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Wade in Montana

The Bozeman-based Simms company keeps anglers covered



These aren't your grandpa's fishing boots. Not by a long-shot. For decades, the technology of keeping your legs dry didn't change much. Waders were heavy and cumbersome, plus they smelled like the inside of a radial tire and got worse after a long day.

The folks at Simms have changed all that, leading the industry from a factory in Bozeman, Montana, the only place in America that still makes waders.

Comparing Simms' newest waders to grandpa's rubber pants is like comparing a scuba tank to diving with a garden hose in your mouth: They both carry air, but the scuba tank opens up a lot more possibilities.

Crawl into a pair of Simms' top-of-the-line waders and you can kick up your heels. You could probably dance. Big pockets mean you don't need to wear a vest. There's a retractable cord to hold your forceps, the suspenders can't twist and you'll even find a brace of lined pockets where you can warm your chilly fingers. With five layers of breathable Gore-Tex you'll stay dry even if you have to scramble through the brambles (though you still should avoid the prickly pear). And since they have a waterproof zipper, a man can even answer nature's call without removing half his clothing, no small improvement if you're fishing in ugly weather. "The best part is you don't have to get undressed any more to take a leak," noted a reviewer from the online fishing forum Then, in the video, he turned his back and showed how it's done.

Still, even with all those improvements, the price tag can be daunting: up to $700. Add a pair of top-shelf wading boots and the damages to your debit card will approach $1,000. But some serious anglers and guides say it's money well spent.

"You get your money's worth in one outing," Oregon guide Brian Marz said of Simms waders.

Andrew Puls, a guide at Sweetwater Fly Shop in Livingston, has owned a pair—the $500 model—for two and a half years. He said he's sold on them.

"I have yet to patch a leak in them," Puls said. "They're pretty much bulletproof. They keep you dry, take heavy abuse and are very comfortable."

Puls spends about 100 days a year in his waders and doesn't baby them.

"I'm hell on my gear," he said. "I buy it to use."

Simms leads the industry, especially with the top-end gear designed for use in all sorts of conditions. One corporate goal is to expand the fishing season, to make it possible to stay comfortable and dry when somebody in lesser gear has called it a day.

Waders alone won't accomplish that, so the company also offers a long list of gear, from Gore-Tex hats to layer-able fleece garments. If you're aiming for bonefish instead of trout, Simms will clad you in shirts, pants and even arm protectors (imagine sleeves without a shirt) treated to provide a sun protection factor of up to 50.

None of it comes cheaply: A hat can run up to $50 and a raincoat can set you back nearly $500. But that coat is designed to stand up to 22 inches of rain an hour. If you're making your living in that kind of weather, good gear counts.

"That's why you see so many guides using Simms," Puls said.

The company spreads the word by giving steep discounts to selected outfitters, turning guides into walking billboards. So far, it's paying off.

"We make the uniform for the professional fishing guide," said Chris Hohne, Simms' marketing director. "It's like Carhartts for the guy sitting on a tractor."

Simms sprouted from a simple idea. In 1977, John Simms, a Jackson, Wyoming, fishing guide and ski patroller, wanted a way to keep his sunglasses on his head in high wind or rough water. So with a pair of scissors and some used neoprene, he fashioned the first pair of Croakies, those now nearly ubiquitous straps that can keep your specs where they belong instead of at the bottom of a rapid or lost in deep powder. That brainstorm led to the formation of a company called Life-Link.

By 1980, Simms began making fishing products from neoprene. He started with a wrist lock for fly casting, a device that didn't go over so well, but his other ideas caught on. One of the earliest was a gravel guard, to keep the pebbles out of your wading shoes. Neoprene waders came next and presented a big improvement over rubber waders. Sales started to grow, and a separate division, Simms Fishing Products, was born.

Simms eventually sold his interest in the company and the new owners moved the production facilities to Bozeman. In 1993, a passionate angler named J.C. Walsh bought the Simms division and began making breathable waders, working closely with Gore-Tex.

Since then, Simms has reported double-digit compounded growth and had its best sales year ever in 2010, despite the sputtering economy.

Today, more than 100 people work in the four-building campus on Bozeman's north side, about half of them producing waders in two shifts. It's a complicated process.

"Twenty-two people touch every wader," said Diane Bristol, director of marketing and brand management.

The job starts with a sheet of Gore-Tex fabric bigger than a king-sized bed. A designer uses computer-assisted drafting technology to lay out patterns and get the most from every bolt of fabric, which costs as much as $45 a yard. Then a spry man hops on the cutting table and makes precise incisions, a job that looks like a high-speed yoga session. When he's done, a mere handful of scrap remains. Other crewmembers stitch the parts together and tape the seams, which isn't simple, either. Tapers get three months of training.

"I needed every minute of that three months," one taper said, adding that his machine uses 400-degree air to seal the seam tape.

Other men and women apply straps and buckles, add reinforcements at stress points like knees and hips, attach feet to legs, and perform other chores. The plant is clean, well lit, and busy: Part of the paycheck is based on both production and quality. A quality control system means that, if a customer returns a product, the problem can be traced to an individual worker.

For anglers, meanwhile, the days of adapting oneself to small, medium or large waders are long gone. Simms offers 19 sizes for men and 13 sizes for women. If that's not enough, you can customize your order.

"If you're 6-foot-7-inches tall and have size-6 feet, we can make waders to fit," said Matt Crawford, a public relations manager for Simms.

Simms remains closely allied with Gore-Tex, which insists on verifying that the manufacturing process meets company standards. Otherwise, Gore-Tex risks seeing its fabric blamed for shoddy workmanship in somebody else's factory.

Simms, too, takes its reputation seriously. Every pair of waders is leak-tested before it leaves the plant and comes with a lifetime guarantee for materials and workmanship. But the real test comes on the water, field and stream bank, where hazards abound, ranging from fish hooks to barbed wire and aviation fuel from the bush planes, all of which can undo a wader and ruin a fishing trip.

Simms waders are designed to stand up to all of that, plus the weather.

To help spread the word, Simms runs what it calls its pro program. In essence, it tries to outfit top fishing guides in as many Simms labels as possible. It offers guides 45 percent discounts, although not indiscriminately. Peter Vandergrift, a veteran Yellowstone River outfitter, now works for Simms, carefully selecting guides who have the reputation and experience to qualify.

Only the top-end waders are made in Bozeman (other products are made overseas). A high-tech embroidery machine in Bozeman also sews logos or other designs onto Simms caps or shirts for lodges or fishing shops that want to create some human billboards of their own.

But waders remain the core of the company's business. If you're using something else, Simms argues, you're all wet.

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