KANSAS CITY, Mo. — David Gray wound up, launched a cast and watched as his lure sailed into the distance.
When the top-water bait landed some 150 feet away, a slight smile crossed Gray's face.
"That's called long-distance casting," Gray said as he fished Riss Lake in Parkville, Mo. "When customers ask us for instructions on how to use these reels, the first thing we tell them is, 'Back up. You're going to be casting farther than you're used to.' "
That's what Gray had in mind when he set out to develop a high-performance, American-made baitcasting reel in the late 1990s.
As is the case with many successful fishing products, necessity was the mother of invention when it came to this reel. An avid fisherman and a former owner of a tackle shop, Gray had a good idea of what he wanted -- a baitcaster that would cast a long way, feature a smooth retrieve, was backlash-resistant and would be strong and durable.
He also wanted the "Made in America" stamp to be part of his product.
"I thought it was a shame that no one in the United States was making a high-quality bass reel anymore," said Gray, 58, who lives in Lee's Summit, Mo. "We saw it in the '50s and '60s, but most companies moved overseas, mostly to Asia.
"We wanted to give jobs to Americans."
So Gray took his ideas to engineers.
The result? An unlikely success story that is drawing national attention.
Today, Ardent Reels are manufactured in little Macon, Mo., and are making big waves on the pro bass circuit.
Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, used one of the reels to win the 2008 Bassmaster Classic. And he got up on the national stage and lavished praise on the Missouri-made product. Since then, many other pros have come on board, including BASS legend Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Mo.
Not bad for a reel that was once only a vision in an avid fisherman's head.
An idea grows
Gray still remembers the day in the early 2000s when he was testing a prototype of the reel. He tied his boat to a tree in Longview Lake and began using different lures to see how far they would cast.
"I wasn't fishing, I was testing," Gray said.
But as he was speed-reeling to retrieve a lure, a big bass came up and hit it. Then Gray got a chance to see how the drag and retrieve would work under battle conditions.
"I was very excited at what we had," he said.
So how did the company land in Macon? Well, Gray and his partners heard that the town was recruiting businesses for its industrial complex.
The town had just lost a company that transferred much of its operation to China, and good workers who had experience in technical production were looking for jobs.
Made with pride
Ardent Reels ( www.ardent outdoors.com ) set up shop in Macon, hired many of the displaced workers and went into business. It sold its first reel in late 2005.
"People in Macon have a work ethic that made the United States a great country," Gray said. " ... And there are other factors involved when you're figuring out cost. Sure, you're paying more in wages, but some of that is being offset by the shipping costs you would pay by manufacturing overseas.
"And we felt the pride in workmanship would be greater here, where many of the workers have an interest in fishing."
Today, the company, which has 35 employees, makes six baitcasting reels, two flipping reels and one spinning reel that hits the market next month.
The popular XS baitcasting reels retail for $200 to $269.99, depending on the model. The spinning reel will retail for about $150.
"We can't compete with the industry giants like Shimano and Daiwa," Gray said. "But we're proud of the reputation we've gotten."