Field & Stream Online Editors
The Spider Stick by Mark Blaubam: Rod builder Mark Blaubam got the inspiration for this spider web design from a pool cue he saw at a woodworker’s convention. “It took me 15 minutes to figure it out,” he recalled. “And about 40 hours of work to get it right.” Mark Blaubam
This grip is made of walnut inlaid with aluminum webbing. To achieve this affect, Blaubam stacks rings of aluminum and wood, then turns the handle in a lathe until it fits his hand perfectly. Mark Blaubam
The spider design between the handles is made 18 different threads wrapped at different angles. “These handles really stop traffic,” Blaubam says. Mark Blaubam
The Baby Dragon by Jim Upton: Jim Upton’s Baby Dragon is a masterwork of custom thread weaving. Rod builders had been experimenting for years with weaving single color silhouettes, but Upton was the first to incorporate multiple colors into an image that wraps all the way around the rod. “It took me a year and a half to figure it out,” he says. The result shook the world of rod building. Jim Upton
When it premiered, Upton’s dragon was the buzz on all the rod building message boards and at national trade shows. This rod has probably inspired more custom rod artists than any other work. The little dragon also inspired Upton to invent the Wonder Weaver, a special jig that allows almost anyone to weave a dragon of his own. Jim Upton
The Docski American Eagle by James Labanowski: Rod maker James “Docski” Labanowski finds his inspiration all around him. This image came off a hat that he saw. “I’m a patriot so I decided to see if I could pull it off.” The image required Labanowski to weave 10 different colors of thread together. “The challenge is weaving the thread together without letting it pile up,” he says. James Labanowski
Purple Heart by James Labanowski: “I designed this weave for my Pop,” says Labanowski. Labanowski’s dad was injured during WWII when a Kamikazi plane crashed into his gun turret. “Pop spent about 8 hours in the water and still had two or three pieces of shrapnel in him,” he says. “I gave it to him on Veteran’s Day. Even the guys down at the VFW shed a tear.” James Labanowski
Yellowfin Tuna Jumping at Alijos Rock by James Labanowski: “I have a soft spot for two things,” Labanowski says. “Kids and people who serve.” Each year he donates two custom rods to the Chuck Byron Memorial Tournament, which takes young artists fishing and raises money to pay for art school scholarships. “I weave one of Chuck’s paintings on one side of the rod and his signature on the other,” he says. Weaving different images on two sides of the rod requires twice as many threads and twice as much time. Labanowski has a soft spot for yellowfin tuna, too. “I have chased giant yellowfin for decades,” he says. “My biggest fish to date weighed 377 pounds.” James Labanowski
The Dragon Tribute by James Labanowski: This is probably one of Labanowski’s most challenging projects. “I did this as a tribute to Jim Upton’s ‘Baby Dragon’,” he says. The weave involved seven colors of thread and took over 100 hours to complete. “We’re all just trying to take what one guys does and make it better.” James Labanowski
Birch Bark and Elk Horn Grip by Chris Herrera: Even from a distance, these rod handles look exotic, but close examination shows the layers of birch bark and elk antler. Chris Herrera stacks rings of each type of material, then turns the handle in a lathe. “The handles just feel good in your hand,” Herrera says. “Plus, birch bark is inherently water proof.” Chris Herrera
Jewels and Feathers by Chris Herrera: Herrera inlaid the base of this rod with a combination of jungle cock, grizzly hackle, and peacock feathers punctuated with a real opal. Although Herrara’s rods look like they should be displayed in glass case, these works of art are as tough as they are beautiful. “I insist they are used on the water,” he says. Chris Herrera
Predator by Billy Vivona: The predator design is one of over 40 original patterns that Billy Vivona included in his book, “Decorative Wraps.” When he unveiled the striped bass rod at a national rod crafter’s convention, the response was unanimous. “Everyone said, “Holy S%*@!,'” Vivona said. But for Vivona, rodbuilding is about more than just twisting up new patterns. It’s about showing your buddies how it’s done. Billy Vivonna
Tuna Chase by Billy Vivona: A variation on Vivona’s orignal predator wrap, this is a tuna chasing bait. Billy Vivonna
Bouquet of Rose by Billy Vivona: One of the 40 original patterns in Vivona’s book, he calls this pattern “Bouquet of Roses.” The image is not a weave, but a pattern of crossed threads. “The coolest thing about writing a book about wrapping rods is coming up with names for all of the designs,” he says. Field & Stream Online Editors
B-Boy by Billy Vivona: For Billy Vivona, fishing for blackfish is all about attitude. That’s why he spent hours researching and building this B-Boy handle for his favorite blackfish rod. “It took over 20 hours to cut the shapes out of foam and then arrange them on the grip,” he said. Vivona grew up in New York City, so the baggy jeans and shell top Adidas are legit. “If you don’t live in the City,” he says, “you wouldn’t understand.” Field & Stream Online Editors
High-Class Customs by Mark Crouse: Rod builder Mark Crouse worked with a half dozen of the world’s most talented crafters on this project, which features a walnut and ebony handle, one-of-a-kind wrap, and dragon weave. But, when he shipped the rod to the next artist, it arrived in two pieces. “I had to build the whole rod again,” he says. Crouse worked overtime to finish the rod in time for a charity auction to benefit a foundation that helps young people learn the art of custom rod building. “Sometimes you got to do what you got to do,” he says. Mark Crouse
Here’s a close-up of one of Crouse’s custom wrap jobs. Mark Crouse
The Steelhead Handle by Mark Crouse: Mark Crouse has a close relationship with the Batson Family. Not only do they build his favorite rod blanks, but they are also Crouse’s biggest fans. He wins their admiration by building them some of the most jaw-dropping rods in his portfolio. This project started as an elk horn that one of the company’s staff found in a cemetery and sent to Crouse. He turned the horn into a rod handle then, scrimshawed a jumping steelhead on its face. Mark Crouse
To match the color of the antler, Crouse used white and silver thread to wrap a fish scale pattern. “The material is so bright I sent a long a box of white cloth gloves with the rod,” he said. Mark Crouse
The Gentleman’s Travel Set by Mark Crouse: It took a big project to showcase all of Mark Crouse’s talents. Last year he was commissioned to create two rod sets complete with case, rods, reels, leather tubes, and fillet knife. The case was hand carved out of white oak and required 21 square feet of red leather. Mark Crouse
The handles on the rods, knife, and fish bat are burled oak, and the knife blade was honed by hand. Crouse figures he put more than 200 hours into each project. Mark Crouse
Custom Paint Jobs by Matt Kotch: When Matt Kotch started painting cartoon fish on custom fishing rods, he was combining his two passions. “I love fishing and I love painting,” Kotch says. He especially loves catching calico bass and capturing their personality with paint. “They’re aggressive and fun to catch,” he says. “Plus they are a beautiful fish.” Matt Kotch
From The Heart by B.D. Ehler: B.D. Ehler is one of the most respected custom rod artists. His original patterns are the backbone of the rod wrapping craft. Ehler created this pattern of hearts for a very special rod. “I built this for my wife for our 50th wedding anniversary,” he says. When asked how Mrs. Ehler received the rod, B.D. responded with a laugh. “She used to be jealous of me fishing,” he says. When Ehler was courting his future wife, he quickly realized that he would have to reconcile his two loves. So, he took her fishing. “I put my arms around her to teach her how to cast and she caught about fifty crappies,” he recalls. “She’s been my fishing buddy ever since.” B.D. Ehler
The Veteran by B.D. Ehler: Ehler built this rod for a Vietnam Vet. Not only does it have the word Vietnam weaved on one side, but he weaved the owner’s name on the other. The green, yellow, and red bands are the campaign colors of the 1000 Day’s War. B.D. Ehler
Ehler wrapped (not weaved) a series of American flags that spiral up the Vietnam rod’s hilt. The flag is accurate with 13 stripes and the star field is made out of sparkly thread. As amazing as Ehler’s rods are to look at, they’re even more amazing to fish with. “The first step is to build a sensitive, comfortable rod, then add eye candy,” Ehler says. B.D. Ehler
Phoenix Sunrise by B.D. Ehler: Elher calls this pattern, “Phoenix Sunrise.” The pattern is a wrap (unlike Elher’s name weaved into the bottom picture) that involves alternating colors in two different directions. “I use two math techniques to get the colors to turn out this way.” B.D. Ehler
Works of a Master Wrapper by Wayne Fowlkes: Wayne Fowlkes is another custom rod crafter who played a big part in revolutionizing the art. His designs, which were featured in Dale Clemmins’s book, “Custom Thread Art” continue to inspire new generations of rodsmiths. “I share what I’ve learned so that others will pick up where I’ve left off,” Fowlkes says. Wayne Fowlkes
More of Wayne Fowlkes’s masterpieces. Wayne Fowlkes