Created by Silverthorne, Colorado’s Joshua Doolittle, this new, simple device makes it easy to transform your fly rod into a reel-less wonder, ideal for quick casting, backpacking, and exploring more adventurous water. How does it work? Why use it? Where do I get one? Doolittle gives us all the answers.
1: What is a Creek Cleat?
A Creek Cleat is my inadvertent invention that provides a lighter weight and ambidextrous alternative to a reel for when you are fly fishing a creek, stream or small river. It’s made from machined aluminum in Silverthorne, Colorado, USA and finished with a stealth-black hard anodized coating.
The custom fly lines you use with it are only 25-feet long with welded loop ends—since, realistically, when wade fishing a creek or stream, you’ll only be using 10 to 15 feet of fly line. So, we give you an extra 10 feet for if say you are hitting a big pond with the wind at your back (which is the only time I’ve unwrapped the full 25 feet). The custom fly lines are provided for us by Bozeman Fly Works and currently come in 3-, 4-, and 5-weight options.
2: How did you come up with the idea?
I somehow got on the the Tenkara USA email list after meeting the founder [Daniel Galhardo] at an OR show back when it was still in Salt Lake City. My background is industrial design (RISD ’95), but I didn’t last long in the corporate world after graduating. I am more of an inventor or “imagineer” than a product stylist. I didn’t do well sitting in a cube and being told what to design by a marketing team—so I wound up becoming a “dirtbag mountain freak” in Jackson, Wyoming, and other fun outdoorsy towns.
One of my personal, entrepreneurial, passion projects is the development of a new, very digital design/build approach to fabricating sustainable surfboards using balsa plywood and robotic milling (CNC) machines. I had written Yvon Chouinard about my sustainable surfboard project back in the Spring of ’16 and a few weeks later received a postcard saying “If I were you, I’d give up on this idea…” A few days later, I received an email from Tenkara USA about a Tenkara Summit that was going to happen a couple months later in Estes Park, Colorado. Chouinard was listed as one of the speakers.
I went to the Tenkara Summit primarily to “guerrilla pitch” Chouinard with prototype surfboard No. 2 with the hope that if he saw it in person, he’d change his mind and want to support the next round of prototyping to fine-tune this disruptive vision and bring it to market as what is likely the “holy grail” of truly sustainable, affordable, and high-performance surfboards and later SUPs.
Yvon still wasn’t interested, but I had been actively fly fishing in Colorado for about two years and was mildly interested about the Tenkara approach, so I stuck around to hear the speakers. During Chouinard’s talk, which was essentially a ramble about how Tenkara had influenced his traditional reel based fly fishing he said, “When I get down to the stream, I pull 20 feet of fly line out of the reel and then don’t touch it [the reel] for the rest of the day.” That was the light-bulb moment: I realized that’s what most everyone I’ve ever seen fly fish does (including me). During the drive back to Silverthorne, I started brainstorming the Creek Cleat.
A few months later, I had crafted a crude prototype using the “wedge” that inserts into the rod handle that came from a reel a friend found alongside a river. Conveniently, it had two screws to attach it to the rest of the reel. I unscrewed these screws and found a drapery cleat at a hardware store with two holes that lined up with the wedge. I bought two screws as well and had a working prototype, after cutting down some fly line to 25-feet.
A few months later, I was having a coffee meeting in Boulder, Colorado, with Ross Shell, founder of Red Idea Partners to re-pitch to him my new bamboo housing/emergency shelter and sustainable surfboard projects. He said he still wasn’t interested in those projects and then said “…but, get that Creek Cleat you mentioned in the email.” We then brokered a deal and engaged gears on bringing it to market.
3: Why would I want to give up my nice expensive reel?
The target customer for a Creek Cleat is someone who already enjoys wade fly-fishing smaller water like alpine creeks or streams, typically during dry fly season and wants to augment their fun. Chances are, if they’ve been fishing for a while, they already have a dedicated creek rod.
The Creek Cleat shaves off about 6 ounces (it weighs 1.3 ounces; most reels come in around 6 or 7 ounces). That weight savings is quite noticeable, especially when “high sticking” after a short cast into a pool 1,000 times. This allows for more casting, which equates to catching more fish.
If your dominant arm gets tired, you just simply swap arms and keep casting, since there’s no reel knob with which to fiddle! This process quickly trains your non-dominant arm to become effective at casting. After a few outings, there’s no longer any reason for an awkward back cast if a boulder or branch is in the way; you can then swap the rod to the arm with the better casting angle.
As I wade across a stream, I intuitively find myself swapping the rod to the arm with the better casting angle. Personally, if you’re not actively ambidextrously casting, you’re not really fly fishing at your maximum fun level. When you catch a trout, regardless of which arm you’re using, you simply strip in the line, which is what most people do even when fishing with a reel. I’ve found becoming an ambidextrous caster to be really fun and fluid. Fly fishing starts to feel a bit like a Tai Chi workout. I’ve also noticed that the significant weight savings allows for unique technical “wrist-flick roll casts” that I wouldn’t try if fishing with the extra weight of a reel.
Considering the Creek Cleat, still attached to the handle, fits inside of a rod carrying tube, it’s also optimal for folks who like to hike or backpack into more remote water and are interested in shaving off the extra weight of a reel. As you know, anytime you can make something for outdoor fun that’s lighter, it’ll find a niche customer.
Based on guiding many beginners, I’ve also found that it’s a great way to teach someone new to fly fishing as there’s just less stuff to deal with and that can go awry. I could see guides buying Creek Cleat kits for teaching purposes. Considering there are no moving parts and you wrap or unwrap this “unreel,” it also can’t jam, seize up if it gets dirty, or freeze up if fly fishing during below freezing temps.
Based on my time almost exclusively fly fishing with Creek Cleats prototypes over the past 4 years or so, I really think the only time you’d want to use a reel instead of a Creek Cleat would be if you were fishing from a drift boat on a big river where having a full 100 feet of fly line and the space for a big trout to run would be relevant. If you’re wade fishing on foot, even from the banks of a big river, chances are you’re still only casting 20 feet or so ahead of you at most, as, typically, there’s a current of some kind that’d throw off a longer cast.
The Creek Cleat does make for a more sporty experience, but typically, you don’t want a trout to run very far away from you when wade fishing anyway. Often when “pocket pulling” trout out of pools there really isn’t much room for a trout to run anyway. Sometimes—when bigger trout are on the radar, say when fishing the Blue River or Eagle Rivers—I’ll leave a 6-foot or so chunk of slack to use a manual drag option.
4: What have you learned using the Creek Cleat out in the field?
I’ve learned that for the majority of the fly fishing that I do, I am often trying to avoid tourists and fly fishing guides and their clients. This tends to lead to fishing the smaller, more “off the beaten path” creek or stream, which so often tends to run up some beautiful canyon or across a stunning alpine meadow. This means that I won’t need a reel and so I might as well fish with a Creek Cleat.
As mentioned, I’ve also learned how to be an ambidextrous caster, which really allows me to more effectively “comb” a creek or stream than when just using my dominant arm. I’ve also learned some unique, more wrist-oriented, technical casts that I wouldn’t really try with the extra weight of a reel, but become second nature with a Creek Cleat.
Often people talk about the balance associated with a reel and the rod, but this issue isn’t really relevant when fishing with a Creek Cleat as the weight savings are so significant that your fly rod starts to feel maybe more like a long, magic wand. I refer to fly fishing with a Creek Cleat as “Cowboy Tenkara” as it allows you to get a Tenkara-like experience regarding the weight savings, but using your existing rod, and still having line control at the handle as you would with a reel. It’s a very subtle, yet significant shift when going from a reel to a Creek Cleat. Old timers seem to be rather resistant, but those newer to the sport of fly fishing seem to be much more open minded to the vision of the Creek Cleat.
I’ve also learned that I just love the immersive and more intimate fly fishing experience that unfolds when working your way up an alpine creek or stream and interacting with the ecosystem by catching and releasing trout. It’s a wonderful active meditation time that I find to be very therapeutic, if not addictive, to my mind, body and soul.
5: How do I get one?
Hop on over to Creek-Cleat.com and order yours today! We’ve got a preorder program in effect on our recently launched website for 100 Creek Cleat kits. It’s looking like we’ll be able to ship out Creek Cleat kits by the end of June. They cost $84.95 and come in 3-, 4-, and 5-weight options. There is a 10% discount per Creek Cleat kit if you order two or more. Considering current variables, we’re operating on a small batch format for the next year or so.