TEN QUESTIONS WITH YELLOW DOG’S IAN DAVIS
What’s the story behind Yellow Dog? What’s the evolution behind the company?
Jim Klug and I met in Colorado in the early 1990s. I had Breckenridge Outfitters with Crosby Beane, and Jim was a fly-fishing manufacture's representative. In fact, Jim was our first "customer" when we first re-opened the doors of Breckenridge Outfitters (and it was actually a sales call). We became fast friends and started traveling to fish together. Through a mutual friend, we met a great guy that lived on Andros Island who worked at the AUTEC Naval base. We had a cheap place to crash, $40 flights between Florida to Andros, and wading flats within walking distance of the base. We lived on PB&Js, cheap beer, and fell in love with the flats on these excursions. We pooled our tip money so we could afford a few guided days that mixed well with our DIY days on Andros. This is where we met and booked the future legendary guides like Andy and Benry Smith, the Neymour family, Eddie Rolle, Shaun Riley, Solomon Murphy, and Phillip Rolle. These young guides were our age and also building their fly-fishing businesses. We quickly learned that we caught a lot more and bigger bones, as well as a few tarpon with the guides. They also educated us on the finer aspect of reading the flats and feeding saltwater species. As we became friends with most of the guides on Andros, we started recommending them to our network of clients and friends. Little did we know this was the spawning of Yellow Dog.
I then started hosting Breckenridge Outfitter groups to Andros each February. At this point, Jim left Colorado and became involved in a start up fly-fishing tackle company that later got consumed by Scientific Anglers, so he moved to Minneapolis. This is when Jim started traveling to Belize to test gear for SA, hosting groups, and got the permit bug pretty badly. Shortly thereafter, Jim came up with the concept for starting Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures. In fact, Breckenridge Outfitter was Yellow Dog's first agent fly shop, so we started booking world-wide destination travel in the late 1990s. As my wife and I started having kids, we realized Breckenridge was not the place for us to raise a family. I had always dreamed of moving to Montana since fishing there as a kid and when living in Colorado, so naturally I called Jim to ask how he liked Bozeman. Yada yada yada, and after a few meetings with Jim, I was moving my family to Bozeman to be co-owner of Yellow Dog.
The year was 2005 and I was tasked with creating the Bahamas program for Yellow Dog. Luckily, my wife’s folks lived in Florida and our young children were not in school yet, so each spring we would invade their town home in West Palm so I could easily travel to the islands of the Bahamas. I spent a good amount of time on each island, then came back to catch up on work and be with the family, and then head out again to a new island. It was extremely beneficial to spend quality time on each island, and not just dash through the lodges. We really got to know the locals and create a diverse Bahamas program with different price points and a variety of settings. I was seeking out lodges and guides the other agencies did not know about or book. We really wanted to offer something different and support Bahamian owned operations, as well as the high end lodges other agencies booked. We have carried that philosophy throughout our world-wide programs. I love the fact that we inject millions of dollars into fishing communities throughout the world. Yellow Dog takes such pride in the relationships we have developed with the guides and lodges over the years. I truly feel that doing business with friends correlates to the Yellow Dog anglers having a better fishing and travel experience.
You’ve had the opportunity to travel the world, rod in hand. What’s your favorite location so far?
I think more about my favorite fish species rather than a single favorite location. There are so many wonderful locations I have been so fortunate to fish that I cannot single any specific destination out. I get super excited about traveling to any of the 165 different locations in the Yellow Dog arsenal. This is the only way to honestly convey finer details of a destination to our valued clientele. I love meeting new people that are involved in the business of fishing. So, my favorite location is where I get to re-visit with old friends who have taken great care of the Yellow Dog guests.
So, what species are my favorite? For saltwater, I love bonefish because they live on the flats which makes them available any time of year, and they love to gobble up well-placed clumps of fur and feathers. As you first see a bonefish emerge from the glare I love to read its body language. They let you know if they are going to eat your fly by how they maneuver through the aquatic terrain. I can honestly tell whether the bonefish will eat a well-placed fly around 90% of time time just by reading its body language. My dear friend Captain "Crazy" Charlie Smith and I used to discuss this at the Bang Bang Club late into the nights. He taught me volumes on bonefishing. I really enjoy watching how a bonefish accelerates to a fly when it hits the bottom of the flat and makes a puff of sand. That might be my favorite moment in fly fishing… besides maybe when a golden dorado goes into feeding frenzy mode!
I have become enamored with this gangster of fish that swims in the rivers of Bolivia and Argentina. I particularly like the Bolivia fisheries, because it is mostly sight fishing in small creeks like you would find in Montana or New Zealand. The big, bushy flies are super fun to tie and dorado destroy them with such force it can scare the heck out of you. In fact, on my first two eats in Bolivia a few years ago I never set the hook. My jaw dropped and I quietly stepped out of the river after the explosive eat, as if I was scared to wade in the same shallow water where that fish feeds. I'm not sure what the guide thought of me basically “punting on first down”, but I quickly became addicted to golden dorado. The conditions are constantly changing, so you must always be thinking and applying numerous different tactics and techniques to be successful. I prefer challenging fisheries that bring out the creative angler in me. Sometimes I find just wandering around aimlessly when the fishing is tough results in a trophy fish. "Clear the mechanism” as it were.
Your art keeps popping up around the office and beyond — have you always drawn fish?
My mother and father were both artists. My mom actually let me draw on the walls of my room. She would also roll out shelving paper down our hallway, so I had an endless canvas to create ongoing scenes of fish, dinosaurs, and battle scenes. My neighbor growing up was Peter Benchley, who wrote the book Jaws, so I was really into drawing all the different species of sharks. He was a big influence on me at a critical age. He never intended to criminalize the shark and spent most of his life fighting to protect sharks after the movie Jaws came out. I seriously drew nothing but sharks for years.
After attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I began designing fishing-themed t-shirts at Breckenridge Outfitters. Being on a busy Main Street of one of the top ski towns in the world meant we sold a ton of t-shirts to tourists. I had a lot of fun creating original designs that promoted the shop. I also incorporated a painting studio in the back of the shop, so I could crank out paintings to sell to our anglers. I was recently honored to illustrate Jim Klug's book on Fly-Fishing Belize. I'm currently working on a design for a Redbone "To Catch the Cure" for cystic fibrosis event called the Andros Island Bonefish Classic that Yellow Dog hosts each year. This design will be on the Simms solar flex shirt for the anglers and guide’s swag bags, the banners around Swain's Cay Lodge, and I will auction off the original to raise money during the live auction. I have a lot of fun coming up with creative ways to combining fishing scenes and information for specific events.
Do you like to make art on location? What’s the most memorable time that’s happened?
I always carried Sharpie Markers with me when guiding so I could doctor the fly's colors and markings. I had a client many years ago find a cool rock when we were fishing the Jefferson, and it looked like a brown trout's head. He had purchased a few of my paintings, so he asked me to draw a quick sketch on the rock of a brownie’s head. Then on the back of the rock I added the date, location, and how many fish we caught by the end of the day. This was the start of an ongoing tradition of creating a quick Sharpe Marker piece of original artwork on a shell, piece of wood, or a rock. I have been creating memorable souvenirs for Yellow Dog anglers that have joined my hosted trips for many years now. I always incorporate the main fish species, the date, location, lodge, and of course "Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures". I spend a lot of time drawing when traveling to make enough souvenirs for the anglers and lodge. Everyone seems to get a kick out of the pieces, and there are some substantial collections out there. I go through a lot of Sharpies.
Yellow Dog is well known for savvy, know-how, and customer care. What do you think is the company’s most important strength?
Our team! I always tell lodge owners that “you are only as good as your guides,” and that same philosophy applies to Yellow Dog. We have worked very hard to attract only the most experienced people to be a part of the Yellow Dog team. Since the fly-fishing community is tightly knit, we know most of everyone and consider many friends. This enables us to bring aboard many of our friends to become part of Yellow Dog, which creates a super fun work environment. We are also a pretty fishy crew, which helps us convey the finer aspects of a fishery to the Yellow Dog anglers. Establishing realistic expectations is one of the most important aspects when communicating with the guest about the fishing. Too many people over-hype the fishing to “book another trip.” That is just not fair and not what we do at Yellow Dog. We want to create an honest and straightforward relationship with our anglers. They really appreciate this approach to the vacation planning procedure, and is why we simply have so many dedicated repeat clients.
What’s the one fly you always make sure is in your box?
Big fly = big fish. After fifteen years of guiding the tailwater rivers in Colorado, if I never see another freaking size 24 disco midge or 7X, I will rest easy. I love to tie big streamers with spun deer hair heads. These flies push water, swim with a natural motion, are durable, and cast pretty easily. I have caught trout, bass, bonefish, redfish, tarpon, golden dorado, pacu, yatorana, peacock bass, stripers, barracuda, sharks, jacks, snapper, dolphin fish, snook, and even had a permit eat (farmed it) all with a muddler-style fly pattern.
You can only bring five items on a trip. What makes the cut?
I always carry-on (the plane) my Winston rods, Hatch reels, Costa sunglasses, flies, and camera gear. The new Simms carry-on rod bag is sweet… oops, now that is six items. The bag does not count. I have had too many bags delayed to risk not having my fishing equipment with me at all times. Also, I dress to fish when traveling just in case. I have even worn my wading boots and rain gear on the flights to ensure I will have everything.
Walk us through a day in the life of Ian Davis.
On Yellow Dog hosted trips, I get up early to check my tackle and camera gear. I rarely sit down and eat breakfast, but politely ask for an egg sandwich or burrito to go (and scarf it down in the boat). As the Yellow Dog anglers meet their guides in the mornings I make sure they have all the proper tackle and gear. I never leave to fish before they do, or take the best guide each day. Actually, I hardly even fish anymore on hosted trips. We are always trying to create an ideal setting or situation for our guests. I really enjoy helping anglers catch more fish and shooting photos. My “soft goal” is to catch a fish a day and that keeps me pretty happy. Also, a quick nap after lunch keeps me energized and in the hosting zone. As the anglers come in from fishing I prefer to ask, “Did you had fun today” and not “how many fish did you catch?”. Then we do some group fly tying, casting, or an in-depth tackle talk around cocktail hour. I'm also downloading my and the groups’ photos after each day on the water. Then I edit the best photos to create a slide show for the group that I show every few days. This keeps me pretty busy, but the guests really like to see everyone's photos. We always make these photo collections available to the Yellow Dog guests after the trip. This really helps to promote the destination and my future hosted trips.
So what’s next—what’s on the docket for 2016?
We have just completed a huge project of expanding the Yellow Dog office in Bozeman. That was a massive undertaking because our downtown historic building was so old. We added eleven new work stations. I'm constantly blown away how many people are now part of the Yellow Dog family. We have grown tremendously since I first moved to Bozeman over ten years ago.
We are now in the final stages of finalizing a new data base program, which will improve the infrastructure with-in the Yellow Dog trip booking processes. Our volume is to the point that we need a custom-made data entry and trip management system. This program will enable our team to effectively manage their bookings, thus becoming more efficient and happier. Ultimately, this will also improve our customers' experience as well, which is what we are constantly try to improve upon.
As for travel, it is show season which I really enjoy. We will be at all the Fly Fishing Shows with our 20-foot booth, re-connecting with our loyal customers, networking with lodges and guides, as well as welcoming new Yellow Dog anglers to our programs. Then I'm off to the Yucatan for a quick visit, a little Widespread Panic long weekend, then the Bahamas for a Redbone charity event Yellow Dog hosts, then to Cuba for a few weeks of hosted trips, and then back to the Yucatan for a family hosted trip. The annual Yellow Dog family hosted trips are my favorite, because my wonderful wife and three daughters accompany me. Last year we have 12 kids under 14 years old at Grand Slam Fishing Lodge in the Yucatan. I organized a kid’s fishing derby and auction, which raised over $10,000 for the Punta Allen Schools, which they used to purchase a battery system so they never run out of electricity and all the rooms now have ceiling fans. Hatch reels, Simms fishing, Thomas and Thomas Rods, and Yellow Dog were all sponsors and we are all set to head back again to Grand Slam Fishing Lodge in June for another fun family trip.