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Decatur craftsman makes rods

December 24, 2009 at 01:25 PM

Decatur Herald & Review

DECATUR (AP) - Fishing rods cast a long shadow through the span of human history.

Their use was already old when the splendidly named Wynkyn de Worde published “Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle” (hook) in London in 1496. And the weapons mankind loves the most he loves to decorate, so it’s little surprise the techniques for beautifying fishing rods have been practiced to perfection as the long years unwound.

The state of the art is currently on display in the “Xmas ARTicles” artists’ gift shop open through December in Decatur’s Madden Arts Center. Decatur angler and rod-builder Patric Nielsen has several pieces of his piscatorial artistry for sale there and, whether you are fishing for Christmas gift ideas or not, they’re well worth a look.

There will, of course, be those among you who know not of what they speak and cast aspersions that a fishing rod is just a fishing rod at the end of the day. These are the same people who probably would have urged Pope Julius II to have Michelangelo forget his sketches and just finish the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a nice shade of teal.

Nielsen, on the other hand, believes that those who venture into the handiwork of God deserve to be armed with something worthwhile.

“Even if you are not catching anything,” he explains. “You are out there in the sun, on the water, out with nature, having a good time and fishing with something pretty.”

Pretty doesn’t begin to describe it. Catch a glimpse of his 6½-foot-long smallmouth bass rod, built from scratch from graphite blanks (plain hollow tubes of the material) which appears to weigh nothing at all. Its cork handle is hand-assembled, hand-glued and hand-shaped by Nielsen, who does all his work at the commandeered kitchen table in his house.

Then comes the attachment of the line guides, the metal rings the fishing line runs through, and the artistry hits warp drive. The guides are bound on by strong thread, called wraps, and Nielsen plays with colors and patterns that dazzle the eye. The smallmouth bass rod uses a white “underwrap” to nicely offset heavier weight red “guide wrap” thread that actually holds the guides in place. This in turn is finished at the ends with finely-executed wrappings of gold.

Each wrapping is applied by twisting the rod in his hands and winding the thread on to create tight, perfect circles with no visible end or beginning: the ends are pulled underneath, out of sight, using a thread loop buried beneath the coils.

On and on the work marches up Nielsen’s creations, a set of guides taking maybe six or eight hours to finish. Just above that handcrafted cork handle, where there is some room to let the artist’s imagination play, he reaches deeper into his pool of talent. Crisscrossing metallic threads, called diamond wrap, weave up and down here in impossibly complex patterns that might involve six different colors.

Nielsen’s rods are adorned with a little picture of the species they’re aimed at and sometimes will boast other touches of whimsy: The walleye rod, for example, features a tiny real feather from a bird called the jungle cock, which has an eyelike pattern on its plumage. Fly tying is another Nielsen specialty, and he also likes using the little jungle bird feathers in dressed-up hooks that frequently fool fishes.

When everything on the rod is as fine as he can make it, guide wrappings and applied feather decorations are entombed deep and forever in a tough epoxylike clear coat.

“Once that is applied, the rod has to be laid down horizontally and turned to stop the coating sagging while it dries,” said Nielsen, 62. “I like to do the turning by hand, too, and it may be two or three hours before it quits trying to sag. Someone might say I am crazy for doing that (turning machines are available) but that is the way I was taught, and it’s part of making the rods unique; it’s what helps make them different.”

He arrived at this quiet pursuit of perfection after a working career as a tire inspector amid the roaring noise of the former Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. plant in Decatur. He put in 33 years there before the factory ran out of road and closed in 2001, and Nielsen decided to park himself in retirement. Already a fisherman, fly tier and natural artist handy with a pencil, he was fishing around for other artistic outlets and had bumped into a late great Cerro Gordo angler and rod builder named Charles Reeves, who took him under his wing and taught him the artistry of rod building.

Nielsen launched his “Wilderness Rod & Tackle” business eight years ago and builds custom rods, costing from $60 to more than $300, for fishermen customers who like to specify everything they want in the same way they would order a tailor-made suit. Rod action (the way it bends and reacts), the type of species it’s aimed at and the fishing method being used all make a difference. Other considerations are catered for, too: Do you want the rod one-piece or able to break down into two or even four pieces so you can stow it in the helicopter that drops you off in the Canadian wilderness? Nielsen can satisfy every need.

“And do you want the wrap colors to match your Ranger bass boat? Or the Illini colors, or your truck or in the Harley-Davidson colors of orange and black?” asks Nielsen. “People who take their fishing seriously like to have a nice fishing rod.”

Watching the epiphany moment as a customer calls to collect his finished masterpiece is always exciting. “People just love what he can do, they absolutely love it,” said Marcia Nielsen, 53, his wife and a keen angler herself. “He just spends so much time on them, and he tries to make them all different, all special.”

She’s fly-fished with her husband’s rod artistry in Arkansas and on the mighty Colorado River in Arizona amid bucolic splendor like a scene from the movie “A River Runs Through It.” ‘‘Just beautiful,” she recalls.

Some fishermen grow more cautious when they see what her husband has done for them and are tempted to hang his work on the wall and leave it there like fine art. The creator, however, would much rather his rods didn’t gather dust.

“Oh, I like it when they send me pictures of what they’ve caught with them,” he said. “And I want to hear all their stories.”

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