Dave Fowler walks into the shop and he tends to get me into trouble.
This time he brought with him his donation to the 2016 Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited Icebreaker: a hand-wrapped fiberglass fly rod with a custom-turned cork handle and custom paint job. Dave makes works of art and this rod is exceptional: he worked with a body shop to paint the rod a sky blue and then finished it with contrasting dark blue wraps, a funky color combination befitting a fiberglass rod. It would not be out of place at either a fly shop or a Brewer’s tailgate, circa 1978.
I gave the rod a wiggle. A nice, full flex rod, but not as soft as I tend to associate with fiberglass. It has some backbone, for sure. I like it. I start to think, a bass-weight rod like this would be hella fun.
And that’s where the trouble begins.
Dave builds rods on all sorts of blanks, but there are currently only a handful of distributors for fiberglass. The first one that comes to mind is The Angler’s Roost, an online shop based out of New York that sells all manner of tacklecraft at pretty reasonable prices. For a few years now they’ve carried fiberglass blanks for smaller 3-5 weight rods, but only recently did I notice that they expanded their lineup to include a “Switch” series of blanks, which includes a 9-foot 7/8-weight blank.
A nice blank to build a bass rod on, I think. Then right before Christmas the Roost runs a special 20% sale, and I finally pull the trigger: blank, grip, reel seat, guide set, the works. For about 60 bucks I get all of the components I need to put together a rod.
I’ve built about a half dozen rods over the years. My first was a kit I obtained from Hook and Hackle, a 3-weight rod that I wrapped over my knee in my dad’s workshop with the help of Art Scheck’s book. The wraps were clean but excessive, limiting the flexibility of the rod; as a result it didn’t bend in a graceful curve when loaded, but instead took off at an angle that dared the rod to break. The second was a Cabela’s five-piece 5-weight travel rod, a forest green-colored blank finished in black wraps and guides. I smashed it in a car door on it’s maiden fishing trip; it never saw the water. I built a two-piece rod for my dad, but I don’t think it’s ever been used. At some point I gave up on building a short 4-weight rod when we still lived in West Bend; I finished a short 2-weight glass rod, but never took to the action. Finally, there is the 3-weight Xi blank which I bought from Dave, and then rushed to completion to get it on the water for last season; it just doesn’t feel right. (Of course, this list doesn’t include the number of bamboo rods that I’ve re-built, or minor repairs that I’ve done over the years to keep rods in fishable condition.)
Looking at my rod-building vitae you might wonder why I would bother with another build. Putting my luck and lack of patience aside, rod building is a natural extension of fly tying. Fly fishing has always encouraged independence among its adherents through the act of tying flies, to the point that tying is nearly synonymous with fishing; I often tell novice anglers that it isn’t a matter of if you will someday want to tie your own flies, but when. Considering how much the once-homespun has been voluntary handed over to professionals or corporations on the auspices of convenience and time-saving, it’s rather remarkable that the fly fishing industry promotes doing things “the hard way” via vice-and-bobbin. It doesn’t save you time and (unless you are one of the fabled few who has a grasp on their materials inventory and a lock on their pocketbook) it certainly doesn’t save you money. We all fool ourselves into thinking that a subtle change in a fly recipe is bound to out-catch a Woolly Bugger, and so we glue ourselves to the tying bench during the winter season in hopes of becoming the next John Bethke.
Rod building offers even fewer hopes of immortalization in the fishing world. Here the designs are even less novel, since you’re not so much building a rod from scratch but simply wrapping the guides and attaching a reel seat and grip. I know a few who might purchase blanks to their specifications, or create their own tapers—but these are folks who are technically in the business of selling rods, and are not pleasure-cruisers. If fly tying is like buying a set of acrylics and blank canvas and painting a bunch of dog’s playing poker, then rod building is more akin to buying a paint-by-numbers set of dog’s playing poker.
That analogy probably does too much to belittle the custom builder; there is a skill to be had here. You still need to paint inside the lines and have a care for your craft. Guide placement is important, as is guide alignment. Wrapping requires patience and an eye to detail. It’s possible to custom-turn your own cork grips, and builders such as Dave Fowler create real masterpieces in this part of the rod alone. Wraps can become more than just functional pieces of the rod through the use of intricate designs that are rarely found on commercial rods. In the steady hands of a good builder, a custom rod can equal or exceed any number of commercially made rods, for a fraction of the cost in parts.
A hand-built rod is as unique as the individual who crafts it. It leads to a better understanding of how rods function. It allows the angler to learn basic techniques to make simple repairs to any commercially-made rod. And if you get a kick from catching fish on hand-tied flies, you’ll be tickled all sorts of pink by the time you set the hook for the first time on your own rod.
Still, you have to have a compelling reason to build a rod versus buy one these days, especially considering the lifetime and “no questions asked” warranties offered on many commercially built rods. For me the reason is that I can’t find a big fiberglass rod for bass that I like. The Cabela’s CGRs are too soft. I like the action of the Orvis Superfine Glass rods, but they don’t offer anything bigger than 5-weight (and, the last time I asked, they had no interest in building bigger 8+ weight rods). The Roost glass blanks have that stiffer feel akin to the Orvis glass rods, in the heavier weight I wanted.
Plus, they’re like 30 bucks. As the Dao Feshing says:
One should not spend more time in tying a fly
than one spends in losing it
Nor should one spend more to build a rod
than one would to break it
So what does one need to build a rod? Here’s what I purchased from The Angler’s Roost:
- 9-foot, 7/8-weight, 4 piece fiberglass blank
- Set of snake guides, two stripping guides, one tip-top
- Cork grip, full Wells design
- Uplocking reel seat
- Fighting butt
There’s a few more things you need, too. Rod wrapping thread is necessary for attaching the guides, but I already have several spools sitting on my tying bench. Cork reamers, razor blades, masking tape, some old monofilament line, scissors, a lighter… pretty much everything you need to pull off a kidnapping can also be used to put together a fly rod. (Hmmmm…)
I received my haul from the Roost right after Christmas. Here are my first impressions.
The blank came in a nice canvas rod sock, which was a bonus. The blank is dyed an interesting cinnamon-persimmon color; I can understand that this color probably would be a turnoff for some, but for a glass blank I enjoy the funky-retro look. Putting the entire thing together, it is a heavy beast in hand (a trip to the scale shows that just the blank itself weighs nearly 4.6 ounces); a little wiggle takes a lot more effort than modern graphite. It does feel stiffer than typical glass, which I wanted.
There are two issues that need to be addressed before I take this build very far.
Issue #1: The blank uses a spigot-style ferrule. With a spigot ferrule, you want to have a gap between the two sections of the rod when it is assembled, to allow for wear in the spigot over time. The key is that you do not want the pieces to be flush when assembled. Here are the current spigot gaps on the rod:
The first one might be okay; the second one is questionable; and the third is definitely not okay. It’s a bit disappointing, and my first thought was to return the blank back to the Roost for a new one. However, this problem is relatively easy to fix; and I have to remind myself that I spent 30 bucks on this blank. It’ll be okay; breathe.
Issue #2: The tip. Look at this tip.
Yeah, it’s a bit bent. Still, not an impassable barrier to rod building. I’ll cut off the last half-inch of the tip and simply move on.
The rest of the components look decent. The grip and fighting butt are typical low-grade cork with plenty of fill material, no different than many entry-level commercial rods. I can deal with that.
The reel seat is actually a nice woven graphite, double-ring uplocking design. However, the inner diameter is much smaller than any reel seat I’ve seen before. Combine that with the thick butt section of a fiberglass rod, and we have two incompatible pieces. I don’t think this will be too difficult of a workaround: I’ll simply use a reamer to open up the inner diameter of the reel seat so it will fit over the blank. The guides are fine, nothing fancy, but I don’t believe you need super expensive guides to make a decent rod.
So that’s about it, for now. I have a few things to work on to get this rod ready for a build, but I think it’ll be ready for bass season this May.