Minnesota man’s personalized fishing rods are functional art – Twin Cities

CHISHOLM, Minn. — If there’s ever a tornado warning for this Iron Range town, Mike Lesch will likely be safe.

That’s because he already spends a lot of time in his basement shop, where he turns drab sticks of graphite into functional works of piscatorial art.

You have to wind your way down the stairs and through some cluttered rooms of fishing memorabilia, but his shop is brightly lit, with dozens of spools of colorful thread on the wall. There are packages of line guides and jars of epoxy and cork handles stored neatly to the side — all of the components of his handcrafted, custom-made fishing rods.

Lesch has been building fishing rods from scratch since 1967, since he was 16, growing up in Tulsa, Okla. He sent in for a mail-order rod building kit from Herter’s, the Minnesota-based catalog sporting goods company that was a precursor to later giants like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops.

“It was a 7-foot buggy-whip rod, not that great. But I was hooked from the start,” he said.

Over that more than half-century, Lesch figures he’s built more than 2,500 fishing rods, some years topping 100 rods made. But he still gets excited talking about colors and designs and fishing rod characteristics.

Mike Lesch holds two of his custom-made fishing rods in his basement shop in Chisholm, Minn. on June 17, 2022. “Every one is different,” he said. (John Myers / Duluth News Tribune)

“Every one of them is different. I don’t do any two rods the same, unless someone orders them that way,” Lesch said, noting that, at age 71, he’s scaling back from a lifelong side business to a hobby.

“I might do 20 rods this year, that’s all, for friends and family … a few to donate to the Legion or Rotary or Kiwanis,” Lesch said.

He was just finishing his two latest creations: a sparkling-green bass fishing spinning rod for a 12-year-old boy in Illinois and a camouflage rod for the boy’s 80-year-old great-grandfather, a veteran who lives on Pelican Lake near Orr.

GOOD LIGHT AND STRONG CHEATERS

Sure, you can go to any sporting goods store and pick up a functional rod for $100 or less. But if you want it custom-made to your exact standards — length, weight, stiffness, power, colors — then Lesch could make it right . But it wouldn’t be cheap. The parts alone add up to $150 or more. And Lesch said he puts nearly eight hours of sweat equity into each rod.

“That’s a big deal with the rod builders guild. We want people to get paid for the custom work they do,” Lesch said, noting he’d get $300 or more for a custom spinning rod these days, if he was selling them.

Mike Lesch uses a dental tool to straighten thread used to attach a line guide to the rod blank.
Mike Lesch uses a dental tool to straighten thread used to attach a line guide to the rod blank. (John Myers / Duluth News Tribune)

Pick the type of fish you are aiming for spinning or casting-style reel, and then pick your fishing style. Jigging? Slip-bobbers? Trolling spinners? Casting big lures to big bass or musky? Fast action or broom-handle? Lesch will pick out just the right rod blank. Then you’d have to pick a color. The rest will be up to him. He orders a lot of his supplies out of a catalog from Mudhole Tackle in Florida.

“I have some guys tell me to just do any color. But I won’t start until they give me a color,” Lesch said. “That’s what makes it personal. It’s sort of the focal point of the rod. The color scheme , the design — they are all unique. It’s custom-made, one-of-a-kind … a custom piece of art.”

After Lesch is finished, each rod is inspected by his wife, MJ Then both get their names written on the blank, along with the name of the new owner.

“She’s my quality control department,” Lesch said of MJ

Lesch scooted his chair up closer to the workbench and began attaching a line guide to what some day will be a spinning rod. He took off his normal prescription glasses and donned a pair of cheaters, 2.5 power, to get a better look.

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