Net Man by Len Waldron
Greg Madrigal has always been a hands-on guy. Reared in Nampa, Idaho, shop work was part of his upbringing.
“Above all else, I consider myself a committed artisan. Each net gets the time and attention it needs to be the best I can make it,” says Madrigal of his chosen trade.
He spent his formative years with his father in the family’s shop, and after serving in the Army, he worked several jobs in the corporate world. Then the global financial crisis hit in 2008. Buffeted by the waves of lay-offs and job changes, the pressure to provide was immense. He swore to himself that he’d never put his family in a position of dependence.
After a heart-to-heart with his wife, Madrigal pivoted into a new pursuit—building the finest hand-crafted wood landing nets in the world. More than a decade later, he’s turning out functional pieces of heirloom art that are pleasing to the eye and sensual to the touch.
Birth of a Net Man
A custom furniture maker on the side, Madrigal read an article on building a wooden landing net in one of his woodworking magazines. He decided to try it out. The net building process aligned well with his existing woodworking skills. After the first net, Madrigal was hooked on net building in the same way that fly fishing resonated with him when he was gifted a second-hand fly rod and caught his first trout.
Now living in California, his home fishing waters became the backcountry of the Sierra Mountains, whose extreme reaches and beauty inspired his company’s name.
Madrigal is the first to point out that his work is not folk art, such as how hand-carved cork waterfowl decoys have become quaint interior design objects. His nets are designed to work—in boats, on packs, and in the water.
“Sierra Nets has helped change my outlook on life. I am now able to slow down and appreciate the small things like wildflowers, birds singing, and the smell of freshly cut wood on my band saw. It’s not easy. I’m a one-man operation and I do everything, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Madrigal.
“Although many consider them art, from the structural design to my proprietary hand-rubbed finish, these nets are truly built to fish,” says Madrigal.
As many as nine layers of laminate go into the hoop. Some woods, like the African wenge are added for structural strength, others for their performance around water or aesthetics.
The Design Process
I’d like to say my first experience with a Sierra net was one of enlightened appreciation for beauty and craftsmanship. However, the overriding emotion when I touched a boat net handed to me by Matt McCormick was lustful covetousness.
I believe there is a palpable and unique energy to things handmade by committed artisans. This net wasn’t just beautiful; it was alive in my hands. I got over the Protestant guilt of my initial impulse and inquired about the story behind the net. The net was a gift from his wife, Camille (see “Room Enough for All,” FTJ, Spring 2019).
Camille’s father, an Alaskan fly fishing outfitter, met Madrigal years earlier in a tiny Alaskan airport, and after a brief conversation, commissioned a net for his daughter. The sensual curves, the elegant blending of the curly maple and claro walnut of the hoop and handle wood, blended remarkably into the precise fit and finish. I had to learn more. Matt put me in touch with Greg, and I began contemplating my own custom net.
I had never given thought to a custom landing net.
I’ve often considered buying a handmade bamboo fly rod, but suspect I would never use it for fear of turning it into kindling, like so many graphite rods. But a net seemed different. Madrigal’s nets are not for anglers wanting something cheap, nor are they for the techy carbon fiber crowd. They’re beautiful but formidable. You have to pick one up to understand.
A net I could use for both trout and salmon made more sense, at least to a tightwad going long for a one-of-a-kind item. Other than the more common custom knife, the only truly bespoke piece of outdoor equipment I owned was a Swedish sniper rifle I “sporterized” into a hunting rifle. Its custom California claro walnut stock became a signpost that guided me to the next step in the process.
A net like no other, ready to make a life-time of history on the stream.
Commissioning one of Madrigal’s nets is a personalized and collaborative undertaking. If you want to be overwhelmed, decide that you want one of his nets and peruse his website or Instagram feed. He’s incorporated a stunning variety of natural elements into his nets to suit his customer’s requests. Wood, precious metals, stone, and etchings, make each net a symbol of a customer’s life, profession, personal values, or meaningful place and time. Honestly, I was lost.
My first challenge was to decide on a size that was large enough for some salmon and steelhead but would also fit in my backpack. That part was easy. I went to a fly shop and measured a net that fit the pack’s net sling and worked backward into Madrigal’s list of nineteen design templates. Each customer faces three choices: handle length, net diameter/circumference, and net shape. We found the right base design, a carp net, and like any other of the templates, Madrigal can modify them to fit a customer’s preference. We added an inch to the handle.
The personalized elements were much more different. Did I want red halos in the wood like a brown trout spots? Malachite inlays? Burl or stain? The variety of options went on and on. After some discussion, Madrigal asked me, “Well, do you want your initials on it?” I don’t own a single piece of clothing with my initials; it’s not my style. But I do own a rifle with my initials on a silver shield just below the grip cap. What can I say—I was having a Teddy Roosevelt moment when I ordered it, and I liked the look of it—still do. Madrigal heard something else, however.
“What sort of wood is the stock?” he asked.
“Walnut, California Claro AAA.” I answered.
“Send me a photo.” He replied.
In a few seconds, he opened the email attachment and replied, “I can match that!”
“Done,” I said. Who has a matching rifle and landing net? Eat your heart out, Teddy.
The next challenge was to get Madrigal a graphic of my initials that looked appropriate and choose an inlay material that suited the wood. Luckily, I found a local graphic designer named Katy planning a trip to Patagonia, and a deal was struck over seared tuna to trade some travel advice for a design that incorporated my three initials. I used a crayon, and she used a computer. She’s much smarter.
Vector file in hand, Madrigal could now go to work—and I took my place in line. His waiting list is about twelve months long.
The Build Out
A wood aficionado who also makes fly rod reel seats, Madrigal is always on the look-out for reclaimed or irregular-sized pieces not large enough for furniture makers but entirely suitable for net components. He has a network of private sources that he communicates with regularly to find rare and specialized pieces for customers. He often salvages pieces from firewood lots, and he once recovered a burl section when neighbors were removing an old olive tree from their property.
When a client chooses a specific type of wood, Madrigal stabilizes the component pieces. Stabilizing wood involves putting the wood in a vacuum with an acrylic resin, which is absorbed into the pores preventing the wood from warping and protecting it from cracks and swelling. It also hardens the wood and makes it more scratchproof, but the net still floats.
Madrigal chooses woods not only for their beauty but also for their strength and how they behave around water. For example, he adds layers of African wenge (wen-gay) to the hoop, which adds strength and rigidity. For optimal hoop construction, the key is a quick and accurate glue up with no gaps between the wood layers. Some of his hoops have as many nine layers, and some are thin as three pieces of paper. This process requires precise clamping around the hoop’s diameter in order to ensure consistent fitment between the layers. The area around the net’s throat is notoriously tricky to fit, and he uses specialized clamps he designed for the purpose.
Handle woods are selected primarily for function and the site for many of the customized details he adds to his nets. For burls or curly grains which have less lineal strength than a straight grain, he frequently laminates in a wenge layer for support. He also considers the customer’s hand size and physique when designing the mass of the handle. Also, though started with routers, Madrigal’s handles are all finished by hand with rasps and then sanded.
Says Madrigal of the building process, “I always start with a plan, but each net
takes on a life of its own as I bring out details of the wood and the design comes together.”
Madrigal’s finish recipe has three parts: a penetrating coast, a buildup coat, and a polishing and maintenance coat. Each layer is applied one day apart, and the entire process takes nine days. The first step gets the oil to the deepest parts of the wood, making it more water-resistant.
The second coat begins a top layer to start a barrier between the water and the wood. The final step is a maintenance and polish coat. In addition to other proprietary ingredients, Madrigal double-boils carnauba wax for the final layer. The final polishing step is a buff with pure carnauba wax.
In addition to imparting the feel of the actual wood rather than a plastic-like topcoat, the hand-rubbed finish allows for quick and easy restoration of the net’s appearance after years on the water.
Ultimately, could I buy five carbon fiber landing nets for the price of this one? Yes. Would any of them look or feel like this one? No.
With Madrigal’s help of keeping it in shape, the net will trustfully serve me well and ultimately out-live me. Whichever lucky relative or kid ends up with it, hopefully they will think, while they admiring the subtle walnut curves and monogram, “He wasn’t such an SOB, after all.”
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- written by Len Waldron