The first question that would come to mind for me if I were reading about a new line of fiberglass blanks and rods would be why in the world are you offering these when your graphite rods are so outstanding? I think the answer makes an interesting and compelling story.
Before buying Winston in 1973, I had enjoyed fishing light line #3 and #4 bamboo rods. I thought that similar fiberglass rods would be popular, so I designed the Winston fiberglass Stalker Rods to add to Winston's already great line of fiberglass rods that were custom-made by the J. K. Fisher Co. The Stalker rods became very popular and continue to be sought after even today with the most popular sizes bringing around $1000 on E-Bay.
Shortly after I bought Winston, graphite rods were introduced by the Fenwick Rod Company. As graphite rods became more popular, they began to replace fiberglass rods, just as fiberglass had replaced bamboo after World War II. Since then, the Madison Avenue marketing machine has convinced most anglers that graphite rods are better and of higher value than fiberglass. As a result, fiberglass has been looked upon in the marketplace for many years as the ugly stepchild of fly fishing without much intrinsic value. At Winston, we stopped making fiberglass rods in the middle 1980s because J. K. Fisher Co. quit supplying the blanks, despite the fact we were still selling quite a few directly to customers.
In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in fiberglass rods, primarily in lighter line sizes, for two reasons: anglers have discovered that typical graphite fly rods are so stiff that they aren't effective fishing rods at the normal distances where they are fished and many fiberglass rods have the traditional action of great fly rods from past eras. A number of knowledgeable anglers have discovered anew that fiberglass can make wonderful fishing rods covering many situations extremely well.
Because of the delicate touch and "feel" they provide along with their fish playing attributes, I've always been a fan of fiberglass rods for fishing in the short to medium distances where most trout are caught. For a long time, I've thought that I could design fiberglass rods with even more effective attributes and sweeter actions than my originals.
My fiberglass rod designs have been very popular in Japan since I first introduced the Winston Stalkers almost 40 years ago. One of the editors of the Japanese magazine Fly Fisher, Tomonori Higashi, heard I was bringing out a new line of fiberglass rods and wanted to interview me for a story about them. In addition, they decided to put a photo on the front cover of an original Winston Stalker alongside a new Tom Morgan Rodsmiths fiberglass rod and some of our new blanks.
When I bought Winston, Russ Peak was the premier fiberglass rod maker in the world. I purchased one of his rods as a model of great quality to serve as a reference to improve the quality of Winston's rods. As it turns out, Kerry Burkheimer, who is rolling and finishing my fiberglass blanks, was a student of Russ Peak from whom he learned rod making. He now owns one of the premier rod companies in the world. Kerry possesses Russ Peak's attention to detail and desire to make the highest quality rods. I feel fortunate that I can work with Kerry on this project.
Kerry works with E-glass, the original fiberglass material I used, and he has a big variety of mandrels with different tapers, so I can develop the proper balance of taper and cloth patterns. I design the blanks and he, and his main rolling person, Rob, rolls them. Then I have several locals, who I think represent a cross-section of anglers, cast and/or fish them.
We receive the blanks from Kerry and after they are checked, the next important step is to deflect them to make sure they meet our deflection standards. His blanks have proven to be very consistent so it might not be necessary but it's part of our quality control process. The blanks are then checked for dust specks and they are polished out. The blanks all come longer than the finished rods so they are then cut to the proper length, the solid fiberglass ferrules are cut to length and fitted, and then they are glued into the blanks. These blanks have a white solid fiberglass spigot ferrule like the original Winston fiberglass rods. One great improvement on these blanks over the ones we made at Winston is the accuracy of the ferrule stock. In checking the old ferrule stock we used to use it varied considerably so the ferrule fit wasn‘t perfect. The new ferrule stock is ground by a precision grinding company and doesn't vary more than a half thousands of an inch over its length of twelve inches. This provides a ferrule fit the same as the blank taper so the ferrules shouldn‘t wear over the life of the rod.
Guides and Tip Top's
Another extremely important aspect of designing sweet feeling rods in the lighter line sizes is using light weight guides and tip tops. My recommended guide sizes are typically smaller than many anglers use, but from my experience they are far superior in preserving the proper design characteristics. I also think smaller guides allow the line to track through the guides better. We use the lighter guides and tip-tops on our rods, and we provide the recommended guides and spacing on our blanks to ensure that anglers don't put on heavy guides and thereby dramatically change the action along with the rod "feel".
Fiberglass blanks have bigger diameter butts than graphite rods; therefore, many of the current wooden reel seats won't fit over some of the blanks. Because of this size difference, a plug needs to be fitted into the butt on the larger rods in order to install a reel seat. With each blank whose butt is over 3/8 inch in diameter, we provide an appropriate graphite dowel that fits inside the butt with a straight section outside the rod where a seat can be installed. We use graphite because it's lightweight, extremely strong, and won't flex. The blanks have a nickel silver tip check to reinforce the bottom of the tip where the ferrule joins it with the butt. A complete set of instructions with drawings is included.
There are a number of good suppliers of guides and reel seats but there are two that I have found rods. REC supplies a large variety of seats with the option of having different diameter bores many of which will accommodate fiberglass rods. Anglers Workshop carries reel seats from a variety of manufacturers. Both of them have an excellent variety of guides. Joel Lemke makes beautiful wood spacer reel seats with extra large bores that will accommodate even my largest fiberglass rod butts.
Since there are different numbers of guides on different rods the price varies depending on the blank length so I'm quoting a range. These are all light wire guides and tip tops. The regular Snake Brand are traditional light wire snake guides.
The Snake Brand Universals are unique because they have concave feet to easily fit on a round blank and are self-aligning for straightness on a blank. As with all of the Snake Brand guides the feet are consistent in length, have tapered ends to make wrapping easier, and have a beautiful round form. They are available in 1/0 as the smallest so I recommend them only for 5-weight through 7-weight rods although some prefer them on other sizes because they are still not heavy.
There is a property of fiberglass material that I think warrants discussion in regard to rod design. Fiberglass is unique in that it accepts a load quite uniformly up to a certain point then it will continue to bend, but the resistance to bending drops off dramatically. This behavior can be easily demonstrated with fiberglass rods in distance casting. With a rod designed for short to medium distance, you can easily reach those distances. As you try to cast farther, however, the rod stops accepting the increased load, and it becomes more difficult to cast longer distances.
Building the Business
In early 1999, Bill Blackburn, an amateur bamboo rod maker from Bozeman, Montana, who had built several rods using a traditional planing form and hand plane ordered a Hand Mill. When he came to pick up his mill, I asked him if he knew of anyone I could hire to help me build Hand Mills. As it so happened, Bill was looking for a job. Not only did he make bamboo rods, but he also had a degree in industrial arts. This was a great combination to help produce the Hand Mills because he understood how bamboo strips had to be cut for rods, and he was familiar with machinery. I hired Bill immediately.
At the beginning of our rod-making business, we didn't think it would be practical to build bamboo rods since we would have to make a power-milling machine, a daunting task. In addition, Gerri wouldn't have enough time to build the graphite rods and do all of the bamboo work. However, we saw a great opportunity for Bill to devote some time to building bamboo rods in addition to working on the Hand Mills. So soon after Bill came to work for us, Gerri and I talked with him about the possibilities of building bamboo rods, and we all enthusiastically decided it would be a great project. The three of us would work cooperatively to build the rods. So, as it turned out, my invention of the Hand Mill allows us to build fine bamboo rods.
Bill and I started putting together our bamboo shop with Bill working under my direction since I couldn't do the physical work. We had to build the oven, calibrate it for proper heat-treating, build and fine-tune the glue binder, and attend to the many other details of a bamboo shop. I must admit it took a lot longer than I anticipated getting our shop ready to build bamboo rods, but we took our time to make sure everything was right and worked well.
Refining the Process
In 2011 Bill moved on and we hired Zac Sexton as Bill’s replacement for our bamboo rod making. We worked together and he did a lot of good work for us. He left in late spring of 2013 to pursue a job at a guest ranch in southwestern Montana.
After Zac left Gerri and I were looking for an experienced bamboo rod maker to help with our rods, and as you might surmise there are very few, if any, around much less have the experience we required. I heard Jason Fox might be available and gave him a call. As it turned out he had just left Sweetgrass Rods in Twin Bridges where he had worked for over three years doing everything associated with building bamboo rods.
His primary duty was varnishing and setting up a dip varnish system that would work with their production. Jason varnished somewhere in the range of 6-700 rods. We had our varnish cabinet and system set up but Jason refined the processes to provide coatings that required much less polishing than before.
In addition to varnishing Jason worked wherever he was needed and had the opportunity to refine and master many skills of the craft by doing everything many times over. He made over 100 rods at Sweetgrass from scratch.
Having the opportunity to work under Glenn Brackett and Jerry Kustich at Sweetgrass Rods was an exceptional opportunity to learn bamboo rod making under masters. In addition to that experience he had built bamboo rods on his own with a Handmill he purchased from us prior to working at Sweetgrass so was experienced with it too.
Of course, Jason is a very experienced bamboo rod fisherman which adds greatly to his enthusiasm for rod making. He loves the action of our rods and is excited to learn my design techniques.
Jason was really excited to have the opportunity to build great rods for us. His experience at making over 100 rods and finishing several hundred more was what we were looking for. Gerri and I love his enthusiasm, excitement, and great desire to build the best bamboo rods possible. His attention to detail is refreshing to see. He is just the rod maker we were looking for to continue our tradition.
We purchase our bamboo through a broker who travels to the tiny village of Aozai in the Guangdong Province of China where he hand-selects it. This is the village where the botanist F.C. McClure, who is the Westerner who named this bamboo Arundinaria amabilis in the 1920s, identified as the center of the Tonkin bamboo region.
Naturally, this material characteristic has to be taken into account when designing rod fishing distances. My preference for trout rods has always been a progressive action which these rods have, taking into account this fiberglass material characteristic. The tips are supple enough to allow the rod to work well in close while providing good stiffness in the mid- and butt-sections to support medium-length and even fairly long casts for accomplished casters. Incidentally, these rods have been designed with true weight double taper lines and not with some of the heavier lines designed for graphite rods.
My life in the rod business over a thirty-year period has always been about designing great fishing rods based on my fishing experiences and those of customers who share their ideas with me. It's also been about trying to build the best quality so my customers won't be disappointed when they receive the rod or blank. And, most importantly, when they take it out on the stream they think it's one of the greatest rods they have ever fished. Looking back over the years, the customers who have praised my designs in fiberglass, bamboo, and graphite overwhelmingly confirm my design philosophy. From the feedback I have received on these rods that tradition will continue. I am looking forward to providing anglers with fiberglass rods that will provide them with another choice for their fishing.