Outside, hordes of footsteps pass by the window. Men, Women and whole families walk to their own rhythms along the artery walls that encase Oak Street in downtown Hood River. Some stop to stare at the photos in the window while others keep shuffling with barely a glance. From time to time, the shop door swings open ringing a bell overhead signifying yet another arrival. What they find is an unassuming friendly face. How could it be any other way? They just entered into a dream come true; into a reality that Travis Duddles dreamed so long ago.
"How you doing there?" Travis asks with his head cocked to the side.
"What can we help you out with?"
"Well, I've fished for a while but I've never been fly fishing and I was wondering-
And there, in the corner of his eye, is a twinkle that flickers as he turns to engage this most fortunate guest.
I have worked at the Gorge Fly Shop for over three years now and in this time I have met and chatted with many different folks. Some are just browsing, some are in need of technical advice and some just hang around to share fish tales. Some people are enjoying their first visit to the shop, while others have stepped through the door a hundred times before. For many, the Gorge Fly Shop is a beacon on the banks of the Columbia. Paying us a visit is a part of their daily routine. Their minds can always come up with a reason to swing by. I see a lot of older folks that I do not recognize - many who are wondering if Travis is around. Actually, this happens all the time, whether on the phone or in person, people want to catch up with Travis:
"Is Travis in today?" or "Where's Travis?" or "Hey, I got to speak to Travis"
Man, what is it about Travis anyway? What am I chopped liver here? But when Travis and I are working together and I see him interact with people there is little mystery as to why people come back. I mean some of these folks have been dropping by for 20 years... Upon first glance, although he has a forehead that now stretches to the back of his neck; he resembles an old boy or a young man. He talks with kind of a down home, laid back charm that is easy on the ear. Within moments, you seem to have made a connection and, after a bit, you scratch your head wondering how someone with such a youthful gaze could harbor so much experience in the fly fishing community. He is only 37 years after all! When I learned that The Gorge Fly Shop's 20th anniversary was drawing close (This coming February), I decided that I wanted to do a piece on Travis and the origin of the shop. After a light tussle with his inherent modesty, he agreed that that would be a good idea. What I unearthed is a story that rotates on the axis of family, passion and determination. Of course, like most stories, it is paraphrased but the gist is as follows: At the age of nine, Travis was introduced to the art of fly fishing at lost lake in Oregon. His parents, Albert and Ruth Duddles never had much money, but seeing his and his younger brother's passion for the outdoors; they pooled their pennies and spent them while exploring the landscape around the Cascades. Lost Lake and Crane Prairie reservoir became the destination for many family outings and camp trips. Sensing a brewing lust for the sport, Albert bought his son a basic fly tying kit and that was all it took. The tinder had been lit. Travis jumped in head first and before long, he was twisting up some fairly effective critters.
"Some of those early ties of mine were pretty ugly, but the fish didn't seem to care," Travis recalled. Most of his free time, especially during the summer months, was dedicated to improving his craft and testing his flies out on area waters. After selling a dozen flies to his uncle Ralph, he decided that he might be able to make a little cash with his hobby so at the age of 12, Travis began tying flies commercially.
He smiles upon recollection, "You know those early years were pretty tough. It was hard to get accounts in person because when I would show up, they weren't sure that they could trust this little wide-eyed kid standing there."
Little by little his business grew to incorporate eight different accounts that demanded somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 dozen flies per year. Some of his patterns could be seen in the back of Frank Amato's old publication, Fly Fishing, as either first place or runner up finishers for set pattern competitions. Not bad for a fourteen year old!
As the years passed and each new fly hit the bins, a boyhood desire began to boil. It was a sentiment that grew clearer by the day and a plan was formed to set his dreams into action. At the age of seventeen, he could wait no longer. He was ready to open up the Gorge Fly Shop. There were just a few details that he needed to take care of beforehand...
"Well I had this plan to graduate high school early. I wanted to graduate in January as opposed to June so that we could open up the shop before the main fishing season got started but I knew my guidance counselor wasn't going to lay over too easily on this one. I basically walked into his office and demanded that I be able to put in the extra hours and finish my credits early or I was going to quit school and not graduate. Of course, it was really just a big bluff because my parents never would have allowed me to drop out of school. I would have been the first one in my family to graduate high school on time and that was something that my parents took a lot of pride in. I guess I got lucky. It was about a twenty minute conversation with the counselor. I played my hand and in the end, my bluff never got called out. The counselor relented and I was able to finish up my credits in January."
The other issue was money. Travis had saved up $3000 from fly sales but he needed just a little more to move ahead. With much respect for their son's dream, Ruth and Albert were able to borrow an additional $2000 to get the business off the ground. All hands were on deck over the course of the following month. Travis had secured a small space at the Oak Mall on Oak street and much work was needed to ready the space for the opening.
And before they knew it, on February 29th 1992, the Gorge Fly Shop opened for business.
"It was great," Travis recollected. "You know everyone just kind of came together and pitched in. We didn't have any money really so we had to build shelving and scrounge up whatever was on hand to help make the shop presentable for the customers. I was really fortunate to have the support of my family."
left: Albert built the display case:
Travis' younger brother Scott milled the Gorge Fly Shop sign - It still hangs to this day.
So it began, in a small corner of a quaint walk-in mall on Oak Street, the Gorge Fly Shop had a pulse. Like any newborn, the business needed constant care and attention. There wasn't really much product in the beginning - A couple fly rods, a few reels, a small stack of fly lines, some leaders, a few hooks, tying materials, some of Travis' fly patterns, a float tube a yes, a bit of gumption adorned the walls of the shop. And guess what? People showed up. They were thrilled that they no longer needed to drive to Portland to pick up a feather, a hook or a bit of advice.
In the beginning, Travis was the sole employee working 6-7 days a week. On certain Sundays Albert would fill in so that Travis could spend the day on the river.
"I also had a step-grandpa that would fill in for me here and there. He was also the main way that I was able to grow the business. As time went on, I really wanted to sink more money into broadening our inventory but the banks didn't want to loan any money to a kid. My step-grandpa had this IRA investment fund that he was able to take money out of but then he would have to replace it at the end of the year. So he would lend me a few grand to buy product and then I would pay him back before the year was out"
Travis remembers with a grin, the first time he attended a Downtown Business Association meeting: "It was held down at the old River City Saloon, you know down on the corner there. It kind of meant something to me, because here I was down there shaking hands and chatting with all these older folks and then someone handed me a beer. I remember holding it in my hand and not really being sure if I should drink it, you know. And then I glanced around, leaned back against the bar and had a swig. People were glad that I was there. I was glad that I was there!"
After a few years Travis expanded the business to incorporate guide trips. Customers could get out with either Travis or one of a couple other part-time guides on the Hood River, the Deschutes or the John Day. It proved to be an easy transition for Travis because he had the tools in place. Years on the water had turned Travis into an exceptional fly angler. His budding expertise in the shop was turning him into a professional communicator. The combination made for many happy clients on the water.
For a little over five years, the shop stayed at the initial location. During this time, Travis not only forged many formidable relationships, but he also displayed a sound business mind. The business grew responsibly and the local banks were starting to pay attention. They witnessed Travis grow into a respectable, trustworthy man. Attempts to secure financing were no longer met with sorrowful eyes so when the time came to move the business into a larger more visible space, Travis jumped at the opportunity.
Just a few blocks down on the main intersection of town, was a weight-loss/beauty center that had gone out of business. The location was perfect, but much renovation was needed to turn this house of the fat conscious into a house for the fly conscious. The last bit of fat was removed with sledge hammers and crowbars in the dutiful hands of the entire Duddles family...
Here is Travis posing with his next victim. Notice that the walls aren't the only thing that is headed down the river. Check out that forehead!
After the dust settled and the last splinter had been plucked, The Gorge Fly Shop opened its doors at 201 Oak on March 1st, 1997. Unfortunately, the doors swung into the middle of a season-long construction zone. Main Street was in shambles as crews worked to revamp the road and the surrounding sidewalks. It was hard on business but after clearing the hurdle the shop found a comfortable home next to a smooth, patron-friendly swath of pavement smack dab in the middle of town.
I must confess that seeing this photo makes me want to step into it. If only I could be sauntering down Oak St. at this very moment in 1997, and I could walk through the doors of the shop. What degree of sentimentality would surface from picking up the hot new fly or giving the latest fly stick an in-store wiggle? How much of my attention would be focused on the canvas wading boots or the bag of Jungle Cock for $2.50? I wonder what tune would be playing on the radio, Nirvana?
I could ask, "What of these spey rods that I'm hearing about?" "Well what some guys are doing out there is -
And I am distracted by the clinging tuft of hair atop Travis' head. My attention flits from wall to wall noticing the interesting layout of the shop. I am slightly bewildered yet thoroughly entertained by the novelty of the products surrounding me. I am a visitor in a dynamic place. And as my senses near an overwhelming level of intake, I am steered into comfort by the building momentum of the voice behind the counter. It sounds like a river...
A few flies here, a fly line there. A fly rod here, a fly reel there... Individual stories caught fire from the combined embers of passion and fly fishing products. The Shop began to gain popularity among many in the greater Columbia Gorge Area. Many folks from Portland would stop by on their way to the fabled waters of the Deschutes River. People taking in the flavor of town would stop in to chat about this thing they call, "Fly Fishing."
Travis kept busy on the floor and then as the shop's lone guide on the Klickitat and the Hood river.
"The best thing about guiding was witnessing positive reactions in people," Travis says. "You know when someone hooks their first steelhead on a fly, it is a big deal! They are truly astonished. And it is really satisfying to know that you played a part in the story"
Travis' love for rivers and their inhabitants was soon joined by a different sort of love. Her name was Lyndsey - a fine, giggly young lady from the town of Washougal, WA. The two were wed in 2002 and with the birth of their daughter, Mattie in 2004, Travis hung up the guide boots to concentrate on his new family and to keep things headed in the right direction at the shop.
The following year, he thought it was time to try his luck at internet generated sales. With a keen nose for opportunity, he sought to take advantage of this giant marketplace that lay beneath the keyboard. It took some feeling out but eventually this move proved to be a crucial component in the shop's over all prosperity. The last few years, internet and phone sales have really taken off.
"It's really kind of interesting how the internet has influenced our typical day in the shop. We are always happy when someone walks through the front door and we are able to connect in person. But now we have got folks from all around the globe that we take care of as well. We have definitely got our on-line regulars. It feels like they are local - like they have just walked in the front door, but they might be on the other side of the world! I'm proud to say that our logistics are pretty smooth. A large proportion of our orders are packaged and ready to ship within minutes of the order being placed."
So as February 29th, 2012 approached, Travis Duddles, at the ripening age of 37 years old, will have owned the Gorge Fly Shop for 20 years. It is certainly a milestone. I asked him what he thought has attributed most to the shop's success over the years -
"Well I would have to say that it is our level of customer service. Somewhere in the shop is a piece of gear that is going to work best for a certain person. I guess when it comes right down to it, the advice that I give is not financially motivated. I try to learn where the person is at in their fishing and then give them options that make the most sense. I will talk someone out of a purchase if I don't think that it is the right fit. We can talk technology, we can talk about what that means as far as performance and durability is concerned. We can talk about how a particular rod loads and how best to line it. You know, each customer is a puzzle really. I guess I enjoy figuring out ways to make their time on the water more enjoyable. I think that we have done a good job of doing that over the years."
My shift has come to a close. As I leave the welcoming arms of the shop, I turn back to stare at her setting there. On the eyes, she is a fine looking shop. Brick and mortar stacked tightly form her solid frame. She is sturdy yes, but I realize that the strength of her foundation is not the result of mere sand and stone. Inside the walls, Travis is talking to a gentleman about his recent trip to the Deschutes. Behind the counter, his wife, Lyndsey is on the phone with a customer who needs a fly reel expedited to New York. Their two children, Mattie and Austin are enjoying a Happy Meal picnic on the floor beneath the fly bins.
Thoughts of Ruth and Albert come to mind. The entire family had enjoyed some fine weekends up at Crane Prairie this past summer.
My mind wanders to a time when she looked different, and how it is impossible that everything stay same. The whole world is in a constant state of change. Time lives on change. And before I begin my walk up the hill I hesitate. I turn to gaze through the walls. What I pictured was refreshing. I heard the bell chime softly and I continued on up the hill. Some things, like the sound of a free flowing river, might never change.