Nate Arndt grew up in Inwood, a small town in the Eastern Panhandle, in an entrepreneurial family that prizes craftsmanship and self-sufficiency. His father, Dan Ardnt, is a carpenter who made fishing a central theme of family time and encouraged Arndt and his brother Danny to create in the woodshop.
Like most children, they were tough on their fishing gear. “As a kid I was pretty rough, breaking all kinds of stuff around the house. I had broken cheap nets way too many times,” Arndt says.
When Arndt was 13 and his brother was 16, they ventured into the woodshop with their father and “whipped up” their first landing net—a specialized net used for scooping fish out of the water. “My brother still uses that net today,” Arndt says.
After seeing Arndt’s inaugural creation in action, friends came knocking for their own custom nets. At first glance, a landing net is a utilitarian piece of fishing gear with simple anatomy, featuring nothing more than a handle, a hoop, and netting. But quality matters. Like other outdoor gear, the gulf between a mass-produced net and a handcrafted masterpiece is quite wide.
Before Arndt explains the artistic attention to detail in his manufacturing process, he’ll tell you the foremost feature of his landing nets is the use of rubber netting, which significantly reduces harm to fish. All fish are covered by a protective layer of mucus called a slime coat that reduces drag in the water and prevents infection and parasitization. Unlike nylon netting, which features tight cordage and knots that can scrape away slime and rip off scales, rubber netting slips along a fish’s body and doesn’t cause any damage to the slime coat. “Many trout anglers, especially fly fishers, are very conservation-oriented and want to take care to land the fish gently,” says Arndt.
Arndt currently offers three different styles that are each geared toward a specific purpose, such as gently lifting a native brook trout out of a small mountain stream or scooping up a largemouth bass from the deck of a boat in a big river. Every landing net is a custom affair and features various options for ergonomically shaped handles, custom engraving, and the crafty component that imparts artistic flair: wood selection.
He specializes in using traditional Appalachian hardwoods like maple, hickory, and Osage orange. “I like to get wood that is sustainable and as close to the customer as possible,” he says. “Perhaps someone has a tree that fell on their property or an old tree that they grew up with that they’d like to cut down and mill.”
Arndt uses a proprietary six-step process to layer the various pieces of wood together to create the handle and hoop. Strips that need to be curved for the hoop go into a steam cabinet, where they become pliable, before they’re clamped in forms for 12 hours to dry. Then the bands are bound with epoxy and sanded into aesthetic shapes. “The sanding is a big part of the labor process and utilizes the artist’s eye for symmetry, looking for qualities and textures we want to bring out of the wood,” Arndt says. Finally, marine-grade lacquer is applied to seal the wood and a bolt is added to the bottom to attach a leather hand strap.
An Entrepreneurial Spirit
Over the next few years, Arndt worked alongside his father to build half a dozen nets—at first, as gifts, but then for cash. As the orders came in, he realized he’d stumbled into something special. Fortunately, Arndt’s youthful business aspirations—he’d enjoyed early success buying and selling hot-ticket sneakers and custom LEGO blocks along with mowing lawns and doing odd jobs around his neighborhood—helped set him up for success. “That entrepreneurial spirit was something that grew within me from a young age,” he says.
By the time he entered college at West Virginia University (WVU) as an engineering student, he was regularly crafting and selling nets alongside his demanding courseload—until the COVID pandemic upended everything. Yet, he somehow found a silver lining during a tragic time. “One of the best things to come from COVID was that a lot of my friends found their stride doing something to change up the pace,” he says. “With my classes being all online, I was a bit disinterested and at a crossroads. I started putting that energy into creating a real business behind the nets.”
Arndt says it all came together in November of 2020 in a “pivotal moment.” He started an Instagram account to gain some exposure and garnered enough sales to keep him busy in the workshop. He also discovered the WVU LaunchLab, a program that helps entrepreneurial students bring their ideas to fruition. Arndt dove right in, winning first place—and $1,750—in the 2020 Manufacturing Day Pitch Competition. Using a portion of the funds, he worked with expert coaches at the Marshall Advanced Manufacturing Center (MAMC) to streamline the manufacturing process. “I spent a lot of late nights putting love into this business plan; it really kept me going,” he says.
Just a few weeks later, he took home another $1,000 by winning the MAMC Appalachian Manufacturing Award and snagged an additional $1,500 technical assistance grant for use at the MAMC. “At that time, that amount of money was like a million bucks to me,” he says.
At the MAMC, he was able to use computer-aided design programs to scan his nets and create laser-cut forms and custom jigs to speed up manufacturing and increase consistency across his designs. Arndt says those two advancements produced a whopping 700 percent increase in efficiency in a batch of five nets. “It was an absolute game changer,” he says.
In 2021, Arndt began partnering with local groups like Project Healing Waters, an organization that takes mentally or physically disabled veterans on guided fly-fishing trips as a form of therapy. The momentum kept building. Next up was a win at the 2021 WVU Outdoor Adventure Recreation Pitch competition. “It was right up my alley with promoting outdoor economic development,” he says.
By the end of 2021, Arndt had secured over $5,000 in winnings from various competitions and grants. “We were staged to take off; things were working on all fronts,” he says.
A Tough Call
January 26, 2022, started out as a normal day for Arndt. He went to class then headed down to the Monongahela River to snap photos of recently completed nets in the evening sunshine to post on his website. After the photo session, he was making dinner in his apartment in Morgantown when his phone rang. “It was a call from a concerned friend asking if I was OK,” he says. “I was like yeah, I’m fine. What’s going on?”
His friend then had to relay the impossibly tough news that Arndt’s family home in Inwood—including the attached garage that housed both his net business as well as his father’s carpentry business—was on fire. “He had to tell me a couple times for it to really sink in,” he says.
His father, who was just across the street quoting some new jobs, was able to rush in and get the family’s dogs and cats to safety. His father rallied some neighbors and tried to put the fire out with extinguishers, but it was too late. “My girlfriend went over, and I pretty much watched our house burn down on FaceTime,” he says. “Thank God everyone was out of the house; we only lost a fish tank with some beloved fish and turtles. It hurt for sure.”
The Arndt family lost everything in the blaze. Fire forensics eventually discovered the cause: a wood stove in the basement had suffered a critical failure in the firebox. The stove sat directly under the woodshop, which served “as a tinderbox to fuel the fire. The house totally collapsed save for a small amount of framing,” Arndt says. “The next couple weeks, months even, were tough.”
The Phoenix Rises
The next day, Arndt and his father returned to the burned-out shell of their home and immediately got to work demolishing the charred remains. “I got my boots on and got right into rebuilding. Dad didn’t waste a day,” he says.
In the summer of 2022, the Arndts started rebuilding an exact replica of their home atop the foundation and brick porch, the only structural elements to survive the fire. Arndt was spending three hours a day commuting to a full-time internship and working on the house in the evenings, barely finding time to rest. Some nights he found himself sleeping on plywood in the roofless construction site. “We were moving 100 miles an hour, foot all the way on the gas pedal,” he says. “I was up every night for months and started thinking This is just running me into the ground. This is not sustainable.”
But once again, in typical Arndt fashion, he searched for that silver lining. “It was important to look at the positives and make the best out of it,” he says. “I had the opportunity to build a house and learn with my dad. It brought us a lot closer and brought out a lot of resolve and determination.”
That summer, Arndt partnered up with his friend Travis Bishop, who owns Mountaineer Meat Smokers in Martinsburg, to host the inaugural Nate’s Nets Summer Bash as a fundraiser. He put together a robust raffle that included five custom nets and was able, once again, to get seed money to keep the business—and the rebuilding efforts—humming along. “It was a really powerful experience that changed how I understood the business. I realized the business wasn’t lost with the fire; the business is me and my father and what we’ve created.”
In September 2022, Arndt kicked off his final semester of college and officially incorporated Nate’s Handcrafted Nets as a limited liability company. He worked with friends to do some creative marketing and get merch out on the streets to build brand recognition. He kept moving forward full-throttle with a renewed sense of drive. By early 2023, he’d graduated and secured a full-time job right out of school—all while continuing to build both his business and the family home. “Life had settled into a less chaotic routine, but was still very challenging,” he says. “Working on the build during the winter was especially brutal.”
They wrapped up their herculean rebuilding effort and moved into the second iteration of their home in early April of 2023, just as Arndt was making his way through successive rounds of the West Virginia Business Plan Competition (BPC), an annual event that provides capital for entrepreneurial high school and college students as well as start-ups and existing businesses.
On April 19, 2023, Arndt and Caleb Hamner, who helps Arndt with research and development, confidently walked into a conference room at Oglebay Resort in Wheeling. They handed fishing nets to a panel of five judges for the final round of the BPC, where contestants deliver a Shark Tank-style five-minute pitch for the chance to win significant capital investment. As the judges mulled over the nets and his business plan, Arndt and Hamner delivered their well-rehearsed presentation.
Although the judges clearly knew he created artistic fishing nets, they had yet to learn of the trials and tribulations he had faced along the road to the BPC. But Arndt, forever the hardworking optimist, wasn’t there in search of pity. He focused primarily on his nets by laying out the specificities of his design and manufacturing process and discussed his financials before briefly mentioning the fire and loss of his workshop.
The judges were also unaware that Arndt, who had planned to craft new nets specifically for the BPC final but was unable to do so because the new workshop wasn’t completed in time, had to borrow nets from five customers to have something to show the judges.
That night, in front of a room filled with several hundred people, Nate’s Handcrafted Nets was awarded $15,000 with no strings attached—three times the sum of Arndt’s previous combined winnings. “It was a truly awesome moment when our name came up and I saw the number on the screen. I looked at Caleb and we started laughing and hollering,” Arndt says. “It was a win in the competition, but it was also a win for the business. It guaranteed that we’d have lifeblood to keep moving forward.”
Beyond the elegant craftsmanship and focus on conservation-oriented fishing techniques, Arndt says his nets “embody the traditional spirit of fishing.” Indeed, angling is not only one of the original human pastimes, it’s one of the original human hunting methods. Besides the advent of specialized gear replete with high-tech materials, the physical act of fishing—wading into a mountain stream and casting a line into a pristine pool—has largely remained the same for tens of thousands of years. “I think any experience in the outdoors, whether it’s fishing or hiking, serves as a cathartic way to connect and realign ourselves with nature,” says Arndt.
With a nod to the ancient arts of the past, Arndt is fully focused on casting Nate’s Handcrafted Nets into the future. For Arndt, his business is more than a brand—it’s an opportunity to make an impact across lives and streams in Appalachia. “The nets are a platform to connect with people and spread the message of the blessings of the outdoors. It’s a conduit to the dream that we’re promoting: the dream of conserving and enjoying nature.”
He’s tightening his bond with Project Healing Waters to connect with more veterans and has aspirations to partner with regional river and fisheries conservation organizations. He’s moving nets out of his upgraded workshop and into local West Virginia outdoor stores and fly-fishing outfitters, like the Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork.
If his past is any indication, Arndt will surely seize any opportunity that presents itself, while keeping an eye out for that silver lining. “It feels like I’ve lived 100 lives in these last few years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says. “This whole experience has been the catalyst to change my life. I’ve made the best out of it and I’m grateful for how everything went, the good and the bad. You gotta have the rain to have the sunshine.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and was honored to share the winners’ stage at the BPC with a standup West Virginian like Nate Arndt.