Handmade fishing poles customize angling experience

Posted: Friday, April 27, 2001

Some people just don't get it. "That's nice, dear," my wife, Kristin, said, barely looking up from her book. "When are you going to finish the shelves for the baby's room?"

I had just finished showing her the components that would become a beautiful 8-weight fly rod -- the graphite blank, with the reel seat and grip already assembled, the ceramic single-foot guides, the different color thread I intended to use to attach the guides, and the pattern for the diamond wrap at the base of the blank that would make the finished rod uniquely mine.

I explained how the color protectant worked, and how the epoxy would protect those wraps for the life of the rod. I showed her where the spine of the blank was, and how aligning the spine along the top of the rod would provide a more powerful cast, while putting the stiffer side of the rod down would create a more sensitive rod.

I had visions of fighting a 20-something-inch steelhead on the Anchor River on a crisp, clear September morning, or hooking up with a sockeye on the upper Kenai River in the prolonged evening sunlight of late June.

"Mmm-hmm. I'll be impres-sed when you actually bring home a fish," Kristin said.

Missing the point, indeed.

There are as many reasons to custom-build your own rod as there are rods to build. For some builders, it's just a way to put together a high-quality piece of equipment for a lot less money than a professional rod builder would charge.

"I built my first rod in 1977," said George McDowell, owner of Mac's Rod Shop in Soldotna. "I was looking for a Fenwick fiberglass rod, and I couldn't afford it, so I built one. I was a guy looking for a bargain."

For McDowell, building rods evolved from a hobby to a business. His next rod will be No. 900, and he passes on the tricks he's picked up over 24 years of building rods in a class he teaches every spring through the Soldotna Community Schools.

One of the biggest reasons to custom-build a rod is to correct the little things often overlooked in mass-produced factory rods. More often than not, the spine of the rod isn't properly aligned with the guides, or the guides aren't spaced properly, or there just aren't enough guides on the rod to begin with.

"You're literally going to be able to build something better than you can buy," McDowell said. "All the little things that we do here -- where you really notice it is when you fish the rod."

Selecting each component of a rod, rather than settling for whatever the factory decides to use, allows an angler to custom-fit a rod to his or her size and style.

"I needed a 7-weight fly rod. I had an old Fenwick that I had to give back to my dad," said Josie Breeding of her first attempt at a custom rod. "I like that aspect. This grip is just right for my hand. On a lot of pre-made rods, the grips are too big for a woman's hands."

Breeding is moving from the central peninsula to King Salmon in August and is anxious to give her craftsmanship a try on the fall trout fishing there.

For some builders, a custom rod is a statement of their own individuality -- after all, even if the components are identical, the choice of colors and patterns used in the wraps will vary from rod to rod.

Take Robert "Bear" Crowell's rod. Crowell bypassed the fishing tackle stores and catalogues when he went looking for the thread used to wrap the guides to the blank, instead picking up some funky nylon thread at a local fabric store.

"This one is going to attract some attention," Crowell said.

Creating a custom rod is also a way to combine features found in different types of rods, such as using a fly rod blank for flexibility and casting power, but turning it into a bait caster to go after a Kenai king salmon. Or taking a steelhead blank and building it into a fly rod -- a perfect weapon for catching sockeyes on the upper Kenai River.

Crowell's rod is just such a hybrid rod, combining a 12-weight fly rod with bait casting components.

Crowell, the proprietor of Bear's Real Repair in K-Beach, was picking up pointers on rod building as a business venture.

"It's something for me to add to my business repertoire," Crowell said. "When I started out, I wasn't going to do rods. The next thing I knew, people are saying, 'Here, I got these rods to be fixed, too.'

"This is my first complete rod. I have refinished them before, and re-eyed them, but I had never started with a blank and built from there."

In fact, more than one of McDowell's Community Schools class students has been able to make some money building rods.

"It's amazing," McDowell said. "A couple of younger guys took the class and stayed with it. One guy, Darin Hagen, I have doing repairs and rods I can't get to. He's that good."

For some anglers, building a custom rod seems like the natural thing to do.

"It actually began when I was 4 years old with a fish toy," said Mark Hutton. "That led me to Oregon and then to Alaska. Once you become someone who fishes, you do everything you can within the sport."

Hutton, now 51, builds bamboo fly rods and considers himself an advanced builder. He said he was taking the Soldotna Community Schools course to pick up any tips he could from McDowell.

"I'm building one of Mac's famous backbouncing rods," Hutton said. "He knows every easy, good professional way to wrap, and he shows you ways that are easier than doing it yourself."

Finally -- and perhaps the reason McDowell says he gets the biggest kick out of -- there's something special about landing a fish with a rod you built with your own hands.

"Because I made it," said 11-year-old McKenan Steinbeck when asked what was special about the salmon rod he was building. Steinbeck plans on using the rod to fish for salmon off the back of his grandfather's boat.

"I didn't have a salmon rod, only a trout rod that was big enough for humpies and small silvers. I wanted something a little bigger."

With a little care, Steinbeck's custom rod should last him the rest of his life. And if any pat fails, he'll have the skill and knowledge to repair it himself.

"It's a lifelong hobby, even if you only do one or two rods," McDowell said. "When someone first builds a rod, and you see that glint in their eye, you know this is something they're going to enjoy."

Will Morrow is a sports reporter for the Peninsula Clarion

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