St. Croix poised for a big return to fly fishing | Hatch Magazine

Some 15 years ago, the sales and marketing team from St. Croix Rods packed up the company’s fly fishing display after the annual International Fly Tackle Dealer show in Denver, loaded it into a truck and never returned.

The company wasn’t overtly turning its back on the fly-fishing space — it wasn’t a calculated abandonment. Rather, its focus simply changed in the name of pursuing a better business climate for the longtime icon in the overall angling industry — and that climate was on the traditional gear side of things, where St. Croix had a strong presence among spin- and baitcasters. But there was no animosity toward the fly space.

“We didn’t burn any bridges,” says Jeff Schluter, the company’s retired vice president of brand management and one of three Schluter brothers (along with Paul, the company’s now-retired president and David, the retired VP of product development) who made a conscious decision to pull away from the fly fishing side of the fishing rod manufacturing industry. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We just couldn’t go after the margins that our competitors were going after. We did what was best for the company and for our customers.”

At the time, the industry was also a bit awash in uncertainty. High-end fly rods were pulling in an unheard of $600 a pop in the midst of a national economy in recession, and well-backed companies like Temple Fork Outfitters were rolling into the marketplace and offering fly rods at prices designed to undercut the market share of the stalwart, yet still modest, rod manufacturers like Scott, Sage and Winston. At the same time, St. Croix was heavily invested in the spinning and baitcasting side of fishing, and business was good. Their distinct made-in-America brand held cache with traditional anglers in the United States, and it just made sense to invest in certainty, and not the whimsy that accompanied fly fishing at the time.

“But we still kept a toe in the water,” Schluter says. He’s right. Today, St. Croix might be best described as a “legacy brand” that emotes nostalgia, and not necessarily a company that cranks out must-have fly gear. How many anglers fondly remember their first Imperial fly rod—and how many still have one, tucked away in the closet corner, never to feel the shame of a yard sale sticker? And yes, any fly fisher can still buy an Imperial today — it’s a modestly priced medium-fast action fly rod that comes in more than two dozen weight and length combinations. It’s evolved over time, but it’s a rod that’s served fly fishers well for more than five decades.

But, to the three Schluter brothers and one sister – Pam Smylie, whose husband John Smylie is the chairman of the company’s board of directors – have all worked for or owned St. Croix since the 1980s (and their family history with the brand goes back almost 50 years, when their father took over as the general manager in 1964), it just didn’t make sense to roll the dice on the fly side — particularly when things were so fluid and when the demand for spinning gear was so great.

So, for years, St. Croix kept making Imperials and later the Mojo, with little fanfare, joined the fly-side stable.

But there’s always been this … pang … this desire on the part of the Schluter brothers — all of them avid anglers and all of whom now “manage” the company from its board of directors — to reignite St. Croix as an influential fly-fishing rod manufacturer. And, from a manufacturing perspective, it’s certainly doable. With two manufacturing plants — one in the traditional home of the company in Park Falls, Wisc., and the other in Fresnillo, Mexico — and a long history of technological innovation on the spinning and casting side of fishing, there’s plenty of capacity for a return to fly.

Capability, though, doesn’t translate into sheer will. So, forgive the frequent trade show attendee who walked the aisles at the 2022 IFTD show in Salt Lake City and did a double-take at the sight of St. Croix taking up a prime slice of display real estate just across from the casting pond and generally in the middle of all the action.

Some might have seen it coming with the 2019 hiring of Scott Forristall, a longtime fly fishing executive for the likes of Far Bank and Winston, as St. Croix’s new CEO. But the thought of St. Croix diving headfirst back into the fly fishing pool a good 15 years after it left the party? Largely unexpected.

“Some were surprised we were there,” Forristall says, “but some knew we would be back. And we got such a positive response. There was no cold shoulder.”

Indeed, Forristall said, from the perspective of the people and the brands who attended the IFTD in Salt Lake, the reception was quite welcoming.

Because the show was rather small — March is not the best time to market new product in the outdoor recreation arena, and retailers and dealers still trying to get a feel for what “normal” feels like after a viral plague—Forristall noted that those who did show up were those who are committed to the fly fishing industry.

“We have a right to be here,” says Jesse Simpkins, the company’s vice president of marketing. “Our history allows for that. No, we haven’t been as active on the fly fishing side as we were years ago, but we can stake our claim here.”

And, Simpkins says, St. Croix’s presence at the show wasn’t just a symbolic overture to the industry. Its sales and marketing team is looking for retailers and dealers to carry St. Croix fly rods, now and into the future.

“We’re here to do business,” Simpkins says. “And the reception has been really good.”

Schluter agrees.

“There was no animosity — we didn’t leave because we were mad,” he says. “I still have great relationships in the fly fishing industry, and I miss that community. It was really nice to be back at the show, and we’re excited about what’s next.”

And what, exactly is next?

Simpkins sheepishly let it be known that the company is planning new lines of fly rods to be announced next year, and just this week it was announced that Tom Larimer, longtime national sales manager at G. Loomis, will be the company’s new fly fishing brand manager starting May 18.

And, yes, Forristall confirmed that St. Croix will introduce two yet-to-named lines to the St. Croix offering of fly rods. One will be a “premium” rod, presumably to take its place among the high-end (and high-priced) rods produced by the best-known brands in the industry. The other will fall in a “mid-range” category that will be accessible to anglers who don’t have the means to drop $1,000 on a fly rod. And, no the Imperial won’t go away — the longtime brand will remain a part of St. Croix’s offerings. What’s more, Forristall says, the company will continue to make its fly rod blanks for craft and individual rod-builders.

“We have the capacity to compete in the premium fly rod market, and we’re building the resources to compete in that market,” Forristall said, noting that St. Croix is known for building world-class fishing rods and as a company that practices a special brand of customer service.

Forristall says he’s committed to bringing in a team that will brand the new rods and market St. Croix fly rods to consumers in ways the company hasn’t done before. The new rod lines will be announced in 2023, either at the next IFTD or at the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades show (ICAST) in Orlando, and they’ll be in the hands of anglers in time for the 2024 fishing season.

And, of course, Larimer will have a big hand in that.

“My obsession with fishing has always been driven by innovation,” Larimer says. “Whether designing equipment, tweaking a fly pattern or developing new techniques, I’m always thinking about how I can improve the game.”

At St. Croix, it won’t be so much about improving the company’s rod offerings, but instead it’s more of a reinvention project that comes with a solid technological foundation from which to base the effort.

“I’ve owned four companies and love building brands,” Larimer says. “In St. Croix’s case, it already has vast knowledge and technology born from 75 years of serving anglers. I like the longstanding tradition of continual improvement in Park Falls. So many of the pieces are in place, and it’s obvious to me that St. Croix’s leadership team knows what it will take to compete in today’s fly-fishing market.”

And what’s the feeling from the Schluter brothers — the team that hired Forristall and then collectively stepped back from day-to-day operations? How are they feeling from their seats on the board as their hand-picked CEO starts to build out his team and put renewed emphasis on the fly fishing side of the fishing market?

“The team respects our experience,” Schluter says, “and it’s been fun watching them develop and find their own vision for the company.”

But, he says, “we had to get out of the building.” The three brothers wouldn’t be doing the new leadership any favors by being ever-present in a business where simple inclination would lead longtime employees to go to them with questions rather than work hand-in-hand with a new leadership under the guidance of Forristall.

And Forristall, Schluter declares, “has been just great.”

“Scott, I think, has been training his entire career to do this job,” Schluter says. “He was great at Winston, but compared to St. Croix, it’s pretty small. Here, he has a chance to do something much bigger.”

And what are the Schluter brothers doing these days?

“Well, the plan was to fish more,” Jeff Schluter says, noting that that grand vision hasn’t exactly panned out. But he and his wife bought a place in South Fork, Colo., on the upper Rio Grande, and they’re finishing a traditional rammed-earth cabin on the property. Anglers wandering the ample trout streams of the south San Juans in the coming years, might bump into Jeff and his brothers in due time. But for now, from their seats on the company’s board of directors, they’ll continue to lend nearly a century of collective experience to Forristall and the team he’s built and continues to build.

“I think we have some great times ahead of us,” Jeff Schluter says. “We have the right people in place, and we’re excited about where our company is going, and that includes the fly-fishing side.”

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