For Bart Knaggs, an appreciation for the outdoors began with childhood creek walks, turning over rocks to discover what lived beneath. Somewhere along the way, and never far from home, his curiosity transformed into commitment.
Back in 2002, Orvis CEO Perk Perkins met Texas-native Bart Knaggs at Trixi’s Antler Saloon in Ovando, MT. Bart had been fishing, Perk had been fishing… and combining a full day on the river with a couple of beers was all it took for a loyal friendship to hatch.
Not long after, Bart visited Perk’s spring creek property outside of Lincoln, Montana where he admired Perk’s laid back, no-frills approach to getting outdoors (complete with wall tents, an outdoor shower, and cooking on a fire pit). That trip was Bart’s introduction to Orvis. He remembers Perk’s desire to place himself in the elements and forego conveniences and comforts. “It was a mindset that I match up with—do your own thing, enjoy the outdoors.” As effortlessly as Bart became a friend of the family, he became a friend of the brand. “The roots. The history. The commitment—that’s Orvis’s secret sauce.” Years later, Perk’s son Simon, who was working as a guide on the Blackfoot River in Montana, taught Bart’s daughter how to fish. “It’s a pretty great treat when somebody will open up a window that you really care about—there is a lot that happens when you teach somebody how to fish. We all need a window into getting intimate with nature. Mine is fly fishing.”
Today, you can find Bart somewhere between his home in Austin, TX, his river property in the Texas Hill Country, on-site at one of his many business ventures, or doing what he loves the most—hooking into a Guadalupe bass or odd gar.
This spring, we found Bart on the Llano River in central Texas, and he was kind enough to let us pick his brain a bit.
“We all need a window into getting intimate with nature. Mine is fly fishing.”
Q. You were born in Texas, received your BBA and MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and live there today. Your Texas roots run deep. Have you ever moved away from home?
I did not realize growing up in Austin that it was different than the rest of Texas. It is. I tried earnestly to leave a few times. I got to Boulder, Colorado, Bordeaux, France, and LA. I came back each time to find a city that had evolved and was full of new people and energy. If Dylan figured out in Hibbing that he was born a long way from home, I figured out I am a product of my city and I’m glad to get to keep evolving. My work career, in retrospect, eerily tracks Austin’s evolution. I started in politics, wandered as a slacker, bike raced professionally, got an MBA, started an AI software company in 1996, launched a sports and entertainment firm that built Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza music festivals, and now own and operate a boutique hotel and restaurant company. My telling side hustle? Producing a documentary on Guy Clark.
Q. You and your wife built a weekend home on the Llano River. How did you choose this location and what were your hopes for creating this escape?
I started fishing and camping on that river when I was 17. My little brother and I used to haul his beaten old canoe out there and float and fish post-college. When I started having kids and working hard enough that I needed a dream, it was a 10-mile stretch of river near Mason, Texas. The Llano is a big creek—it’s a place where I walk and turn over rocks and stay young.
Just like at our house in Austin, my wife walked onto the piece of land and turned and shook her head at me. I tend to want to adopt lost dogs and properties with potential. She knows I love a project and will devote hundreds of hours to the vision. She outworks me and prefers spending spare time, or vacationing, with pruners, or other not-too-dangerous implements, to re-work the land.
I’m a big believer in the larger effect of being outside—especially with my family and dogs. I originally was attracted to the place for the river and the fly fishing there. But there is a much bigger win of serenity, space, escape from the connected world that has become the primary driver for my family. I wake up early for my coffee and sunrise and to watch the world come alive. And we always wait and watch to see how good the sunset will be.
My original goal was to get my girls out there and get some dirt under their nails. That dirt, though, got under my nails in a way that I did not foresee, but have really leaned into. We started off with cots and tents and hammocks and an outdoor toilet and cooking everything outside. It took enough scorpions and snake scares and about five years for the camping to wear off. But everything was always in the spirit of not maxing out comfort, but maxing out the depth of experience you want to have.
We originally went there for the fishing. We fell for the reclamation of dirt, grass, and shrubs. My kids fell too, not for the fish or the fauna, but for the sky and the quietude. We’ve all been deeply transformed by the silence and serenity. And the sunsets.
Q. There was a flood recently, and I understand you are working hard to restore the damaged riverbank on your property. Tell me about the flood, the extent of the damage, and the restoration project you’re working on.
Being a landowner does turn you into a weatherman, wannabe farmer, small-time rancher, and budding conservationist. I’ve undertaken food plotting and re-wilding for birds and other animals, which has had a dramatic impact to bringing species back on property—quail, turkey, foxes. I’ve also undertaken eradicating invasive species—trees, grasses, and large South American river rodents.
With that flushing went everything above water and massive changes below the water. The river now flows stronger and gin clear. The biomass has been decreased dramatically. I think we will spend more time gazing at the bottom and watching birds as the fish repopulate.
On land, I’ve replaced 30 trees this winter—red oaks, chinquapin, cypress, live oak, redbud, sycamore, Mexican plum—and lots of wildflowers and natural grasses. It’s a small amount of property; but, with a creek and river, we are a crossroads for wildlife above and below the water.
If you go get intimate with the land—make friends with it—you can’t help but want to help it.
Q. You’ve got a heck of a gear room. Be honest, is this your favorite room in the house?
I swear it was my wife’s idea. I just maybe ran with it to the extreme. I enjoy convening in the presence of the equipment that enables adventures and escapes. My first fly-fishing mentor told me he only tied flies before his big trips because it made the trip last longer. I think most of us think about fishing more than we do it. And, it’s pretty great to escape to Patagonia or New Zealand for two hours on a Monday night after dinner.
For me, in my basement, surrounded with bikes, fly rods, tools, maps, and mementos spirited away from past adventures, I can clear my head and restore peace and creativity quickly. The bourbon isn’t required, it’s just for insurance.
“It was those anticipatory moments of turning over rocks to see what was beneath them that fueled my passion for the outdoors—for clear water, for swimming and moving things, for turning over whatever new rock I could find.”
Q. How did you discover your love for the outdoors? Do you have your parents to thank for your outdoor enthusiasm?
Luckily, I grew up in a house and time where and when we could wander off, and my mom had big enough lungs to yell to get me and my brother back home. A creek full of crawdads ran through my backyard and I spent every weekend grabbing them by my hands. It was an intimate and tactile connection to water and an ecosystem I could unravel. I put them in an aquarium in my bedroom, traded my most prized fossils to the older, wiser boys in my neighborhood for even bigger ones and came to understand this species all too well. That led to fishing for sunfish with my dad, riding my bike miles and miles to fish for bass, and on and on.
It was those anticipatory moments of turning over rocks to see what was beneath them that fueled my passion for the outdoors—for clear water, for swimming and moving things, for turning over whatever new rock I could find.
Q. Do you recall your first time casting a fly rod?
I bought an Orvis Green Mountain Combo 6-Weight in 1989 for $199 with my second paycheck out of college. I trespassed onto Lion’s Municipal Golf Course to cast poppers at sunnies after work. That rod traveled, rigged up with me in my Toyota Celica for the next six years, all over Texas, the Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest. I bet I’ve caught twenty species on that stick. I still have that rod. It wasn’t my first rod to cast, but it was mine, and it made me a fly fisher.
Q. In what ways were you and your wife, Barbara, able to share your appreciation for nature and your environmental ethic with your children?
As a parent, it’s all a great mystery. You put all of your energy into doing, seeing, experiencing things with your kids. And it’s like a shower knob. You twist and hope. My kids were always game for explorations. They love animals, nature, and being outside. When my big girls (twins) went to college, I felt the hot water. Of their own free will, they planned trips to national parks, joined me to fly fish, sought out hikes and open spaces to run, camp, enjoy. And they brought friends home and drug ’em out to the country to sleep out, canoe, kayak, swim, fish. Nature is embedded in them and they recognize the value of time spent there. They wander the world and pay close attention to the environment. They internalize the plights, the subtleties, and the prospects for so many different environments.
Their generation needs this more than mine and Barb’s did. We need them to care more than we did.
Q. You’ve built a business empire, and your list of projects is far too long for this brief interview. Within all of the decision making and business building and entrepreneurship, you seem to remain laid back. What keeps you grounded?
No matter what I do or where I go, my wife remains completely unfazed. Her low estimation of me is a huge benefit to me. I have been fortunate to be able to meet exceptional people, and I am indifferent enough to social acceptance to keep trying to do things that I find intriguing and challenging. I think I’m too smart now to make my most successful mistakes from when I was younger.
I feel lucky to grow up where and when I have. Austin’s zeitgeist has hugely informed my life. It’s a place where risk is welcomed, and people just stay young longer. There is a great quote from Michener about blurring the lines between work and play and life. You just pursue. Mischievousness is a gift. Guard it with your life.
“If you go get intimate with the land—make friends with it—you can’t help but want to help it.”
Q. What does environmental stewardship mean to you, and how do you weave your environmental ethic into your day-to-day life?
Stewardship got started when I bought my first house and started to think in terms of seasons, years, decades. When I bought property in the country, it had been distorted to produce hay. Working the land back and seeing the seesaws of success and failure, humbles and inspires you. Maturing and creating generations below you further cements this perspective. As technologies, and alternatives that are less impactful to the environment emerge, you get to engage in these choices. Riding my e-bike to work, toiling to get a production garden in my backyard, rewilding land and seeing bird species return—it’s very satisfying and motivating. And a duty.
I remember one of the elder statesmen of Austin, a gruff, tough engineer (one of the first big tech CEOs), stooping down to pick up trash on a street corner. I was 22. He just said, “someone has to do it.” He wasn’t too proud. I never forgot it. Small acts. Big consequences.
Q. Who inspires you?
I’ve been lucky to work in sports and music for a lot of my adult life. So, I’m a bit fortunate to access some of these folks, but also to know enough to let them be human. On the music side, Springsteen and Guy Clark have informed my weary stoicism and industrious optimism as much as anyone I’ve really ever known. Stray, throw-away lyrics by these guys became worn mantras.
When I got the tarpon bug, I was lucky to get to spend a bunch of time on the water and at the bar with Andy Mill. His crossover talent and athleticism made me rethink fishing as a mental and physical sport.
Writers—they are the rarest, most precious. It’s hard to not get cliché or tick ’em off. Leif Enger. John Graves. SC Gwynne. William Goldman. The memory that jumps up: is standing up, young, under an awning, reading Pirsig, in France, in the midst of a rainstorm. Fiction in the right place and time.
Q. Last, but not least, tell me about your dog Zooey.
Man, I love that damn dog. I brought her home and my wife swore she would not help me house train her. I thought she was kidding until she slept in the guest room for three weeks. Zooey is super aware and in tune to me, Barb, all our girls. Pack a bag, and she’s pacing or standing by the door. Come in late, she comes to say hi without barking and goes straight back to sleep. Wake up, she gets the paper and goes back to bed. She climbs trees, fetches, anticipates and infers with prescience. She joins everyone that heads out for a walk, a run, or a paddle. Brilliant, nervous, protective, sincere. Not bad for a Mexican street dog.