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PINELLAS PARK -- I used to think about custom fishing rods the same way I thought about model cars.
Why spend all that time and energy building something that I was going to turn around and destroy?
As a kid, most of my plastic models lasted about 15 minutes before they were blown to bits by a firecracker or cherry bomb. And as an adult, many of my best fishing rods met a similar fate in car doors, ceiling fans, etc.
So when Kevin Thaxton of KJ's Custom Rods wrote and suggested I take his rod-building class, I called and told him I was a lost cause.
"I'm all thumbs," I said. "I can barely button a shirt."
Thaxton laughed. "Anybody can build a fishing rod," he said. "Even you."
My first class, held at his humble shop in an industrial park off 102nd Avenue, began with the basics.
"This is a blank," Thaxton said, holding a piece of graphite that would ultimately become my boy's first rod. "The first thing you need to find is its spine."
Thaxton explained every fishing rod wants to bend a certain way and one way only. If you have fought a grouper on a poorly built rod and found yourself struggling to control the fish as the rod twisted from side to side you know what I am talking about.
To find the blank's spine, Thaxton stuck the tip in a rod holder mounted on ball bearings, then let gravity do its thing.
"See how the rod wants to bend?" Thaxton asked the class. "That's how you find the spine."
Once I found the spine, I could set the reel seat and butt of the rod. Then I measured the spacing for the placement of my guides.
"One of the biggest differences between a store-bought and custom rod is the guides," he said. "Most store-bought rods have four or five guides, but a custom rod may have seven."
The quality of the guides also is a factor. Today's high-tech line can easily groove the ceramic of a less expensive guide. Custom rods usually have better quality guides that will last longer and keep the line from getting damaged.
"Also, all blanks are not created equal," Thaxton said. "The government usually picks through the best graphite to be used in weapons systems. The rest trickles down to the rod builders."
Thaxton uses Rain Shadow blanks, and once my rod seat dried, I began the difficult task of wrapping thread around the rod to serve as a cushion for the rod seats.
"This is the most intimidating part of the process for most people," Thaxton said. "People say they can't do it. But it is just like anything else. All it takes is practice."
But before a student starts wrapping his actual blank, he practices for several hours on a "test" rod. It took me about an hour to get the hang of it, then I started on the actual underwrapping.
From there the rest is easy ... wrap your guides, label your rod then glass it. "That is the most sensitive part of the process," Thaxton said. "You have to be very sensitive to both temperature and humidity, then give it at least 12 hours to dry."
Like most of his students, Thaxton started building fishing rods as a hobby. Seven hundred rods later, Thaxton has built everything from top-of-the-line fly rods to standup tuna rigs. A custom rod costs about twice as much as one from a store, but Thaxton said the investment is well worth it, as long as you don't slam it in a car door or feed it to a ceiling fan.
Thaxton's basic model, a 7-foot flats rod, costs $119. Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure will soon begin selling KJ's Custom Rods in its fishing department. But there are other quality rod builders in the bay area, including those sold under the Ultimate, Dogfish Tackle, Rick's Custom Rods, Bett's, Minnows & Monsters, Holiday Rod & Reel and Masters Bait & Tackle labels.
KJ's Custom Rods rod-building class, call (727) 549-9883.
Bett's Fishing Center in Largo works one on one with students. Call (727) 518-7637.
The Suncoast Rodcrafters meet the third Tuesday of every month at Bett's, 12504 Starkey Road. Call Dan Berchou at (727) 393-6797.