Building fishing rods: the ultimate in personalization for anglers

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Frank Huffman is an ace with adhesives, a genius with graphite, an artist with thread as his medium.

The 50-year-old Huffman has nimble, sensitive fingers that wind colorful threads into intricate spirals and diamond-shaped patterns on conical tubes tapering gradually to narrow points at the end.

Huffman builds fishing rods and teaches his custom craft from a well-lighted home workshop when he isn't guiding fishermen or working an overnight shift for the U.S. Postal Service in Anchorage.

He's able to size up the anatomy of the spare, graphite blanks and find their ''spine'' -- the fiber soul of the rod that when mated properly with grip and guides, reel and line, allows anglers to cast truer and farther than when using most store-bought outfits.

And all this from what soon will be the best looking gear on the water.

''When you spine thousands of blanks, you know what to look for,'' Huffman said. ''By and large, my eyesight is better than most but I know where the probability for mistakes lie.''

Make a mistake while aligning the guides to the rod and it may throw left, loop right or snap while fighting a fish. It simply won't shoot straight.

Spining (or splining) a rod is finding that section of the blank more resistant to bending.

''The spine and the guides are on the same plane,'' Huffman said. ''You face the spine to the fish.''

Some of the first known fishing rods were sketched on the walls of Egyptian tombs around 3500 B.C. -- reeds wrapped together and then held over the water to give anglers more reach.

They've evolved over time to tree branches stripped bare, slender slices of bamboo and finally to today's miracle ''glass'' rods that bend but if properly made, don't break. Rods are used now for casting rather than simply extending a baited line.

Huffman started building rods at 11 and estimates that he's made well over 500 fly-, spinning-, bait-casting- or specialty rods for himself, for fishing clients or people who seek him out for made-to-fit gear.

Prices for custom rods can range from $150 to more than $1,000, which includes all the components -- blanks, guides, thread, glue, cork, reel seat and butt caps.

And the labor, of course. The try for perfection.

''That's probably twice the cost of something you'd buy off-the-shelf but with better components, better action,'' Huffman said.

''You get personal satisfaction out of a job well done, especially if you're building it for someone else and you enhance their fishing experience.''

An infinite number of fishing rods are sold each year in places ranging from gas stations to catalogs and sophisticated tackle shops.

But custom rod-building appears to be a growing activity. It's another way to take joy from the out-of-doors while using something functional and something with your signature on it.

Practitioners like Huffman or even storefront operations are increasingly available to teach the necessary skills and provide the components.

J.J. Pilgreen works at Custom Rod and Tackle in Anchorage which, for a price, is a haven for fly-tyers and rod-builders to do their work.

''We're an all-around custom rod shop,'' Pilgreen said. ''Fly-tying and rod-building, but rod-building is the main focus.

''We charge a $20 fee for people who want to work in the shop. That covers epoxy and threads, bench time and help.

''People come in and we take them step-by-step. It takes an average of around 10 hours for someone to do a completed rod and walk out of here.''

The shop's custom rod builders can help novices sort through scores of options. That ranges from deciding what kind of rod they want for the kind of fishing they do to the color of the wrap, the number and spacing of the guides and how their cork grips should be shaped.

''We want you to go out of here with a better rod, customized, and as light as possible,'' Pilgreen said.

Gary Loomis, founder of G. Loomis Inc. in Woodland, Wash., is one of the industry pioneers.

''We are the largest blank manufacturers in the U.S.,'' Loomis said. ''We sell blanks to different companies -- Cabela's, L.L. Bean, Gander Mountain, Fly Lodge and such. And then we sell them to a lot of others that don't want us to tell that we're building their rods.

''We have a wonderful following of custom rod builders,'' he said. ''That's who I sold most of my blanks to when I started. I built blanks and built custom-built rods.''

Loomis is a purist among purists. Given a choice between putting a colorful finish on a rod blank or turning out something with stripped-down function, he opts for function.

''People put too many guides on them, use too much thread, use too much glue,'' he said. ''Weight is a deterrent to performance. You can just plain kill it. A rod is designed to cast the lure, not to cast the guides.

''Energy (stored in the rod) has to recover the guides, the line, the finish and the lure. That's why a lot of rods, especially graphite rods, when you hold them and shake them, they feel stiff.''

Loomis has a down-by-the-streamside philosophy about his rod components.

''I feel a rod should cast a line or lure correctly, catch a fish correctly, fight a fish correctly, land a fish correctly and then come home in one piece.

''It's got to do them all; it just can't look pretty.''

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