Angler of the Year: Bruce Richards

Angler of the Year: Bruce Richards

He's the most influential fly fisherman most anglers have never heard of

  • By: Greg Thomas
Bruce Richards is successful enough that, if he so desired, he could tool around his hometown of Midland, Michigan, in a $50,000, suped-up, eye-popping Powerstroke diesel. Instead, he makes do with a battered 1995 Toyota pickup truck that has 180,000 miles on the odometer and a slew of dents and scratches complementing its sidewalls. Of his cherished truck Richards says, "It's a little beat up on the outside, but mechanically it's sound. When you fish on the Upper Peninsula you are going to rub a truck when you need to push into a good spot.If you own a truck and it doesn't have some bruises, you're probably not having any fun." Born in Midland in 1950, Bruce is a man who has raised Midwestern modesty and practicality to an art form, which goes a long way toward explaining why he's the most influential fly fisherman most anglers have never heard of. According to such angling icons as Lefty Kreh and Sage rod designer Jerry Siem, Richards is one of the best fly casters in the world and, as head product developer for flyline-maker Scientific Anglers, his work over the past 30 years has influenced the average fly angler's day on the water as much or more than anyone else's. In particular, Richards' work with flyline development, especially the creation of specific lines for challenging angling situations--tarpon on a windy Key's flat; big, meat-headed, lake-dwelling rainbow trout at 30 feet deep; selective brown trout rising to size 22 Olives; giant trevally riding the waves at Christmas Island; steelhead holding to the bottom of the Skagit--has changed the face of fly-fishing. His innovations since joining SA in 1976 have helped anglers expand their horizons, allowing them to chase a wide variety of species, ranging from those found in their backyards to those residing in remote destinations across the globe. It's a solid bet that, as you're reading this, you have one or more of Richards' creations spooled to a fly reel or two. According to Lefty Kreh, who knows a thing or two about casting and is something of a historian on the subject, Richards' innovations are at once tremendously important to anglers, and often underappreciated. "For many years, lines were very basic," Kreh said during a recent interview. "Once the modern fly line was developed we still went quite a while with just a floating line. All we had for fly-fishing in the tropics was a weight-forward floater that cast like a piece of spaghetti. It wasn't until Bruce came along that SA started developing specialty lines. He was the guy saying, 'We need to develop lines for specific places and the various conditions we fish in.' He developed the Mastery series and he's been at the forefront of specialty-line development ever since." Lefty added, "Even with success he's a very nice and modest man. He's the epitome of a high-morals guy--a real straight shooter. Everyone thinks that way about Bruce." Richards' most well-known accomplishment was the introduction of SA's AST (Advanced Shooting Taper) technology, which Bruce and his co-worker, Del Kauss, developed in 1998. AST was, and is, widely considered to be a monumental improvement in flyline coatings, and it assists anglers and competition casters in a variety of ways: Its revolutionary slickness improves shootability, allowing anglers to cast lines farther than ever; it floats higher than previous lines; and it both stays cleaner and lasts longer than other lines. It should be noted that most other major line makers now incorporate their own version of "slick line" technology into the their products. But SA was one of the first companies to come out with the concept. In addition to his work at SA, Richards is a quiet leader in the fly-fishing industry, and an enthusiastic promoter and participant in the sport and its periphery activities, including casting competitions. Richards helped develop the Federation of Fly Fishers' tremendously successful Certified Casting Instructor Program, and now sits on the FFF's Board of Governors. He is recognized as one of the top casting instructors in the world, and typically places in the top five when engaged in competitive casting events; he serves on the board of the American Fly Tackle Trade Association and donates time and expertise to numerous organizations, including Trout Unlimited. Recently, with Noel Perkins, a professor at the University of Michigan, Richards created the Sage Rod Company's Casting Analyzer, a gyroscopic device that attaches to the butt of a rod and relays data--peak casting speed, casting arc, smoothness ratio, deceleration, stop, and rod load--to a handheld computer in order to help anglers correct their casting flaws. Richards also authored a successful and informative book called Modern Fly Lines, which is part of Lefty Kreh's Little Library of Fly Fishing collection. But perhaps his most surprising contribution to the sport was his invention, with Michigan guide Ray Schmidt, of the crude but effective technique called "chuck-and-duck" angling. Chuck-and-duck combines a thin running line and a short, stout leader festooned with split-shots that enables fly anglers to reach steelhead and salmon hugging the bottoms of deep, swift-moving Midwestern rivers. Whatever else you might think about it, it is effective, and at the time of its introduction it allowed fly fishermen to get in on a game previously dominated by local bait and gear guys. While not denying his paternity of C&D, Bruce, a consummate sportsman, is even less inclined to boast about this than he is about anything else. When you bring the subject up, he merely gives a wry smile and says simply, "It's not one of my favorite ways to fish." Outside of fly-fishing Richards is no drab scientist. Instead, he is a man who thrives on competition of all kinds. He once was a competitive water skier, and these days he and his wife, Susan, are members of the Sports Car Club of America and race competitively in their 1994 Mazda RX7. Richards has won his class for the past 10 years. "(That RX7) has 300 horsepower and it's as fast as anything on the road these days," Richards says proudly. "The events are held on short, tight tracks so we don't really go over 70 miles an hour. But I've taken it to 120 on the open road." Then he adds with a chuckle, as if to say he's been there already or intends to go there soon, "On the right day, in the right place, it should go 180." When not stomping on the race circuit, Richards can be found wielding a broom at a Midland curling club, honing his skills while satisfying his thirst for competition. He's been a serious curler for 20 years and his team has been to the US Nationals twice. Last year they placed seventh in the nation. "I got into curling because a fishing buddy of mine said I should try it, and curling fits my personality," Richards explains. "It's analytical and sort of like fly-fishing. It's very competitive, and last year we had the team that eventually won the national championship on the ropes big time. Somehow they weaseled victory out of the jaws of certain defeat." "Bruce is not a white lab coat kind of guy," confirms Sage's Jerry Siem, who has fished with Richards on a number of occasions. "He brings a great deal of enthusiasm to the sport and he's fun to be around. One time we were chumming with live bait in Key West and he hooked a 15-pound amberjack and some giant fish came up and grabbed it. It didn't startle Bruce. He just put the wood to it until it broke off. He'll fish for anything and fish well--sailfish, wahoo, kingfish, tuna, trout… "Someone in all of these fly-fishing companies needs to see how fish behave and how their products work in the field under a variety of conditions, and there's no better way to do that than going out there from time to time to engage in it," Siem says. "Bruce does that, and he's made great improvements to our sport that have gone mostly unrecognized, which is understandable. Bruce doesn't beat his own chest. He's one of the quiet guys and we've benefited from him. I consider Bruce to be more of a friend than a working client and I'd go fishing with him anytime, anywhere." When I fished with Richards myself one cold winter day on Montana's Madison River, the line developer was in his element, pumping out beautiful casts, mending like a pro, placing his two-fly nymph rig just above the bottom rocks, right where it belonged. Most revealing, Richards didn't complain about the fishing when it failed to live up to the expectations I'd given him. He acted like a guy who'd been there before, understanding thoroughly that slight variances in weather, water temperature and flow, as well as about 800 other things, can influence any day on the water, any place on earth. What I observed was a man at peace with his craft, and with himself. When the pro landed a bright-sided 18-inch rainbow, there was no one-upsmanship. He was thoroughly appreciative of that fish and the time that he and I, and his wife, Susan, shared in Montana. Although Richards believes there is still room for improvement in flyline technology and performance, soon he may no longer be the one leading the charge. He is currently considering early retirement and spending more time on the water. "The goal is to move to Ennis (Montana), and we are on track to do that in another two or three years," Richards says. "We will build a house above Varney Bridge, and Suzie and I will spend our time fishing and hiking." He adds, "There's something about that wild, high country that makes the hair stand up on my neck. The high peaks, the Hilgard Basin--I've been there and I see those places in my dreams, I see them in my sleep. Once you get there you go back as often as you can. And that's what we'll do." But despite his desire to roam the high country, don't think for a moment that you won't see Richards out there on the Madison as often as any other guy. He'll be throwing casts and catching fish, and all the while his mind, as it has for 30 years, will be turning like a machine, processing experience into ideas that, ultimately, will make an angler's day on the water both more successful and more enjoyable.