WAUPACA — Forrest Peters grew up fishing in the Milwaukee area, but the one thing that really bothered him was the equipment he was buying.
“I’d always get these (commercial) rods and say, ‘I could build something better than this.’ I hated it. It drove me nuts,” Peters said.
Some 30-plus years later, Peters is making good on his claim from his home in Waupaca. Not only does he think he’s making better rods than can be bought in most stores, but they are works of art.
The hobby started about six years ago after one of his sons gifted him with a rod winder, and he began building and decorating his own fishing rods. Other fishermen saw him on the water and were captivated by the artful designs. One by one, Peters was asked to make rods for other people. It just snowballed, he said.
There are two main elements that Peters designs into each of his custom rods. The first is functionality, and the second is beauty.
To make a rod function properly, he has to know what kind of fishing a person intends to do so he knows what kind of “blank” to build on.
“A bass rod is not just a bass rod,” he explained as an example. “You use different lures, you’ve got a spinning rod, you’ve got a crank bait rod (and) you’ve got a jigging rod.”
Another important step is to measure where the butt of the rod hits the owner’s arm to get the best balance. For fish like musky — the fish of 10,000 casts — a day fishing with an unbalanced rod is tiring, Peters said.
“If it’s balanced perfectly, it feels like you’re doing nothing,” he said. “You don’t get tired. The fatigue’s not there. It’s something you get when you get a custom rod. You know it’s a rod for you.”
Peters assembles purchased components from high-end manufacturers like St. Croix Rods in Park Falls and its partner company, RodGeeks, where he can source rod blanks in a range of non-traditional colors. By understanding and applying what he has learned about the characteristics of each fishing rod component, Peters is able to create a pole that has the right speed and smoothness of action, and the right fit, for the individual.
After that, the art takes over.
Once he knows the customer’s favorite color, Peters said he can picture in his head what the final piece will look like.
Line guides — the row of graduated wire hoops through which fishing line travels from the reel to the tip of a pole — are secured in place with a single layer of nylon thread wrapped around and around the pole and waterproofed with thin layers of epoxy. Even when he is only repairing an older rod, Peters likes his thread work to show off unique artistic elements.
“I’m kind of goofy that way, because every rod I do is a piece of art,” he said. “I always put my little touches on there.”
Thread work is also featured on many of the handles. With the rod secured on a winder — much the way a piece of wood is turned on a lathe — he slowly wraps and weaves colored threads snuggly against each other to make an intricate pattern that can take several hours to complete. It is then protected with epoxy. Peters said he is often asked how he painted the intricate design.
“I have to tell them it’s all thread, and I pull them one at a time,” he said.
He decorates other rods with bright pigment swirled into epoxy or a micro-thin layer of abalone shell carefully laid along the tapered curve of a rod handle.
Some of his pieces have been featured on calendars, and one made the cover of RodCrafters Journal, published by the Custom Rod Builders Guild, of which he is a member. If the art doesn’t come across the way he wants it, Peters will tear the piece apart and start again.
“That’s just how I am. I’m very picky,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to give someone something that I wouldn’t want to fish with, or even hold. I wouldn’t want my name on it.”
Each of his designs is unique.
“Everything that I do, I name it. I keep a log of what the rod is, and I take pictures. I never repeat unless it goes to the same person,” Peters said. “There are no two rods out there that are mine that are going to be alike unless the customer wants it.”
The finishing touch on each of his pieces is his Lone Wolf label and a .44 magnum shell embedded in the handle butt.
Some of the rods seem almost too pretty to take to the water, but Peters said they are not just for show. He likes getting a phone call or picture from someone using his rods to catch fish. When he hands a rod over to its new owner, he loves the reaction.
“I love the look in their eyes and that, ‘Wow!’ ” he said. “It’s that ah-ha moment. It’s awesome.”
Peters is proud of his talent but is as likely to donate his rods to a fundraiser as sell them. He said it’s hard for him to put a price on a rod. They range widely, depending on the cost of the components.
“(People ask) why does it cost so much to build a rod? When I can go buy one for $200, why does it cost me $500 for your rod? It’s because that rod you buy off the shelf, somebody else can buy,” Peters said. “The rod I make is made for you, balanced for you, specifically for you.”
Along with making his artistic fishing rods, Peters does wildlife photography, calligraphy, drawing, shell reloading and gunsmithing. His many hobbies are something to keep his hands and mind busy after a day of repairing computers and printers. He also teaches computer classes a few evenings a week at the local senior center and teaches a few classes of rod building in the community.
Peters said he wouldn’t mind doing rod building as a business. If it happens, it happens, but he isn’t eager to push himself on the public.
“I don’t do the stuff to make myself proud or make people look at me differently,” he said. “I like it where they look at (a rod), and I can hear them in the background saying ‘that’s beautiful,’ but they don’t know I’m the one that did it.”
More information about Forrest Peters and his Lone Wolf Rods can be found on his Facebook page or at Rodgeeks.com on the builder profile page.