I would hate to venture how many rod companies are in the market today. It seems every small town across America has at least one. And no, I’m not knocking this surge in rod companies. In fact, it’s actually brought with it a lot of different rod building concepts which, in turn, have had a big impact on the way rods are made today. But from the early 60s through the 80s, there was really only one serious rod company. Fenwick, the gold standard of rods.
Back in those days you had Browning who made the Silaflex, Garcia who made the Conolon line of rods, Heddon (who would actually make custom rods to order), and a couple other players. Factory rods were just that, factory rods and not too impressive by any standards. Many of these companies offered their blanks to the numerous custom shops that dotted the United States, and the serious angler generally went that route instead of purchasing something off the shelf.
But the benchmark for rods was a company out of Washington state called Fenwick. Not only did the company make the best available fiberglass fly rods, but they also made the best bass sticks too. Like the other companies, they offered their blanks to the custom builders and if you were really serious about bass fishing, you had your custom rods built on Fenwick blanks.
In the late 60s, Fenwick moved operations from Washington to southern California and set up shop in Westminster. The building was U-shaped, each leg of the U approximately 100 yards in length. Production was on one side, operations at the bend of the U and R&D, the warehouse, and shipping in the other leg.
In between the legs was parking but most importantly, a 100-yard-long casting pond. The set-up of the facility was simply amazing, and I always enjoyed going there to pick up rods or blanks for the tackle shop I worked at. It never failed me to drive into the parking lot and see one or two employees at the pond casting. Most of the time they were testing a new rod hot off the winder.
Fenwick’s success during this time had everything to do with the way they conducted research and development. They had a prostaff of top-notch anglers a mile long. But the number of pros they had on staff isn’t what made them great. What made them great was the fact they listened to these anglers and their needs in rods.
They had the ability to take suggestions or desires from the angler, design a new blank, make the new blanks and test it within a short period of time. A good example of this would be the development of the Flippin’ Stik.
Talking with Dee Thomas about the development of this rod, Dee told me Dave Myers had sent him around 25 prototypes based on their discussions. Thomas whittled that number down to two and finally chose the prototype that became the Fenwick Lunkerstik Flippin’ Stik. I’m sure this example is the way they developed all the rods in their catalog. With an investment in time, research and their expert prostaff.
Fenwick wasn’t just the leader in fiberglass rod construction, they were the first to produce a rod made out of the new material graphite. What this material did for the fishing industry is truly remarkable. It is akin to the introduction of fiberglass to the rod industry in the 1940s when steel and bamboo were the materials of choice.
Their firsts didn’t stop there either. Fenwick was the first to incorporate the use of a telescoping rod into the bass market with the Flippin’ Stik. Although telescoping rods were being used in Japan at the time, they’d never been utilized on anything under 12 to 16 feet in length. Dave Myers took the concept and added it to the Flippin’ Stik so anglers could store their rods in the short rod lockers of the day. That change sold thousands of rods overnight.
Fenwick also took handle technology to a different level. They were the first to develop a ferrule-less pistol grip where the end of the blank fit into a collet that then slid into the handle. No more metal ferrules to weigh down the rod and suck up sensitivity.
In all, if the name of the company who made your rod wasn’t Fenwick, you were playing catch-up.
Attached to this article are three Fenwick ads from 1977. The first ad, in the familiar Norman Rockwell theme, is an early HMG Graphite ad touting the sensitivity of the high-modulus material along with what would become their most popular rod the GFC-555, a 5-foot 6-inch, 5-power rod.
The second ad features Dave Gliebe hot off his 1977 rampage of the south where he won three events in a row over the course of a month. The events were held by American Bass Fisherman, American Angler and Bassmaster. Gliebe won all the events with Fenwick’s new Flippin’ Stik and really showed the bass fishing world the technique was valid.
The last ad featured Fenwick’s new Lunker Stik 2000. Made of Fenwick’s top-of-the-line high-modulus Fenglass material and the ferrule-less handle, the rods were the highest quality glass rods money could buy. And, with the cost of graphite, these rods sold by the millions.
Today, with so many rod manufacturers, it’s difficult to say who builds the best rods. All the manufacturers make high-quality rods at varying price points. What I’ve found is I need to use rod company X’s rod for this technique or rod company Y’s rod for this bait. That’s a good thing because it spreads the revenue across the board but more importantly, it means us as customers have more to choose from and we can find the perfect rod for everything we do.
That wasn’t the case for the serious angler in the late 60s and 70s, though. If you wanted a rod for a specific technique, you had it custom made. And if you were really serious, you had it made on a Fenwick blank.