Roll Your Own Rods: Part 1 Theory

by Louis Bignami Editor and Publisher

Fishing rods are better than ever. Wonderful graphite and other exotic materials, sturdy, yet lightweight guides, durable grips and reel seats at a reasonable cost make "store-bought" rods great values. However, I still like to wrap my own blanks, form my own grips and select and place my own guides to exactly suit my taste. The typical 40 percent savings come as a bonus. So does the satisfaction you feel when you take a nice fish on a rod you built. Either reason alone would be enough to justify rolling your own rod; taken together, they are quite compelling!

Extra long grips balance 12 foot or longer rods that improve bait fishing results.

PHOTO: LOUIS BIGNAMI

Rod wrapping is much easier now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Firms like Orvis, Tackle Craft and others offer a choice of kits, and mail order sources such as Cabela's or Bass Pro Shops sell components you can assemble for a custom result. The process is very simple too. If you buy a kit, it will certainly come with instructions. If you opt to go the custom route, you can see exactly how rods are wrapped with two excellent 3M/Scientific Anglers rod making videos. Dale Clemens' Fiberglass Rod Making and Advanced Fiberglass Rod Making books are extremely useful too.

To start, take a step back and examine your needs. If you are just interested in savings, try ready-made rods from Fenwick or other manufacturers that sell both rods and blanks. Then buy a kit or blank that matches the rod you like best. If you want to go the completely custom route, you need to think about blank selection, grips, reel seats, ferrules, tip tops and guides. Then pick a wrap color, spline the rod and add components. It's here that most beginners fail to insure the best possible choice. For example, if you can not imagine a custom design which suits your needs, stick with the ready-made rod design.

What kind of custom touches might you use? I like rods with larger diameter grips which suit my large hands. I make these with cork rings because the foam-type grips don't come large enough - at least not any I have found. I also like to form grips asymmetrically with a flat spot for my thumb. Finally, I like a longer than average grip and rod, so I can cast two handed. Two handed casting reduces the strain on my elbow and shoulder - I wore those out as a tennis pro.

Simple cork wraps and the right reel seat offer one-piece solidity.

PHOTO: LOUIS BIGNAMI

Rod length and action is another area where the custom choice can help. For example, I use rods up to 15 feet long for trolling and long distance casting. Longer rods increase the width of the lane you troll and get baits and lures out of the wake. Longer rods make longer casts easier and help control the drift of baits and lures in current. Offsetting this, of course, longer rods are a bit awkward in boats - especially if you use a net with a short handle. Long rods don't wiggle through brush well either!

For flats use or "long cast" freshwater methods you might try eight or ten foot, even 12 foot flyrod blanks in graphite. Actions on today's ready-made rods run toward the lure fisherman's needs. With light lines and heavy lures there is a chance of popping lures off if you don't use a long shock tippet. Such rods do not suit bait either. So my longer rods in graphite or, for trolling, even fiberglass, are selected with a softer parabolic action from grip to tip. This, in combination with a well-maintained reel drag and light lines, reduces the chance of breaking off fish and, on the cast, snapping off soft baits.

Do realize that reel drags should be let off after every trip so they do not deform drag washers. This causes uneven drag. More on reel care at another time.

I find flyrod blanks make wonderful lure and, in wet fly action, bait rods. Such blanks have numerical ratings keyed to fly rod line weights. (See Conversion Table) To suit line blank to your lure or bait/sinker weight you need to change numerical rating to the line's weight, in grams, and then to your lure or bait weight in ounces. I use a lot of #8 to #15 blanks for saltwater. Some of these are a bit too light in the tip, so I bob off a foot or so after I check the action.

Softer, long rods work nicely with downriggers too. When the line leaves the release, the length of the rod keeps the line tight enough to set the hook while absorbing the shock of the hit. Flat lining trolling with long rods set at right angles to the boat's keel can increase your lateral spread from lure to lure up to 35 or more feet!

One-piece rods are well-worth considering. When I spent most summers casting for stripers off San Francisco beaches years back, all the pros used custom one-piece rods with clamped on revolving spool reels that avoided the dubious joys of one's rod tip following a spooon. Two- and three-piece rods do come apart at the most inconvenient moments. They are easier to tote if you don't go with the surf caster's car top holders which tote ready to cast surf sticks.

If you own a boat, and carry your rods on board, portability won't be a problem. Casters might consider rods half the distance between their casting stations to avoid snagging a buddy, or just give up side casts. Longer rods with greater casting range also let you stay well away from working fish and offer better coverage when you cast to swirls as well.

If you have doubts about your ability, or desire, to try a rod wrapping project, make it easy on yourself with a test ultralight. Many tackle shops offer mini rod material - much comes from longer blanks that are trimmed down. So it's easy to find a four to five foot long ultralight blank that only needs grip, tip top and guides to be ready for action on all sorts of small fish. These rods are a great way to catch live baits for trolling or plonking off oil rigs in saltwater, and they're ideal as panfish or stream trout rods. And they go for less than ten bucks!

Guides are another area where customization helps. I particularly favor light, single-foot Fuji guides on the upper sections of long rods to improve balance. Light guides, plus a long, two-handed grip can, with the proper reel, balance the rod just under the reel to reduce casting fatigue. Twin foot gathering guides suit all tackle rated for over 15 pound test and the two guides closest to casting and fly reels, because these better stand up to lateral stress. Matching tip tops complete my guide selection.

As a rule I use one or two more guides in a size or two larger than those you'd find on store-bought rods. Larger guides increase casting range and seem to wear slower. The only exception here is on rods over ten feet long where I use the smallest guides I can find to avoid that tip heavy effect. Even here it is sometimes necessary to weight the rod butt with lead so the balance falls under the reel rather than toward the tip. Rods that are tip heavy tire you more rapidly than heavier rods which are properly balanced. Check balance with the reel you intend to use with the rod, and weight the butt as needed. Lead sinkers, lead tape used by golfers to weight clubs, and extra heavy butt protection such as crutch tips all help here. I tape this kind of thing on first, try some casts and then mount the weights.

If I change reels or reel placement, I often rebalance rods to suit my particular reel and hand size. This makes a big difference when you cast all day. It's not the least bit important if you troll! Trolling rods do last longer and perform better with roller guides. I use single rollers with Dacron or Mono lines, and double rollers with wire. These need an underwrap so they don't punch their feet through the rod. If you don't want to invest in rollers, at least go for a roller tip if you troll. Of course, if you roll your own rods you can afford expensive rollers because they can be moved from rod to rod.

Wraps should suit your needs. I stick to simple, one color wraps that match the blank, and never use color preserver. Instead, I let the epoxy wrap finish I prefer sink into the threads. The result is a more sturdy wrap without flash; I sometimes sand wraps to rid them of flash and finish rods with matte finish so I don't scare fish. All sorts of trims as well as wild diamond wraps can be added too. None of this takes much time. It takes an evening to add a grip -- much less if you use preformed foam -- and mount the reel seat. Another evening wraps on the guides. Singe off the loose fuzz on the wraps by rotating the wrap beside, not above, a candle and you are ready to mix and coat on the epoxy.

Rolling Your Own Rods Part 2: Construction Tips

The mechanics of wrapping rods for custom needs at considerable savings.