HHS grad starts fly fishing business: Ben Carlson offers local guided trips focused on teaching
Ben Carlson, a 2012 graduate of Hastings High School, still remembers his first time fly fishing. He was 12 years old and was at a cabin in northern Minnesota, where his father’s best friend gifted him an old fly fishing rod, a 1961 Shakespeare Wonderod.
He remembers standing out on a big rock, trying to get the hang of casting and trying to keep his lines from getting tangled. He remembers holding his first trout the wrong way for a photo because he didn’t know any better.
He’s gotten much better since then, and he’s fished all over the country and into Canada. He taught himself about the sport through books and got mentorship through community groups from experienced fly fishermen.
“One of my best friends is an 82-year-old man,” he said.
Now Carlson is a 20-year-old college student at St. Olaf College, a regular fly fisherman and on occasion he teaches classes on fly fishing. He’s made something of a name for himself, he said, because he’s one of the rare young faces in the fly fishing community and he’s an active member of several professional associations. He’s even started a blog about his frequent fishing excursions.
Now Carlson is taking his hobby to the next level. He recently launched his own business, Jolly Fly Fishing, which offers guided fly fishing trips on the Kinnickinnic and Rush rivers, as well as their tributaries.
The business opportunity arose through his college, he said. An economics, history and finance student, he discovered the school offered grants to students who wanted to start their own business. To Carlson, it was the perfect chance to turn his passion into something more.
The Midwest has phenomenal fisheries, he said, but not many fly fishing guides, so he saw a niche need he could fill. He got help from other guides already working to make sure his business model would work, and he’s already taking reservations for trips this summer.
Carlson’s first priority as a guide is to teach. Clients new to the sport can learn the how-to’s, while experienced fly fishermen can learn more detailed aspects of the trip, like new access points, what rare species can be found in an area, the nuances of fly fishing and the fish they’re out to catch and even regional history.
“I’m assuming if you’re hiring a guide, you want to learn,” Carlson said.
He aims to tailor each trip to the individual’s desired experience, whether that means hiking a long distance to some remote fishing spot or trying to catch as many fish as possible. Clients can use their own fly fishing gear if they want, but he’ll have his own gear for people to use as well.
Sharing his passion
To Carlson, fly fishing isn’t just about catching fish. It’s a chance to experience nature and a chance to clear his mind.
“The river kind of carries away the stress,” he said.
When he’s on the river, he feels jolly, he said, which he described as a joy much greater than just happiness. It’s one reason he named his business Jolly Fly Fishing. The other reason is his grandfather, who was nicknamed “Jolly.” Carlson said he’s been told many times he resembles his grandfather, who died when Carlson was young, in many ways, even in his tennis swing.
Fly fishing is also an opportunity to connect with other like-minded individuals. There’s a great camaraderie among fly fishermen, he said, and he’s never been on a stream and not talked to another fisherman he’s met along the way. The range of techniques, varieties of fish and ability to enjoy the sport alone or with friends are more perks.
“I find it the perfect hobby,” he said.
Getting more young people involved is one of his goals, he said. He also wants to help debunk the idea that fly fishing is difficult to learn.
“Some think there’s a lot to learn, but there’s not,” he said.
He suggested simply setting up a trip with a guide to see how easy it really is.
Opening the business
Because Carlson is still attending college during most of the year, he’ll be doing guided full- or half-day trips primarily during the summer months, from late May into August. The good news for potential clients is that the last week of May and first week of June in the Midwest often produce some of the best fly fishing in the nation, Carlson said.
Although he’s not doing trips just yet, he is already starting to take reservations for trips later this summer. Carlson suggested booking trips early to ensure the date is available.