Tomonori Higashi interview questions and my answers for the January 2013 Fly Fisher Magazine.
(1) After becoming very successful in graphite and then bamboo materials under your own brand, why did you decide to go into glass rod production? Isnt it going back in time?
Yes, in a sense it is going back in time but there is a reason for it. Fiberglass rods are great fishing rods and always have been. They were replaced by the popularity of graphite rods but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for them in an anglers rod selection. Graphite provides a lightweight material with the widest range of loading characteristics but it tends to provide rods of faster action which isn't always the best for the situation, particularly in Japan, where much fishing is done at close range. Bamboo provides rods that work extremely well in the short to medium range with a slower action and a slower, softer presentation because the heavier material helps load the rod. They also represent our angling heritage and provide rods of great beauty reflecting very high craftsmanship. The main downside of bamboo is the cost. Fiberglass rods provide the slower, softer actions and presentation of bamboo rods because the material is heavier than graphite and helps load the rod like bamboo. Fiberglass rods work best in the short to medium ranges where most trout are caught. The rod and blank cost of fiberglass is also less than bamboo and often less than graphite.
(2) Did you do it differently that you did it 35 years ago? What is the difference between TMR glass rod and Winston Stalker (original)?
My design process this time was much different from when I designed the Stalker rods. Winston was getting their fiberglass blanks from the J. K. Fisher Company in line sizes 5-weight through 12-weight when I bought the company in 1973. I had enjoyed fishing a 4-weight rod and wanted to design 3-weight and 4-weight fiberglass rods because I thought there would be a lot of interest in them. I worked with Jim Fisher of J. K. Fisher Company who was rolling our regular fiberglass blanks. First, I knew the mandrels for the regular fiberglass rods were too big and had too fast of a taper. If I made the Stalker rods on these mandrels the wall thickness wouldnt be strong enough. Therefore I chose mandrels that were normally used for spinning rods with a smaller diameter and slower taper. They turned out to be perfect.
Jim made up several trial blanks of what he thought would be appropriate for want I wanted. At the time Glenn Brackett was working for me at Winston. We made up the first samples and took them to the Golden Gate casting ponds for the casting test. Glenn and I thought they were close but not exactly what we wanted. I told Jim what part of the rod I wanted changed and about how much and he made another set of blanks and we cast them. Through this trial and error process the blanks were designed.
The Stalkers were very good rods but didnt have the balance and smoothness I wanted with the new designs. The new fiberglass have a better balance between the tips and butts than the original Stalker rods did providing even better casting and fishing characteristics. Overall the tips are slightly stronger with the butts being slightly softer providing exceptionally smooth and fluid casting and fishing rods. A number of great casters and fishermen have tested the new rods against the original Stalker rods and without exception think the new designs are superior.
The exception is the Streamer Special and the Unity with the Universe rods. I thought they were perfect so I wanted to duplicate them. I used the same mandrel taper and had those original fiberglass rods to cast against the new designs. After some trial and error with patterns I was able to very closely duplicate these rods and, in fact, everyone likes the new 7-weight even better than the original.
(3) What was the design method used for these new glass rods? How did you translate your design ideas into actual blanks?
This time my rod designing technique was much more sophisticated because of my extensive experience designing the original Stalker rods, Winston graphite, and Tom Morgan Rodsmiths graphite rods. I decided to work with Kerry Burkheimer because he makes very high quality rods and knew a lot about fiberglass because of his association with Russ Peak. He agreed he would like to work with me and we have developed a very close working relationship.
Unfortunately, at the time I did the design work on the Stalker rods I didnt know the actual pattern dimensions or the exact mandrel tapers so couldnt tell Jim exactly how much to change them. This time I had the original Winston Stalker and trout rods to work from so I determined the taper of the mandrels first. Then I asked Kerry to tell me the mandrels he had in stock. As it happened he had the exact mandrel tapers I had used before only they had finer tips.
I wanted to design 3-weight through 7-weight rods. I knew from previous experience I wanted to keep the wall thickness approximately the same on all the models since this provides the lightest blanks while maintaining good structural integrity. I chose three different mandrel tapers for the rods as follows: one for the 3-weights, one for the 4- and 5-weights, and one for the 6- and 7-weights. Many years after I first designed the Stalker rods I had gotten the blank patterns from Fisher. When designing the new rods I didnt have any of the original patterns but from memory I knew approximately what the patterns should be in tip and butt width. Surprisingly, the 5-weight pattern I started the new design with turned out to be perfect. This gave me a good starting point with the other designs. I also provided the actual cloth patterns to Kerry so I could consistently change the patterns to reflect the actions I wanted. Kerry would roll the blanks and we would assemble them for casting tests. I had original Stalker rods to cast the new ones against. As with all rod designs I had interchangeable tips and butts and we would cast different combinations choosing the best ones. If we thought they still werent perfect I would make what I thought were the appropriate changes and we would get new samples to cast so it was a matter of trial and error. I dont know a better way to get exactly the best rods. Then they were fished to make sure they were right.
(4) Why did you decide to sell blanks mainly?
We now have very limited production capabilities for finished rods being able to make only about 40 composite rods a year along with about 15 bamboo. Also our finished composite rods are more expensive than most limiting many anglers who dont want to spend that much money. I knew there would be a big demand for my fiberglass rods because of my reputation from Winston fiberglass and the Stalker designs. By selling blanks to individuals and custom rod makers many more anglers will be able to enjoy them.
(5) It took you a long time to finish the design and launch production phase. What kept you for so long?
The design work was quite straight forward and was done in a few months. The original fiberglass cloth and resins where correct but the color wasnt. I wont go into all the disappointments we had with getting the right color but it took much longer than we thought possible. One problem I never did like with the original Winston fiberglass was when the pigment was in the resin and the blanks were sanded smooth there were always white spots showing from sanding off the top of the cloth weave. I didnt want that with the new blanks. After much trial and error we came up with a beautiful color solving all the problems. I have always been known for providing the absolute best quality products so I wouldnt settle for a color or coating that in my mind wasnt perfect. Fortunately Kerry agreed with me. Its also important to make known the great patience Kerry has shown in working with me to design great rods. Many other people would have given up on the project long ago.
(6) What it the current difficulty in fabricating glass rods, if there is any?
Essentially the production is straight forward as far as producing the blanks. As with all composite rods the great challenge is getting straight blanks because there are so many variables that contribute to straightness. Overall Kerrys blanks are quite straight. We also can straighten some after they are rolled if need be. One thing you have to accept is blanks are almost never perfectly straight but when you put the guides on them they always look much straighter. The other difficulty is coating blanks without dust. We can sand and polish some minor dust blemishes. Overall, the coatings are very good.
(7) Sheridan Anderson said, in his "Curtis Creek Manifesto," said to the effect that glass and bamboo rods perform equally well, the only difference being the price tags. How do you respond to that statement?
I would say that bamboo and fiberglass rods do share an action that is very similar. However, as a material bamboo has a little wider fishing range than most fiberglass. One of the attributes of fiberglass over bamboo is it wont take a set whereas, since bamboo is a natural material, it will take a set if strained past its elastic limit.
(8) If I understand it correctly the fiber/resin combination of the original Stalker was E-glass and phenolic resin. Could you tell me a bit of pros and cons of fiber and resin combinations?
Yes, thats correct. At the time epoxy resins werent readily available for fiberglass prepreg cloth whereas phenolic resins were. Im not sure when S-glass was developed and available as a prepreg material but I didnt hear about it until the end of the main fiberglass era in the early 1980s. Fiberglass prepreg now is regularly available with epoxy resins which are very stable and strong so that is what Im using now.
(9) Couldn't S-glass be your choice of fiber this time? If you had used S-glass and epoxy resin system for these rods what kind of action would result?
I could use S-glass prepreg now but it has a higher modulus of elasticity than E-glass has so the blanks would feel differently than the original ones did. I wanted to duplicate the original fiberglass actions as closely as I could while making small improvements based on my extensive knowledge of rod actions and design.
(10) Could you explain a bit about "fading" of the glass rods after reaching certain load limit? What happens to the blank when it hits the threshold? Are these threshold distance the upper figure that you give for each rod models?
Fiberglass fibers made into a composite matrix such as a rod resist bending under a load in a relatively straight progression of resistance up until it reaches a certain point when the continued resistance drops off rapidly. For this reason a fiberglass rod will easily cast up to the distance where the load continues to be accepted by the fiberglass matrix but then it takes a better or different technique to cast beyond this distance such as a double haul or a longer casting stroke. Yes, the distance figures are ones that can easily be reached but should not at all be taken as the maximum distance the rod will cast.
(11) You said that Russ Peak set a standard for premium rod makers like Winston under your ownership. Besides the care to the small detail of finish, what influence did he have on you and your rod making philosophy?
After visiting Russs shop, talking with him, and seeing the finishing workmanship on his rods it gave me a strong incentive to improve the finish on Winston rods. When I bought Winston J. K. Fisher was finishing most of the fiberglass rods. The wraps were uneven in length, the coating was light and inconsistent, the cork wasnt of good quality, and the reel seats were inexpensive. I decided I wanted to produce a much better quality product with both the fiberglass and bamboo rods we were making at the time. Winston had a very good reputation for great fishing and casting rods but the overall workmanship and components were not what they could or should be. Soon after I bought Winston we started doing all the fiberglass ferruling, the cork grips, wrapping, and coating under my direction in San Francisco. I also improved the quality of the rod bags and included the best Cal Air rod tubes with the fiberglass rods.
At Russs shop I cast a number of his rods in addition to purchasing one. I didnt like his actions as well as Winstons. I thought because of the heavy coating on his blanks Winstons actions were lighter and livelier.
(12) Could you name some of the fishes/casters who helped you during the designing and testing phase?
The primary casters who helped with casting my designs were Per Brandin, George Anderson, Brant Oswald, Bruce Richards and Bill Blackburn.
(13) What are the points that the builders of your blanks must bear in mind? You mentioned about the weight and the size of the snakes...
The most critical aspect of finishing my fiberglass blanks is to use light wire guides and tip tops. Also the wraps should be as short as possible and the coating, particularly on the tip of the rods, as light as is consistent with good finishing techniques. These are light action blanks and the less static weight added the livelier the action will be and the better the overall performance.
(14) Finally, how would you like your glass rods to be used?
The time I have spent on a wide variety of trout streams fills my memories with great images and fishing has always brought great joy and satisfaction into my life. Designing great fly rods for fellow anglers has been greatly rewarding and has brought me many wonderful friends over the years. I want anglers to use my designs to provide them with joy and satisfaction on the stream and great appreciation for our sport. I also hope they inspire anglers to protect our great fishing resources around the world.