Editor’s note: Fourth in a series devoted to local craftsmen of distinguished outdoor gear.
Trout are natural works of art that attract the affection of millions of anglers. “When you catch something that beautiful,” said Steve Moran, “it deserves to be photographed next to a rod of matching beauty before you release it back into the water.”
Fly fishers in particular are fond of starting with Moran’s technically perfect fishing rods and then letting him personalize the instrument. Choices include exotic wood handles adorned with pen and ink scrimshaw in synthetic ivory or wood inlays. Popular adornments include the angler’s favorite fish or fly.
A WSU Cougar fan requested rod-guide wraps in crimson and gray.
Anglers and even big-game hunters have commissioned Moran to expand his wood-finishing and inlay talents to create custom tables featuring captivating scenes of anything from North American trout to African elephants.
Background: “After building my first rod at 17, I was hooked, and things got stupid,” Moran said. “I started building more and more rods. I was selling them for $15 to friends.
“I was a guiding fly fishermen when graphite rod blanks became available. A man who was with me on a St. Joe River float trip saw one of my first graphite rods and asked what it cost. When I told him $150, he ordered two rods for his anniversary. I thought I was going to die.
“He and his wife are still using those rods, I might add.
“The business snowballed after that. People started wanting nicer and nicer rods and higher quality handles. I jumped at the chance to be laid off at Inland Foundry 10 years ago. That gave me more time for rod and table building, guiding and fishing. I built 100 rods last year. My rods are owned by fishermen from Spokane to Malaysia.”
Insight: “The more rods you do, the better you get.”
Why a custom rod? “They are made to fit your hand, and you have options to make them fit your taste. No two rods are alike.
“You’ll get something you’ll always prize, something of quality that will last generations. About 90 percent of my clients say they like the idea of passing down something of quality, and with so many memories, to their family or friends.
Distinctions: High-quality custom rods at a reasonable price. Innovative lightweight hardwood handles, the foundation of every cast.
Business philosophy: “Never give a screwed-up rod to a custom customer and say, ‘I hope that works for you.’ ”
Sinking cork: “Wood handles provide better grip than cork and look better as the rod ages. People who’ve invested a lot of money in G.Loomis and Winston rods have eventually asked me to customize their rod with wood handles. I have a special way of inserting cork rings inside the handle to reduce weight.
“Look at this,” he added pointing to an 8 1/2 -foot 4-weight, one of his personal rods. “Three years of guiding on the St. River and it still looks new. Who wants a photo of a big fish posed next to a filthy cork handle?”
Material world: “The selection of hardwoods available for making rod handles is absolutely delicious. If you catch a big brown trout and hold a rod beside it for a photo — say a rod with a handle made of swirled amboyna burl — a lot of people aren’t even going to notice the fish.”
Rookie mistake: Originally used deer antler for reel seats, “until customers started bringing them back because the antler would absorb water and swell. I replaced all of those reel seats with other materials.”
Learning curve: “My first inlays and scrimshaws were pretty primitive. You learn the touch, the way wood takes the ink.”
Natural gift: “A steady hand.”
Tools of the trade: Small lathe, rod bench and electric turner, router and engraver, dentist bits for inlays, scrimshaw tool, brushes, razor blades. “I tried something like 50 nail clippers before I found one that trims the (rod guide) threads perfectly every time.”
Medical syringe with cc markings to precisely mix hardener and resin. Microwave to warm rod finish before putting on the threads. “My drying box uses a rotisserie motor to turn rods as they dry at 120 degrees.”
From experience: “Never try to finish rods and put them in the drying box during an electrical storm. If the power goes out and the rotisserie stops, you’ll have to start all over. I had three rods in the box when I learned that lesson.”
Horror story: “I almost burned myself up years ago following some Internet tip to use a lighter for getting rid of bubbles in a rod finish.”
Photo finish: “I’ve done lots of experimenting with rod finishes and the way they’re applied,” he said, bracing his hand as he applies the finish over guide wraps with a brush. “Don’t drink three cups of coffee before doing this,” he added.
“Most people put on a coat and let it dry and then pop the bubbles. I put on a heavy coat while it’s turning, then brush it off. Since there’s no material left, it can’t bubble. I’ll put the rod in the dryer and come back tomorrow. Since they’ve been sealed, no gases can escape from the threads and cause bubbles in the second coat.
Inside scoop: “The longer the wrap the stiffer the rod.”
Trade secret: “Drilling a perfectly aligned hole (for the rod blank) through handle without blowing up exotic woods: I figured out a way that’s so simple, I can do it in a minute. Nobody knows how I do it.”
Competitive edge: “Doing it right every time.”
Claim to fame: Turning 25 handles a day and having them finished in two more days during a stint of making rods for Cabela’s. Recipient of the 2001 Letcher Lambuth craftsmanship award by the by the Washington Fly Fishing Club.
Giving back: Moran regularly contributes rods to help fund wildlife conservation efforts. He offers instruction for do-it-yourselfers.
Growth potential: “Every time I do a sportsman’s show, the response is gratifying, but kind of scary. There are only so many hours in a day.”
Bottom line: Custom rods start at $125 with some fancy models ranging to $650. Delivery within 10 days, “except when I’m fishing.”
Where: Steve Moran’s Custom Rods, 6107 E. Trent Ave., Spokane; (509) 869-3474; www.stevemoranscustomrods.com