Hood River HOOD RIVER — Big Y Fly is a fishing shop hidden away on the second floor of a gray building on Industrial Street.
It is unassuming, and visitors often feel like they found a hidden local’s spot. But the fly fishing shop is an international supplier of hand-tied fishing flies.
The company started as a side business for founder Cameron Larsen, who worked as a milkman.
“I love to tie flies,” he said, explaining that he would make flies for himself and his friends. But when his friends asked him to make flies for their friends, he decided to make a little money off it.
That was in the 1990s. The business continued to grow. Instead of just selling to friends of friends, he began selling his hand-tied flies on eBay. That continued for six to seven years until a neck aliment forced him to take a break.
But Larsen couldn’t stay away. He started making flies again. Online, the business was called Flies on-line. But soon it became Big Y Fly and in 2006, making flies was no longer a side job. Larsen decided to do it full-time.
Doing flies full time isn’t the only evidence of growth for Larsen and Big Y Fly. Today, Larsen has 12 employees and a brick-and-mortar store. And they are outgrowing their space on Industrial Way that serves as their show room and packing facility.
One key to Larsen’s success is customer service. As a milkman, he learned how important personal connections are and that treating customers well makes a difference.
“I believe in customer service,” he said. That customer service comes with personal responses to customer questions and building a relationship with each customer.
There are customers that come to the Hood River area on vacation that stop by the shop just to say hello. Customers offer more than just written testimonials about the flies they receive — they share photos of the fish they caught with Larsen’s flies on the company’s website, www.bigyflyco.com.
Building a relationship also means delivering products in a timely fashion. Big Y Fly offers fast shipping —often shipping orders the same day the order is received.
What makes them successful is a business model that embraces Internet sales and a traditional store front. Their website offers flies suited for fly fishing all over the world. There are flies for fishing in the United Kingdom, Chile, Argentina and even Yellowstone National Park.
Larsen said that many people argue that Internet business doesn’t always help the local economy. It is something he disagrees with as he employees 12 people — some who drive from Portland to work. Employing them has an impact on the economy. Through his model, Larsen can serve both local and non-local customers.
The storefront lets them connect with a wider base of customer — especially those that are not experienced. In fact, Larsen welcomes the less experienced angler. When they come to the shop, he said, it is a chance for them to ask questions and for him and the team to share their knowledge.
For many, fly fishing shops can be intimidating and Larsen’s wants his shop to be welcoming.
Sharing knowledge isn’t limited to his shop. Big Y Fly has several resources on its website and its Facebook page, including links to a blog (bigyflyco.blogspot.com/).
While every fly is stocked in Hood River and shipped from Hood River, they aren’t made in Hood River. Big Y Fly outsources to a tying facility in Kenya. By doing this, Big Y Fly has more flies, a wider variety with new patterns and he can keep the prices affordable.
Big Y Fly isn’t the only fly maker to do this. Larsen said this is an industry standard and many of the big fly makers outsource the work to keep prices down.
The decision is due to more than just price. Larsen works with a single facility to ensure the quality of the hand-tied flies.
“There is no middleman, no distribution,” he said, explaining that Big Y Fly gets the flies directly from the manufacturer making it easier to identify problems.
While outsourcing the work is a business decision it does connect Big Y Fly to history and economic development. Larsen explained that the British introduced fly fishing and fly tying in Kenya when it was a British colony. Since that introduction, it became an industry.
With everything, Larsen is pretty happy where his business is.
“Happy, healthy and headed in the right direction,” he said.