Last week we traveled down to Southern Oregon to meet up with John Bauer, founder of Bauer Fly Reels. John took us through the machine shop in Medford, where the components for the Rogue Series reels are made, to his headquarters in Ashland, where technicians assemble and finish the reels. The following video outlines how Bauer fly reels are made, from aluminum bar stock to fly shop shelf.
In the following Q&A, John explains how he went from professional race car driver (Trans Am Champion in 1980) to fly reel designer, and explains why he builds his high performance fly reels in Oregon.
How did you go from race car driver to fly reel designer?
John Bauer: I was approaching 40, and racing is a year to year deal. Some years you’re fat city, some years you’re eating peanut butter. I’d done it, I’d been there. So we started taking the kids camping and I started fly fishing in the mid-80s. And on the end of the fly rod is a mechanical device called a reel…
I did a lot of design while I was racing. You develop widgets all the time, because that’s how you win — you look for ways to make your car better and faster. The inside joke was that when I got out of racing, I’d make widgets and sell them.
My last full racing season was 1989, and the market for precision fly reels was just developing. We developed our first reel in 1995 and had no clue it would take off like it did. It just ran us over like a truck and forced us into the fly reel business. The first five years was just nuts we were growing so fast.
What’s the next big thing with fly reels?
Bauer: Carbon fiber rather than cork. The easiest way to describe it, with Carbon Fiber, we’re dealing with an engineered project. Cork is bark off a tree. It’s been used for eons and it’s a good friction material, and it’s graded for density. But all sheets of cork are not created equal. When you’re dealing with a natural product, you’re always dealing with variations. It is hard to glue cork to a surface and have it stay there 10 years.
Cork is made up of granules. They mix the granules up in a vat of resin and press it into a block They put it in a big cheese grater and slice sheets of cork off. How in the world they take a 3-foot block of cork and shave it down sheets that are within 3-4 thousands of an inch in variance? We get a sheet of carbon fiber and it’s within 1-2 thousandths of an inch.
Cork also needs some lubricant, you have to be able to maintain that lubricity in the cork to maintain that performance. You’re depending on the user to re-lube that cork, and some users have no concept of the term maintenance.
So I have to get this out of the way, because I’ve been thinking about it the whole drive down. Why does someone need a $300-$400 fly reel for trout? For steelhead, sure. I’ve got a Rogue 3 and I think it’s great. Saltwater? Absolutely. But trout?
Bauer: My answer is going to be tainted by the fact that I make $300-$400 trout reels.
We came on the scene in 1995, but since then fly reels have gotten tremendously better. Innovation spawns innovation and it changes the way you fish. I’ll be at a fly fishing trade show in Somerset, NJ and talk to a guy that is buying a MXP 1 reel. That’s 1 to 3-weight reel that costs $400. He’s fishing a 2-3 weight fly rod, 7x tippet or thinner, mostly to 10-12 inch trout in Pennsylvania, He’s putting those fish on the reel and he’s having a blast. He’s steelhead fishing like you, but downsized it to a smaller fish.
What’s the whole sport about? Fishing for meat for dinner? No, we’re having fun. It makes more sense than stripping in the fish and letting it go. Do you need a $300 reel to go trout fishing? No. Do you need to go trout fishing to eat dinner? No. Ten years ago you were fishing with your clicker reel and your $600 Sage rod. With a precision reel you’re just adding another element to the whole experience.
On the Williamson River, we put trout on the reel. It’s the first thing you do. We’re fishing with 5x.tippet and most of the trout are 4-5 pounds. But you can get a 12lb fish, and you need to have a good drag system, let the drag work the fish. So from your 2-weight to what we do on the Williamson, that drag system is really important.
Speaking of the Williamson, I understand those monster trout are part of the reason Bauer reels is located in Oregon. Can you tell us about that?
Bauer: We’ve been operating for three years in Oregon. We still work with a machine shop in Salinas, Calif. where the MXP series is being made. But we bought a place on the Williamson River in 2001. We stayed on the Williamson for thee days and I caught my first 8lb trout. That was the end of the story right there. We put an offer on a lot before we left.
The eight-hour drive from Monterey was doable, but getting past Bay Area traffic was tough. Plus, doing business down there, it was difficult to keep staff. You’re competing with wages in China. For the pay scale, people couldn’t afford to live in that area.
So why not build fly reels in China?
Bauer: You can come up with all kinds of answers, get patriotic, but if you want to get down to the nuts and bolts, it’s the business. With the manufacturing base in China or Korea, I can pick from a choice of 15 styles of reel, give an order for 2-3 thousand, put my name on it, ship it here in a container and land it here for half of what it costs to produce our reel in the states.
But when you go to those offshore markets, you’re bringing in a whole other element: language barriers, large orders for products that could be wrong or damaged. That could affect your supply chain for months on end. You can’t control how the products are built and it changes the brand of your product.
A lot of products in the U.S. you get it, it breaks and you throw it away. Or you call a manufacturer they’ll send you a new one, because they don’t make it and they can’t fix it. But someone with a Bauer reel that’s12 years old, we can upgrade it to the current specifications for $35.
How often do you do reel repairs?
Bauer: We get services in every week. Some of them are just beat to a pulp, like they drove over it in a truck. Our reels can be serviced and maintained. Some reels are maintenance free and that’s fine to a point, but someday something is going to have to be done to it. For $20 we do a general service, replace cork disks and bearings. But maintenance can be done by the customer too.
Some people never do anything to their reel than use it. But you have to remember, these are precision pieces of equipment. What would happen with your Mercedes that sat in the garage for 10 years and you didn’t service it? How long’s your car going to last? If you take really good care of it and have parts you can take care of it forever. Everything we produce, we have a total connection to it.
Buy Local! Bauer Fly Reels at CaddisFlyShop.com.