Chi Wulff’s People of Fly Fishing: 10 Questions with Jerry Lappier of the The Trout Shop, Craig, Montana (Part 1)

by Mark McGlothlin on April 17, 2012

in People of Fly Fishing

Like most folks who have spent time wandering around Montana and fishing the bounty that she offers, we have an affinity for the Missouri. It truly is one of the rivers that fly fishers must fish at some point, though the river isn’t a pushover and can punish the unprepared and unlucky.

The Trout Shop has been a standby and standout shop in Craig for some time (22 years if my math is even close to correct) which can almost seem like a lifetime when you look back at how the river fished back in the day. I spent my first day on the river in 1988 (3rd and 4th generation Montanans still consider that as a confession I’m a carpetbagging interloper) and remember some of the next year’s chatter that a couple of crazy guys had opened a little fly shop in an ancient building in Craig.

That fly shop, chartered by Jerry Lappier and Chris Goodman, has prospered and grown to become The Trout Shop. Jerry has garnered some national attention of late with his thoughtful writings covering changes in the tumultuous world of the independent fly shop.

We’ve gently pestered the guys for an interview and they’ve written a great one. Enjoy.

You live and work in one of the most cherished locations known to fly fishers – Craig, Montana. What made you say ‘this is the place’?

My business partner, Chris Goodman, and I have known each other since 7th grade. We went to Rochester Community College in Minnesota to start our college careers. After two years at the community college, we had to part ways when we both moved onto universities to finish our college education. Chris moved to Duluth, MN, to study geology. I moved to Paradise, California, gained my residency and studied Financial Management at California State University in Chico.

Chris graduated a year before me. His first job fresh out of college was as a gold exploration geologist outside of Helena, Montana. Being from Minnesota, he loved to fish. His boss advised him to go to Wolf Creek, Montana, where he befriended Pat Elam over the summertime. Pat worked out of what is Montana River Outfitters today. When the summer of 1989 was over, Chris had a small pile of cash. He offered to join Pat in his business. At the time, our lodge in Craig was for sale. Chris bought it and started the Missouri River Trout Shop with Pat. I still remember landing at the Craig Boat Ramp after a day’s float and having Chris point out his purchase. I had an instant feeling that he found a winner.

I worked for Chris for two summers at the gold exploration site and hung out at his fly shop often. After the 2nd summer of living on the Missouri, I decided to stick around and help Chris. He knew fishing and I knew business. Opportunity kept knocking at our doors and we kept answering. 23 years later….

You’ve been in the game there in Craig since 1990 (kudos by the way) and have grown your operation steadily along the way. What’s been ‘the secret’ to making things work well?

There are no real ‘secrets’, but what we have today was not an accident. While Chris was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when he purchased the lodge, hard work and dedication to the cause kept the dream alive. Geology money financed our development early on. Most of the local citizens thought we were crazy starting a fly shop and lodge in Craig. Once we had a building to work out of, we worked continuously. We tied our own flies, bent our own nails, worked as our own clerks and, in time, we had enough customers to call the Missouri River Trout Shop a business. The housing boom and our growing business enabled the purchase of 3 more premium lots. Living in Craig helped because we were on the scene when our properties became available. So far, we have developed two of them (our fly shop and Lookout Lodge overlooking the upper river). The movie A River Runs Through It was a huge. It gave fly fishing an incredible boost. Mostly, we owe our success to the popularity of the Missouri River and more specifically, the trout in it. It’s simply an awesome resource that continues to produce despite its popularity.

Besides luck and hard work, we do have a few beliefs that always guide us in life and in business. Honesty, integrity and empathy are the keys to success. Complacency and arrogance are the kisses of death. Our goal is to help you in any way that we possibly can. When you come into our shop, you will hear from all of our clerks, “How can I help you?” or “What can I do for you?” Our assumption is that you came into our store for service and our job is to deliver it to you. After 23 years, you’ll still find Chris and me at our business making darn sure that our employees are living up to the keys of success and avoiding deadly kisses.

How about your craziest customer story from the past year or two?

Craig often has a year-end festival for the fly fishing industry. A couple of years ago, we provided a lodge room for one of our crazy Missouri River friends (nameless, but everyone who lives here will know who I’m talking about) so he could party without driving back to Helena. At 2:00 AM when the party ended, he retired to his room. Before he finally settled in for the night, he stepped out on the deck in his underwear for a late evening smoke. His friend joined him and shut the door behind them. You guessed it – they were locked out at 2:00 AM with no help in sight. Everything they owned was locked in the room including our friend’s oxygen. He survived the night without his oxygen. Dressed in garbage bags and his skivvies, he showed up in our parking lot the next day. I’m not sure where he stayed that night, but I’m sure there’s another story waiting to be told.

There’s more water within a two-hour drive of your front door that you could really learn well in a lifetime of fly fishing. So where do you guys head off to when you need to see and fish something different?

Our own backdoor is a great place to explore. Both the Scapegoat Wilderness and the Bob Marshall Wilderness are less than a 2-hours drive away. The Dearborn River falls out of the Scapegoat Wilderness and provides awesome scenery and decent fishing. But really, we like to travel to experience the world we live in. Chris worked in Argentina for nearly two years as a field geologist. He got paid to look for rock samples and found a lifetime of rivers along the way. We fished northern Patagonia for trout and the Rio Corrientes for Golden Dorado last April. When Chris heads to the Caribbean, he seeks Long Island in the Bahamas. My wife and kids are certified scuba divers. I simply love saltwater fly fishing. The combination of diving and flats fishing pulls my family to the ocean as often as we can afford. In less than two weeks, I’ll be in Abaco, Bahamas and will dovetail that trip with a tarpon trip out of Dolphin Marina (25 miles east of Key West). My favorite place is Belize. I’ve been there at least 15 times and will continue to return for the fun if not the fishing. It’s easy to hang out there. As we get older, we’re working on our respective bucket lists. Nicaragua is on tap for 2013. For me, tarpon will always rise to the top.

More to come tomorrow.