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When Steve Williams tried to convince his wife that he needed to update his fly-fishing gear, she wasn’t too keen on the idea.

“I have a wife who doesn’t fish,” he said, so naturally she didn’t understand his desire for better equipment. After all, he had a fishing rod, what more did he need?

Being an enterprising and determined guy, Williams went out to his garage where, instead of pouting, he designed and built a laminated wooden fishing net. He presented the finished product to Rainbow Run fly shop owner Jim McCall with the offer to trade the net for other fishing gear. That was six years ago, and Williams is still building fishing nets. Occasionally, he even finds the time to do a little on-the-river product testing.

“The first year all I did was make nets to trade for fishing stuff,” said Williams, 45, whose blonde mustache and hair are as neatly trimmed as his nets.

“He’s got some beautiful nets,” McCall said. “He’s had to learn to change with the times because nets have changed.”

Building a business

As time went on, Williams began looking for other outlets to sell his nets. Eventually, he horned in on his wife’s display of custom-embroidered creations at craft shows.

“He used to put his nets on my sock rack,” Barbara Wells said.

“Pretty quick I started taking up more and more of her space,” he said.

His Williams Nets are now for sale in 10 shops around Montana and he’s making contacts for shops in Oregon. This year he is on pace to make about 125 to 150 nets.

“Last year, I made about 25 percent more nets,” he said, despite an economy that was in the dumps.

McCall said the net business has cycled through several phases in recent years. Brodin was the big boy on the block, but when that manufacturer had a down year, it opened the market to more competition, he said. For a while, lightweight aluminum framed nets were standard, then nets with a ruler painted on the bottom were the rage. Now, all of the nets have to have rubber nets.

“The first thing buyers look at is the price,” McCall said. “Then they look at the net.”

Wooden glamor

The wooden fishing nets feature mahogany, walnut, ash, padauk, bird’s-eye maple and purple heart woods. The wood is cut on a table saw in strips only 1/16th-of-an-inch thick. The strips are slathered with glue, wrapped around a jig and clamped. Once all the strips are in place, the whole net is run through a planer.

Then the sanding starts. The nets are made of rubber, which is easier on the fish and doesn’t get tangled in the angler’s hook. From start to finish, the product takes about a week to complete.

“It gives him an outlet from what he does Monday through Friday,” Wells said. “It gives him an opportunity to work with his hands and get back to that.”

Williams’ six different designs range in price from $85 for The Original to $145 for the long-handled Beaverhead Boat Net.

In his other life, Williams is an agricultural loan officer. He’s traveled across the country working at different banking positions and even tried pig farming. The numerous license plates lined across one wall of his garage testify to his roaming ways — Colorado, Iowa and Wisconsin, to name a few.

Also hanging on the walls are some of his early net rejects, reminders that not everything works out the first time.

“You have to keep tweaking stuff,” he said. “I point that out to my 7-year-old son when he gets frustrated.”

Cabinet background

Williams grew up in New Mexico, where his father built custom homes. Although Williams helped out with the family business, he found he enjoyed working with his father’s cabinet-maker the best. That apprentice finish work has served him well as he has sawed, laminated, planed and sanded his fishing nets.

Although the net-making business sometimes takes time away from his family, Williams said his wife hasn’t said much since the business has been self-supporting, doesn’t take away from the grocery money and even contributes to the living expenses.

“This is a debt-free enterprise,” he said.

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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