An Inside Look at How Umpqua Picks New Fly Patterns

Did you know that you can make money by inventing new fly patterns? Get a company to mass produce one of your inventions and for each one sold you earn a royalty check. If your flies sell well you stand to make a tidy sum. But getting your pattern into the catalog of a major fly maker is no easy task. Tim Romano visited the headquarters of the largest manufacturer of flies in the world to learn how they choose which new patterns to produce each year.
Umpqua Feather Merchants was founded in 1972 by a professional production fly tier named Dennis Black. Black rounded up innovative talents including Dave Whitlock, Jack Dennis, and Andy Puyans, built up a catalog, and soon opened the first fly tying factories in Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. The company also created the first fly pattern royalty system, in which professional fly tiers were compensated with a percentage of the price of each one of their flies Umpqua sold.
Enter Brian Schmidt, Umpqua's Fly Production Specialist. If you want to get one of your flies into production with Umpqua, Schmidt will be the first to see your patterns. He may have the coolest position in the fly tying world. His job is to play with new fly patterns all day -- tear them apart, re-tie them, swim test them in a 500 gallon bass tank, and, of course, field test the patterns in the world-class waters surrounding the company's Louisville, Colorado headquarters. The final decision on whether a fly will go into production or not is always made by a small committee, but if Schmidt doesn't like the fly, chances are they'll never even see it.
So how does one go about submitting a pattern? Hundreds of tiers send flies to Umpqua every year. The average submission consists of three to four flies each. At least a handful of times a year a number of tiers will send an entire collection consisting of upwards of 25 flies each. There are no rules governing submissions. Many tiers simply call or send flies blindly to company headquarters, although most submissions are made at the local level as tiers contact Umpqua reps through their local fly shops, who then call Schmidt and give him the scoop.
Some tiers send their work in ziploc bags, some in hand-carved wooden boxes. Tier Jay Zimmerman sent in his "Geezus Lizard" as a cardboard box diorama that included small explanations about each variation of the pattern. Zimmerman's fly made it into the Umpqua catalog, but Schmidt explained that while it's helpful to have a nice presentation, it's a fly's innovation that will make it stand out. Of all the flies submitted only 25 to 35 percent are picked up for production. The company releases around 100 new patterns each year.
Umpqua evaluates it's patterns by looking at a number of factors. First is a combination of innovation and style that Schmidt calls "bin appeal." Is the fly sexy? Does it have sales potential? The Pole Dancer pictured above is one of the company's sexiest new innovations, this one by tier Charlie Bisharat. It's designed to mimic the motion of conventional lures like the Zara Spook and Lunker Plunker that have zig-zagging, "walk the dog" actions that imitate the motions of wounded baitfish. Here's a great video demonstrating the fly in action.
Another innovative new pattern is the Geezus Lizard, Jay Zimmerman's fly mentioned earlier in this gallery. With most flies, Schmidt typically looks first at the back of the hook and moves forward, asking "what makes this fly special?" In this pattern's case it was the egg yarn tail, which gives the fly a jigging action because it floats (air gets trapped in the woolen yarn).
The next criteria Schmidt uses to evaluate a pattern is profitability. When looking at flies for the mass market, tiers should think about the production steps it would take to make the fly at the factory. Every hand that touches the fly at an Umpqua factory has to be paid, so the fewer the tying steps, the more likely it is that a bug will go into production. "We do get submissions that we cannot produce at a reasonable price, and sometimes they go to different manufacturers," says Schmidt. "Does this bother us? Generally not. I have seen flies produced by competitors that we have turned away and unfortunately for the creator, the flies are not always produced to 'swim' or act they way they were designed." One pattern that didn't make the cut was this floating smelt, which may be the most realistic fly I have ever seen. It was submitted to Brian last year by a tier in Japan. The fly felt and floated just like a dead smelt. The attention to cosmetic details were unbelievable (it even had an anus). It was a gorgeous fly, and likely would work very well, but would have cost $20 at a fly shop. It never would have sold.
After Schmidt approves a fly and feels that it has a good chance of making it into production he calls a meeting with a small, five-person committee consisting of the President, Sales Manager, International Sales Manager, Operations Manager, and himself. They go over each fly, weighing its pros and cons and debating whether or not it will sell. If they absolutely cannot decide on a pattern they let all the reps from around the world vote to see if the fly will go into production.
Once a fly is chosen, Schmidt contacts the tier and asks him or her to tie twenty-four sets of every fly that has been accepted. Each fly must come with complete specs and a fully detailed recipe for production. These sets are then given to each rep to show their local dealers. Umpqua uses these dealers' input to forecast sales, which lets the company tell its factories how many of the flies to tie.
Schmidt's next step is finding good sources for the materials needed to tie the pattern. These sources range from beauty salons to hobby stores, and must be able to provide the materials Schmidt needs at a stable price for the duration of the fly's production cycle.
In the meantime, the factories overseas have been busy making samples from the originals. These are sent back to the creator of the fly. The tier then makes notes on what's working and what's not. Photos are taken and sent back to the factory, where any necessary changes in the production process are made.
Once a prototype is finalized, production starts overseas. All flies are shipped directly back to company headquarters where they are sorted and stored in a massive warehouse and cataloged with a specially designed, state of the art inventory management system.
Schmidt oversees quality control for every 10 dozen flies per tier, per
fly from the factory. If any flies are not up to his standards they are returned to the factory and stripped apart so that the hooks and any other reusable materials can be incorporated into new flies.
If the flies make it through quality control they are put into stock in 10 - 40 dozen lots and finally distributed to fly shops. Most flies go into production two years after final approval and after a contract has been signed with the tier. Umpqua then trademarks the tiers last name, not the actual bug, so that Umpqua could still make a similar pattern if the tier decided to leave or go to another company. Currently a tier gets an 8% royalty fee for every fly sold. If a tier dies, the royalties could be bequeathed to a friend or relative for the duration of production of that fly. For a popular pattern, 8% of sales can be a nice chunk of change. Check out this gallery of Schmidt's picks for the 15 coolest fly patterns Umpqua makes, then get tying!

Check out Brian Schmidt's list of the 15 coolest bugs made by Umpqua Feather Merchants.