Fly-fishing, for many, is a passion and an obsession.
There’s a history of fathers taking their sons to streams in the early hours to spend the day perfecting their cast — look no further than the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It.”
Battle Ground resident Mike McCoy eventually channeled that fly-fishing passion into his business, Snake Brand. He spends his days working out of his house and garage, overseeing the creation of what are called “snake guides,” as well as other fly rod components, such as sleek reel seats (the handle to a fly rod) made of maple and buckeye.
Using machines he designed himself, his business can produce up to 400 snake guides an hour. They’re shipped all over the world, he said, to customers as far away as Japan and New Zealand.
To a non-fly fisher, maybe the words “snake guide” mean nothing — but at the very least, you may have heard how important getting the “perfect cast” is in the sport of fishing.
A snake guide is one of the tiny metal pieces attached to a fly rod through which the fishing line is strung. Other guides, such as the ones you might find on an average fly rod, are shaped like a teardrop. McCoy said those guides have more “drag points.”
Snake guides are named for their particular design.
“Because it’s got a little snaky twist,” McCoy said.
The tiny bit of metal is twisted into a loop and spread in such a way, like a relaxed pipe curl, that the line gains what McCoy said is better speed and distance, versus a teardrop shape. And to a professional fisher or hobbyist, that little advantage matters.
A fisherman all his life, McCoy used to spend his days with his parents catching fish in the streams near Mount Lassen in Northern California in the 1950s. He met his wife, Susan, who would eventually help him with the Snake Brand business that he started in 1993. McCoy said a mentor inspired him in the early 1990s by telling him that he had the patience to create better guides than were available on the market.
After working for companies like Microsoft and Intel, he already had a technical mind, he said. Starting out wasn’t easy, however. At first he didn’t have a practical way to make the snake guides. He had a team of employees who produced 30 to 40 of them a day by hand.
“It was a very slow process we were doing,” Susan McCoy said. “(We would have) indented fingernails from trying to buff things and literally after a while it would get into your nails. We don’t have to do that anymore, thank goodness.”
Mike McCoy worked on building machines to automate the process, receiving patents in the mid-2000s. These days, he said they produce “about 400 parts an hour each.”
Before being twisted into the “snaky” design by the machine in his garage, the metals for the guides are pressed in a space he has rented in Newberg, Ore. That’s where he started the business before he and Susan moved to a larger swath of land near Battle Ground.
In his garage, he lays what looks like a slightly larger than a needle piece of metal in the machine and it quickly clamps together, forming the stretched loop.
He ships the snake guides to fly-fishing vendors, specialty shops and individual custom fly rod builders. He wouldn’t disclose how much he earned last year through the business, but said he probably shipped “tens of thousands” of guides last year.
He said sales have increased in the last few years. According to a 2017 survey by Southwick Associates for the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, the size of the U.S. fly-fishing market is $1.08 billion — and the Western United States ranked first in gross sales by region.
Most in the business know it isn’t necessarily a cheap hobby. Some fly-fishers could spend thousands decking out their rods.
As McCoy gets older, he’s looking to retire from his home business eventually, but he still tries to stay active in the fishing community by helping others learn the craft.
While on a fishing trip to Fall River, near the Deschutes River in Oregon, Katherine Paiva of Eugene, Ore., encountered McCoy in a parking lot. She was wearing her fishing waders. He approached, she said, because “he doesn’t meet a lot of women in waders.”
“We just struck up a friendship,” she said. “I was new to fly fishing and Mike came over and started talking to me and was so encouraging … You don’t get that a lot when you walk into a fly store.”