Fly fishing gear

Fishing Rod Builder Mike Lesch Creates Functional Art E! News UK

CHISHOLM — If there’s ever a tornado warning for this Iron Range town, Mike Lesch will likely be safe.

That’s because he already spends a lot of time in his basement shop, where he turns dull graphite sticks into working works of fish art.

You have to go down the stairs and through rooms cluttered with fishing memorabilia, but his shop is brightly lit, with dozens of spools of colorful thread hanging on the wall. There are packs of line guides and jars of epoxy and cork grips tucked neatly to the side – all the components of his handcrafted and custom-made fishing rods.

A personalized fishing rod made by Mike Lesch, of Chisholm, includes the name of the lucky 12-year-old fisherman who will receive the fishing rod as a gift from his grandparents. Lesch’s wife, MJ, serves as his quality control inspector and gets his name on every rod Lesch builds.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

Lesch has been building rods from the ground up since 1967, since he was 16, growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He sent a mail-order rod builder’s kit to Herter’s, the Minnesota-based sporting goods catalog company that was a precursor to later giants like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops.

“It was a 7ft buggy-whip rod, not so great. But I was hooked from the start,” he said.

custom fishing rods
Several of Mike Lesch’s handmade fishing rods, all with unique colors and patterns, stand in a corner of his basement workshop in Chisholm on June 17. Lesch manufactures spinning rods, spinning rods, spinning rods, fly rods and ice fishing rods.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

In those more than half a century, Lesch estimates that he built over 2,500 fishing rods, with some years exceeding 100 rods made. But he’s still excited to talk about the colors, patterns, and features of fishing rods.

“Each one of them is different. I don’t make two rods the same way unless someone orders them that way,” Lesch said, noting that at 71 he goes from a lifelong sideline to a hobby.
“I could make 20 canes this year, that’s all, for my friends and family… a few to donate to the Legion, Rotary or Kiwanis,” Lesch said.

He had just completed his last two creations: a sparkling green bass fishing rod for a 12-year-old boy in Illinois and a camouflage rod for the boy’s 80-year-old great-grandfather, a veteran who lives at Pelican Lake. near Orr.

Good light and strong cheats

Of course, you can go to any sporting goods store and buy a functional cane for $100 or less. But if you want it custom made to your exact standards – length, weight, stiffness, power, colors – then Lesch could do just that. But it wouldn’t be cheap. Parts alone add up to $150 or more. And Lesch said he puts almost eight hours of sweat into each rod.

inspect a fishing rod
Mike Lesch of Chisholm inspects the alignment of a line guide he had just wound onto a new blank rod June 19. Lesch has been making custom fishing rods for 55 years.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

“That’s a big deal with the Rod Builders Guild. We want people to get paid for the custom work they do,” Lesch said, noting he would get $300 or more for a spinning rod. personalized these days, if he sold them.

Choose the type of fish you are targeting for a spinning or casting style reel, then choose your fishing style. Jigging? Slip-bobbers? Lagging spinners? Casting big lures on big bass or musky? Fast action or broomstick? Lesch will just pick the right rod blank. Next, you would have to choose a color. The rest will be up to him. He orders much of his supplies from a catalog from Mudhole Tackle in Florida.

“I have guys who tell me to do any color. But I won’t start until they give me color,” Lesch said. “That’s what makes it personal. It’s sort of the focal point of the stem. The color scheme, the design – they are all unique. It’s custom made, one of a kind…a personalized piece of art.

After Lesch is finished, each rod is inspected by his wife, MJ. Then the two have their names written on the blank, along with the name of the new owner.

“She’s my quality control department,” Lesch said of MJ

pink fishing rod
Mike Lesch holds a cane he built for his wife, MJ. He found the bright pink and gold reel at a garage sale, then matched the colors of the fishing rod he built from scratch.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

Lesch moved his chair closer to the workbench and began attaching a line guide to what will one day be a spinning rod. He took off his normal prescription glasses and put on a pair of cheaters, 2.5 power, to see better.

“I have a passion for it,” Lesch added as he wrapped neon green wire around a line guide, clamping it to a new graphite rod blank. He still winds the line by hand while some rod builders use an electric winder.

“A word of advice to anyone getting into it: get a comfortable work bench and have good lighting. I like LEDs better…and I get a good pair of cheaters,” Lesch said.

He used a dental tool to align the wire perfectly.

fishing rod packaging
Mike Lesch uses a dental tool to straighten the wire used to attach a line guide to the blank rod June 17.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

“You don’t want to use sewing thread. They can sometimes react with the epoxy,” Lesch noted. Instead, it uses treated nylon thread specially designed for the job.

Lesch first got a taste of Northland fishing on a canoe trip as a high school student in Oklahoma. After his senior year, he applied to be a dock worker at the Trails End Lodge on Saganaga Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail. Endowed with an aptitude for fish fishing, he quickly finds himself as a guide, a job he will resume for several years. It was during the heyday of big fish on Big Sag, and he remembers giant walleyes and pike being caught by his customers.

“Dicky Powell was my mentor up there,” Lesch said of the legendary Saganaga guide. “There were so many big fish back then.”

old fishing rod renovated
Mike Lesch holds a 100-year-old bamboo fishing rod June 17 that he had previously refurbished to pristine condition. The rod and reel came from the east coast and were probably used for fishing in the Atlantic Ocean for large species like tuna.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

Lesch dabbled in fisheries management at Utah State University. He also attended the University of Minnesota Duluth for a bit. He eventually settled on the iron chain where he worked for a mining supply company. He also worked in custom printing for the Hibbing Tribune and sold sporting goods for 15 years. He eventually had to retire at age 52 due to health issues.

But all the while, he was making custom fishing rods. He never advertised, per se, but word of mouth spread throughout the Range as he made more rods for more people.

“I think we met at the bass fishing club. But as soon as I saw one of his rods, I had to have one,” said Iron Range fishing guru Greg Clusiau, of Keewatin. “Mike is such a nice guy. …And he puts a bit of himself into every rod he makes. I love how he signs each stem and then puts my name on it too. It’s very personalized. That makes it special.

Clusiau noted that Lesch was among the first in Northland to make custom ice fishing rods at a time when most ice rods were clunky and unresponsive.

“He was really a leader in his early days trying to find better rods for ice fishing,” Clusiau said. “He also does a lot of rod repairs and refurbishments. He’s a handy guy to have around.”

Lesch has also worked to pass on his passion and skills, teaching cane building in the Hibbing and Chisholm community education classes.

Mike Lesch in his basement
Mike Lesch talks about some of the unusual and vintage sporting goods he has collected over the years just outside his basement store in Chisholm on June 17.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

Another list of fish to catch

The Iron Rangers may remember Lesch’s fishing show that aired for years on radio stations WMFG and later WKKQ, weekly five- to 10-minute segments that kept anglers up to date with the local bite.

Lesch would be just as good fishing on a sunny June day as he would be in his store. But he has serious back and neck problems that go hand in hand with his diabetes and heart disease.

fishing rod construction
Mike Lesch slowly spins a fishing rod blank to wrap neon green yarn around a June17 line guide. Some rod makers use a machine to wind the wire, but Lesch always does it by hand.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

“I’ve always loved fishing and talking about fishing,” he said, noting that rod building satisfies two of his passions: being creative and fishing.

“I love that you can use what I make,” he said. “But I’ve had people take their cane and never use it. They put it on the wall like a painting.

His favorite fish to catch?

“Probably crappie,” he said. “But I also like these hybrid striped bass. They are the most combative fish I have ever had in fresh water.

Book how to build fishing rods
Mike Lesch has been building custom rods for 55 years, but still refers to the “bibles” of rod building: Dale Clemens’ how-to books.

John Myers/Duluth News Tribune

Lesch was a member of the Bucketmouth Bassmasters fishing club for many years and hopes to sort out his back and other health issues so he can get back on the water. He still has an unfinished list of big fish species to catch before his fishing days are over, including sturgeon, tuna, tarpon and, at the top of his to-do list: halibut.

Of course, he will hold one of his own creations while fishing.

“They’re not just beautiful,” Lesch said with a smile. “They work well too.”