past. He had to build a distribution network and chose the route of using fly shops, outfitters, professional fly tiers and well known online fly tying retailers like J. Stockard to sell his product. He wanted to protect his brand “Firehole Outdoors” by avoiding large wholesalers and big box outlets. After finalizing the design of the original series of “Firehole Sticks”, pulling together a little crowdfunding to help with the finances, the first order was placed in January 2017. Those first steps weren’t over yet.

“Firehole Central” as Joe and Deb call the basement of their home on the southside of Bozeman is not only the design center for “Firehole Outdoors”, it is the fulfillment center as well. When the hooks arrive from China they arrive packaged in their little plastic boxes—either 50-count for the consumer version or 36-count for the dealer version. The boxes are un-labeled. As the manufacturer’s shipment is processed, each box is inspected, labels are printed in-house and affixed and the hooks go into inventory. If you have a box of Firehole Sticks, checkout the label on the back. If it is centered and straight, Deb Mathis probably did it. If it is a bit askew, that’s clearly Joe’s work. Since the first shipment of hooks arrived in March 2017 Joe has expanded the “Firehole Sticks” product line to 13 models in a wide variety of sizes. Over 2.5 million “Firehole Sticks” have been manufactured since he placed that first order.

Joe Mathis the engineer and barbless entrepreneur has found a way to make high quality, functional barbless fly hooks at a very affordable price. But challenges remain as with all entrepreneurial businesses. As new models and sizes are contemplated, as customers clamor for different designs and sizes and dealers want more stock, Joe the businessman must deal with the scalability of a successful product. Manufacturing lead times can be from four to six months. Firehole Central can only deal with so many products. Maintaining production quality of new and older designs is always a challenge with off-shoring. Accessing the demand and building distribution for new hook models takes time. But Joe is confident he can grow the “Firehole Outdoors” business reliably over the next decade.

There is a lot to like about the Joe and Deb Mathis enterprise they call “Firehole Outdoors”. The namesake Firehole River is iconic in fly fishing lore. Barbless hooks have been required in Yellowstone for years and it is apropos that Joe’s solution to his barbless hook problem is a product called “Firehole Sticks”. I have tied a few flies on Firehole Sticks and have been impressed with their quality, design and appearance. Until things thaw out here in SW Montana, it will be awhile until those flies go to work. But I am confident that Joe Mathis, the barbless entrepreneur, has started a new era of barbless fly hooks.

4 thoughts on “A Barbless Entrepreneur

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Nice article Mike; entrepreneurialism is indeed an arduous and uncertain road, and success is only achievable with a great catalyst idea, a lot of hard work, tenacity, and some serious marketing savvy. But small businesses are the backbone of the USA and the poster-stories of the North American brand of ingenuity. I salute Joe and Deb. I *think* I’ve seen the “Firehole Outdoors” name…if so it would have been on a fly fishing video.

    I laughed out loud when you described how to tell if Deb or Joe had fulfilled an order. Now that’s grassroots advertising–I’m tempted to buy some boxes of hooks just to see whodunnit. 🙂

    – Mike

    Reply
  2. Justin Bowman

    Great article, mike. Always good to see some of the backstory behind a small business. I love supporting these guys!!!

    Reply
  3. TroutFlyTyer

    Thanks for carrying these super hooks! Lots of luck to Joe and Deb. Keep them coming. I think the wide gap is great to hook and keep the fish on while barbless. Congrats guys.

    Reply
  4. Richard Landerman

    You’ve got me hooked; think I’ll try some and let you know what I think. Thanks for a great article; always cheer for the underdog.

    Reply

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