Angler-conservationist Craig Mathews
By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor
As a cop in Grand Haven, Michigan, in the late 1970s, Craig Mathews liked the night shift.
“I really enjoyed getting out of a police car, sneaking around, and trying to catch people in the act of burglary,” he recalls of his nine years with the department.
“There’s a little bit of a danger buzz there. I fill that now by climbing around in weird places trying to find wild trout and wildlife like elk and mountain goats. I find myself hanging off a cliff quite often in places where I say, ‘you shouldn’t be here.’”
At 64, Craig has thick, silver hair, a disarming smile and a soft, unfettered baritone. Together with his wife Jackie, he owns the renowned fly shop and outfitting business in West Yellowstone, Montana, Blue Ribbon Flies.
Just down the road, the Madison River and Yellowstone National Park draw anglers from around the world. Craig, primarily a wade fisherman, has fished these waters for 45 years.
“I don’t know anybody with more knowledge, a finer fly caster, a better fisherman,” said Ken Barrett, Campaign Manager for the Yellowstone Park Foundation Native Fish Conservation Program. “Craig is the consummate professional.”
Through their work with environmental nonprofits, river access and wildlife projects in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone over the last three decades, the Mathews have changed the landscape of conservation in the Northern Rockies.
They’ve also influenced conservation philosophy worldwide: In 2001, Craig worked with Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Ventura, California-based clothing company Patagonia, to start 1% for the Planet, a nonprofit that’s helped businesses donate more than $100 million to environmental causes.
In this partnership, Jackie is behind the scenes, and Craig is the drumbeater. And although not a household name across America, he is an icon among trout fishermen.
Watch a video interview with Craig Mathews here:
When he wasn’t working the midnight shift, Craig spent winter nights in Michigan tying flies – some for himself, and some for the southwest Montana fishing luminary Bud Lilly, who ran a shop out of West Yellowstone.
One such evening, Jackie, a police dispatcher, decided she’d had enough. “You know what?” she said. “We’re moving to Yellowstone.”
Craig had met Lilly during a fishing trip in early 1970s, and he and Jackie began vacationing in West in fall 1977. Tired of the gray Michigan winters, Jackie picked up the phone and called the West Yellowstone police station.
“I thought she was kidding, there’s no way she’s talking to anybody,” Craig recalls.
But the head dispatcher hired her on the spot. “It’d have to be a package deal,” Jackie said, and passed the phone to Craig.
Two days later they flew into Bozeman, drove to West, interviewed, and Craig got a job as an officer. They bought a mobile home sight unseen, and in early 1979 packed up their daughters, Kelly and Dana, 7 and 2, and moved to Montana planning to stay a year.
The police chief retired two weeks later, and Craig took over.
“This town was nuts back then, totally wide open,” he says, referring to the aftermath of a July 4 Hells Angels riot in the late 1970s. Since the jail only had three cells, they “chained guys to trees overnight [during summer concerts], so the judge could see them in the morning… We’d have cops feeding them and giving them water all night long.”
Jackie tells it a bit differently, having brought prisoners home to feed them.
The first year, Craig picked up work as a fishing guide for Lilly. The next, he opened a wholesale fly tying operation, employing disabled fly tiers. In 1982, they bagged wholesale and went retail.
Blue Ribbon Flies
Craig learned to hunt and fish as a boy at his family’s summer home on Silver Lake, in western Michigan. He caught his first trout on a fly in a small stream called Hunter’s Creek.
“I was intrigued with the materials, and with trout – where they live and how to fish for them.” He tied his first fly with a seagull feather.
That fascination grew, and through Blue Ribbon, Craig developed dozens of fly patterns and introduced several fly tying materials now popular in the U.S.
Walk into the shop, and the first thing you see is a stuffed leopard, which a former Blue Ribbon client shot in Somalia, in 1962. Turn right, and you’ll see the long, glass front counter, where you’ll likely find floor manager Robert “Bucky” McCormick. Above him are a mounted elk and caribou, shot by Jackie and Craig respectively.
In the back, Jackie stands by the large, freestanding display case lined with bins of flies, taking phone orders, booking trips and ensuring every feather is in a row. In the center of it all is Craig’s fly tying desk, surrounded by 30 years of keepsakes.
There, a wooden trout hangs on a ribbon from a Telly Award figurine – Craig has won four for instructional DVDs he narrated and co-produced. Next to them is a bobble head of St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a frequent customer. Several of the books Craig has authored and co-authored are displayed, among them Fly Patterns of Yellowstone, volumes 1 and 2, and Western Fly Fishing Strategies.
From this perch, he ties around 12,000 flies a year and greets customers.
“[Craig is] a great people person,” says Chouinard, who met Craig at Blue Ribbon about 15 years ago. “The success of his shop is dependent on him being there and talking fishing with his customers.”
In addition to Chouinard, Craig is a friend to President Jimmy Carter, former news anchors Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, and media mogul and environmental tycoon Ted Turner. Craig counts these heavyweights as influences, but also “nearly everybody that walks through that door,” he says, pointing at the entrance to his shop.
As an outfitter, Blue Ribbon employs 16 guides in high summer. “When they walk through the door, I know,” said Craig, who often hires on instinct. “I want guides that are teachers who live and breathe and bleed fly fishing, from the history to the entomology to the fly patterns.”
West Yellowstone native Cam Coffin has worked there since 1989. “I wouldn’t have been here that long if I didn’t like it and didn’t like the people I work for,” said Coffin, who guides on the Madison, Gallatin, in Yellowstone and Alaska during the summer, and in Belize and Mexico in winter. “Craig, Jackie, all the guides here are wonderful. It’s like a dysfunctional little family.”
Tommy Bradford, a client from North Carolina, says this sense of community sets Blue Ribbon apart. “They remember you as you come back each season and don’t treat you as a tourist, but as one of their own.”
Fishing and conservation are inextricably woven into the Mathews’ lives.
“Conservation is the whole fabric, the whole picture. It’s why we’re here. It’s why Yellowstone [exists],” Craig said.
“When you live in this country, particularly in southwest Montana, your life becomes the out of doors, wildlife. [For me], it’s wild trout, clean air, clean water. If you’re here just to make a living and suck this place for every penny it’s worth, then you shouldn’t be here.”
Blue Ribbon has always given at least 1 percent of its annual sales to grassroots environmental causes. It wasn’t always easy.
“When we were going to write the first check, [Jackie] and I were having this huge argument,” he recalled at a 1% for the Planet event years later. “She said, ‘We can’t afford it.’ I said, ‘We can’t afford not to.’”
As founding board members of the Yellowstone Park Foundation in 1997, the Mathews helped build the organization that is now the park’s official fundraising partner. During their eight years on the board, they were instrumental in fundraising for the new Old Faithful Visitors Center, completed in 2010. Those years also sculpted them.
“When I drive into the park and see a successful fishery program, bear study, or the bear ranger program, and I can say, ‘I was part of that,’ it feels good, especially when [our] business is thriving because of it,” Craig said.
The Mathews have also served on the Montana Nature Conservancy and Montana Trout Foundation boards, and currently sit on the Trout Unlimited Stewardship Directors Council.
“My grandfather always said you’ve got to give back to whatever helps your success in business,” Craig said. “You give, and then you give more, until it really hurts. That philosophy stuck with me.”
Some of their work has been controversial – Jackie, for example, advocated in Washington D.C. against snowmobile use in Yellowstone. “It’s what you do if you really believe in something,” she said. “You make a stand, stick with your guns and you do it.”
It pays dividends: Blue Ribbon’s sales doubled in the five years after Craig co-founded 1% for the Planet.
“The thing that Craig has had from the very beginning is an understanding that the basis of his success in this business – and his family’s – is the resource,” said Barrett, who also hosted the nationally aired hunting and fishing show, Life in the Open. “He is the quintessential angler-conservationist – the best of his generation in the Northern Rockies.”
1% for the Planet
Although Blue Ribbon Flies and Patagonia both gave at least 1 percent to environmental groups for years, the crossover went unnoticed until Craig published an editorial in Blue Ribbon’s 2001 catalogue to enlist others.
Chouinard read it, contacted Craig, and together the two fishing buddies crafted an “Earth tax” where members give 1 percent of gross sales to approved environmental causes of their choice.
Initially run as an internal Patagonia project, the program grew slowly, particularly in the outdoor industry. In 2005, it became independent and gained 501(c)3 status. A year later, concluding competitors didn’t want to associate with Blue Ribbon and Patagonia, Craig and Chouinard stepped down from the board.
Membership has since grown from 92 to more than 1,200, raising more than $100 million for 3,000 environmental groups worldwide.
“The 1% story resonated with me,” said Tenkara USA founder Daniel Galhardo, a member who donates primarily to Trout Unlimited. “I thought it was inspirational, especially as an aspiring young entrepreneur.”
Blue Ribbon remains a member, and Craig’s role is now as a cheerleader, “Johnny Apple-seeding the world” through speaking engagements.
“He is a compelling speaker who can move others to tears as easily as he himself is moved,” says 1% CEO Terry Kellogg. “At times he is really passionate about the movement that he’s started.”
Funding recipients in the Yellowstone region include YPF, the Madison River Foundation, the Big Sky Community Corporation, the Federation of Fly Fishers and the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, among more than 100 others in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Compass for Life
In 2012, the Mathews began managing the 28,000-acre Sun Ranch south of Ennis, Montana.
Formerly owned by actor Steven Seagal, the ranch runs 1,200 head of cattle and is home to 3,500 wintering elk, a pack of wolves, a wolverine den, trout streams and a westslope cutthroat hatchery. A biannual pronghorn migration has beaten a path across the property at the base of the Madison Range.
Craig was the ranch’s outfitter for 11 years, and he and Jackie now live in the neighboring Sun West Ranch development, but neither of them had ranching experience, so it’s been a crash course. Already in place when they came on were a number of conservation and wildlife programs.
These include an easement on the southern end of the ranch allowing public access at Papoose Creek, and an agreement with Trout Unlimited assuring tributaries supply cool water to the Madison River and spawning habitat for wild trout. Going forward, the Mathews are working with biologists from government agencies and nonprofits to improve wildlife recruitment.
The 40-mile drive from the ranch to West Yellowstone runs east along the Madison River, past Quake and Hebgen lakes. The trip, which he makes several days a week, gives Craig a chance to fish those waters at least 150 days a year.
“If there’s an hour here, and I’m sitting at home… I say, ‘by God, I could spend the next 50 minutes on the Madison River.’”
Perhaps it’s this river that’s kept him grounded – most likely Jackie, his partner in business, conservation, hunting and fishing, had something to do with it, as well.
“They’re the same people they were when you walk into the store that they were 30 years ago,” said Brian Kahn, host of the public radio show Home Ground and former director of the Montana Nature Conservancy. “I think it goes without saying that is a result of personal integrity.”
And there’s connection to work. “Maybe I should retire,” Craig said, “but I haven’t found time.”
Perhaps he’s fueled by something greater than himself.
“Once [conservation] gets into your blood – and it doesn’t take long for a fisherman, as a rule – it steers your ship,” he says, his voice wavering. “It’s your compass for life.”
This story was first published in the summer 2013 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.