Cheeky Fishing was founded in 2009 out of the Boston, MA apartments of Scott Caras, Peter Crommett, and Ted Upton. While Caras, Crommett and Upton were grinding on the business in Boston, Max Key headed up “Cheeky West” (as we called it) in Denver, Colorado. As longtime friends and fishing buddies, the four of us founded Cheeky Fishing because we weren’t satisfied with fly fishing’s sometimes stuffy vibe, or the unimaginative, bland look and performance of the equipment.
The four of us are fishing addicts … inspired by that heart-pounding moment when a fish explodes on the surface and all hell breaks loose. We wanted a reel that performed better, looked better, and reflected our passion and intensity. So, in the waning months of 2009, we set out to create and deliver a product that would meet this need.
For us, believe it or not, it all started with the ski industry. If we weren’t on the water, we were definitely on the mountain. In fact, I think some of us still struggle with the age-old dilemma: epic powder day or epic trout day? We all loved to ski, but couldn’t help but notice how different the ski industry was from the fly fishing industry. In those days, you couldn’t get on a chair lift without seeing neon orange and green ski pants, bold ski graphics, and constantly improving technology (think twin tips, rockers, parabolic shapes, fatties, etc.). There were smaller upstart ski companies emerging everywhere with eye-catching, innovative equipment, which in turn was attracting new people to the sport and also converting traditionalists because it was better.
After a few months of brainstorming and business planning, we officially incorporated Cheeky Fishing in March, 2010. We had little money, but we had a plan, drawing on our inspiration from the ski industry, to launch a fly reel company that manufactured technically advanced fly reels utilizing colors and materials that were totally different than what the marketplace was used to (at the time, you were hard pressed to find a fly reel that wasn’t solid black, silver or gold). We wanted to make a splash with colors and designs, but even more importantly, we knew we had to create a better fly reel. In the months following, we set out to do both.
As we quickly learned, starting a business and developing an innovative product line with almost no capital is no easy task. To make it happen, we worked second jobs during the nights and weekends at fly shops and restaurants, put that money into the business, and dedicated the daylight hours to developing our products. The early development days were a blast. We spent about a third of our time staring at computer screens (mostly tweaking and testing our CAD designs in Solidworks), a third of our time actually on the machine shop floor building prototypes, and the rest on the water testing the reels. Our testing strategy was pretty simple. We tried to break the reels, and when we did, we’d adjust the design and try and break them again. Eventually, we ran out of things to fix.
It took over a year, but in May 2011 we completed our first fly reel design. It was a slow and organic process, but looking back, it was the right way to do it. We emerged from our design process with a 7-10 weight fly reel featuring a fully sealed drag, the Mojo 425, and we anodized the reel in bright yellow and blue. The reel boasted features not seen in the marketplace before. It was lighter, stronger, and had more line capacity than many of our competitors' offerings. We were using more carbon fiber drags discs, and we even incorporated a titanium casing for the sealed drag. The reels were bomb proof. We had made it. All we had to do now was put up a website, kick back, and let the orders roll in for our $690 fly reel.
As you can imagine, that’s not exactly how it went. In the beginning, sales were slower than we hoped, the product was pricey, and some people thought we were crazy for introducing something so flashy into a sport that was, to date anyway, quite traditional. Maybe they were right, but we knew the performance of our fly reel was second-to-none and we were determined to see it through. Three months later, in August, we launched our second reel in the lineup … a similarly designed 5-7 weight reel, the Ambush 375, which we anodized in bright green and gold and retailed for $640.
With two reels to market, a developing track record of performance and dependability, and a growing word-of-mouth following, Cheeky was starting to get its legs. In October of 2011, the Mojo 425 landed on the cover of the largest fly fishing magazine in the world, Fly Fisherman, under the tag "Gear for the New Year." While the Editors remarked “the bold colors and designs are a slap in the face to traditional ported reels,” they also praised Cheeky reels for their performance: “[the] drag withstood repeated dunkings and stayed smooth, even though it was cast aside and bashed on riverbank cobbles with almost every steelhead.” We were ecstatic!
As 2011 drew to a close, we had our work cut out for us. Our following grew rapidly and sales increased steadily, but we only had two fly reels to market and they both retailed for almost $700. For us, at the ripe age of 26, that was A LOT of money to spend on a fishing reel. We suspected others felt the same. Unfortunately, the solution wasn’t as simple as just lowering the price. We were trying to build a successful business, and our costs to manufacture in the USA were extraordinarily high. If we had lowered the price, the business wouldn’t have been able to operate.
After some serious soul searching, we arrived at a conclusion: we built a fly reel that none of us could even afford to buy ourselves. We needed to make a change and get back to our roots. We started Cheeky Fishing because we were trying to make fly fishing more approachable and fun for all. A $700 fly reel was not the answer.
During the summer of 2012, we made the very difficult decision to transition our manufacturing overseas. Our goal was to continue developing our line of fly reels without compromising on performance, but at a price point that was more obtainable to more anglers. Building on an already proven USA spec’d design, we drastically lowered our manufacturing costs overseas with scale and manufacturability techniques. We passed all of the savings back to the customer. By the end of 2012, we reduced our prices by over 40%. In addition, we were able to invest more in development, launching three more reels: a 2-4 weight in bright bronze and silver, a 10-12 weight in bright green and blue, and a 12-16 weight in bright blue and silver (the Strike 325, Thrash 475 and Dozer 525 respectively).
With a full lineup of competitively priced fly reels, coupled with Cheeky’s unparalleled performance and head-turning designs, we entered 2013 with a bang. Fly shops were taking notice and the phone started ringing. We began partnerships with dealers all over the country and we invested heavily in marketing and community building at events/shows to support our growing dealer base (the annual Cheeky Schoolie Tournament has become the largest fly fishing tournament in the world!). We also invested heavily in new product development. While we were starting to experience some success, we knew we had to keep innovating to stay relevant. On top of that, by designing and developing more high performance yet affordable products, we felt we could continue to make the sport more and more accessible.
And so in 2014, we launched the award winning Boost Fly Reel lineup and our sought after 550 Pliers. In 2015, we followed that up with the economical Tyro Fly Reel lineup, and in 2016, we introduced Triple Plays (one reel, two spools, and a Fishpond case, bundled at one great price). In 2017, we launched the Limitless Fly Reel lineup, which has continued to set the bar for the highest performing fly reels available today.
As we look ahead, we have much, much more in store and we are as excited as ever to continue building Cheeky Fishing and providing great products to you, our customers. In doing so, we will always stay committed to our roots, humbled in our approach, and we will always strive to share our passion for fishing, and business, as widely as we can.
We hope you’ve enjoyed Our Story. It’s been a wild ride. We did leave out a few anecdotes along the way (like determining our first prototype’s line capacity by wrapping the line around an empty keg … or … that time we flipped the tin can in the middle of an off-the-grid northern lake at dusk and almost died … or … that time we decided to class it up on a testing trip, and instead of camping, stayed at the Glades Motel in Naples—don’t stay at the Glades Motel in Naples), but in general we feel this is as accurate a description as we can give for Cheeky’s founding story. And still to this day, Caras, Crommett, Key and Upton are at the helm, and we’re as committed and dedicated as ever to continuing to push the limits of the sport we love. We know you have a lot of choices when it comes to fly reels, but we hope you’ll choose Cheeky.