Many Adirondack fly-fishing shops are located on major roads, in downtown areas or on major rivers and lakes. Not Wiley’s Flies.
This one-room space owned by Vince Wilcox is located off the quiet Rainbow Lake Road, nearly two miles east of the small hamlet of Gabriels. No river runs through its backyard. The road in front primarily gets local traffic and there aren’t any walk-ins from foot traffic, unless it’s a neighbor stopping by.
If a fly fisherman finds the shop, it’s likely because he heard about it first.
Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
Vince Wilcox, owner of Wiley’s Flies, ties a fly pattern in his shop in Rainbow Lake.
But for Wilcox, that’s OK. The overhead costs are low, the setting is peaceful, and there are plenty of lesser-known, quality trout fishing spots, such as the Saranac and Salmon rivers, within driving distance.
Wilcox believes that if he creates a high-quality shop loaded with fly-tying materials, tools and flies, the clientele will come to him. There aren’t many shops quite like his, he says, noting that he stocks 10,000 flies of 500 varieties. He also sells products from fly-fishing specialists such as Montana Fly Company and Peak Fishing.
“It’s a different kind of shop,” said the 36-year-old Wilcox, who has a degree in fisheries science from Colorado State College in Fort Collins. “If you’re a fly tyer, you’re going to like my shop a lot.”
A Saranac Lake native, Wilcox started Wiley’s Flies in 2003 as an Internet business, two years after having his second open-heart surgery. He was living in Colorado at the time and had been working 70 hours a week at a car dealership for the previous nine years.
“The doctor said, ‘That’s not going to work for you anymore,’” Wilcox said.
Wilcox has congenital heart disease — he also had heart surgery at age 3 — and decided his best bet for a healthy lifestyle was to get into the fly-fishing industry.
It was a tough adjustment for him the first couple of years after the second open-heart surgery. He had led an active childhood and young adulthood, playing sports in high school, fishing in the backcountry and hiking 14,000-foot peaks. Wilcox has explored national parks like Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Yellowstone in the United States and Canadian national parks like Banff and Jasper.
After the surgery, he wasn’t able to be as physically active, but he hadn’t lost his talent as a fisherman and fly tyer. Wilcox had been tying flies on a regular basis since moving to Fort Collins at 22, and he felt his stuff was pretty good.
He started working in a local fishing shop and selling his own flies to various distributors. At that point, he was selling about 15,000 flies a year, sometimes making 800 a week. But that pace got to be too much, so he signed a contract with Idylwilde Flies in 2004 to become a signature tyer, which took some of the pressure off him.
Idylwilde has bought more than two dozen of Wilcox’s fly patterns. The company makes and sells them, using Wilcox’s name on them and giving Wilcox a percentage of the sales. Some of Wilcox’s more well-known flies are the J.C. Special, T.N.T. and Little Green Machine.
Things were going so well that in 2006, Wilcox decided to open his own store in Colorado. But after that fell through, he decided to move back to the Adirondacks with his wife, Andrea, in early 2007 to start up the business here.
He had always enjoyed Adirondack fishing and had grown up fishing with his father, Steve, on the Saranac River and on backcountry trout ponds. It was a natural fit.
“We used to spend weeks at a time, camping out and backpacking to the ponds,” Wilcox said. “That was instilled in me from the time I can remember.”
Wilcox wound up buying the property on Rainbow Lake Road with his wife, who works at Paul Smith’s College. Then in the spring of 2008, he opened up his shop in a building that was once an antique store. His father helped him set up the displays.
Business was slow the first year. Except for a minor announcement in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, the little shop in the middle of the woods didn’t get much fanfare. But last year, business tripled, retail sales were up, and Wilcox and his guides did about three dozen trips. He is also still selling his custom flies, both online and in other area stores. He expects to make about 5,000 this year.
He supplements his income by writing for Fly Fisherman, American Angler Magazine and Fly Tyer Magazine.
Overall, things are going well, and this fishing season Wilcox hopes to again make strides with his business.
“I say I’m blessed,” Wilcox said. “I’m living in the woods in Rainbow Lake and running a little fly shop. I’m doing what I love.”