The bow of the ship chugged up the wave like a roller coaster clicking up the track to the peak of its first drop. Cresting the top of the mountain-sized swell, the bow fell off, crashed into the trough and disappeared under the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Half of the crew locked themselves in their bunks, green and utterly useless.
John Simms, a young Navy seaman, made his way to the bridge of the ship, which escorted destroyers for 30-day stints. It was the late 1950s, and Simms was serving as a radarman, which appealed to his technological abilities. But his true superpower at the time was that he could avoid seasickness by understanding the dynamics of the storm and thinking his way through it. Mind over mal de mer.
“I understood what made you seasick, and I wouldn’t get sick, which kind of made me an odd man out,” says Simms, who is 84 and the founder of Simms Fishing Products in Bozeman, Montana. “My mind would tell my body it’s OK. I was able to convince myself that the rocking of the ship was part of the dynamic of being in storms.”
A skilled skier, angler and outdoorsman, Simms has been a problem-solver and innovator his entire life. His goal was to improve the outdoor experience, to make standing in a stream or enjoying a ski slope more comfortable and safer. He says his motivation wasn’t as much monetary as it was to make a difference in the worlds he loved.
Simms’ mind always moved in logical, analytical ways, even at a young age. Growing up in the Allegheny Mountains of western New York, Simms often found smarter ways of doing things, a skill that would serve him well throughout his life. “My family was in the hardwood plywood business,” he says. “When I wasn’t in school, I’d work for the company. I was always saying, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ My father would say ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way.’ That was kind of the start of my creating ways of solving problems.”
Simms also showed a knack for entrepreneurship. During winter, freezing air would cross Lake Erie, creating what is known as the “lake effect.” Lake water would evaporate and boost the snow levels pouring out of a storm. The big dumps created opportunities for Simms to earn money shoveling driveways. They also created opportunities to ski with his family. “We had a ski area about 25 miles from town,” he says. “My parents were really good skiers, which was very unusual in those days. Skiing wasn’t all that popular in the 1940s.”
Come spring and summer, Simms caught brook trout in the small mountain streams that dissected the area and cut through the valleys. “When I was probably 10 or 12, I had a girlfriend whose father was a doctor and a very avid fisherman,” Simms recalls. “He would take the two of us trout fishing, but he was a worm fisherman. We’d catch a lot of small, 6- to 10-inch brook trout. They’re beautiful. I didn’t have the heart to kill them.”
The Simms family owned a veneer mill in a swampy area of the Adirondacks. In midwinter, when the swamps froze over, they’d go in by train and set up camp. “We’d have bulldozers and a sidetrack railroad car that served as a kitchen,” Simms says. “During the offseason, non-winter, I would fish in the Adirondacks for small trout, fly-fishing. I always very much enjoyed casting a fly. There’s something magical about getting a fish to rise up and take an artificial fly.”
Exploring by canoe, Simms taught himself a range of paddle strokes to cross swift streams and open, wind-swept waters. A family friend, Dr. Rusty Hoover, hired the 17-year-old Simms to paddle him along the shallows and reeds looking for the muskellunge that lurked in the cover and ambushed their prey. Unlike many anglers of the day, Hoover wasn’t out to put food on the table. “He would stand in the front of the canoe with a big 12-weight fly rod. We were fishing for big fish,” Simms says. “That was what he wanted to do. We would lose a lot of them — they are a very strong and active fish. Other fisherman would club the fish to kill it. One of the worse things you can do is have a live muskie in a canoe, so we’d wear the fish out and, with a forceps or pliers, take the hook out and release it without having to get it into the canoe.”
The idea of releasing large muskies was foreign at the time. Most trophy muskies ended up mounted on a wall. For the young Simms, the seed of making a living as a fishing guide began to take root. “It taught me a lot about fishing for pleasure, as opposed to fishing for food,” he says. “We were there for the experience. That idea always carried through with me.”
In 1961, after his stint in the Navy, Simms packed his life into a sporty Jaguar XK120 and headed for Colorado. While skiing Arapahoe Basin, he happened to ride the lift with the manager of the ski area. They struck up a conversation and took a couple of runs together. The man was impressed with Simms’ skiing and asked if he would be interested in becoming a ski patrolman. While Simms didn’t know much about first aid, he knew plenty about skiing, and thus began a cycle of working at ski resorts during the winter and fishing rivers in summer.
This period also kicked his inventive spirit into gear. One of his first inventions was ski googles that didn’t fog. “We used to use an Army surplus, rubber-framed goggle,” he says. “As a ski patrolman, you work up a lot of heat, and the goggles would fog up. I remembered thermopane windows from my time as kid in the family business, so why not make a thermopane goggle? I managed to laminate two lenses together with air in between. I made them for myself and anybody else that felt they could benefit from them.”
Simms worked avalanche control, and one of his most significant inventions was one of the simplest. He developed a collapsible shovel with a removable handle so a patroller could carry it in a fanny pack. Simms also came up with ski poles that could be connected, extending their length to 8.5 feet so they could be used to probe for people buried in an avalanche. “We used to carry big aluminum shovels on our back. That doesn’t make sense,” he says. “For one, a big shovel holds a lot of snow and requires a lot of effort to pick up. I said, ‘We need a smaller shovel so you can quickly take a lot of shovels and not wear yourself out lifting 20 pounds of snow each time.’ ”
In an avalanche, the patroller could probe for victims with the connected poles and, once found, quickly dig out the person. “The real goal was to dig away enough snow to free this person’s face so they could breathe,” Simms says. The majority of avalanche fatalities occur from suffocation.
“I could visualize what was necessary,” he says. “That simple thing that made so much sense to me saved a lot of lives. I wasn’t trying to make money with it; I was just trying to save lives.” However, he started a company called Life-Link International, making and selling this rescue equipment, and before long nearly all professional mountaineers and patrollers carried that pack.
Summer on the Snake
After a few seasons in Colorado, Simms moved to Jackson, Wyoming, in the mid-1960s, working at the newly established Jackson Hole resort. During the summer, he became a pioneering guide on the Snake and Madison rivers. Again, ideas and inventions began to take form, this time to improve fly-fishing. “Initially, I had a yellow Navy-surplus rescue raft that I would use,” Simms says. “A raft is very hard to hold back in moving water, and if you could hold the boat back, the fly fisherman had a better chance at casting to a feeding fish. That led to my using a jonboat, which kind of historically is a Southern tradition.”
Simms would row the jonboat with the bow pointing upstream and the client sitting in the stern, fishing. “I became well-known as a guide, and I would guide 50 or 60 days a season,” he says. As his reputation grew, he looked to guide Tom Montgomery to help out when he needed a second boat.
“I was a student of John Simms, an understudy,” says Montgomery, who is also a photographer. “I wasn’t just trying to learn spots; I was trying to learn guiding style and rowing style. He made a great point of sharing the idea that, as a guide, you were fishing vicariously, and so the better and more attentively you rowed, you could affect the day in a more positive fashion. He was always thinking about his oar strokes and how it would affect the drift of the fly.”
Jonboats gave way to double-ended fiberglass skiffs that could hold their position in the river. “The seating in the skiff was such that you could stand up relatively safely and cast much better and see,” Simms says. “I developed different strokes for the skiff. I had a way of holding back with one oar and doing a draw stroke on the side of the boat so you could move the boat sideways across the river without going downstream. You could work one shore and then row back up and fish the other shore.
“A lot of guides say, ‘Get in the boat and just start casting,’ ” he continues. “Their goal was to get to the end of the trip. It wasn’t to enhance the experience. To be a good guide, you have to put yourself in the position of the client.”
His attention to detail helped Simms rise to the top as one of the best guides in the Teton Valley, just as fly-fishing was about to explode in popularity. September was always a magical time on the Snake River, as temperatures cooled and cutthroat looked for big hoppers on top.
“I ran shuttle for John when I was 16 years old,” says Casey Sheahan, who in a serendipitous twist of fate became CEO of Simms Fishing Products roughly four decades later. “I had just gotten my driver’s license, and I was too young to guide, so I shuttled pickup trucks and trailers around in the summer and fall before I went back to college. That’s when I got to know John as a friend. He was a big, handsome guy who could do it all: great skier, great fisherman, great outdoorsman.”
You never knew who might be casting from a boat with Simms at the oars. He guided a lot of successful businessmen and politicians, including Dick Cheney, who owned a home in Jackson, Wyoming. The two men became friends and steered clear of political chatter. “We’d be going down the river, and someone from the bank would kind of move in, and I’d pull the boat away, wondering if that guy realizes he’s taking a fish away from the vice president,” Simms says with a laugh.
Liz and Fred McCabe, who owned the local newspaper, booked Simms for 12 to 15 trips each summer, often with a second group following along with Montgomery as the guide. Fred McCabe, a large, sometimes obstreperous individual, had one rule: When the fishing was over, it was time for a shore lunch, and a serious one at that.
“We would fish until about 2 in the afternoon, when the hatch was kind of over, and we would stop along a particular grassy bank, anchor the boats and set up a little picnic table, and we would have what they called the Main Event,” Simms says. “I used to keep some small fish, and I had a stove called a Kangaroo Kitchen that came in an aluminum box. I’d wrap the fish in foil with butter and herbs, and put them in this box and cook them till this incredible fragrance came out as the herbs were steaming along with the fish. We’d unfold the foil and with hemostats, grab the vertebrae of the fish, pick it up and the fillet would fall right off.”
The McCabes would bring along at least one bottle of white wine, and after the affair, they’d pack up and head for the takeout. Inevitably, someone would pull out a fly rod, and Fred would bark: “No fishing gad dangit! I told you no fishing after lunch!” The guests would cower in his big, loud shadow. Simms grew to be very close with the McCabes and looked forward to the Main Event as much as the fishing.
As Simms rowed and watched his clients, the ideas percolated. That notion of fishing vicariously bubbled to the top of his gray matter, and he thought about ways to improve time spent on the river. He developed the Wrist Lock, a leather device with Velcro straps that went around the angler’s wrist and the butt of the rod. It helped novice anglers improve their cast by forcing them to keep their wrist stiff.
Tired of his sunglasses sliding off his nose, Simms cut up an old wetsuit and sewed the ends like a Chinese finger trap with an opening just large enough to slide over the temples. He called call them Croakies. In 1980, he launched Simms Fishing Products.
“One of my first products was a neoprene gravel guard, which you would wear over your wading shoes to keep gravel from getting in,” Simms says. “I was selling a lot of these in Japan, and my Japanese distributor asked if I could make a gravel guard that goes up to the knee, and I said sure. I made these long gravel guards, and then I said why not make hip boots out of neoprene? So I started marketing hip boots, and they went over really big. Not only did they keep your legs warm, they kept gravel from getting in. Then I said let’s make a chest wader out of neoprene, the next evolution.”
The chest waders became extremely popular, especially with steelhead anglers fishing in cold water. You could stand chest-deep, cast for hours and stay warm. The waders extended the fishing season, putting more money in the pockets of guides. The waders were tight, which created less pressure against your legs than earlier waders with pockets that would catch water and build up pressure. Neoprene made deep wading not only more comfortable but, in some cases, life-saving. “If you got swept off your feet, the neoprene was essentially rubber with bubbles inside, so they would float,” Simms says.
The Simms Fishing name grew within the circles of experienced fly anglers. As Simms found himself being recognized for his innovations, he continued guiding. And he had great luck. “John is famously lucky,” Montgomery says, telling the story about Money Beach. “He was nymphing the lower Snake and pulled in a $100 bill. So he started nymphing in earnest and brought in several bills. He went back the next day, and I think the total take was like $900, and this was 40 years ago. It was a huge haul.” Apparently, a German angler had lost his wallet when the boat he was in flipped the day before.
In 1993, Simms sold his company to K.C. Walsh, a client with whom he had fished. At the time, the company focused mainly on waders and was still a small operation. “I was getting older, and it was time for me to start enjoying life,” Simms says. “It gave me time to enjoy fishing with family and my three daughters.”
“The companies he started, they were never capitalized to the point where they could take off like Simms has today because they were bootstrapping everything,” says Sheahan, the current Simms CEO. Walsh moved the operation to Bozeman, Montana, and the company has grown both in size and product development. Simms now operates out of a 60,000-square-foot facility and employs more than 180 people.
After selling his businesses, Simms continued to fish and took up a new craft, creating large-scale, geometric sculptures from metal. Again, he brought the shapes and ideas in his mind to life for others to enjoy. “There comes a time when you’re starting a business when you realize maybe you need to step away. The endless trade shows — it’s a lot of hard work,” Sheahan says. “It gave him a chance to walk away and let others take over. I think it was the right time for him to do that. He’s well-known for a lot of different things. He’s kind of a Renaissance man, from avalanche expert and maker of that kind of product to a fly-fishing pioneer to now a sculpture artist. He’s still fishing and enjoying himself. He leaves quite a legacy with this brand, the way people feel about him and how he approaches things.”
Asked if he still fishes much, Simms is quick to respond. “Oh, yes.” His old buddy Montgomery, who is still guiding at age 69, takes him out each season, and this past September the two had quite a day. “We fished the upper part of the main Snake, and I caught three fish over 20 inches,” Simms says with a laugh, but Fred McCabe may not have approved. “We stopped and had lunch, just the two of us at the site of the Main Event. We’d never fish after we stopped to eat. Fred would say, ‘No fishing from here on,’ and all his friends were rather cowed by him because he was such a big and gruff guy. When Tom and I stopped there, I caught a 20-inch fish. I wonder what Fred would’ve thought?”