Celebrating 20 years family, Heritage, Bamboo fly rods, the American Craftsman and Small Business
“You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one”
Boy meets girl
Girl meets boy
Boy is noticeably hungry
Girl makes boy meatballs
Boy and girl get married (those were some seriously good meatballs)
Boy and girl experiment with adulthood
Young, broke and escapists at heart…they knew the best was yet to come…
Said experimentation included Bill’s professional competitive road racing career (we fondly refer to this as his “mainstream job”…it was during this time that Bill sought respite in the sport of fly fishing.
(FUN FACT) It was while racing in Seattle, Washington in 1994 that Bill made his first bamboo fly rod related purchase beyond the $7 used paperback book. He found a set of VHS instructional videos on “how to make a bamboo fly rod” that became the
excruciating soundtrack to our lives for the next 3 years.
|oh, and Bill fished…a lot
Bill’s obsession with fly fishing grew at an impressive velocity. We spent these years gathering nearly a lifetime of experiences on the water and in the woods.
My incessant whining about the excruciating travel and training schedule A succession of natural occurring events and a nasty training accident ended Bill’s cycling days but fortunately freed up plenty of time for an equally bizarre avocation.
As our peers peeled off into the
real world corporate world, we deliberately set out to make bamboo fly rods for a living and avoid reality altogether. Bill had completed his first rod after years of research…(remember that the internet was NOT a resource at that time). That first struggle rod will forever be Bill’s favorite rod.
Oyster’s wait list ensued shortly thereafter.
By 1998, we had a fully functioning 200 square foot, one man bamboo fly rod making shop in the basement of our home complete with sheet metal walls and a homemade hinky bench. It was step up from the “prequel” version of a shop which involved our sweltering hot loft, old coffee table workbench and staircase with holes in it to accommodate the varnishing room.
(FUN FACT) Bill’s stripped the wheels from his racing bike to build out his varnish room. I think that is what is referred to as a “full circle” moment. Sorry…
|the learning curve
Internet dial-up access and more resources for learning the art of bamboo fly rod making were on the horizon
…but not really. Most makers feverishly guarded their art and were not sharing information with us anyone.
Bill would wake up each morning and say that bamboo fly rod making was
a series of relentless failures an endless cycle of…”trail and error”.
Little did we know…
Our little one man shop had plans for us…
After receiving a call from a bamboo fly rod maker telling Bill he “better not start building bamboo fly rods”…(yes…this happened), I distinctly remember Bill hanging up the phone and saying:
“If I ever get truly adept at this…I am going to teach others.”
|the basement years
Little shop. Big Heart.
|many many hours in this basement…
Every shipment of bamboo was more
of a commitment exciting than the last…
this was happening
While Bill continued to hone the craft, I set out to decode the business piece of the puzzle. Not surprisingly, there was not a book written on “How to get rich making bamboo fly rods” at Barnes and Noble.
We quickly realized that if this business was going to work, we could not follow any script.
For years I handled the business minutia. It was about half way through this 20-year barrage that Bill handled the larger optic on the business side of things. But for now, it was basic and chaotic. We made up systems as we went along…
another random stream of failures “trial and error”.
|the wait list and the great equalizer
“Thanks to the internet, you no longer have to be the biggest.
If you are the best, they will find you.”
2001 ushered in the year we genuinely feel like bamboo fly rods “chose us”.
After some welcome press and the advent of solid marketing on the internet, this “world wide web” exposure became the “great equalizer”.
Oyster’s “answering machine” was suddenly filled with voice mails inquiring about orders.
A lot of orders…
Another turning point ahead
We had been working rather inefficiently on a wait list since day one but this was an entirely new development. This was an unexpected exigencies for our little business.
Bill picked up the phone to call everyone back and tell them how we do not have the resources yet to fill all of these orders…except he did not…He filled up a legal pad full of names and called each person back and took down their custom details. This process took a few days.
We have never looked back and we have never caught up on our waiting list.
| the trade show years
So many shows…so little time
We started our trade shows years with a uhaul, no sleep, a full rack of rods to sell with a homemade hinky (sound familiar) display, copies of our flyers from the closest local Kinkos (we rationed them out at the time) and a
Man, we were
When we first arrived on the trade show scene, bamboo fly rods had not made their recent renaissance . There were a handful of makers but they were not only disinterested in the Southern US as a market, they were even less interested in a 20-something becoming part of the fold (except Rick Robbins…just saying) but we were an absolute
freak show anomaly.
In the beginning, people reacted to us at trade shows in one of three ways:
2. awe and wonder (thank you)
We received the most support from the fly fishing community at large, First and foremost, Bill is a hardcore fly fisherman and the industry people at those shows had respect for his abilities not only as a craftsman but as a sportsman.
Today, I am proud to say we powered through the onslaught of uncertainty and enjoyed those shows…we made friendships that are lasting even (if not especially) today.
An enormous amount of gratitude to the fly fishing industry for the support through the years. Wow.
Speaking of support…this man…my
Daddy father, Bruce.
He championed this little business from day one.
My homage to him is here.
“To every man there comes in his lifetime that special moment when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered a chance to do a very special thing, unique to him and fitted to his talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for the work which would be his finest hour.”
Bill made good on his promise and starting teaching bamboo fly rod making classes.
He started with a single student.
This was the beginning of a beautiful thing.
|bet on ourselves
Because I continued to
overbook the bamboo fly rod making classes fill our bamboo fly rod making classes and our custom bamboo rod waiting list continued to grow it was time to make the first of many decisions where we
“bet on ourselves”.
We had clearly outgrown our current sheet metal concoction, rod orders were backing up, I needed a larger office, a bar was painfully missing from the picture, multiple workbenches with planing forms were necessary, the varnish room was below my staircase that we used on the main level
and Bill put holes in said staircase and we needed heat.
And, ESPN called…just a little “bit” about us on Fly Fishing America but this felt like another opportunity
for an excuse to justify spending more money to grow so when the host called to “vet” us and mentioned meeting us on a local river, I bragged about our remarkable 1500 square foot workshop complete with walls of benches and tools for students, a fireplace and a bar.
Oh, and I may have mentioned something about meatballs.
He thought it was a great idea and we agreed on a filming date less than 6 weeks away…I went into our cold little basement shop and said to Bill…
We have 5 1/2 weeks to build out this basement into a 1500 square foot bamboo fly rod making shop complete with a fireplace and bar. Okay? Go! I have to make meatballs!
So, we dug deep and made the first of many large investments directly back into ourselves with the belief it will all culminate into reward.
|cutter jude oyster
Here’s where it all gets very very very real.
Cutter Jude Oyster was born January 10, 2005.
He was lovingly named after our Cape Dory sailboat…
that of course we had to sell because we had a baby. In addition to bamboo fly rods, sailing was at the center of our lives and we could not imagine a more fitting was to say goodbye pay our respects to our love for the sport.
Less than 3 weeks after Cutter was born, we traveled all over the country for another trade show season.
Now, pay close attention and try to keep up…things get a
frantic from here.
It’s no longer about us.
Legacy takes on an entirely new meaning in our lives.
It was time to intensify the business feature of our story. It was time to take unimaginable risks
or go work for UPS to secure the future of Oyster.
|engraving and the glass ceiling
Bill: “I am going to learn to hand engrave.”
Me: “What? Can you just learn to engrave?”
Bill: “Yes…at least I am going to try.”
size of a nickel
After a few years of outsourcing our rod engraving
with less than desirable results, Bill considered learning to engrave himself. He started with a week long intro class at a school in Kansas.
It was an enormous investment and once again,
we bet on ourselves.
Honestly, even I thought Bill was being a
lunatic tad optimistic thinking he could just go “learn to engrave”.
I have never seriously doubted him since.
Me: (breathing heavily): “Ummm…babe…President Carter’s people just called and commissioned a bamboo fly rod for him and asked if we can have the Presidential Seal hand engraved on the reel seat.”
Bill: “I am going to hand engrave it.”
Me: “No doubt.”
We have made bamboo fly rods for myriads of people…from bricklayers to heads of state.
The common thread amongst our clientele is not only their obvious reverence for fly fishing but a commitment to fine handcrafted pieces.
So, the misconception that these soul poles are a vanity purchase is simply untrue. They represent an extension to one’s self in an inexplicable manner.
So, when I receive an order for our rod, my respect for the individual is defined by a connection that is once again…inexplicable.
Why this diatribe…
…predominantly, to emphasize that our rods commissioned for President Carter rod are special beyond the fact that he is unarguably one of the most worthwhile humans to ever walk this earth.
We practice a discreet standard yet President Carter was so publicly generous with his praise for our craft and fly fishing that this sent us unwittingly on a trajectory that proved to be a pivotal point for Oyster.
Bill and Carter’s paths continue to cross and they both get better with age.
|we went to live in the woods to live deliberately
In 2008, Oyster went all in…we built a workshop B and B style for our clients in the woods of North Georgia and got pregnant.
We signed the closing papers while watching a special on “tent cities and the dire condition of the economy” in the attorney’s office.
It was then Bill said, “shut off the radio and television, stop all of your newspaper subscriptions (note that I was a journalism major and a print media junkie)… I have a family to support and I have to work and do not want to be distracted.”
We will never know if “shutting out” current events (understatement) helped our business or not…but it did keep morale up and Oyster grew on every level in 2008.
Our classes were FULL, our bamboo fly rods were backlogged, Bill’s hand engraving exceeded all of our expectations and more importantly gave Bill the necessary creative outlet an artist needs…
We grew faster than ever expected…
|veronica and main
Main Street, USA
Raising babies in a bamboo fly rod shop
Fun Fact: We somehow renovated this former “Dippin’ Dots” into a bamboo fly rod making shop in days…
total demo except for the ice cream counters.
With a brand new baby (8 days old), the recession in full swing, 3 mortgages and a bamboo fly rod class starting the following week…it seemed like the perfect time (yes, that is sarcasm) to make a move.
However, we had outgrown our “little red” shop in the woods and knew the next natural transition was a store front.
And while we moved to Main Street for professional reasons and more exposure for Oyster, we ended up with a community.
A community of friends, fly fishermen, fellow entrepreneurs and like minded escapists (a reoccurring theme in our lives).
Riley’s first day of class.
Bill: “We have to hire that kid.”
Me: “We cannot afford to hire him.”
Bill: “We cannot afford not to…”
Oyster Gudakunst came down from Michigan with his father to take a bamboo fly rod making class with us for his high school graduation gift when he was 19 years old.
Essentially, Riley never left.
Riley swiftly transitioned from employee to friend to best friend to family.
And he came with a package deal…his childhood sweetheart, now wife…Quinn.
|Quinn and Roni
|The girls on Quinn’s & Riley’s day…
Quinn fit in disturbingly well…so, these years brought growth on a deeper level.
Our band grew.
|Riley and Molly
After discovering how much time we were spending fly fishing on saltwater, 2009 was also the year we started our “Salt Series” line of bamboo fly rods.
To-date, our 9 wt. Salt Series bamboo rod is one of Oyster’s “greatest hits”.
Equally as important, 2011 was the year we bought land on Main Street in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
The land was one of the last available sites in a historic district only a few doors down from our renovated former ice cream shop. This
freaked me out seemed necessary.
Renting was a drag and designing our own space was
And this move made it all feel like a rite of passage for our own
|The day we closed on our land…sigh
|the house that bamboo fly rods built
While building new digs may not be a big deal to most…
it was a behemoth move for Oyster.
2012 was a rousing year of
fear growth and change.
|welcome – settling in
As we settled into our new shop, Oyster expanded the bamboo fly rod making class size yet again. After carefully considering this option, Bill realized he had no choice because
I mistakenly overbooked the class again it was a fantastic decision.
And then there were 8
Our new shop also brought more productivity, a new showroom for the public, the Cast and Blast Inn, fly fishing trips near to far and a never ending roof leak (just keeping it real).
Gold inlay on fly rod hardware by Bill Oyster
|wide open – go – travel
Since 2010, Bill has traveled with Oyster clients on fly fishing trips centered upon our bamboo fly rods. After several years of Patagonia jaunts, we expanded the bamboo fly rod tour.
In 2014, the Oyster Travel Club was formed as we actively assembled trips for
“those with a common bond for an uncommon passion.”
The Oyster Travel Club is yet another layer of our
lives business created organically from a need that arouse over the years.
Oyster travels near and far and we have a hell of a time.
In 2015, our bamboo fly rod sales and bamboo fly rod making classes were at full tilt.
Meanwhile, Bill’s hand engraving had taken on a life of its own.
Bill was granted an opportunity that we seized
as soon as we were able to carve three months out of Bill’s schedule immediately to completely hand engrave an entire shotgun sent to us in the “white”.
In 2015, Bill earned the distinction of being asked to become an instructor at the GRS engraving institute. GRS is the cornerstone of hand engraving in the U.S. as well as renown worldwide.
In 2016, Cutter made his first bamboo fly rod. He took our July class with seven other students and hung in as well as the rest of them. We cannot be certain but Cutter is probably the youngest person to make a bamboo fly rod from start to finish.
2016 also revealed Oyster’s first student to take 10 classes. We met Kathy at a trade show 15 years ago and she has been threaded in our lives ever since. Sometimes we just get lucky. We could not let this momentous occasion go without a celebration…and a cake.
While we NEVER expected this to happen, we realized there were quite a few students approaching their 10th class.
So…we started the “Oyster 10 Class Club”. We can proudly say that our wall is filling up with semi-retired aprons.
2017 was time for a showroom redo.
This space in an extension of our reverence for the handcrafted bamboo fly rod.
| perseverance and enjoying the struggle
20 years ago, Bill set out to make the world’s finest bamboo fly rods.
We were among the youngest exhibitors at the fly fishing shows and our craft had not yet experienced the renaissance it enjoys today.
We carved out our own version of events…a parallel universe per se… both professionally and personally.
Along the way, we became full-time craftsmen, parents and business people.
We powered through a major recession, laughed, loved and lost…
We flourished in the struggle.
20 years ago, Oyster started with a couple of
escape artists idealists, a 200 square-foot workshop, a bamboo fly rod that took 6 months to complete, perforated business cards and took every opportunity afforded us.
20 years later, we make the modern standard for the revered hand engraved bamboo fly rod with as much efficiency as time affords, own a 6000-square-foot brick and mortar shop solely dedicated to the art of bamboo fly rods in the mountains on Main Street, ascend with our tribe, unarguably teach more people to make bamboo fly rods than anyone in the world…ever, travel, fly fish and connect with the earth and it’s tidings.
Boy meets girl
Girl loves boy
Boy makes beautiful things
Girl tells everyone
Boy still loves her meatballs
Boy and Girl know the best is yet to come.
“For the American
the Bamboo Fly Rod