WisBusiness: Viroqua draws 'silent sport' businesses, hopes for more
By Brian E. Clark
VIROQUA – When Mat Wagner told his friends in Taos that he was going to leave New Mexico to open a fly fishing shop and guide service in a place called the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin, they thought he'd lost his marbles.
"They were ready to commit me," chuckled Wagner, who relocated with his wife, Geri, and two children to this wrinkled, stream-filled corner of the Badger State last year.
"But then I told them there were literally thousands of miles of spring creek water here and that it was a secret just waiting to get out," said Wagner, who opened the Driftless Angler on Main Street in downtown Viroqua (population 4,400) in February. (See picture at right)
"I also told them there was easy public access to the streams, a great natural trout fishery, no crowds and waters more relaxing than anything they'd seen in the Rockies," he said with a wry smile. "After I'd finished my spiel, they were asking when they could come out and fish with me."
Some of them just may be showing up in the next few months. The general season opened May 5 and runs through early September.
Up Main Street a few blocks from Wagner's fly fishing shop is Bluedog Cycles, run by Pete and Alycann Taylor, a pair of transplants from Boise, Idaho, who recently moved to Viroqua to open a small bike shop.
"Friends told us that this lovely part of Wisconsin was ready for the cycling scene," said Alycann (pronounced "Alice-Ann"). "And they were right. There isn't another shop within 40 miles of here and there is great terrain for bicycling."
The newcomers -- and local boosters -- hope they are the leading edge of a "silent sport" trend that will bring tourism dollars and more shops to what is one of the prettiest but poorest counties in Wisconsin.
Thanks to the relatively low cost of doing business in Viroqua, neither the Wagners or the Taylors had to take out loans to finance their new businesses. Instead, they bankrolled their enterprises by selling their homes in the West.
"They've definitely added a swatch of color to our community," said Ingrid Mahan, executive director of the Viroqua Main Street program and the town's Chamber of Commerce.
"This area has a lot of attractive natural resources that we want to promote," she said. "The countryside is beautiful for riding and within 10 minutes of downtown, you can be in some of the best fly-fishing in the United States.
"We're also glad to have young business people (both couples are in their late 20s to mid 30s) who want to come to Viroqua, start businesses and raise their families here," she said. "That's very encouraging."
The Taylors -- who have a young daughter -- opened their shop about 18 months ago, naming it after their 13-year-old, blue-hued black Labrador. They sell multi-geared mountain, road and cross bikes, as well as a few one-speed cruisers.
"We are incredibly busy," said Alycann , showing a visiting writer a storeroom filled with bikes that need spring tune-ups and repairs. "We'll probably have to move out of this space in the not-too-distant future. Our problem is managing growth. So we are in a good spot."
In addition to catering to home-grown bicyclists, the Taylors are helping create new clients by sponsoring events and rides, organizing crews to build mountain bike single track routes and offering maintenance classes. They also founded Vernon Trails, a non-profit group to promote cycling and other silent sports in the region. "There is quite a mountain bike trend forming here," she said.
"For the most part, people around here are pretty good to cyclists," she said, noting that drivers also are familiar with horse-drawn buggies and wagons driven by Amish farmers who are a significant presence in the area.
"It was a big change for us to come here," she said. "We had a new baby and started a new shop. But Pete has been involved with cycling for decades and I have a business background. Overall, I'd say this has been great."
Wagner, 28, has been working in fly fishing shops since he was a teenager. He's also guided around the country and in British Columbia, Canada. His last job was managing Los Rios Anglers in Taos.
"I always knew I wanted to do this and we started planning our move about 18 months ago," said Wagner. "This is a unique area and it's special because the glaciers never scraped the land flat around here. Mother Nature has had hundreds of thousands of years to carve out valleys and hills around here.
"Thanks to the limestone and springs, the fishing is amazing and it's been enhanced in recent years because of work by groups like Trout Unlimited and the state DNR working with local landowners," he said.
Wagner and his wife bought a 100-year-old building on Viroqua's Main Street that had, fortunately, been renovated in 1999. For the next few years, they plan to live in an apartment on top of Driftless Angler.
They spent the first few months getting it ready and then stocked it with fly rods, clothing, flies and other gear. Visitors can spent a few dollars on a fly, $15 for a ball cap or hundreds of dollars for a top-end rod and reel.
They also can take fly tying classes at the shop or hire Wagner or guides to lead them to some of the best streams in the region. The fee is $150 for a half day or $225 for a full day.
"One of the first things I did here was 'research' where the best fishing is," Wagner said. "I also talked to landowners and met with DNR officials to learn the lay of the land and about access."
Though many anglers who patronize his store are local, he figures about two thirds are from outside the region – coming from Madison, Chicago, Milwaukee or as far away as St. Louis.
"People from out of the region often want someone to show them around," he said, noting that people from the Windy City are buying second homes in the county.
He advertises in Midwest Fly Fishing Magazine and on-line. But much of his traffic, he said, has come from word-of-mouth.
Though he's only been open a few months, Wagner said business has been good so far.
"You don't go into something like this to be a millionaire," he said. "But my business plan is to be profitable within a couple of years. I certainly hope that's the case, because this is where we want to live."