The modern fly fishing rod may be a called a stick, a wand, or a weapon, but calling it a ‘fishing pole’ could result in blows.
Fly fishing anglers invest a lot of emotion—and cash—in their rods, largely because they know that a slender, nearly weightless wand, is the start and finish of their angling success.
A couple Gear Institute experts recently visited the Bainbridge Island, Washington, factory in which Sage builds all their fly rods. The factory uses mechanized processes wherever possible, but because they keep a focus on premium products, the process of building a rod requires direct hands-on efforts from the artisans working in the factory.
“A dozen or more people will have made a hands-on contribution to the building of the rod before it goes out the door,” said David Lanz, Sage’s Marketing Project Coordinator.
Before the production process gets underway, Sage designers work with different tapers to craft the perfect blend of strength, stiffness and weight throughout the rod’s length. Test rods will be built by hand to find the desired results. Once a tip-to-butt taper is established, the rod building process can start. Long steel rods, known as mandrels, matching that established design are selected and sheets of composite fabrics are stretched out on a computerized cutting machine so each section of the rod can be precisely cut for a perfect fit with no waste or extra weight.
Sage takes advantage of its close proximity to one of the largest users of composite materials in the world—The Boeing Company—to find and buy the latest and greatest in carbon fiber and composite resin technology. Sage’s factory on Bainbridge Island is literally just a ferry ride away from the Boeing Field in South Seattle.
Once the proper composite is cut and a thin cutting of resin applied, it is hand rolled onto the appropriate steel mandrel, then heated in a 250ºF oven for a couple hours. The oven melts the resin without damaging the composite material. After a 30 minute cool-down, the rod section is removed from the mandrel and moved into its first quality assurance check. Every new rod section gets hand checked at this point, Lanz explained.
From this point forward, the rod sections gets smoothed, painted, cut to proper length, and fitted with grips and reel seats. Once the rod sections are trimmed to length and fitted together, the complete set making up an individual rod is kept together through the rest of the production process. This ensures a finished rod that fits together perfectly.
“Even with the most precise work, we still get tiny variations in fit, so by making sure the pieces that were cut together finish together, we eliminate fit problems,” Lanz said. He noted that’s why the company asks customers to send in the entire rod when a repair is needed. “For instance, if we just send out a new tip section without ensuring it’s a perfect fit to the adjoining section, we’d be doing a disservice to the customer. We want to fit the entire repaired rod together to make sure its all in good working order —and each section working together—before we send it back out.”
At each stage, skilled craftsmen – many of whom have worked in the Sage factory for more than 20 years – individually handle the rod sections. Sage employs upwards of 175 workers, though not all work at the factory. The company does allow experienced wrappers to set up workstations at home where they hand-wrap the threads to hold onto the rod’s guides.
After wrapping, the rods are fitted together and a final clear lacquer is meticulously applied by hand to ensure a perfectly smooth, blemish-free finish.
The entire process can take days or even weeks to complete, largely because it is such a hands-on process with detailed quality checks at every stage of production. In the end, a delicate wand made from the same materials found in advanced aircraft wings is sent out to specialty fishing shops around the world.
“We’re proud of our products—and we’re proud of our people, and we want our retailers to share in the pride,” Lanz noted. After witnessing the skill and artistry that goes into the production of every rod being produced, I understand that pride. I actually value my Sage rods more now that I know first-hand what it took to make them.