Updated: Jun 17
Keeping a business alive while keeping a community safe
By Mike Juran and Curt Rees
“Mat” Geri said with tears in her eyes, “What have we done? We are so screwed.” It’s August 2004 and Mat Wagner and his wife Geri Meyer had just purchased a building on Main Street in downtown Viroqua, Wisconsin. Geri recalls the weather being unbearably hot with highs over 100 degrees. Mat and Geri had moved across the country with two small boys and were preparing to open a fly shop and guide service here in the Driftless in southwest Wisconsin. For two solid weeks before they opened, Geri and Mat had been fishing the local spring creeks and had not caught a single trout. Panic and fear could have overtaken them, but the community came to their rescue. This would set a precedent of the symbiotic relationship between their business, the Viroqua area, and the trout angling community.
Let’s Move To Wisconsin?
Before coming to Viroqua, Mat and Geri met in Taos, New Mexico where Mat guided and managed a fly shop and Geri ran a French bistro. They met through mutual friends, fished together, and the rest of their relationship is history. They soon decided to try their hand at running their own fly shop. With no desire for big city life, they searched for opportunities where the fishing was good and there was need of a fly shop. One of Mat’s friends from Minnesota had frequently talked about this area called the ‘Driftless.’ Mat’s own research kept finding the Midwest spring creeks in the top 5 places to fish in the U.S. After further investigation, Mat said to Geri, “Let’s move to Wisconsin.” As you can imagine, Geri’s response was classic … and unprintable, but they looked for the center of the Driftless region and found the town of Viroqua. Geri thought it sounded French, and they began their quest. Mat’s parents made a trip from Michigan to Viroqua and found the very building that now houses the Driftless Angler. Geri and Mat made a trip from Taos for a long weekend and quickly fell in love with the area and the friendly people. The dream of a fly-fishing shop in Viroqua started to take shape and the relationship with our special area began.
They had purchased the building and officially started their business without ever having wet a line in local water, so not catching a trout in their first two weeks was terrifying. It would have been understandable for them to just take jobs in the private sector and squelch the dream but help arrived in the form of Driftless legends, John Bethke and Bob Blumreich. John, the creator of magic (spelled PINK SQUIRREL) and Bob (local guide) helped clue them in to put aside their Western ways of fly fishing and learn techniques and skills needed for our narrow, tree laden spring creeks.
Another Local Hero
Before they had even unpacked all the boxes of materials, flies, rods, and other fishing gear, another hero came to their aid. Pete Cozad, renowned guide in our area, taped a simple note to the shop’s front door. “Hi, I’m Pete Cozad and I’m a fly-fishing guide. I wonder if you would consider hiring me?” Mat joked sarcastically, “Being the experienced business people we are, we took his note, checked one reference (a very positive one) and hired him”, and Pete has been with them since the beginning. Pete had previously guided for people from the Chicago area and also had Minneapolis contacts. He helped lend credibility to the fly shop and build their initial business.
Diversity & Fly Angling
The Driftless Angler stands out from most fly shops across the country as Mat and Geri have a very diversified guide staff. They currently employ five full time guides and four (including Mat/Geri) part-time guides. Besides Geri as a female guide, the rest of the guides come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. They all possess skill sets that meet the expectations of their clients. The fly-fishing world has traditionally been more affluent, white, and male but the shop is trying to bring more diversity and opportunity to the sport. It makes business sense to expand the diversity of the client base, but Mat and Geri also recognize that it is also good for the sport and the preservation of the natural resources on which their business depends. Clients have come from Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago as you can imagine, but they also include visitors from South Africa, Japan, and Great Britain.
For years Geri has focused on providing more opportunities for female fly anglers. The Driftless Angler has a line of women’s outdoor clothing and equipment under the name Athena and Artemis, which is a TU business partner. Geri used to get a lot of eyerolls when attending vendor seminars when she asked about more focus on equipment for female anglers. Thanks to her persistence and more recognition from gear vendors, the availability of fly fishing equipment for women grew. Their shop now carries full lines of women’s apparel in a variety of sizes, unlike many other fly shops which may only have a more limited selection. Their commitment to their clients and expanding the sport across demographic lines is admirable and runs counter to an efficient focus on only one part of the demographic. As you will see, that is the type of people they are-- community centered, not strictly profit centered.
The Driftless Angler supports the development of the next generations of fly fisherman with their support of Pete Cozad’s Driftless 1 Fly Tournament. For the past 6 years, Pete has organized the One Fly to raise thousands of dollars to support local youth angling and outdoor initiatives. This is an all-day event, where each member of a 4 person team is allowed to have ONE fly line for the day. If the fly is lost or needs to be retied, that team member is done contributing to the official score of the team. There are a limited number of teams that can participate, and preference is given to youth anglers. Any team having a competitor under the age of 18 is an automatic entry into the tourney. The rest of the teams are selected at random drawing. There is a fun energy among the people this event brings together, and it wouldn’t happen without Pete and the support of Driftless Angler.
Fly Shop Built On Relationships
The Driftless Angler is always available to help trout fisherman. “It’s a relationship” emphasizes Mat, and they can provide a wealth of information to anglers. If you walk through their doors, use their bathroom, make fun of Mat’s hair, and then ask for a top stream destination, it’s possible you will be sent to the East Fork of the Kickapoo or just down the road to the TUDARE improvement project on Shitze Creek. It is a business after all, so if you venture into any fly shop, support them. Be kind and polite of course, but also buy some tippet, floatant, or a couple of recommended flies. Information may flow more freely. If you invest in them, they will invest in you and help you have the best possible experience on the stream.
Hire a guide?
Hiring a guide is another way to invest in a fly shop, but I personally think the angler benefits much more than the fly shop. I learned to fly fish on Arkansas tailwaters with nothing in your backcast and the trout don’t seem to care about bad casts. Trying that same approach in the Driftless was a completely different matter. Tangles, lost flies, and monologues of swear words grossly outnumbered the trout caught in an outing. And just like Bethke and Blumreich helped Mat and Geri figure out trout fishing here, Mat did the same for me in 2008. I hired Mat for a guide trip during their initial shop years and he taught me more in 4 hours than I would have learned in four years on my own. Yes, we caught fish that day, but more than that, Mat saved me years of frustration with expert advice on how to read pieces of water, where to place a fly, and how to fine tune my Driftless cast. His Bethke influence introduced me to my first pink squirrel. I immediately improved my fly-fishing skills and had a core set of tips that I could put to use and practice on my own.
An Angling Community Asset
The Driftless Angler has a reputation of benevolence for giving back to the trout fishing community. They are key contributors for Coulee Region Trout Unlimited events, the Cozad Driftless One Fly, and many other local activities. Many other trout organizations across the Midwest have benefited from their presentations and donations to banquets and stream days.
As with other small businesses, the Corona Virus pandemic has drastically affected their daily operations and business model. They followed state and federal guidelines and immediately stopped all guided trips. They shifted to drive-up and mail shopping, and then quickly downscaled to just mail orders. In the first weeks of the shelter in place order, Mat continued to post daily fishing reports on the shop’s web page. Mat noticed that the pandemic resulted in many people suddenly having lots of free time to fish Driftless streams. While fishing is an appropriate way to exercise and avoid crowds of people during the shelter order, traveling hours from home to fish seemed to counter to the message of stopping the spread of illness.
So contrary to a business focused solely on profit, Mat and Geri suspended the daily fishing report and wrote a very poignant article asking people to protect our streams and our local community by staying home or at the very least stay local. This of course led to some pushback on social media, but they have stayed the course to maintain their focus on protecting the Driftless community at this time.
As the rest of Wisconsin starts to reopen, the Driftless Angler has communicated with other Driftless fly shops to share best practices in serving their clientele in this new environment. Guides and clients will now have a different experience to keep all parties safe. Clients will need to arrive at the stream in their own vehicle and bring their own food and drink. Until more is known about how the corona virus spreads, it may mean that anti-bacterial wipes are needed when rods are exchanged.
The Driftless Angler, as of June 8, is now open again, but your fly shop experience will change to a ‘new normal’ for now. To stop the potential spread of illness on shop gear and flies, staff will assist and pick flies for you. There are limits on the number of anglers in the store at one time. Two Driftless Angler staff will need to man the shop at a time to meet the needs of customers and new health practices. Even if it is not a legal requirement, do your part and wear a mask and protect our valuable asset, the staff of the Driftless Angler. The same buff or bandana that keeps gnats out of your nose on the stream can also be used to reduce any possible germs you might expel when in the fly shop or other place of business. Keep a respective distance of other anglers in the shop or on the stream.
We Will Survive
Together, just like the last 14 years, we can support each other and care for our little gem we call the Driftless and the people we cherish at the Driftless Angler. Like other small businesses, especially many in the Viroqua area dependent on tourism, coming back after a nearly 2 ½ month stand still is a challenge. Strong established ties to the community and its anglers has equipped them to weather this economic storm. By protecting the community and fishery resource, the Driftless Angler has demonstrated a ‘people before profit’ attitude. We applaud their efforts as we all try to find our way to a ‘new normal’ in these strange and unfamiliar times.