When Does Building Custom Fishing Rods Make Sense?

4/1/24

At some point, many “serious” anglers start considering custom rod building as an alternative to off-the-shelf rods. In this article, join us as we sit down with Bill Falconer to discuss the benefits of custom fishing rods. Bill is an avid angler, fly tier, and rod builder. He also owns Anglers Resource, and hosts the Mastering Rod Building Podcast.

Read on to hear how Bill got started building custom fishing rods, how custom building can be the perfect solution for anglers with very specific needs, and perhaps most importantly, who Bill thinks should stick to factory rods, or at the least leave the custom builds to the pros. 

The Benefits Of Building Custom Fishing Rods

Like many rod builders, Bill made the jump from buyer to builder because he had a vision for the perfect rod.

“I’ve fly-fished since I was a kid,” he says, “and I was always into tying my own flies, and sorta understanding how my gear worked and the technical aspect of the sport. And one day a buddy of mine said, ‘You should build your own rod. Cabela’s sells kits. They’re not expensive. You’d probably like it.’ And I said, ‘That actually sounds like a great idea!’ So I bought the kit, like a lot of people do, and I built a rod.”

custom fishing rods

“At the time, single foot snake guides were a new thing. Traditionally you have double foot snake guides, and they have to be anchored at two places, so you have twice the thread and twice the epoxy at every guide. Well, I decided to upgrade my kit and go with single foot guides to see what that was all about, and I got the chance to fish the rod I built next to an identical rod that used double foot rods. And there was a huge difference in performance, because you had so much less weight distributed along the blank. And I realized that if you built your own rod, and that if you were smart about picking your components, then you could build a better rod than a lot of the big, renowned names.

He continues, “It was a bit of a shock to me, because we hold those names in such high regard, right? But rod companies have to build and sell in volume in order to be profitable, even the high-end ones to some extent, and that means that you kind of build towards the average. Super-specialized rods usually aren’t commercial successes.” 

Custom Fishing Rods For Custom Applications

Custom rod building can sometimes be the only option if what you’re doing on the water is unconventional. 

“I can think of several cases where I’ve seen people build rods for very specific needs,” says Bill. “The first that comes to mind is some of the guides and pros up around Lake Guntersville. 90% of the time, they’re throwing chatterbaits. So some of them have built rods that are perfectly designed to throw a chatterbait and fight big bass. They’re being selective on the handle dimensions, the handle materials, the real seat, the guide train…everything is done deliberately, including how it’s put together.” On rods like this, there’s no “fluff.” No extra thread or epoxy, no embellishments…just a pure, “fighter jet’ style machine.

Bill continues, “Another benefit of custom building is that you can build the rod to the angler. And what I mean by that is, say you have smaller hands, or really long arms, or if you’ve got a bum shoulder or elbow, you can build your rod with thinner grips, or build it a bit longer, or build it lighter so that it’s less fatiguing to use.”

custom fishing rods

While functionality comes first for many anglers, most of us have at least some desire to fish with a rod that is also visually appealing. “Soul” is increasingly important to many as mass production churns out thousands of “ticky tacky” products that, in the words of Pete Seeger, “all look just the same.”

“Functionality is important,” Bill admits, “but the reality is that aesthetics sell rods, and we’ve all heard the joke that you’ve got to catch the fisherman before he can go catch the fish, right? I’m more of a function-first builder myself, but you have people like Mary McIntyre Christie or Stephanie Bennett, people who can do this really beautiful, intricate threadwork, or do really artistic and almost impressionistic marbling paint jobs. Or even if it’s a smaller detail, like having your name, or a company logo, or an anniversary date included on the rod. Sometimes little details like that make a rod special to a person. You enjoy using it more. You take a little better care of it.” 

The Economic Benefits Of Building Custom Fishing Rods

Automated production, not to mention economies of scale, often means that it’s difficult to DIY a project for less money than what it would cost you to just buy the finished product. Anybody who started tying their own flies “to save money” learned this the hard way.

But according to Bill, rod building can be the exception to the rule.

wrapping thread

“This shocks people,” he reveals, “but the most expensive part of a rod is always going to be labor. I don’t care if it’s a big company like St. Croix or your local boutique rod maker, their biggest expense is labor, because it’s time intensive. So if you can do the labor yourself, the materials aren’t that expensive. And you don’t have to do a thousand rods on a production timeline. You’re just working on one. You can work on it a little, put it down for a while, and come back to it.”  

This is especially true if you want a nicer rod than what you generally find on store shelves, and if you have an extremely specific use case like what we discussed earlier on. 

When You Shouldn’t Build Custom Fishing Rods

So when does custom fishing rod building not make sense?

“If you are a typical use case angler,” says Bill, “and by that I mean you’re more or less fishing the way rod manufacturers intend for you to fish their rods; you’re not trying new things. If you’re happy with all of the rods you’ve purchased, or if you just want the absolute cheapest rod, then I’m not sure that getting into custom rods makes sense. Most guys are either looking to build a really technical fish, water, or technique specific rod, or they’re looking for a special rod. They want something nice, something commemorative, something that stands out.”

The good news is that if none of that applies to you, off-the-rack rods are better than they’ve ever been. But what if you want a custom solution, but don’t have the time or the patience to create one yourself? 

There is a growing cottage-industry of custom rod builders willing to build custom rods. There are costs associated with this process, but if factory options aren’t doing it for you, commissioning a custom rod can be a good option for anglers. Bill offers some insight on how to select a rod builder that can make your vision come to life.

making a custom rod

“The first bit of advice I’d offer,” he advises, “is that you go with a builder local to the area you’re fishing if possible. So if you want to trout fish the Smokey Mountains, or if you want to go fish the Keys, find a builder from that geographic area, who has fished that area himself, and who knows the guides and what they like, and who just knows what’s up in that area. If you need help doing that, you can go to somewhere like rodguild.com or rodbuilding.org, and both of those sites have directories where you can search for well-regarded builders and see where they’re from and what they do.”

He continues, “It’s also worth remembering that, while a new rod builder, or a rod builder who has pretty cheap rates, might be a perfectly good rod builder, you do generally get what you pay for. Typically, a custom build will run you somewhere between the cost of a high-end production rod up to two-and-a-half times the price of a high-end rod. If you pick a builder, and in talking you realize that his work is a little out of your budget, most of them will be understanding if you say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have a rod from you, but it’s a little out of my budget. Do you have somebody that you can refer me to?’ They’ve probably had that talk before.”

Final Thoughts On Custom Fishing Rods

In conclusion, custom rods can be the solution to the “if only” blues. Whether you choose to build your own rod or commission a special piece, it’s worth thinking carefully about what exactly you expect out of the rod. The clearer an idea you have when you start, the more likely you are to end up satisfied with the end result.