I first saw Cheeky reels in the display case at my local fly shop in Westport, CT and was instantly drawn by their quality of design, feel, and unique appearance. I asked the fly shop owner about the company and was refreshed to hear that they were a local upstart making a hard run at a slice of the market in the land of Orvis and LL Bean.
About a year later, after we launched Feather and Fin, I had the pleasure of meeting Scott Caras, Cheeky CEO and Founder, over burgers at a local hangout. The former Management Consultant and Darden MBA immediately impressed me with his passion for fly fishing, knowledge of the market, and commitment to building a world class reel company. It has been very cool to watch Scott’s company grow since I first saw his reels at Westport Outfitters – they have a solid product and are certainly up and comers in the fly fishing world. For this month’s F&F Buzz Profiles, we are excited to profile Cheeky Fly Fishing.
1. Who is Scott Caras and what is the Cheeky Fly Fishing story?
I’ve always been an avid fly fisherman—growing up on the coast in southern Maine with two of my partners in the business (Ted Upton and Peter Crommett—our fourth founder, Max Key, grew up Colorado), we spent our weekends chasing striped bass and bluefish on the fly in Casco Bay and freshwater species from trout and landlocked salmon to smallmouth and pike in western Maine and New Hampshire.
After finishing undergrad, we all went our separate ways, working more traditional jobs in professional services and larger corporations. I went into consulting, which I enjoyed, but soon discovered was not the long-term career I wanted—I wanted to work in an industry I was passionate about and for a smaller business where I could make a significant impact on a daily basis. I know my current partners felt similarly about their experiences.
At the time, we felt there was a real gap between some of the products in the industry and what an emerging group of more progressive fishermen were demanding, especially in the fly reel space. Falling back on our passion for fly fishing (and some expertise we had gained in running businesses and in the manufacturing space), we set out to develop and launch a line of reels that was both functionally and aesthetically aligned with these fishermen who were out there pushing the limits of the sport.
This was before musky and carp on the fly had really caught on and when only a couple of guys were venturing offshore for shark or around the world to chase tiger fish, and we have been lucky to really see the sport transition as we had envisioned it would.
So, Ted, Max, Pete and I pooled our knowledge, experience and resources to launch Cheeky Fly Fishing in December 2009. We spent 18 months developing our first reels that were launched in May of 2011, and since then we’ve been focused on getting them in the hands of fly fishermen around the world. It has been really neat to see the brand grow with the sport and hit exciting milestones that all entrepreneurs strive for.
2. What sets Cheeky Reels aside from the existing players in the market?
When most people see our reels the first thing that strikes them is the unique aesthetic design and colors. That’s certainly something we were going for—we wanted to design a reel that was aesthetically aligned with our target audience—but the bulk of our development was really focused on the functional side of the product. For a lot of people a fly reel is a line holder, but for most of our core customers, the reel plays a big role. The bigger and faster the target species, the more important the strength, arbor, line capacity and drag are, among other key components in the reel.
When we set out to develop the reel we drew from two areas… aspects of other reels that we really liked and wanted to combine into one product, and pain points with the existing gear that we sought to improve.
We spent over eighteen months developing, prototyping and testing the reels in Woburn, Massachusetts, and although it took longer than we had hoped, we couldn’t have been more pleased with the end product. Obviously, we spent a lot of time developing what we feel is a top drag on the market—zero startup inertia, strong stopping power and, often overlooked, great heat dissipation. Most importantly, we have protected the drag by a two-chambered fully sealed system that leverages five o-rings to prevent salt, dirt, or even water from getting into the drag. Whether you are fishing off the beach in the salt and sand or in a mountain stream on a below freezing day, the sealed drag is critical to the reels’ performance.
One aspect of the design that is a little counter intuitive is its massive arbor yet lightweight feel—that was really important for us. As guys who often take thousands of casts a day at striped bass or Atlantic salmon (not to mention the continuous decreases in rod weight with new technologies), we wanted something that was lightweight, but that could also pick up line fast enough to keep up with a charging bonefish, tuna or pike. Most large arbor reels are inherently pretty heavy because they are bigger. We spent a lot of time during those 18 months of development to try to overcome this dilemma, and through FEA and lab testing we were able to find areas to cut the weight without compromising the strength of the reel. The fact that our reels are larger and still up to 30% lighter than many of our other competitors has been a huge differentiators.
There are many other aspects of the reel that make it unique, but the biggest hurdle we overcame in the development was this balance between enlarging the arbor while reducing the weight and maintaining the strength and rigidity.
3. How important is the lifestyle angle to a fly fishing brand?
For us personally, it is a lifestyle, and I think that comes across through our product line and branding. We live, eat, sleep and work to fish—whether that is running to a local pond at 7:00pm to get a couple casts in before dark or traveling halfway around the world to chase some exotic species.
We love to explore and try new things to push the sport to new levels, which is consistent with our customers’ interests and leads to a unique “lifestyle” that is associated with the brand. It’s not something we set out to create, but it has certainly evolved into something that is associated with the Cheeky brand.
We have goals for what we want to accomplish moving forward and certainly have a strategic plan that keeps us grounded… but to be honest the plan changes almost every quarter as new opportunities arise and the industry continues to evolve. All four of us are incredibly ambitious about how we want to grow both within the Cheeky brand and beyond it. We’ve got a number of new products in the pipeline including our new Cheeky Pliers, which will launch at the end of the month.
Consistent with our vision for the sport, we are always seeking to acquire or develop complimentary products that meet our customers’ needs. As far as where Cheeky will be in five years, it’s hard to say. We’ve gotten over that hump every business faces when it first launches, and now we’ve shifted our focus towards really being forward-looking about how we can grow.
5. Where can our readers get their hands on one of your reels?
Locally to southern Connecticut, you can check out the reels at Westport Outfitters, which is our “home shop” and one that we spend a lot of time in (if you stop in later in the evening there’s a good chance we’ll be swinging through to talk fishing)—they carry the full line-up of reels from the Strike 325 to the Dozer 525 in both the Cheeky colors and all silver.
If you’re not in southern Connecticut, we’ve got a complete list of dealers online that is growing on a weekly basis. If you don’t have a dealer close to you, shoot us a call or email and we’ll let you know about some of the shows and events we’ll be participating in your area.
There is no better way for us to spread our presence and grow our dealer network than through our followers, so if your local shop doesn’t carry the Cheeky Reels, it would be awesome if you went in and suggested they check them out!