Fly fishing on Montana’s rivers is a past time native Montanan’s cherish and tourists who come from every corner of the country alike.
Casting lines into the Yellowstone, Missouri, Blackfoot or Smith River can be memorable experiences that people hold dear for years to come and pass along the stories to generations that follow.
For Helena craftsman Al Swanson, capturing those feelings and emotions in a wooden fly box was crucial. After creating furniture for more than three decades using hand tools, Swanson decided it was time to wade into unknown waters with a new craft.
“So that was a very interesting experimental thing that kind of went in a different direction,” Swanson said. “I dabbled and dabbled and dabbled and dabbled to figure out how to make a cool, wooden fly box and will anyone buy it?”
The million dollar question; would anyone buy handcrafted, wooden boxes to store flies when anglers are waist deep in Montana’s waters?
To answer that simply, Swanson said he has sold roughly 10,000 boxes in the three years he has been in production.
“It’s really cool to be right here in Helena and be able to ship products all over the world,” he said.
Swanson originally sent a sample of his box to the high-end outdoor and sporting good mail-order retailer Orvis in hopes of setting his new business venture afloat.
“It was nerve racking as all get out, trust me, I mean year one, when I sent those samples out, I was like I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Swanson said.
To Swanson’s surprise, Orvis came back to him and asked how many of his wooden fly boxes he could make, to which Swanson answered: “I said I don’t know, I’ve made two.”
That’s when the Swanson name took off and orders flooded his little downtown Helena shop from customers all over the world.
In order to fulfill the thousands of orders that came after being featured in the Orvis catalog, Swanson invested in some machinery to help with the production process.
But he points out: “The machine's role does about 50 percent, it gets (the boxes) to a point” and then that’s when Swanson said he takes over and "then sand and sand, and sculpt and shape and sand.”
The final smooth, wooden product is a labor of love, but Swanson said the extra time it takes is worth it.
While the Al Swanson Craftsman Studios team is usually small, he does hire four other people to help with production to fulfill Orvis orders.
“Ultimately I have to be the choreographer to make sure the right pieces of wood are being used and that everything is going just the way I want to see it,” he said.
Swanson believes people are drawn to his unique boxes because of the materials used and where they come from.
“People young and old are really getting back to hand made pieces, pieces that a craftsman touched, that they signed, especially pieces that are not only made in America but little Helena, Montana,” he said. “There’s something about wood that’s very unlike plastic.”
The boxes come in various styles with different inlays on the front that can include a fly coated in abalone shell, or a fish jumping out of the water.
“We named them after the Yellowstone, we have the Blackfoot, we have the Missouri, we have the Smith,” Swanson said.
Each box is crafted to invoke an emotion and memory similar to its namesake river.
“The Smith is a deep, dark reddish box that’s like the red canyon walls,” said Swanson.
Despite having options that always include at least three different colors of wood, the boxes can be customized.
“Initials put in it, a saying put in it, their dog inlaid on the back, I mean we’ve done it all,” he said. “There’s really no limit to what we can do, creativity is a pretty fun thing.”
Anyone can have a hand in the design, too.
“They can be in Wisconsin, or New Zealand, and they’re then part of the process,” Swanson said. “They know they can pick up the phone, send me an email, they know they’re not going to get a robot, or someone other than me. So they give it as a gift and there’s this element of pride that they wouldn’t get if they just bought it on Amazon.”
Each individual box gets a little piece of Swanson before getting packed and shipped.
“On every single one of these they are completely signed and dated so they are art, but they are art meant to use,” he said.
The design Swanson uses was granted a patent in June 2017.
“It makes you feel really good, yeah, it makes you feel accomplished,” he said.
Getting the patent guarantees Swanson’s wooden boxes will stay unique and crafted the way he wants them to be made for years to come.
“My goal is to keep making people happy with beautiful things that we make. I don’t care how many it is, it’s not about the quantity necessarily, it’s about the quality of something that leaves this shop and that it’s recognizable nationwide,” he said.
Swanson has also expanded his wooden fishing products to nets, and in the fall new fly rod tubes will appear in the Orvis catalogs.
Seeing his designs printed in color on the tangible pages of Orvis, Swanson said it’s “very fulfilling that you can take your hands, grab a piece of wood, take the skill and the knowledge and turn it into a piece that someone is going to cherish and hand down to their kids and grand kids.”
Looking at the evolution of the original wooden fly box, one thing remains the same.
“When you pull this out in front of your friends, you’re going to stand out and you’re fishing in style.”
Check out Swanson’s boxes and other craftsmanship here.