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N.D. man finds retirement niche building custom fishing rods [Grand Forks Herald :: BC-OTD-CUSTOM-FISHINGRODS:GF]

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Rob Horken might best be remembered as "Ernie the Angler," his longtime alter ego who did weekly summer fishing reports on WDAZ-TV Channel 8 in Grand Forks. But in retirement, Horken keeps his feet in the fishing waters by building custom fishing rods.

Any size, any color, Horken probably can build it. The retirement gig is keeping the owner of Rob's Rod Repair and Custom Built Fishing Rods busy in his East Grand Forks shop.

As busy as he wants to be, at least, and that's just the way Horken likes it.

"I've built them for birthdays, I've built them for Christmas, I've built them for graduation presents with the school colors as the wraps," Horken, 65, said. "They turn out cool."

Horken makes the wraps by winding strands of special thread around the rod blank to hold the line guides in place and to provide decorative patterns near the handle of the rod.

"I will normally wrap three threads at a time, and then you just kind of keep working them in so they're tight," Horken said.

Masking tape holds the wraps in place until they're permanently fastened with epoxy.

"By the time you make 20 wraps, you've got a pile of masking tape there," Horken said. "It's something you really need to practice. You want to get (the wrap) so it's lined up nice, and an awful lot of measurement and math goes into it."

Horken uses St. Croix-brand graphite blanks for walleye, bass and pike rods and fiberglass blanks for catfish rods. Where he attaches the guides depends on the length of the rod and the location of the spine, or strongest point of the rod, Horken says.

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For Horken, an avid fisherman in his own right, getting into the custom rod business wasn't much of a stretch. He started a rod-and-reel repair business in 1988 as a side venture to his sales job at WDAZ.

He also started making basic custom rods.

"I think it was just kind of out of necessity with my own equipment, learning how to replace (rod) tips and replace guides and so forth," Horken said. "That, coupled with the reel repair business, it just kind of went hand in hand, of course. You need them both to go fishing.

"I think actually starting a business just sort of progressed as time went on," he added. "People learned that I did it and would start bringing their stuff over, and I was just providing a nice little service."

Horken, who retired four years ago, no longer repairs reels but he definitely has kicked it up a notch when it comes to building custom rods. The rods Horken builds today have more intricate wrapping patterns and custom colors that give each rod a distinctly personal touch.

They're works of art, compared with the rods he built before retiring, which Horken says were "built to go out and fish with" and simpler in design.

"In my retirement, I always thought, I'm going to have some time, and I want to learn how to do some decorative wraps," Horken said. "Right now, I'm concentrating on just two of them - and that's the diamond wrap and the chevron wrap. Both of them are popular. The nicest thing about the wraps is that the customer can pick the color thread they want, and normally, they turn out really, really cool."

That's apparent in a catfish rod Horken is building, which features the purple, gold and white colors of the Minnesota Vikings on the wraps. Recently, Horken had finished wrapping the base of the rod but hadn't wrapped the rod guides or attached the tip to the blank fiberglass rod.

Turning thin strands of thread into the colorful wrapping patterns that adorn each custom rod is a time-consuming process, Horken says. He figures he'll have about 8 hours of work into the rod with Minnesota Vikings colors by the time it's finished.

Add in the two coats of epoxy that protect the rod and the wraps and the time it takes for the epoxy to dry, and the process from start to finish is more like a week, Horken says.

"It's just cool when they turn out really nice like this one is," Horken said. "I think there's a reason the Vikings use purple, gold and white for their colors because it really does get sharp."

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An avid reader, Horken says he learned to build rods by reading books and through trial-and-error. He describes himself as a perfectionist in his work.

"I've started wraps that all of a sudden have just gone awry where they're not the way I like them, and I've just torn them apart and started all over again," Horken said.

Horken, who works mainly by appointment, recommends anglers looking for a custom rod bring in a favorite rod. He then will try to find a similar blank and customize the rod from there.

The anglers' height and species of fish they plan to target also factor into a rod's design, Horken says. Generally, a medium action rod with a fast tip is best for jigging, while a medium light rod with a fast tip is better suited to fishing with live bait rigs, Horken says.

"You might wish the end was a little faster, so let's look at that (favorite) rod, compare the rod to the blank and go from there," Horken said. "Just handling a raw blank, it's really hard to tell."

The quality of the blank is a big factor in the ultimate quality of any fishing rod, Horken says. The graphite blanks he uses generally retail for $95 to about $300, while the glass blanks used in catfish rods are considerably less expensive.

Cork rod handles are more expensive and more comfortable than foam handles, but they're not as durable, Horken says. Because of that, he generally recommends foam handles for catfish rods.

"A lot of times, I'll try to guide (customers) down a certain trail, just because a lot of times, somebody will say they want a blank that's $200 and want to put a 50 cent handle on it," Horken said. "If we're going to invest that kind of money, let's really do it right."

Each custom rod is different, but they all have something in common, Horken says.

"There's absolutely nothing better than catching a fish on a custom rod," he said.

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