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Crafting the perfect rod

Russell Philstrom was lured into making custom fishing rods 13 years ago after taking a class at Breezy Point. Since biting the hook, he has made hundreds of rods for th many fishing styles – spinning rods, casting rods, fly fishing, trolling rods, ice fishing and rods just for display.

The steps in creating a custom rod are very detailed, and precision is needed to one-thousandth of an inch. Good eyesight is important for such intricate work. Although it’s not noticeable, Russ is blind in his left eye. He has short-term memory loss and is also deaf in the left ear.

It was 20 years ago that Russ was told there was no medical explanation as to why he was still alive after suffering a severe fracture of his skull in a snowmobile accident. Besides losing partial sight, hearing and memory, he has titanium plates in his head in order to restructure his skull.

“The brain is the most important muscle in the body and because mine was affected (in the accident) I want to stay active as long as I can,” he said.

Russ enjoys fishing and has a mount of a 24-pound northern pike on the wall in his basement shop that he snagged. “Yes, I enjoy fishing, but I have two boats parked in the driveway that didn’t move during the fishing opener,” he laughed. But living on the shores of Lake Emily in the small town of Emily, Russ can enjoy the sport any time.

He spends a lot of time in his shop in order to complete rods by the requested dates.

Russ noted that many people wonder why a custom-made rod is more expensive, and he answers, “Rod builders start with good quality blank rods, such as St. Croix, and just the rod can start at $100.”

The rods of many colors are made with graphite, composite or fiberglass, but according to Russ, most fishermen prefer graphite.

Once the rod is selected, the fisherman, or fisherwoman, chooses the type of handle he or she would like, which are made from cork, wood or foam.

A rod lathe with an 8-foot bed plays an important role in shaping the cork into a handle. Russ orders cork in bulk that comes in various colors. Jigs of various styles and cuts are used to cut the cork in creating different designs including a checkerboard style for the handle and fore grip which is just above the reel seat.

Wood handles can be shaped on a wood lathe and can be accented with laser-engraved names, dates, logos or other designs.

Types of wood include the favorite, red cedar, and also walnut, birch or cherry.

Besides wood, cork or foam, the fore grip can be made to match the handle.

With many spools of colored thread on display, one might think they are entering a sewing room. But the thread is just one of the items used in creating a custom rod.

The rod lathe is also used for the detailed process of weaving threads that are wrapped around the rod at the location of each line guide or also on the handle or fore grip. After threading the machine as if it were a sewing machine, the lathe turns the rod around as Russ guides the threads while at the same time counting the number of wraps and checking the graph similar to a pattern.

Russ is working on one rod that will have the Vikings logo on it. For the five-color logo, he will use 152 threads to complete the Viking head that will be less than an inch wide. Letters or numbers can also be weaved. Once the design is completed, Russ uses a small communion cup to mix the epoxy that seals the woven design. He added that dental tools also help him with the intricate work of rod making.

The line guides (eyes) are another important component on the rod, with a variety of sizes and colors from which to choose.

Russ pulled bags of feathers out of a drawer, just another way to enhance a rod. One of the more common feathers used as an inlay is the feather from the plumage of the jungle fowl cock, a bird in the pheasant family that is found in the jungles of southeast Asia. Other feathers include wild turkey, grouse, peacock, and even parrot or parakeet feathers. The inlaid feathers are covered with a sealer and epoxy.

The final step in completing the rod is applying epoxy to the entire rod. Once again, the rod lathe is put to work to rotate the rod slowly during the drying process so the epoxy doesn’t run.  Drying takes from six to eight hours. Russ uses electric heaters to keep his basement shop in the mid-70s during the drying process.

Another rod waiting to catch the big one is a pink rod that three adult sons ordered as a gift for their father’s birthday. A pink rod, you ask?

Russ shared the story. “The sons’ dad would tease his boys when they were younger about being prissy like a girl, so to get even they wanted to give him a fun gift. The rod will have bright colors (hot pink, bright green and orange) and the handle will be engraved, ‘Love You, Pa!’”

Pointing to a Boy Scout logo engraved on a fore grip, Russ said that a mother, whose son has earned the Eagle Scout award, the highest award given to a Boy Scout, ordered a rod for her son, who in turn will give the rod to his scoutmaster in appreciation for the leader’s dedication and help given to him and other scouts.

Russ is a member of the Custom Rod Builders Guild, an international organization with over 800 members. He is certified by the Guild to be a rod building instructor and is a former board member.

Naming a few of the area sporting goods stores, Russ added, “You can go into any of those stores and pick out a rod, but there isn’t much of a choice. With a custom rod, it’s built to meet the specific fishing needs and style right down to the finest detail. It’s one of a kind.”

Besides fishing, Russ also enjoys golf and has been doing picture framing for many years. Before retiring, he worked in sales management in the auto industry and also in finance and real estate.

“I worked long hours, and it was stressful, so I started picture framing as it was a way to ease the pressure of my job,” he said.

“I can sit in a corner of my home and work on framing or building rods, and when I’m done I can see the finished product.

With my sales management job, I couldn’t show what I had made.”

For the past six years, Russ has worked as a rehabilitation aide at the Cuyuna Medical Center in Crosby. He works one day a week but puts in more hours when filling in for vacations.

“I enjoy that work as I can visit with the patients, and I also transport them to and from the hospital for rehab. I get to know them well, and they get more comfortable when coming for PT.”

He and his wife, Ginny, have been married for nearly 50 years and have called Emily their home for 22 years. They have two daughters, one son who also builds rods, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild to be born in October.

Russ graduated from North High School in Minneapolis, where he was born and raised, and is a U.S. Army veteran serving stateside from 1957 to 1965.

Looking back at his snowmobile accident that nearly took his life, Russ said the temperature was 28 below in January 1994 when the accident occurred. His son-in-law and a friend were following Russ on snowmobiles, and Russ turned around as he didn’t see them behind him. But he hit some soft snow and was thrown 15 feet off the snowmobile, and his head hit a tree.

Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet. Hearing the snowmobiles coming his way, he took his helmet and threw it which his son-in-law saw.

He was brought to the nearest hospital and then flown to St. Cloud.

In addition to losing his sight and hearing on the left side plus the short-term memory loss, Russ also lost his sense of smell. “I miss the smell of baking,” he said as he pointed to the stove in the kitchen. “But I’ve changed a lot of (the grandchildren’s) poopie diapers! My kids will give their little ones to me and say, ‘Here, Grandpa!’”

Due to his brain injury, Russ became involved with the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance, an organization started 30 years ago. Russ served on the board for several years to help fulfill the mission of the Alliance to enhance the quality of life and bring the promise of a better tomorrow for all people affected by brain injury.

“So because of the injury, I need to stay active,” he concluded.

Wife, Ginny, added, “God did have a plan.”

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