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.
“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.
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.
“I have a passion for this,” Lesch added as he wrapped neon-green thread over a line guide, tightening it to a new graphite rod blank. He still wraps thread by hand while some rodbuilders use an electric winder.
“Word of advice to anyone getting into this: Get a comfortable work bench and have good lighting. I like LEDs the best … and get a good pair of cheaters,” Lesch said.
He was using a dental tool to line the thread up perfectly.
“You don’t want to use sewing thread. They can react with the epoxy sometimes,” Lesch noted. Instead, he uses treated nylon thread specially made for the job.
SAGANAGA LAKE GUIDE
Lesch got his first taste of Northland fishing on a canoe trip when he was a junior in high school back in Oklahoma. After his senior year he applied to be a dock hand at Trails End Lodge on Saganaga Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail. With an aptitude for finding fish he soon found himself as a guide, a job he came back to for several years. That was back in the heyday of big fish on Big Sag, and he recalls some giant walleyes and pike being caught by his clients .
“Dicky Powell was my mentor up there,” Lesch said of the legendary Saganaga guide. “There were so many big fish back then.”
Lesch dabbled in fisheries management at Utah State University. He attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth for a bit, too. He eventually settled on the Iron Range where he worked for a mining supply company. He also worked in custom printing for the Hibbing Tribune and sold sporting goods for 15 years. He eventually had to retire at age 52 due to health issues.
But all that time, he was building custom fishing rods. He never advertised, per se, but word-of-mouth spread across the Range as he made more rods for more people.
“I think we met in the bass fishing club. But as soon as I saw one of his rods, I had to have one,” said Iron Range fishing guru Greg Clusiau, of Keewatin. “Mike is such a nice guy. … And he puts a little bit of himself into every rod he makes. I love the way he signs every rod, and then puts my name on it, too. It’s very personalized. It makes it special.”
Clusiau noted that Lesch was among the first in the Northland to make custom-made ice fishing rods at a time when most ice rods were clunky and insensitive.
“He was really a leader in those early days trying to get better rods out for ice fishing,” Clusiau said. “He also does a lot of rod repair and refurbishing. He’s a handy guy to have around.”
Lesch also worked to pass on his passion and his skills, teaching rod building in Hibbing and Chisholm community education courses.
STILL A BUCKET LIST OF FISH TO CATCH
Iron Rangers may recall Lesch’s fishing show that ran for years on WMFG and later WKKQ radio stations, weekly five- to 10-minute segments that kept anglers updated on the local bite.
Lesch would just as soon be out fishing on a sunny June day as in his shop. But he has some serious back and neck pain issues to go along with his diabetes and heart condition.
“I’ve always loved fishing, and talking about fishing,” he said, noting that rod building satisfied two of his passions: to be creative and to fish.
“I like the fact you can use what I make,” he said. “But I’ve had some people pick up their rod and never use it. They put it on the wall like a painting.”
His favorite fish to catch?
“Probably crappie,” he said. “But I also love those hybrid striped bass. That’s the downright fightingest fish I’ve ever had on in freshwater.”
Lesch was a member of the Bucketmouth Bassmasters fishing club for many years and he hopes he can get his back and other health issues solved so he can get back out on the water. He still has an unfinished bucket list of big fish species to catch before his fishing days are over, including sturgeon, tuna, tarpon, and, atop his to-do list: halibut.
Of course, he’ll be holding one of his own creations while fishing.
“They don’t just look good,” Lesch said with a smile. “They work good, too.”