We sat down with John Van Vleet for a chat about Scientific Angler's new image, the ever-growing complexity of the fly line industry, line technology, SA's two new line series, what's on the horizon and more.
Hatch Magazine: SA has been going through a bit of an image change of the last year or so. Are these changes only skin deep, or has there been a philosophical shift regarding the kind of products SA is looking to develop?
John Van Vleet: Our organizational change is much more than simply a cosmetic one. After being purchased by Orvis, we were able to essentially start from the ground up and re-evaluate our entire product lineup and manufacturing mindset. We have completely shifted our focus back onto our customers in an effort to make fly line selection a less daunting, less expensive, and more enjoyable process. While we will never stop pushing the technological limits of our capabilities, it’s extremely important for us to make lines that cast well, fish well, and won’t cost an insane amount of money. That’s the most important thing to us at the moment, and something we have admittedly done a poor job of over the past few years.
HM: What's the biggest problem facing fly line manufacturers and what is SA doing to address it?
JVV: One of the biggest problems we face is the issue of value versus cost. It’s not very easy to convince anglers to spend $99 on a fly line, especially if those anglers only fish several times a year. That’s one of the major reasons we created the Frequency series of lines, which is a very simplified offering (three floating tapers, three sinking tapers) at a much more palatable price point ($49) for many anglers. There are no doubts that anglers will receive more benefits from the premium technologies in our SharkWave lines, but does that value offset the cost? To many anglers, it doesn’t. That’s why we feel very strongly about maintaining quality products at lower price points. This not only helps us reach more people, but more importantly, it represents less of a barrier to those interested in learning how to fly fish.
HM: Fly lines are more technical these days than ever and it seems like a new advancement or technology is announced every few months. New coatings, tapers, textures and so on. And it's fair to say that the new SharkWave lines may be the most extreme example of this trend. Have things gone too far? Do these more advanced lines -- with their more "advanced" price tags -- really make our fishing better?
JVV: I wouldn’t say things have gone too far, but we’re certainly pushing the boundaries of what we can reasonably expect from our consumers. It would be difficult for me to see anyone ever paying more than $100 for a trout line, for example, even if it was made from liquid gold and floated like a feather. We have to be careful when we push these technological limits that we don’t exceed practical expectations. In the case of the SharkWave, the benefits are numerous. In our lab tests and on-the-water fishing, SharkWave lines have outperformed the competition, and even our own smooth lines, in a variety of areas: slickness, durability, flotation. The benefits are there, but do they offset the price? Maybe for a once-a-year angler, no. But for a guide or someone who is on the water several times a week, that answer becomes a little less clear. We fully believe in our advanced technologies, but like I mentioned earlier, we understand that not everyone wants, or needs, a $99 fly line. We are supremely focused on offering a wide range of lines, at a wide range of prices, in order to have a line for every angler out there. The Frequency series was simply our first step toward that end.
HM: The Sharkskin lines were lines that many loved but more than a few anglers hated. SA has abandoned the idea of offering a line that's 100% Sharkskin, but obviously believes in the technology for more specific applications. What did you learn over the 8 years since Sharkskin was originally introduced that led you down this path?
JVV: Sharkskin lines were certainly a breakthrough in fly-line development, but like any good technological advancement, it needed some refinement. The lines did exactly what they were designed to do, which was to float higher and shoot farther than any of our previous lines, but the unexpected drawbacks began mounting almost immediately, mostly in the form of bloody fingers. We’ve received more feedback, both positive and negative, about the Sharkskin than any other line we’ve ever produced. Overall, the good outweighed the bad, so we knew we had to figure out a way to keep the embossing without sending people scouring for bandages or heading to message boards to badmouth the lines. That’s why we paired the Sharkskin texture (a diamond-shaped pattern) with our less abrasive Mastery Texturing (more like golf ball dimples) to provide all the benefits of texturing without the drawbacks.
HM: Let's talk about your Dry Tip technology. SA's technical specifications explain Dry Tip as a technology that produces higher floating fly lines by embedding air-filled micro glass bubbles into the plastic that coats the line. And the SharkWave lines feature a new iteration, "best yet" of Dry Tip. All of this sounds like a big deal, but isn't exactly being shouted about from the roof tops. How unique is this process? Is anyone else doing anything like it? And what other lines in the SA family include this latest and greatest Dry Tip or even the previous iteration?
JVV: To be perfectly honest, this is something that other manufacturers do, so we aren’t the only ones. Many manufacturers include some form of air-filled bubbles into their coatings in order to improve flotation. The difference is that our Dry Tip is an SA-specific mix of these bubbles that we put in the tip sections of certain tapers that helps alleviate the problem of sinking front tips. It’s not a foolproof process, and I don’t believe anyone will completely eliminate tip sinking altogether, but this is our best shot yet. Rest assured we are constantly researching this and coming up with ways to improve.
HM: The Frequency series, which is getting a lot of positive feedback, is very much a move at the opposite end of the spectrum from SharkWave. Instead of an ultra-premium line that has every feature and technology SA offers, the Frequency lines seem like a no-nonsense line that still performs -- and does so at half the price. How concerned are you that the Frequency lines will draw anglers away from SA's premium lines?
JVV: We’re not very concerned about that at all. Frequency lines are so different than SharkWave lines, in both technology and taper selection, that there really isn’t much overlap. For instance, if someone wants the SharkWave Trout line, but needs a lower-priced sink-tip option, that’s where the Frequency comes into play. Additionally, we imagine most consumers would be trying to choose between either a SharkWave and Mastery line, or between a Mastery and Frequency, rather than between SharkWave and Frequency, if that makes sense. Again, our main goal with the Frequency lines was to simplify our offering at a lower price point to provide anglers with tried-and-true options without overwhelming them with 25 different tapers.
HM: What types of anglers would look to drop the extra cash on SharkWave and SA's other premium lines? What are the most important things that extra cash is bringing to the table?
JVV: Typically, we see anglers who spend a lot of time on the water spending more for our premium lines. It goes back to durability and fishability above all else. The SharkWave lines perform better than any other lines we make when it comes to flotation, slickness, and durability, and those are the key elements it seems as if anglers are willing to splurge for.
HM: What's next for SA?
JVV: This is a loaded question because we don’t want to give away too much at this point, but I will say that we have spent the past year focusing on our smooth lines. So much of our energy prior to that was devoted to SharkWave, and the one thing we kept hearing from consumers and dealers is that they wanted us to put some time and effort into our Mastery family. Let’s just say we listened and that we think everyone will be pleasantly surprised.