Retiree obsessed with building the perfect fishing rod

By JOHN McCOY, Charleston Gazette-Mail
SISSONVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — Randy Hively has built some nice fishing rods, but he’s never built a perfect one.
“That’s what keeps me building them,” said Hively, who took up the pastime 11 years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. “Every time I build a rod, I look at it and say, ‘I can do that better.'”
Building a fishing rod from components isn’t particularly difficult. It’s mainly a matter of adding a grip and a reel seat to a rod blank, and then attaching guides to the rod with thread.
Hively doesn’t stop there, though. He embellishes the rods he builds with decorative thread wraps, fancy reel seats and custom-shaped carbon-fiber grips.
“I can build a better rod than you can buy at a store,” he said matter-of-factly. “I orient the blank so it’s as strong as it can possibly be, and I place and size the guides according to what the owner wants the rod to do. At the same time, I can make it really pretty.”
Hively started building rods in 2007, when he saw an ad for a rod-building class offered by the local Trout Unlimited chapter.
“I’d been doing some fly tying, and I kind of liked it,” said the Union Carbide retiree. “I thought it might be fun to build my own fly rod.”
Like many beginners, he didn’t know how many guides to put on the rod, or what size they needed to be, so he purchased a kit that contained all the necessary components.
“It was a 6-foot-6 rod for a 2-weight line,” he said. “I built it and I liked it, but I knew I could improve on what I’d done.”
He also knew he’d found a hobby he wanted to stick with.
“Within a couple of weeks, I went out and purchased a rod lathe for shaping grips and wrapping guides,” he said. “That’s how convinced I was that I wanted to do this.”
That conviction has only grown stronger — so much so that Hively has dedicated an entire room of his Sissonville home to rod building. The tidy, brightly lit room features an extended lathe that allows him to work on rods up to 12 feet in length.
“I might have gone a little overboard with this setup,” he said. “But hey, I’m retired and it’s what I like to do.”
The lathe serves several functions. One, it spins the rods so Hively can form their cork or foam grips to better fit their owners’ hands. Two, it allows him to more quickly wrap the rods’ guides. Three, it enhances his ability to decorate the rods’ butt sections with artistic thread wraps.
“I really like doing fancy wraps,” he said. “Nelson Sorah, the instructor in the TU class I took, didn’t believe in making rods with lots of decorative stuff on them. He did show us the basics of how to do it, though. Naturally, I had to come home and try it.”
Hively purchased a kit that had instructions for several decorative patterns and put a simple diamond-patterned butt wrap on the first rod he ever attempted. Over the years, his embellishments have grown more elaborate — multicolored chevrons, fish and American flags, all done by wrapping thread in intricate patterns.
The grips on his rods are a lot fancier now, too, but that has as much to do with economics as it does with aesthetics. When Hively started building rods, almost all the grips were shaped by gluing cork rings onto a blank and then sanding them as they spun on a lathe.
“Good cork has become almost impossible to get,” Hively said. “When you can find it, you’re going to pay $3 a ring for it, and you need 14 rings to make a grip for a fly rod. That’s one of the reasons I learned how to make foam-core carbon-fiber grips.”
Not only are the synthetic grips attractive and durable, they also can be custom-colored to match owners’ tastes. For example, Hively has made several rods in West Virginia University colors.
“I always tease WVU people that as a Marshall fan, I’m tired of all that blue and gold,” he said.
Curiously, Hively makes no attempt to market his creations.
“I usually only do rods for myself and for my friends,” he said. “I don’t try to make a dime on them. I don’t want to make a business of this, and here’s why: Someone is going to ask me to make a rod for his boy’s birthday, and the birthday’s only two weeks off. I don’t want to have to deal with that kind of pressure.
“I like having the luxury of deciding how much time I want to spend working on a project. I might hit it a couple of hours one day, or I might work straight through until it’s finished. I like to do things on my own schedule.”
Hively said there are weeks when he never sets foot in his workshop, and there are weeks when he might spend 20 hours there.
“It just depends on what I’ve got going,” he said.
Sometimes he might be working on a rod for a friend, and sometimes he might be working on a rod to donate to some worthy cause. He said he’s donated several rods to Trout Unlimited and several other to be raffled off for cancer research efforts.
From time to time, he demonstrates rod-building at the annual West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show. And, bringing things full-circle, he now helps teach the same rod-building class he took to learn the pastime.
“It’s rewarding to teach,” he said. “I like to see young people getting into rod-building. I wish I’d gotten into it younger, and teaching the TU class is helping me pass along what I’ve learned to a younger generation.”
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail,