Fish Stix -August 2013

A photographer turns his artist’s eye toward crafting custom fishing rods and prompts those who use them to say ... “They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore!”

by: David Goodman

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

In the early 1960s, Bill Fisher opened a tackle shop on New Lane. He began building rods, most being made with an 11-foot, four-inch, honeyIcolored Lamiglass blank. An occasional 13-foot rod was produced. Few fishermen had the stamina and fortitude to handle what was referred to as “a telephone pole.” Both rods were heavy and could heave a lure over 100 yards into the surf.

In those days, anglers used Fisher’s rods with reels that had large spools, ca-
pable of holding 300-400 yards of 20-pound test monofilament. These outfits weren’t for the faint of heart. A surfcaster had to be in good shape and have the strength to flex a large, stiff rod with a threeto four-ounce lure well beyond the breakers, hopefully to a waiting bluefish or striped bass.

In the mid-1970s, Bill Pew bought out Fisher and luckily for him, Mr. Fisher stuck around, teaching him the art of wrapping rods. Pew not only learned, but he had a knack for experimentation, coming up with permutations of standard surf sticks to suit the needs of his customers.

Lighter rods for both women and children were first on the list, though many men had begun to use lighter tackle. This enabled us to fish for longer periods of time without tiring. It made angling more sporting, plus many of us realized that we could fool more fish when employing smaller lures thrown with lighter line.

Shortly after Pew sold Bill Fisher Tackle and moved to Florida, there were no dedicated rod-builders left onisland. There were a couple of folks who dabbled in fixing rods and occasionally building a handful per year.

That changed after an illness that affected Jeff Allen. A well-known photographer on-island, Allen had his life turned upside-down after a reoccurrence of Lyme disease. In October 2011, he became terribly ill with the disease. During his treatment, which lasted four months, he thought about what would be creative, fun, and get people of all ages and families outdoors together. He spoke with his friend and neighbor Cam Gammill, a partner in Bill Fisher Tackle, about his idea of starting a custom-rod company, and Fish Stix Nantucket was born.

At that point, Allen realized he had to learn how to make the rods. His first call was to Barry Thurston, retired longtime tackleshop owner and custom rodbuilder, who offered his help and encouragement.

Thurston was self-taught through books on rod-building and passed them
along to Allen. Researching the web, Allen watched every how-to video and took online video courses on building custom rods.

“The web is an incredible resource,” he said.

He also reached out to his friend and part-time fly-rod-builder Clark Whitcomb, who was very helpful.

Toward the end of his Lyme-disease and physical-therapy treatments, Allen started to build an amazing custom rod shop in his basement, which resulted in a woodshop, rod-design and wrapping room, and a dedicated finishing room. He fabricated as many tools and devices as he could and then purchased the rest of what he needed.

Shortly thereafter, Allen attended the International Custom Rod Conference, held in Winston-Salem, N.C. Rodbuilders from all over the world were in attendance. Allen attended every seminar there was to be had. He met with many of the rod-blank and rod-components manufacturers – Lamiglass, Batson Enterprises, Seeker and MHX – and was able to form business relationships.

“Everyone was so helpful and supportive. The rod-building community is very sharing and welcoming,” he said.

I observed Bill Pew wrap rods for almost three decades. Much of his wrapping equipment was juryrigged by him. Over the years, he added new, more modern tools and went from coating the wrapped guides with varnish to more modern two-part epoxies that hold up to harsh saltwater conditions. Pew functioned in a funky, small workroom.

Today, Allen has tools Pew never would have dreamed of. And he has several of each, allowing him to produce more than a couple rods at a time. His rodwrapping room is new, white and almost surgically clean. He also has a room that’s even more spotless for curing the finish on his newly-wrapped rods.

One difference between the old island way and what Jeff is doing are the grips. Fisher and Pew used to wrap the rod handles with cork tape. Allen takes cork rings, glues them together, and then uses a lathe to shape the handles for a comfortable fit in the fisherman’s hand. I have rods with both types of handles and appreciate each type for different reasons. Allen adds rare woods and scrimshaw (inscribed by Michael Vienneau) to embellish his fancier rods.

Another new note is the rod-blanks Allen begins with. The Lamiglass, honey-colored blanks he uses are thinner and lighter than those of yesteryear. Today, an 11-foot, four-inch surf rod feels like what a nine-foot model used to. This makes casting much less rigorous and allows an angler to fish longer, with less strain on the arms and back.

Allen has a number of rod-blanks from other manufacturers. What was interesting about many of them was the range of weights one could cast with each. Most blanks are good for an ounce or two, one way or the other. Some of Allen’s had a range of several ounces, making each rod much more versatile. For someone like me, with over 30 different rods, I could cut that number in half and still have all the adaptability I’d ever need.

ALPS reel seats are one more reason that Allen’s rods are superior to what used to be on surf rods. These reel seats are lighter, stronger and more rust-resistant than those from the old days. Accompanying these new, improved reel seats are Fuji alconite tangle-free guides. These are important because many fishermen today are using braided line for spinning. Formerly, guides were likely to allow braided line to throw a loop around them, resulting in broken line or bent guides. Allen recommends using stainless guides instead of those that are coated with black paint, as they have a tendency to peel after time in saltwater conditions.

Looking at Allen’s passion for fishing rods I was impressed at how beautifully they’re made and the absolute love he imbues them with. This is the mark of a true master. I’m sold.

David Goodman writes the “Fish Finder” and “Goodman’s Gam” columns for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.