As seen in: The Asheville Citizen Times

By: Jason Sandford

SWANNANOA — Barefoot and stepping among the boxes strewn around his hastily set-up desk, Jim Hager exuded a weary exuberance earlier this week.

Two months ago, Hager split off from the local kayak manufacturing company he helped start, Pyranha, and teamed up with a Thailand-based company called Feel Free Kayaks. Hager was familiar with the brand and a big fan. With his new partnership, Feel Free US LLC, Hager plans to distribute thousands of kayaks to points around the U.S. and Canada from the Swannanoa warehouse that’s coming together as his base of operations.

Hager brought along a couple of colleagues, Dave Liebenberg and Jason Boyer. Liebenberg will oversee the warehouse, where Hager expects to be distributing thousands of kayaks a year, while Boyer will handle the accounting books.

“These same guys I’ve worked with for 10 years have helped me move over to this new situation,” Hager said.

“It’s just a more focused approached. We’re not spread so thin over so many brands,” he said.Hager said he’d been searching for a location, and with the help of CoveStar Realty, he landed an ideal location on Buckeye Cove Road, just off Old U.S. 70 in Swannanoa.

Hager will distribute Feel Free’s recreational and fishing kayaks, a segment of the market that he said has seen 30- 40 percent growth the past few years.

A fishing kayak can be outfitted with extra gear, Hager said. A unique feature on the Feel Free kayak is a wheel on the back of the boat that allows for easy transport.

“There’s not a lot of difference between recreational and fishing kayaks. Fishing kayaks orient themselves with more gear,” Hager said. “They’re very well-outfitted, just like a bass boat.”

Hager said he recently attended the ICAST sport fishing trade show in Las Vegas and noted the growing excitement around the sport.

Feel Free has a new series of boats called the Lure that allows users to sit in a normal posture or high up. They can also be used like a stand-up paddle board, which appeals to fly-fishermen, he said.

Feel Free has been in business about 12 years, according to Hager.

“This is their first step in ownership in the U.S. We’ve developed this, and we’re really ready to take it to the next level.”

Photo: Jim Hager, center, has partnered with kayak manufacturer Feel Free Kayaks to open a new distributorship, Freel Free US LLC. The company, based in a Swannanoa warehouse, plans to ship thousands of fishing and recreational kayaks a year from the location to destinations around the U.S. and Canada. At left is colleague Dave Liebenberg, who will oversee warehouse operations, and Jason Boyer, right, who will handle accounting. Photo Credit: Asheville Citizen Times