In a sport increasingly influenced by mass-production and technological advancements, JP Ross is keeping it personal.
These days, too many fishing gear items are mass-produced, machine-made, robot-influenced pieces of equipment. This isn’t always a bad thing; science and technology have taken the sport of fishing farther in the last, say, ten years than it moved in the previous thirty.
But something’s lost when there’s no real human contact with the tools we use, minus a few select moments where someone gives a final check at the end of an automated assembly line. Before computers and advanced machinery were capable of making functional fishing gear, it was the craftsman who did the work. The rod maker, perhaps more than others, saw a high level of respect, because it needed to be that way. If you wanted a rod that fit you and your needs, you were going to have to trust the work of someone, hopefully a qualified expert, to build something unique and custom.
Not every company still does it this way, and much of the reason has to do with the fact that, well, they don’t have to.
But the companies that do, like JP Ross Fly Rods and their website smallstreamflyfishing.com, are doing it right.
The start of something
JP Ross started out when the “JP” in the name, Jordan Ross, was only 20 years old. At the time, the fly shop owner felt the need to provide something customized for the local fishermen in Central New York, taking advantage of the streams in the Adirondack foothills.
“I felt that there was a need to make a fly rod specifically to cater to our local economy, that was affordable and also somewhat personalized,” Jordan said over the phone in a recent interview. “From that inception, our customers kept on coming back to us, and wanted more and more, and better and better, and from there the company grew.”
JP Ross immediately caught the attention of the fly fisherman who wanted to maintain that customized feel and performance when it came to their rods, and Jordan’s expertise in fitting a rod to its owner became somewhat remarkable.
“But every good story has a little bit of a conflict,” Jordan said, “and our personal conflict occurred when we were still growing, around mid-2005, when our local economy changed quite a bit. Some of the big box stores came into play, and that conflict was very difficult for us. It hurt us quite a bit, economically.”
And you know what comes from big box stores, right? Mass-produced gear, lined up in neat rows and packed in boxes, each one the same as the last.
“So we decided to make a strategic change,” said Jordan, “and that was to focus on JP Ross as being a lifestyle brand, and being the best customized and personal fly rod that you can get on the planet, and that every rod would be a one-off creation and a representation of the customer.”
The scope has changed, with a now international clientele and a diversified emphasis away from strictly small stream trout fishing. JP Ross sells not just rods, but reels, line, and accessories. They’ve branched out to other things too, like pottery, clothing, leather goods and have plans for more.
The beginnings and pathway of JP Ross are important, but the real story of this company can’t be told with just words. A “show and tell” would be much more fitting, because just reading the words “beautiful” and “magnificent” when they’re written to describe a JP Ross rod doesn’t get the point across.
When you see one, you figure it out.
It really is difficult to come up with ways to describe a JP Ross rod, but taking it from the creator’s mouth is probably best.
“If you can imagine an elite double barrel shotgun,” Jordan explained, “with engraving on beautiful wood, and a beautiful case, that’s more of a reflection of our rods than say, a custom golf club or a tennis racket or something.”
The rods have certain features, like the engraving on the reel seat wood, customized inlays, and other unique aspects that make every single product a collaborative, personalized fishing implement. Upland game bird feathers, flower petals, and other out-of-the-box inlay requests have helped keep that direct connection between fisherman and fishing rod. Tribute rods, for military personnel, political figures and the like, get requested often.
How exactly does that collaborative process work? Ross initiates an on-going conversation, whether through the phone or email, and works to get some inspiration out of the customer.
Customers are asked to “give us an emotional feel of what you want, and give us some physical attributes,” he said, which can either be direct and essentially map out the rod, or leave a lot to the imagination. The customer experience isn’t like anything else in the business. Jordan will often do a mock-up sketch, accompanied by images of other rods that have been done, and the artist’s license is taken from there.
“More often than not, we end up getting to know the customer through conversation, and over a week’s time they’ll call, and I’ll know their voice because I’ve talked to them a couple times,” Jordan said. “We get to almost be friends with them, we talk about where they fish and what they do. I think that’s what they enjoy, they feel like they’re working with a company that’s real.”
To add to the intrigue, they’ve begun seeing interest in the building process itself, sparked by social media updates and images that show the rod as it’s being created. Those organic relationships are helping create the interaction and engagement that a brand aims for.
The proof is in the product
Hopefully you’re getting the idea: these things are nice to look at. But the company wouldn’t have lasted if they were merely eye candy. As any JP Ross customer will tell you, the rods can flat out fish.
“I think the biggest sin would be someone who bought a JP Ross rod and never went out and fished it,” said Tom Fernandez, a partner who handles marketing and communication for the company.
Standing out amongst the competition in a niche industry like fly rods, one that always touts performance and fish-ability, is always going to be tough. But JP Ross has consistently produced a variety of rods, from the small stream trout rods that gave them their foundation, to the two-handed switch and spey rods that have emerged in popularity, and repeatedly given the fisherman something they can use.
Therein lies another conflict, and one that Jordan believes is a barrier the company has yet to break through.
“One of the misperceptions is that our rods are over a thousand bucks, or just outrageously expensive. But that is not the case,” explained Jordan. “We have rods that start at $199. In fact, you can build a Beaver Meadow on our website, and for $250 you can pick out custom attributes. Our rods top out right now at about $700 or so, and Tom and I are working on some new designs that probably will approach $1,200, but I think the main thing that we’re dealing with, is that when people see pictures of our rods, they think that they’re too much money.”
That sort of problem is both good and bad, and it’s the kind of issue that can be overcome with more time and more recognition.
The sky’s the limit
As negative as the new wave, modern style of creating fishing gear can be portrayed, there’s still a viable contingency of people like Jordan and Tom, who work for companies that are keeping the truest meaning of the sport alive. They aren’t the only ones, but they’re establishing themselves in a lifestyle that is perfect for the way they do things.
“We want to stay true to form, but we also want to offer products that our customers want to see,” Tom said. “Being a small company, there’s only so many ways that we can innovate and stay true to form.”
That sentiment will almost certainly keep the JP Ross motor running, and those who catch on and take advantage are going to see the difference.