For over 30 years, Jeff Watt a.k.a. “The Mayor” has been the foremost manufacturers rep in the hunting and fishing industry, connecting iconic name brand gear manufacturers, major industry retailers and American hunting and fishing consumers. A long-time hunter and habitat manager himself, he knows exactly what we modern hunters need and deserve, but its his truest gift that makes the job look easy. Fantastic discussion about working in the outdoor industry, and about what it takes to succeed there or anywhere.
All About Fish & Ducks in Rio Salado, Argentina
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere with my buddy, Jeff Watt. Jeff, I’m glad to have you on here, man. I’m jumping right into it. Can you tell, no warm up.
Jeff Watt: I’m glad to be here sitting here like I said, on the veranda at Rio Salado in Argentina. Well, it doesn’t get any better.
Ramsey Russell: This is my second trip with you, Jeff and the first time was epic, we were talking about that earlier, it was epic because it was just a handful of us, all got along and drank way too much bourbon and got to know each other. This is my second trip with you and every time I’m around you, I realize you’re kind of like the world’s most interesting guy nobody ever heard of because you live back in – your whole life and career is back in the weeds, doing things and I’ve learned that about you. But fishing especially, you’ve been all over the world fishing.
Jeff Watt: That I have.
Ramsey Russell: What’s your favorite fishing trip you’ve ever done like it? Put mic a little bit closer.
Jeff Watt: Well, I was mad, I was really mad at the saltwater fish for a while and did that but I fell in love with the two handed rod spey casting and it probably the Dean River in Steelhead, British Columbia. It’s fly fishing, but it’s with a two handed rod, it’s a European style. They call it spey casting and it originated in Europe and kind of drifted over here to the States. But I mean, it’s you’re swinging flies, you’re using streamers and swinging flies and the fly can stay in the fishing zone longer with a swing. And so steelhead on the lower Dean are just unbelievable, the hits our freight trains. I mean, like just we’re using 20lbs tipping, I mean, just snapping them off on the hit. They’re fresh out of the salt, they’ve got a set of falls. So the Dean River and in BC lower Dean River and they come up and they swim like two miles of the river because again, if they’ve lived in saltwater – born in freshwater, migrate to the salt water to grow up, come back to the freshwater to spawn and most of the fish you catch on the Dean have sea lice on them. So they’re straight out of the salt, strong, I mean, they’re just super cool fish. But if you fish above the falls, the hits are still violent but not like below the falls. I mean, it’s epic.
Ramsey Russell: The other day on the way to hunt, we were talking about kind of your origins in the outdoor world. And that leads up perfectly to this next question. I want to hear about your origins because it has a lot to do with fly fishing and fishing. And this is going to be a duck hunt story, but I just find it fascinating because I’m a catch man, I just go out and catch blue gills and buy some red fish to eat. But talk about your origins growing up and how you got into your line of work, your job. And see Jeff here’s what I’m trying to explain to folks leading in because I really didn’t fly into an intro is to me, your line of work and your life are so intertwined. I’ve been around you now for two solid weeks in hunting camp where you really get to know people and I can’t totally tell the difference.
Jeff Watt: Yeah, there’s no difference. Well, I mean, quickly, I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, 1965. My dad worked as a film cameraman for WDAF, which was in Kansas City, which was an NBC affiliate. He got a job in Burbank, California to work for one of the main stations back there and we moved to California in 1967. And so I lived in Southern California from 1967 to 1981. And my dad fished, he hunted, love to bird hunt, loved to hunt a black tailed deer in the Sierras. We’d go to Baja, California over Easter and camp out on the beach, he loved to camp, did all that stuff, loved to cook and kind of fast forward a little bit and he ended up moving to Seattle. And I mean, my mom and dad got divorced and he moved to Seattle and so we’d go visit him in the summer for long periods of time and he said to my brother and I, he says, you boys learn how to tie flies and we’re going to go fish the blue ribbon trout streams in Montana, all of them or a lot of them, there were several main ones –
Ramsey Russell: Not a stream but streams, plural.
Jeff Watt: So we’d head across, we’d hit the Clark Fork, then we’d go to the rock creek, then we might end up on the Madison.
Ramsey Russell: And how would you have been then doing that with your dad?
Jeff Watt: I would have been – so that would have been the late 70s, so I’d have been like, for 13, 14, 15 and this was a time where – I mean, today you go fish to Madison and you’re going to see 100 boats, 150 boats come by. When we were fishing, Madison, there were no boats, one boat maybe. So, I mean, it was just epic fishing, that stuff. I mean, just the town of Bozeman has – so I’ve been going to Bozeman since the late 70s and Bozeman was a one street town, one street town, rocking our bar was there. But anyway, and then, I went to college, played some baseball in college, knew I wasn’t going to be doing any baseball playing after college and so I had to kind of figure out what I was doing. And so work part-time for a sporting goods store in Kansas City and my dad called and said, hey, it’d be really cool for you to try and get a job guiding in Alaska, you love doing that kind of stuff, you can talk to anybody and create a relationship with anybody. And so, I got a job guiding for Katmai Lodge, Tony Sap and Tony didn’t have the best reputation, but I had a great time there and I met a lot of people, some of those people, Dusty Ensley, so that would have been the son of Harold Ensley, very popular fishing show in the Midwest out of Kansas City. I met Gary Loomis and his nephew Bobby and I kind of got to see, I got a taste of really, what all that stuff goes on and I was perfecting my craft and perfecting my craft on that basis, I was a guide. So I was doing everything I’d show up at their, whoever my clients were that week, I’d show up at their room, coffee in hand, I was doing everything and anything to build this relationship. And I ended up making as much in tip money as some of the guys that had been guiding for years. But I learned a lot too and then that summer got over with and my dad was always on the front end of a bunch of things specifically going from film to video. And so he started a company, him and his wife at that time, Kelly started a company called Fly Fish and video magazine, which was doing editorial slash documentaries of fishing destinations, not only in North America or the United States, but around the world. And so my job was to garner sponsorship for him and so I went to the first fly fishing show ever held in Hershey, Pennsylvania and was able to create relationships with manufacturers and people there to try to get some sponsorships for my dad to be able to fund this project. Well, that was about the time that outdoor TV started and ESPN Outdoors, I think Tommy Sanders or Tommy Sanderson was the host of ESPN Outdoors at that time. So they were one of the first shows on ESPN outdoor TV on Saturday mornings. And so did that and I missed Kansas City, missed that stuff and so I worked for him for 6 or 8 months and went back to Kansas City and really trying to figure out, what I wanted to do. Well, in between from 1980 when I worked for this fishing store in Kansas City and hunting store, I developed the love of duck hunting. And I figured that if I’m going to be a duck hunter, of course, you got to learn how to duck call and so I kept working with one of the local callers there. His name was, last name Largent. Oh, God, I can’t remember his first name. His sons had blown in the duck calling contest and one of them won the World Duck Calling Contest. And so that was kind of my goal is, I want to go to the World Duck Calling Contest. I was hunting public ground going to college hunting a place in Northwest Missouri there called Bob Brown, which is right by one of our mutual friends, Doug Watkins’ place up there and then going to school at William Jewel, hunting Smithfield Lake out of a float tube that you would kick around and go fishing in, but I’d go to the bank, kick out, put the decoys out, shoot some ducks out of the float tube, go back to class. And just the journey of understanding and becoming, once I get my eyes set on something, I’m going to become pretty good at it.
The Duck Hunting World: Friends for Life
Ramsey Russell: You mentioned Dougie, is that when you met him, back then?
Jeff Watt: No.
Ramsey Russell: Because it was a pretty interesting story, how you all met, you all have been friends for a long time.
Jeff Watt: Long time, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: You met during duck hunting, out in the field –
Jeff Watt: No. We didn’t meet duck hunting –
Ramsey Russell: Oh, I thought one of you all were stuck –
Jeff Watt: Oh yeah, we did meet duck hunting because of my best friend at the time, Mike Keller and him were better friends. Mike was from North Kansas City, Doug was from North Kansas City and Mike said, hey, we had leased a place up there and he says, let’s invite – I got a friend I want to bring. And so, the whole joke between Doug and I is you got mud tires and that was – I asked him because I mean, we had to drive back into this thing and it was a muddy sob going back in there. And so he’ll say that, but that was probably the first time I met Doug, but I really got to know Doug later and we’ll get to that too. So, I really got better at duck calling, the first year I blew in the World Duck Calling Contest was 1986, I think it might have been 1987 and I blew in the World Duck Calling Contest from 1987 to 1992. And I never won, of course, or I’d be a world champ, but I mean, the best I ever did was 8th twice and it was really cool meeting those people, seeing Butch, Butch Richenback at Rich-N-Tone calls in his prime, seeing Rick Dunn at Echo in his, Don Dennis, Wendell Carlson from Carlson calls, I mean, those were really the calls that dominated the calling circuit in that time, Howard Harlan who wrote a huge – he’s out of Nashville, Tennessee wrote a huge book on duck calls and all that stuff, so it was a great period of my life. And so again, I’m still dabbling, I just loving to fly fish, still going, visiting my dad, going fly fishing, doing this, it’s like, okay, I know and working at this store, I would see the sales reps come in and the traveling sales reps come in and I got to know them and one of them was the owner of what turned out to be one of the biggest agencies of our time. He said you’d be really good at this and he come and talk to me about a job. So I went and talked with him and I didn’t want to work for anybody, I wanted to do it myself and I wanted to work for myself and I didn’t want to get into where I had to answer to somebody and I don’t know, if I really thought that at the time. But I mean, today that’s what I’ll tell you. And so I started going back through all the contacts that I had met and the fly fishing show for that year, so that would have been like 1990 came up or was coming up and I said, I’m going to the fly fishing show, I was working for my grandfather at the time and told him I was going to take the weekend and I’m going to the fly fishing show, see some old friends and whatnot. And I get to the fly fishing show and of course, started up old friendships again and was said, man, we’re looking for somebody in that part of the country, just nobody knows anything, not like you do. And so I made the decision coming back from that show that I was going to be a rep in the fly fishing industry and so I reached out to everybody, I got hired. So that January, I started as an independent straight commission manufacturer’s rep.
Ramsey Russell: And that’s what you’ve done for 30 or 40 years for a long time?
Jeff Watt: 30 not 40, right. So I started it in 1991, this is 2022, so we’re talking 31 years. And so it was interesting to say the least.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to circle back a little bit. Your dad, you mentioned your dad every paragraph we’ve talked for the last 10, 15 minutes, he was very influential and he was a friend, it sounds like he was a mentor. How did his being a cameraman or being in that outdoor media – Jeff, I just can’t help but think it was a big influence on what you’ve done and what you do.
Jeff Watt: Yeah, he was a big influence. He lived in the west coast, we lived in the Midwest, so he was definitely an influence when –
Ramsey Russell: Quality over quantity though.
Duck Club Ownership: Discovering Ducks
And it’s been great learning what makes a duck club run, what plants, what food we need to build for them, how to pull the water off on moist soil, drawdowns, doing all that stuff and I was educated by these guys.
Jeff Watt: Yeah, he was an influence. Yes, he was an influence when we were around him. My aunts and uncles and grandparents and mother in Kansas City where we’re huge influences on how my brother and I, my brother and sister and I were raised and what we are today. And I mean, heck my brother is a partner in one of the biggest accounting firms in Kansas City. So, it’s bulldogs, we’re going to work hard because we know working hard is going to create the luck, our own luck and get us somewhere and sometimes to a fault I think to both of us. But I said, I’m going to get in this. So straight commission means at that time you don’t get paid until the invoice is paid and a lot of times you’re writing business in January that isn’t going to ship until September. So, I’m trying to figure out how to float that and at the time my wife was a school teacher and she had a great job and that’s what made this thing work. And as we’ve talked through the trip here is that, that was a time when Bass and Cabela had one store apiece, there were a lot more independent retailers and so we had a lot of dealers to call on throughout the 4 state or 5 state region of the Midwest, which would be Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas and then Illinois. And so, road time might leave on a Monday and come back on a Thursday might leave on a Tuesday and not come back till Friday just making the rounds. And again, I think that my love for hunting definitely gravitated me because the Midwest is a great place to hunt. So, once we got there, we were turkey hunting, quail hunting, duck hunting, deer hunting, squirrel hunting, all the stuff that you could do. And so I knew that I could do something there, I just needed the breaks to do it and those breaks started to fall or those things started to happen when you’re in this business for a year or two, they know you’re not going away and you start getting phone calls, hey, would you be interested in representing this line for us in that territory going to the shot show. So, one of the things that we’ve also talked about is one of the first companies I worked for was Sims and that I was hired in 1991 by them. 1992 they introduced the first cortex wader. So, they had neoprene waders and that was the rage neoprene waders at that time because what else there was? Latex waders, there was nylon coated waders, but neoprene was the best of the best and so I started learning about technology and all this stuff and started building relationships with those people at W.L Gore. And you kind of go through those early 90s and then at Bass Pro and Cabela, I was able to create relationships like I had mentioned earlier about the guiding is, I can make a relationship, all I got to do is, find common ground with the person and we’re going to have a relationship one way or another. And young fly fishing buyers at both Bass Pro and Cabela’s, Monnie Mouse on and Aaron Theobald at that time, Monnie Mouse on at Cabela’s, he was the assistant to Wayne Nelson there, we’re the same age. Aaron Theobald was the fly fishing buyer under Alan Wakefield and fly fishing assistant buyer under Alan Wakefield. And just started building this snowball that’s really starting to get some momentum. Well, they start opening stores, they want to get in the fly fishing business and really big and you wouldn’t think fly fishing is too big in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa, but when those boys get involved in it, you all of a sudden go from the smallest territory to the biggest. Well, so it was just growing and growing and like I said, I had waterfowl stuff, I had archery stuff I was selling, so I was making a name for myself in those areas of the industry. Well, in my free time, I was duck hunting and still going fly fishing, probably fly fishing more than I was duck hunting or big, I didn’t start big game hunting until 2000. So, in Missouri we have great public ground, but there’s a bunch of good private ground. The guy that I worked for introduced me at Bass Pro shops or fly fishing shop that I was telling you about, he was an owner in one of the duck clubs that I’m actually an owner in today. And so I was introduced, they bought it in 1983, I put the sweat equity in and they let me hunt there for nothing until I graduated from college, then it’s like, man, you got to start paying up. I’m just like, you got a job now buddy. And so it’s like, and so instead of pay up, I said, well, what’s it take to get in? And so I ended up getting in the duck club and was an owner in a duck hunting club. And it’s been great learning what makes a duck club run, what plants, what food we need to build for them, how to pull the water off on moist soil, drawdowns, doing all that stuff and I was educated by these guys. And again, we’re going through time quickly here and again, I’m still going for fly fishing all over the place because again, mad at saltwater fish and then, really going to Alaska, back to Alaska fishing for the salmon up there and the big trout and then found the two handed rod and then that was kind of the nail in the coffin. Pretty much every trip that I’ve done for the past 15 years has been with a two handed rod, which is, again, it’s fly fishing, it’s spey casting is what it’s called and you use two hands to do it instead of one hand and it’s been after an anadromous fish, the steelhead or salmon. But duck hunting always sat back here and Brad who is a longtime W.L Gore employee and now Sitka or has been a Sitka employee for a long time. He caught me at the shot show in 2009 and says, hey, man, good to see you, I’ve been looking for you and I’m glad you stopped by to say hello, can you come back, I want to talk to you. So, I said sure what time, he tells me when to come back and talk to him and I go back and talk to him and he says, Jeff, we just made an acquisition of a Sitka gear and I’m like, no kidding. He goes –
Ramsey Russell: So he was with Gore?
Jeff Watt: He was W.L Gore, yeah. actually, he handled the laminate sales for W.L Gore. So W.L Gore manufactures Gore-tex laminate and sells it to apparel manufacturers to make their garments out of it and make their products out of, gloves, boots, jackets, whatever. And he says, Jeff, we’re going to launch a waterfowl line and I know you’re not going to tell anybody, but I’m going to take you in this back room and I’m going to show you what I’m talking about. So we go in the back room and he brings this bright cornstalk yellow pattern out that nobody had ever seen it. Digital and he goes through this whole deal about the science and all this stuff and I’m like, Okay, I said, but man, I don’t know and he goes, yeah, well, we’re only going to sell the opta fade pattern at Sitka gear, no more licensing from the big camouflage companies. I’m like, all right. And he goes, we want you to be a part of this and we know your history in the waterfowl, we know how much who you know and how much you know about it and how much you do it and your passion for it and I said, okay, he goes, what are your thoughts? And I said, well, if this isn’t done, we need to make some changes here and he goes, well, yeah, I think, we can do some of that stuff. So, some of that stuff we talked about is what our marsh pattern looks like today. So we go to the sales meeting and that next summer because shot shows in January that next summer and first time I’ve ever gone to a sales meeting and I mean, it was a great sales meeting, they introduced the line to us, at that time, we had open country, which is our original big game pattern and then we had elevated, which was a green pattern for deer hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Hang on a second. Now, you’ve gone from big up outdoor sales rep to because of this conversation at shot show, you’re kind of now your first industry sales meeting within the hub at the very get go of Sitka, first one, boom, you’re there.
Jeff Watt: First one we’re there.
Ramsey Russell: I think, it’s important but the reason I spell it out is because you’ve been there since the get go.
Jeff Watt: I’ve been there since the get go. And again, it’s about these relationships and building these relationships and you never know in this industry because it is a small industry who you’re going to be working for. And again, you might end up working for somebody twice because they might leave as one company as a sales manager and go to another company as a sales manager that you might get hired by and so we talk about all that stuff. So we go to this sales meeting and get the presentation on the new product and of course, we already knew – I was very familiar with Gore and Gore’s products from Wind Stopper to the wader immersion technology from my years with Sims, I worked for Sims for 18 years. And so, I was super familiar with all that and the presentation was awesome, we’re all stoked up, ready to roll and it gets over with and I raise my hand and everybody’s super stoked up and I said, man, this stuff’s awesome, but this is a waterfowl line, where’s the wader? I mean, you hunt ducks in the water and it kind of took the wind out of everybody’s sails. You got to be a fricking dude from Missouri, you got to be a freaking mood killer and they said, well, that’s it, we got to start working on that. So basically from – I wouldn’t say 2010, I’d probably say we started on it in 2011, we started on the wader project build the best wader a waterfowler had ever seen, a breathable wader that waterfowler had ever seen because I had working for Sims, I’ve been wearing Sims G4 zip up boot foots with muck boots and lug soles on them for years duck hunting.
Must-Have Gear for Waterfowlers: Waders for Duck Hunting
We started on the wader project build the best wader a waterfowler had ever seen, a breathable wader that waterfowler had ever seen.
Ramsey Russell: Jeff, without disenfranchising anybody or anything like that, let’s talk about – just taking a side and talk about waders, there were Sims waders for fly fishing, fishing and I mean, no differently than duck hunting for some reason, but fishing waders, if they don’t keep you dry, they don’t do their job. But in the duck hunting world, since you put me on a map, let’s just say 2005 or 2010, god damn, every pair of waders I’ve ever worn, I’ve had a wet ass in at some point in time. I mean, they just automatically leak, I hang them up, I talcum powder, I armor all them, I do everything humanly possible to take care of those waders because they ain’t cheap, ain’t no wader cheap and especially when you’re a college kid. And at some point in time, maybe a month, maybe a season, maybe 2 if I’m lucky, I got a wet ass, it’s time for a new pair. What was the failure in the waterfowl wader category?
Jeff Watt: Well, I mean, I don’t think there was a failure. Again, you back up, roll the time back to 1992, 1993 neoprene was there. Streamline, James Scott, Sims was building neoprene, I don’t remember the exact year that Sims quit building neoprene waders and the whole line was Gore tex, breathable Gore tex waders, I don’t remember the year. But again, what you’re trying – the reason they built, they used neoprene for it was warmth. So, you had 5 mil or 7 mil neoprene heavy as heck. You talk about the stuff we’ve been sludging through here, imagine doing that in 7 mil neoprene waders and sweating your –
Ramsey Russell: I used to hate just having to squat and bend over and pick a shell I dropped on the boat in neoprene.
Jeff Watt: So, you got that going on. So we changed the game for the fly fishing industry and fly fishermen with Sims. So it should have been done at that same time, we educated the consumer, educate them that you layer underneath because this is a breathable product. So basically, it’s moisture vapor transfer that’s going to take any sweat build up because that was the deal is, you’d go trudge through everything in these neoprene waders, you’d get to where you’re going, hunting or fishing, you’d put your stuff out and you’ve got all this moisture build up in here and you get cold and that’s why the thickness was there. You could have done durability, you could have done a little bit thinner. So, the first thing that will kill a duck hunter is cold feet, they’re out, cold feet, they’re done. So, what should have happened is educated the duck hunter at the time. Well, then you get into the durability question or discussion or whatever conversation about it. But at the end of the day, the duck hunter wasn’t educated on a breathable wader until probably, cabela and those guys – yeah, I would say 2004 or 2002 somewhere in there. Well, now go to 2011, you dealt with those, so they took boots that –
Creating the Perfect Wader for Waterfowl Hunting
It literally stood the industry on its ear, the wader.
Ramsey Russell: But it’s like, talk about breath, we go from neoprene to breath, it was like, somebody came up with this breathable lightweight breathable wader concept, we all jumped on it and then everybody, every company just started borrowing from that same idea. But it’s like, it wasn’t a perfected idea to start with.
Jeff Watt: Well, it was a perfected idea, that was perfected –
Ramsey Russell: But they were using lower quality or cheaper materials or something, to me, they became disposable at that point. The minute I started buying breathable waders, I had a disposable product where every season I was having to buy more, that’s my personal experience.
Jeff Watt: Right. But you had a disposable wader in the waterfowl industry. You didn’t have a –
Ramsey Russell: Exactly, that’s what I’m saying.
Jeff Watt: Yes, absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: I’m a duck hunter not a fly fisher.
Jeff Watt: That’s right. But what the fly fishing wader was a perfect wader, but it’s different, it’s a stocking foot wader. So it’s a two-part wader. You got a stocking foot that goes on, that had a neoprene foot, then you’d have to put a boot on and lace it all up. Well, after you come back trudging in the mud, whether it’s regular time or frozen now you got to get the laces off of these boots, it’s just a pain in the neck. So, boot foots were the answer, it’s just nobody in or nobody. They were trying to stay in that neoprene type price point and of course, everybody knows that a Sims, at that time, it was just a guide wader or a G3 wader, they were 400 or 500 bucks, well, there wasn’t any duck hunter around was going to pay 400 or 500 bucks for a pair of waders. And so, not to knock the big box stores or any of those manufacturers because at that time, what you’re talking about, you had Hodgman, you had both Cabela and Bass Pro building waders, you had Gander Mountain building waders, you had dicks building waders, private label waders and we all know what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to sell a high volume, lower price and have those margins in there. Well, when you start growing or increasing those margins, quality comes out of it, everybody knows that. And let me also say this, every wader out there is going to leak at some point, it just happens. I mean, you’re talking about walking through a hunt through the flooded timber, which you do out of Mississippi, I know what you do. You walk through an area that you don’t know what’s underneath the water, I mean, that could have been a freaking a multi floor of rose patch and you just walked right through it, well, pinholes. The thing that sets the Gore-tex, the Sitka wader, Sitka Gore-tex wader apart from everything else is, it’s serviceable. It’s not only serviceable with being able to find out where your wader leaks without using talcum powder without filling the whole thing full of water without putting air in it, any of that stuff, you can repair it that way or you can repair the upper and you can also repair the boots, no other wader in the industry, you can repair the boots, meaning the boots can be replaced, you can buy it. And we call it serviceable and it’s the only one in the industry and we don’t do a good enough job talking about meaning Sitka gear, we don’t do a good enough job explaining that to the consumer, it’s the only serviceable wader out there. Yes, you can fix a leak on a wader that you buy from somebody else if you happen to be able to figure out where it is. And so, I went through, I don’t know how many different versions of waders that I saw. I had textile on one leg and a different textile on another one boot on one foot, another boot on the other foot. And until we got to where it was right. And so it would have to be the winter of 2017, we hit the jackpot and we had what we were looking for.
Ramsey Russell: It literally stood the industry on its ear, the wader.
How Waders Redefined Waterfowl Hunting
I got a pair of one of the originals and to this day I wear them, it’s still my favorite pair.
Jeff Watt: The wader did. Yes, the wader stood the industry on its ear, which we stood the industry, Sitka gear stood the wader or the industry on its ear in 2010 when we set a new price point, a new price category. So, yeah, the wader did, the $1000 pair of waders. And we’re sitting in forecasting meetings getting ready to go out on the road and they’re asking how many waders can you sell? And I just go through the accounts that I’ve got and I’m like, I’m going to need 2000 pairs. And the sales manager at that time looks at me and says, you need to give me some of that stuff you’re smoking over there because I used to be the vice president of sales at Sims and we never sold more than 800 pairs of boot foot waders at $800, let alone you’re going to sell 2000 pairs. So, I said, yeah, we had a big discussion about it, big debate over it. And I said, man, the duck hunter is different than the fly fishermen. Most of the places or water that a fly fisherman can fish is public water, they got a pair of waders, a fly rod, some flies and a reel and a fly line. A duck hunter, he’s got a lease or owns the ground or can go hunt public, which I did a bunch of that. They might have a boat with a motor, they might have a layout boat without a motor, they got a dog, they got shotgun shells, all this stuff, there’s just so much more expense to duck hunting and if anybody wants to talk about – if anybody doesn’t think duck hunting is an expensive sport or expensive passion, you’re crazy because it is. And so I’m like, yeah, 2000. And it might have been 1500, I’m going to say it’s 2000 because I can’t remember. But at the end of the day, we went out on the road and wrote our orders and it came back higher than the number that I told them and they’re just like Jeff, we aren’t even manufacturing that many, we can’t do that. And so then we started carving it up, who’s going to get what? And we were taken like most manufacturers, they don’t manufacture the boot, they don’t manufacture the zipper, they don’t manufacture the pull tabs, the elastic for suspenders, the elastic for the waiting belt, so we had to source all this stuff. Well, our Achilles heel was the boot, Lacrosse made a great boot, but the Achilles heel was the boot because they couldn’t satisfy the demand for the boot in the timetable and then that went on into 2019. And so we introduced it in 2018 to retail and it was a smash, smashing success. I mean, sell out all across people wanting more, all that stuff. 2019, we had to switch the boot because the specific boot we used in that wader was called the Arrow light boot and it was a boot that was – it was a great boot, comfortable boot lighter and all that stuff, but it was just hard to manufacture and you had a bunch of defects in it. Manufactures defects that we couldn’t sell, like maybe there’d be a bubble in it, which perfectly fine, but there was a bubble in it and it’s like a bubble on a paint job on a new truck you buy, you ain’t buying it.
Ramsey Russell: When would the prototypes have come out?
Jeff Watt: Like we ran the prototypes all in 2016 and 2017 in the fall in duck season 2016 and 2017.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. Because I said, 7 years and I was just trying to get my mouth right, I got a pair of one of the originals and to this day I wear them, it’s still my favorite pair.
Jeff Watt: I’ll bet I have close to 8000 hours on the same pair of uppers and only had one boot issue. And so they took the original boot off and put the current boot that we’re using today. And so, you’re talking about a 24 to 30 months product testing, getting this stuff right? Because again, we’re going to set the waterfowl industry on its freaking ear and we did. And so then you roll out of 2019, everybody, we go in the fall of 2019, we write some huge orders for waders. Then lo and behold this pandemic we have, we get in 2020 shuts everything down. Again, we’re depending on somebody else to build this – I mean, we had a manufacturer for the upper which really was not a big deal because we’re so good, our factories are the best in the world. And that’s the other thing, we only work in the best factories in the world, we don’t work in the third tiers or second tiers, we’re working in the best ones or we ain’t doing it. And so, the Achilles heel was the boot. We couldn’t get enough boots. We were getting failure rate in the boots and the whole time I’m back there chirping them saying, look, we need to build our own stinking boot. And yeah, it’s a big investment and this, that and the other and I’m like, well, that’s the answer. So, we ship about half the waders in 2020 because of COVID shutting our manufacturing plants down and all this other stuff that we did in 2019. So, then we go back out in 2020, the waders aren’t even on our early order thing in 2020 because we don’t know what’s going to go down, we know we’re going to make them, but we don’t want to sit here and take thousands and thousands of orders for the thing and then not be able to deliver. And so, we’re all pressing with this because I sell the most waders in my territory of any territory in the country. And comes out that I get a call from sales manager and Jeff, I got some bad news and I’m like, great. And he comes to tell me that our boot manufacturer is only going to deliver a certain percentage of the boots that we ordered and I mean, we had a big number and I’m like, are you kidding me? He goes, Jeff, we’re going to take care of our partners that we’ve got to take care of here and there’s going to be some upset people. But at the end of the day our strategic waterfowl partners are going to be taken care of and I’m like, all right. So, we go through that and again the conversation comes up, we need to build our own boot. And so that’s the answer to some of our problems, but this Sitka wader is like I said, serviceable. I mean, if you think you have a wet knee, a thigh, a wet ass, Ramsey, as you said, then you can basically take that wader and if it’s on your right cheek, then you take the wader off, get some Isopropyl alcohol and spray it on the face on the inside, on the trico liner, on the inside, on that right cheek where your right cheek or your butt would be and you’re going to see where that leak is because any time water hits that membrane, it’s going to change the color of the membrane, but alcohol speeds it up. And I was telling the guys last night at dinner, how we patched a buddy of mine’s waders, he tore them getting in the boat as we were going to hunt the woods in Arkansas early in the morning, got out of the boat when we got to the hole had a leak, we said get in the boat, we get done setting the decoys up, we’re going to repair these waders right here and you’re going to hunt out of them and so we did. We had alcohol wipes that come in a little kit that we’ve got and we found the spot, he knew where the spot was because it was right then and it actually was a little bigger than a pinhole, but you can find a microscopic pinhole, a tear or whatever in it. And so we patched it right there with aqua seal, hit it with an UV light and he was hunting ducks at shooting time that morning. I mean, it’s unbelievable and it’s dry. And the great thing about Gore-tex is, again, I mentioned moisture vapor transfer and how that works just for maybe your listeners don’t know how it works is, your body’s 98.6° and moisture vapor goes to the – or moisture travels the Gore-tex technology and all that –
How the Sitka Gear Wader System Works
And so what you’ve got there, it’s moisture vapor transfer. And so it’s moisture in molecules that are smaller than a water droplet passing through the fabric, going to wicking through the fabric going out.
Ramsey Russell: I hope everybody’s listening to this, Jeff because when you explain this the other night at dinner, I was flabbergasted, I thought that Gore-tex was like a plastic bag, it just waterproof me, this is badass.
Jeff Watt: It is breathable and that’s why –
Ramsey Russell: Talk about the temperature, I didn’t mean to interrupt you because this is a bad idea.
Jeff Watt: It’s breathable. And so what you’ve got there, it’s moisture vapor transfer. And so it’s moisture in molecules that are smaller than a water droplet passing through the fabric, going to wicking through the fabric going out. And so that’s why the Sitka Gear is a system, it’s a system. You’re not buying just one, you’re buying a system from us and you’re creating this, this moisture and this warmth and this heat and everything when you’re walking around and movement and when you get in the water or even air temperature. So, again, your body’s 98.6 and moisture vapor is going to go to the lower temperature. So, if you’re 98.6 and it’s 70°, it’s going to take longer to get the moisture out. But if you’re standing in 40° water, because there’s a bigger temperature difference, the moisture is going to get out really fast. And one of the tests that I did back in the 90s, I was the guinea pig at it at W.L Gore the factories or the home office, corporate office in Elkton was this specific test. I basically was told to come up to the front, there was a bucket that had ice water in it, I put my hand in the ice water, got it wet, I put on my right hand, I put my left hand in the ice water, got it wet, my right hand had a Gore-tex, breathable mitt that would go in a breathable glove on it. My left hand had a regular poly plastic bag on it, they put rubber bands on it, they said stick them in the water. So I stuck them back in the water and again, 98.6 it’s ice water, it’s not frozen, so that means it’s over 32°, but it’s ice water. So I would say it was in the 40s probably. I put my hand in there and they’re talking, they said, hey, move your fingers around but don’t let it get over the top. And within 3 minutes they said, okay, take your hands out of the water, so they took the Gore-tex glove off first, my hand was totally dry. They took the poly one, the water running out of it, the water that was on my hand when they put the glove on, it was still in there. So your analogy of a trash bag, that’s what that was. And so, Gore-tex is the most waterproof, breathable, membrane or laminate in the world. There might be some that are more breathable and there might be some that are more waterproof, but this is the most waterproof, breathable wader or fabric on the market.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to change gears on Jeff. What is Watt barbecue?
Jeff Watt: Watt Smoking. So, Watt Smoking came out of the competition barbecue scene in Kansas City from probably 2011.
Ramsey Russell: Fly fishing, duck hunting, waders, barbecue. Sure you’re a great outdoor cook of epic proportion.
Eating Well at Duck Camp
Jeff Watt: I love to cook. Again, some of your listeners, if they’ve been to my duck camp, whether it’s in Arkansas or Missouri, they know that we like to cook and we eat great.
Ramsey Russell: And they’ve probably seen you around some of these consumer events.
Jeff Watt: Yeah. So, again, I’ll do this quickly. 2011, we started this competition, barbecue team. American Royal is the granddaddy of all barbecue contests in Kansas City. And so, we’d go down there when it was going on and man, I was just enamored by the smokers and the food and the smell and all that stuff and I said, man, I’m going to start doing these and see if I can qualify to come to the Royal. Well, unbeknownst to me, you can qualify and that’s called the invitational and you had to be a grand champion to get there or you can participate in the open contest. And so I never was a grand champion, I’ve been 2nd, 3rd, 4th, but I was never a grand champion and so I would compete in the open. And so we got to doing this and some of the guys in the industry manufacturers, I’d invite them to the events and we throw a big party and then we cook in a competition and just have a big time. And so I kind of – like I told you before I get my eyes on something I’m going to get really good at it. And again, I got really good at it and one year, we took 18th out of like 600 some odd teams, so that’s pretty stinky good. We didn’t win, but it was good. And that kind of circles us back to Douggie Fresh and Doug Watkins. So, Doug and his partner Kevin Timmons owned a restaurant in Kansas City and have for 20 years called Nick and Jake’s and I would take – when Gallion was a big deal in Kansas City and really across the country, I would take the – they’d have a waterfowl event there every year in Overland Park. And after the Saturday night, I would take all those dudes from Gallion over to Nick and Jake’s for dinner. And so kind of started that, but so what smoking more from doing some hobby and competitive barbecue to me, as you just mentioned, cooking at different events in the industry. I mean, I’ve cooked at Southern Oak kennels a couple of different times with their big events, I’ve cooked the Run and Gun tour for Matthew, Rig’em Right and Sitka gear and I mean, that’s going to be here in 3 weeks, I’m going to be cooking a R and T where I cook two VIP dinners that are all barbecue. So, it’ll be a buffet of sliced brisket, burn ends, pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sausage, coleslaw, mac and cheese, baked beans, all from scratch, all on this barbecue rig that I got. And then on the middle night I cooked the Jay Stephens dinner, which is his custom handmade call, I’ll cook that and it’s a plated dinner, so we actually sit down and serve plates and that’ll be prime rib, I’ll smoke prime rib on the smoker and then we’ll do some different dishes with it that aren’t barbecue. Because a lot of those guys come for 2 out of 3 days and sometimes all 3 of them. And so I’ve left competition barbecue to only really cook in the industry or when Kevin Timmons or Doug Watkins asked me to cook at specific events for them. And they have a specific event it’s called For the Kids. For the Kids is a golf tournament that they hold there, that when I first got involved with them, I think they raised like 600,000 bucks in one day for young adult mental health. And a pretty big tragedy, Kevin’s boy, Nick and Doug’s boy, Jake that’s what the restaurant was named after, their oldest boys, Nick, took his own life a few years ago. And so they had always been doing a golf tournament and they were raising the money and then donating to Children’s Mercy Hospital up there for ambulances or something like that. But when that happened, it went to the next level. Well, just this last year, if I’m not mistaken, they raised $1.3 million in one day, it’s an epic deal. And so I cook on the golf course, cook dinner or whatever for the participants in that at the golf course and it’s part of a great cause and I’m glad to do it.
Ramsey Russell: Everything you’ve done. I mean, I’m just sitting here, fly tying, baseball, duck call, wader development, sales rep, fly fishing, I mean, you show up in the most remote hunt on God on earth with a 28 gauge side by side, you elevate everything up to this whole thing. But see, it also goes – well, let me finish my thought about the elevate and everything. The whole time you’re here every time I’ve been with you, you kind of sort of collect ideas and empanadas you’re sitting here building your menu back home, be it at your camp or be it at some of these catered events.
A Multifaceted Talent: The Diverse World of Jeff Watt
Fly tying, baseball, duck call, wader development, sales rep, fly fishing.
Jeff Watt: Yeah. I mean, that’s a great point. Because you kind of take these – I mean, my probably flavor profile is going to be – yes, it’s traditional barbecue but I like to throw a little Cajun thing in there. I like to throw a little Mexican or Hispanic flair in there. And so the empanadas is a Spanish dish or a Spanish appetizer, which anybody doesn’t know what it is, is a folded kind of hot pocket as we talked about. And so I’m going through this in my head that, that it’d be super cool to be able to add a different flair to something and it’s easy to do at my duck camp or at any place that I am that has that stuff, but to do it on a barbecue rig that is, pretty much self-sufficient, I mean, you’re going to have to come up with some pretty good ideas and so I’ve been running through that. And my ex-wife will tell you that I’m working 24/7, 7 days a week, that’s what I’m doing. Whether it be building relationships with the customers that I do business with, building relationships with people that have a good cause, Nick and Jake and for the kids, conservation work, I mean, doing stuff with the 5 Oak Ag and Research Center in Humphrey, Arkansas. That’s been a big thing with me –
Ramsey Russell: You all just found it like, I know you telling me the other day, you all just found like this upcoming conservation group, organization.
Jeff Watt: In being a duck hunter and having these private properties, we’ve reforested ones, we’ve done all sorts of things to build habitat and there’s one cure for a shortage of wildlife in its habitat. And as we’ve talked about pretty much the whole week, we’re losing it at alarming rates. And so, I learned doing that stuff and I try to give back. Yeah, I’ve shot ducks and shot deer and shot turkeys and all that stuff and I’m just trying to give back and trying to perpetuate this, I have 4 boys that enjoys going to the outdoors too. Two of them enjoy it more than the other two. But at the end of the day I’m trying to give something back and something be there. So, when my grandchildren or my great grandchildren or their great grandchildren, there’s something there and I love hunting ducks in the woods. So you mentioned the 28 gauge. So we’ve done a lot bunch of experimenting at one of our woods in Missouri and found that shooting the sub gauges extends the length of time the ducks spend on our property, the less impact on them. We have a west side and an east side and prior to using the small gauges, we would only hunt one side, meaning one side of it per day, we’d hunt the east side on a Saturday and then go to the west side on a Sunday and so we weren’t able to show or present – we were able to only take a few people because we don’t want to take a whole entourage to the woods, we want to take 4 or 5, 6 people. And so going to the sub gauges allowed us to hunt both sides. I mean, basically what you get when you’re working a group of ducks on the east side, they’re circling doing about ready to do the deal, you can’t see the west side but the west side shoots. And so those ducks, they just raise up a little bit but they’re staying in their circle, they’re staying on their approach to come in, but a large percentage of the time we end up finishing the ducks that are working us and shoot them. And so with today’s advancement in shot shells and shot shell loads and I mean, any person that knows anything about shotguns or the experts will tell you the 28 gauge is one of the best patterning bores of all of the loads because it’s square and we’ve had great conversations about that. And so, I mean, pretty much the last 3 to 5 years, all I’ve shot is a 28 gauge, I’ve shot 28 gauge, all 5 days here. And I mean, did I start shooting them at 50 yards? No. But we’d start shooting them at 20 or 30 yards and then maybe shoot one at 50. And so, it’s a great weapon, it’s easy to swing, I mean, it’s just comfortable to shoot, no recoil, it’s a side by side, so I only got two shots but your second shot, you’re not getting some big recoil and then having to find it all again, you’re boom, boom right there.
Ramsey Russell: I think the guys that evolved from big heavy 10s and 12s and end up full time 28 gauge, I believe it’s more than just the practicality of square load, I think it’s almost an ethos to it, it’s just a natural progression of sport, of game, of civility however you want to call it. It’s like me, I’m a catcher man, but a fly fisher man, it’s as much about the art as it is about the fried fish on the bank.
Building Relationships Over Waterfowl Hunting
And it’s that people component, it’s that magic man.
Jeff Watt: It’s experience, it’s enjoyment. I mean, I hunted with Lee Kjos who I call pops today and he shot 35, 40 times today, I probably shot 80 and if it had been the other way, I would have enjoyed it as much as he enjoyed it today because I was there with a good friend, I realized a long time ago and I’m going to say probably 20 years ago that it was no fun going somewhere by myself, hunting or fishing and if I can’t go with somebody that I enjoy going, I’m not going. Hence why I’ve kind of backed out of big game hunting other than special permits. I mean, I’ve backed out of big game hunting because I might draw a permit or be able to go with a guide, but my buddies might not be able to go. And so I’m not going, I mean, I hunted the same ranch in Montana for 21 years with my buddies or my good friend that owned the ranch. And so it didn’t matter if we shot a bull or not, because I was there with my buddies and that’s kind of where I’m at with my life. I mean, we talked about 2019 when the last time we were here it was an epic trip, I mean, I’ll be surprised if I live to see it or if I see it repeated.
Ramsey Russell: Oh my gosh. I mean, it was a high water mark of my 20 year career with being here at this camp with that team of people. David and Martha and all the staff were talking among themselves in Spanish and Martha says, Ramsey, they’ve known you for 10 years and they’ve never seen you like this, having fun, relax and having fun. And it’s that people component, it’s that magic man. When you put all these ingredients in an empanadas or something good to eat, it just fits perfectly together.
Jeff Watt: It’s the relationships that you built. And I mean, I’ve had vendors that I’ve worked for, had issues with something somewhere and they said, hey, Jeff, we know that you know how to connect here, can you help us out? And I’d say, yeah, what do you need me to do? Well, we’re having an issue here and I said, well, let’s go. And so I would go out of my territory or go out, go do something that was not in my job description for this vendor, help create a relationship and then just ease out of it because you mentioned weeds and in the weeds, all of my – only time that I’m not in the weeds is when somebody drags me out of the weeds and says, no, this is what happened, this is the dude that –
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s just it, Jeff. I’m getting up to this. And what a perfect topic to lead up to my next little question to wrap up this thing with is, you call Lee Kjos, pops, he calls you the mayor. Now, I’ve been wondering since 2019, how does somebody earn – you’re not political, you’re not a politician, so where did Jeff Watt get the moniker of the mayor? And way back to the first of the conversation you were talking about, you work in a sporting goods store and you were perfecting your craft, that’s what you said, I was perfecting my craft and I think from outside looking in it and this is my story and I’m sticking to it, the mayor is a man of the people and the craft you were perfecting was people because Jeff, the times I call, you ain’t got a damn thing to do with duck hunt, it’s how to cook through on a brisket or ribs or nothing to do with anything, just call you up for a piece of advice because Jeff, I want to tell you something, when you come out of the weeds, always, whether it’s here, whether it’s cleaning a gun, whether it’s taking a plug out, whether it’s helping somebody, whether it’s doing something, the times I see you going to charity events and doing everything else, man, you’re like, the guy that’s always there to help the people. And yeah, I’m going to say this and I’m dead serious when I say this man, I love to be around people that inspire me, you inspire me to be a better person with people, man, you inspire me to be better on my relationship because you are sincere. I mean, we’re sitting here in the camp with a dozen people, you knew Pops and me when you showed up and now every one of them is in your phone and your buddies and that’s a gift, man. But is that why he calls you the mayor, because you’re the man of the people.
Jeff Watt: Well, actually the mayor started even really before I got to be with pops. And back in the weeds is a good description.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, you are a driving force.
Jeff Watt: I’m an independent contractor.
Ramsey Russell: But you’re over here, you’re always there helping that brand and other brands you work with to move forward.
Jeff Watt: R and T, Kershaw, Winston, I’m helping those. I’m not going to say manipulating because that’s not what it is, I’m very good at getting things done because of long standing in the industry, knowing a lot of people, knowing how to approach the other people and knowing when to approach them and knowing when to put pressure and when to come off the pressure. I mean, the mayor runs things and that’s kind of where it started. And as I mentioned, when I got in this, my territory was the smallest territory around and that territory went to – it was the biggest territory and I was running things at a lot of places and since I’ve kind of found my place and it’s kind of come back to a level plateau with changes in the industry and this, that and the other. But it’s come to where I really enjoy, where I really enjoy it to be and I got to tell you, I love fly fishing and I’ll never stop working in the fly fishing industry. I’ll stop working in another industry like maybe conventional fishing or camping or outdoor, but I’m not going to stop working in the fly fishing industry and I’m not going to stop working in the waterfowl industry until they tell me I can’t do it anymore. And it’s the love for both of those and because the waterfowl industry and what I can do with waterfowl is more convenient for me where I live than what I can do for fly fishing. I see that that’s where I’m spending most of my time. And I love helping small companies, we talked about Tyler at creek, yeah, flashback, I so much want to talk to him because I’ve helped build a bunch of small startup companies. Rig, when I went to work for him, he had two products, he had his rigs and he had his jerk rig and now he’s one of the major players in the waterfowl industry, Mo Marsh, same way, then they get acquired by Higdon. R and T, they’ve gone and done the stuff that they’re doing. I mean, I love being a part of it, I love to say I helped do that, I didn’t build it, but I helped, I was a very active part of it. And so I looked at one when I was at DUX. I go to these shows even if Sitka or something, isn’t there, I go to explore and I’m not flying, I’m not wearing a gear like, some of what we see out here, I’m there exploring and trying to find out what’s the next one? And how can I help something else? And I mean, hence the same reason that Lee and I and a guy by the name of Wilson Jones, who this last fall was kind of a turning point with me too, is that Jeff, you have so much knowledge, experience, information that you’ve accumulated and you have done in the last 30 some odd years, you could help these other companies. Hence, while we built a bio to hopefully someday sit on some boards of some of these other companies, whether they be conservation groups, whether they be whatever. I mean, I love the conservation part and the conservation play. Hence why, we did this, I pushed so hard to get this thing going with the 5 Oaks Ag and research center that George Duncan, Doctor Osborne and Jodie Pagan, Daniel Duke are running down there in Humphrey, Arkansas because we need that. We need more information on what these ducks are doing. And I mean, my goal is to help make that knowledge available to whoever wants it. And so I’m actively letting people know that, I’ll help any way I can.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, you all been listening to my buddy Jeff Watt. World famous, the mayor, the people guy, Jeff, thank you. I’ve been wanting this conversation with you for a long time.
Jeff Watt: Well, we’ve talked about it, we’ve just never been able to put it together. Just things got around and different things.
Ramsey Russell: Coming to the right place at the right time. How would you describe – this is your first trip 2019, you’ve been all over the world, primarily fly fishing. How would you describe Rio Salado?
Jeff Watt: It’s awesome. I mean, the species of waterfowl here, of course, the only one we have in the United States is a cinnamon teal if I’m not mistaken. And it’s cool seeing – because I’m more knowledgeable about duck food today than I was in 2019 or maybe not knowledgeable but paying attention, I was paying attention where we were going to duck hunt, I was paying attention to what was there. And what’s interesting is, you guys got some millet down here just like we got it up there, it’s probably got a different name, but that’s what they were eating in most of the places that I was at. Spangletop or barnyard grass or whatever. And I think that, I was enamored by the Rosy Bill and the tree ducks when we were here last time, we didn’t see as many Rosy Bills and tree ducks and that’s a fluctuation of water and it not being – I mean, the grass wasn’t as high. I mean, there was a lot of things that didn’t match up. But I had as good a time this time as I did the last time because of the people and what we were able to do here and all that. And 90% of the time it is the people. And I tell, when I invite people to come to my duck camp, I tell them three things, I can control the fun, the food, but I can’t control the ducks. And so that’s my whole deal. And heck, we’ve had a great time here.
Ramsey Russell: Thank you, Jeff. Folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we will see you next time.