Andy Dear: I'd like to start off if we could by discussing your family's lineage in the fishing rod business. The Powells have quite a rich history in this industry, and I'd like for the uninitiated readers to become better acquainted with the Powell legacy.
Press Powell: Well, this goes back to a little bit after the turn of the century my grandfather E.C. Powell had been a bait fisherman, he used single eggs, and he was good at it, then he got introduced to flyfishing. He used Leonard Rods, and didn't like them; they weren't stiff enough in the butt. So he decided he could make a rod himself. He was a storekeeper and a beekeeper, and what made him think he could do it was one day he was robbing the honey out of a beehive and he saw the combs and the hexagon, and thought he could make a rod. So he made a fishing rod, he didn't like it, so he made another one, then another one, then one for a neighbor, and one for someone else. He actually introduced flyfishing in this area in Northern California. Well he became quite good at making fishing rods, and he had also become an expert fisherman and caster. What really pushed the rods in the early twenties was when he went into making rods full time. E.C. put on a program for a group in San Francisco; they went out to a casting club out at Stowe Lake I believe. He went down there, entered, and actually won the competition. No one had ever seen one of the rods he had made and Jules Cuenin who was one of the top casters in the Golden Gate Casting Club cast his rod and said, “We just don't have any equipment like this.” Of course in the fly casting circles the word just spread through Pasadena, Long Beach, Portland, Seattle, Buffalo, Columbus Ohio…it just went all through. And that was what established the Powell name really outside of the local area and the people that he taught fishing that came to him for flies, leaders, and fishing rods.
AD: Did he teach himself to work with cane or was there some literature on it that he had read that gave him a basic idea of what to do? Did he develop a lot of the tools he was using?
PP: Well, no. Despite having only a 5th grade education, my Grandfather was a very bright man. E.C. made his first rods without the aid of any literature or directions. First he obtained some bamboo from his neighbor who used the cane to decorate his Chinese restaurant. He then used knives, planes, files and blocks of wood to cut out the tapered segments which he glued together to make his first rods. It should be noted that the first rods were probably made from California cane. E.C. soon found a source of imported Tonkin cane. Also eventually E.C. Powell designed and made bamboo rod making machinery, which still has no equals.
AD: It was decorative bamboo that he made the first rods out of?
PP: Decorative Bamboo, and basic rod design, that's right… that's what he made his first rods out of. His first rod he didn't like at all, but he had a very good mind, and he figured out what he had to do. He increased the tapers, he was the first person really I think to play with tapers the way he did. I know he was the first person that ever documented the tapers to the type of rod he wanted. You have to remember though I am a little biased now!
AD: That's all right, you have a right to be (Laughter). So then I guess your dad Walton Powell came along and was tutored by your grandfather?
PP: Yes, there were three sons. One of them was very young and didn't do much work. It was actually my dad's other brother Albert “Buddy” Powell that worked with their father first It was very fortunate that Buddy and Dad began to work with Grandpa in the late 1920s, and the third brother Clyde, started in the mid thirties. It gave them a good team to make bamboo rods. My Uncle Buddy became a champion flycaster. Unfortunately he was killed in an auto accident in 1936 just as he was beginning to break many fly casting records. As a matter of fact, he had just kicked the world record Steelhead distance record up from 145 feet to 167 feet. My dada was in San Jose when he did it, and told me that the cast would have gone 190-200 feet, but it hit a tree branch on the other side of the casting pool. You see it was this event that led to the biggest and most dramatic improvement in Grandpa's flyrods. This casting event required a very powerful rod, however it had a 5 ¾ oz. weight limit. E.C. put his mind to work and came up with a construction process he called semi-hollow. In this process he slabbed out all the important dense outside fibers of the bamboo and glued it to a strip of Port Orford cedar. He continued by sanding out a series of hollow sections up the length of the rod. It was the semi-hollow process that E.C. had a patent pending on that first allowed a flyrod to be extremely powerful, but very light. You could not beat the technology that the Powell's had at the time, and all the tournament casters wanted the rods. That is when semi-hollow became very important. It is also when E.C. learned the advantages semi-hollow allowed the caster. He started making most of his rods with the semi-hollow construction, which became very important amongst the fly fishermen.
AD: That was pretty progressive thinking and design for back in those days.
PP: My grandfather was so far ahead of the thinking in Bamboo rods it was incredible if a person really gives it some thought, and that's the truth. Most of the really good bamboo rod builders would tell you that.
AD: So did your dad just grow up with that from the time he was old enough to walk?
PP: Oh absolutely! Actually my dad started sorting feathers with my grandmother who was a flytier…they made their whole living off of flyfishing. He was born in 1915, and by 1928 he was probably working steadily with his father on fishing rods when he was ten or eleven years old. He was probably corking them, turning down cork, mounting reelseats, fitting ferrules, that type of work. Then we got to World War II and the importation and the manufacture of sporting equipment was banned because all of the resources went towards the war effort. But my grandfather just kind of shut the blinds and went on making rods. My Dad and my Uncles went off to do their war related things, and when they came back from World War II my dad went back in the business and it became E.C. Powell and Son. They were building a lot of rods together. Then the Korean conflict came along and bamboo became very hard to get.
Two things really happened in the early fifties, along came fiberglass, which was actually an aerospace composite at that time. My father had built up quite a plant for making bamboo rods, but fiberglass took over the market…. this was what caused the split between my dad and my grandfather. Dad went in to fiberglass with I believe a man by the name of Fields. They built a small fiberglass plant, Mr. Fields was originally making boats, and on the side they made a rodbuilding plant. Dad got into making quite a few blanks, and then he found out that flyfishing was such a small industry. The other thing that came along at the same time was the spinning reel, and that further decreased the number of fly fishermen. I think my dad sold or traded some of his equipment to the Conolon Corp. and he worked a deal where he could go in and make his fiberglass blanks. He and Pat Rambo, who was the production man, developed the high-grade rods they had. Those were the best at the time. Many of those were the same rods they made for Russ Peak.
AD: So your dad's decision to move into fiberglass was what caused the split between him and your grandfather?
PP: Well, Grandpa was very possessive, and he wanted just to make the bamboo rods, yeah.
AD: And did he ever come around to your dad's way of thinking?
PP: Oh no! E.C. Powell would have never made anything but Bamboo rods!
AD: So did your father collaborate on rod designs with anybody? You mentioned Russ Peak a minute ago…
PP: My dad and Russ were pretty good friends, most everyone in those days were good friends. Probably if my father ever collaborated with anybody in the fiberglass rods it was Bill Phillipson from Denver Colorado. Bill and my father were also very close. Dad always maintained that Bill was the most underrated rodbuilder of all. He had a great deal of respect for him. I knew Bill as a young boy, and the last time I saw him was just before he died, I was about 30. Bill was very active in the fiberglass world as well as bamboo. He was the first person to use “Scotch Ply” fiberglass, which was composed of longitudinal fibers. I am 90% sure, because my dad worked with him on it. I know he made them for several people, my dad used some of them. They were softer rods, Orvis called them a “full flex” rod. That goes back to the late 50's or early sixties.
AD: Would say that your Grandfather's design ideas about the way a flyrod should cast and react were very influential on your dad, or did he have his own ideas about the way things work?
PP: Oh No, they thought along the same lines. You know you only have so many variables to think about, if you get too far out in right field, you just make lousy rods! (Laughter!). And that's something a lot of people just don't understand, especially with the modern composites. There are certain fundamental immutable truths that you live with or you just don't have a good fishing rod. E.C basically reduced flyrods to three types and that was what he called A, B, and C. The C rod is a tip resisting butt bending, that means a slow rod that you could use for Bass Bugs and big air resistant flies. The B rod was a uniform type taper, which is best for most average fishermen, kind of a medium action. Then the A action which is a very fast, rigid rod which are butt resisting with mostly tip action which are the most efficient rods, but they are also pretty high performance rods for the average fisherman.
AD: They require very precise timing in the casting stroke….
PP: That's right, they use more spring power. You have to be right on top of your cast. You even see that a lot in graphite today which is a far more forgiving material. A lot of people are using rods much stiffer than what they ought to be using. You know what we have forgotten about in the flyrod market is durability in a fishing rod. There is no question about it. I think that anybody that uses graphite with a modulus even in the high forties or low fifties is really looking at breakage. With all of the bead heads and split shot that we use in fishing today…they can take the bend, but they can't take the impact caused by a poor casting stroke.
AD: Let's talk a little bit about how you got into the business.
PP: Well, it was an accident of Birth. I was thrown into it and that was my job. I started out sorting out cork, you always wanted good cork. Of course in those days, quality cork was so much easier to find. I started from there and just learned everything all the way up to bamboo. I worked with my Grandfather and my dad both; I spent the summers with my Grandfather. He died when I was a sophomore in college. When I graduated from High School and went to college, I didn't ever think I would work in the business. I loved flyfishing, don't get me wrong that was one of my passions in life. I went to college and I graduated. I went to work for Mobil chemical, I wasn't really happy there, so then I taught school for six years. Then my mother called me up and asked me to come back. I was already involved with my Dad and Dick Kantner designing some flyrods from the new technology, graphite. So my wife and I both quit our teaching jobs and I went up and started working with my dad. You have to remember, I am the third generation, the manufacture and sales of flyfishing equipment was my families' livelihood. My grandmother and my mother were both accomplished flytiers. Sometimes they made more of the money than the rods did!
AD: A few questions back I asked you if your dad had differences of opinion on flyrod design. Did you and your dad have differences like that or did you agree on the attributes of a flyrod?
PP: Yes, fundamentally I agreed with dad, however I preferred a faster action than he did. I don't like extremely rigidly fast rods, but I like kind of a moderately progressive rod. My dad likes slower rods, and I would say that about my grandfather too. E.C himself used more of a medium/fast rod. Dad always liked slower rods and he was very good with them. He was a very methodical slow caster, and he took his time and did well with them. Where you have problems with those rods is when you are fishing underneath the water, you have some trouble controlling your line. Dad and I we agreed, but I saw what the public wanted. I went to a medium action rod, leaning more towards the quicker side. Also I think that the graphite material made a huge difference. It's a far better building material than bamboo. Now that doesn't mean I like graphite better than Bamboo, I think you can make a better rod out of graphite than you can out of bamboo.
AD: Is that just because of the inherent properties such as it's light weight?
PP: Right, in its day bamboo was the best material there was. Today, my opinion is that we have actually gone past the optimum a little bit in graphite. Everyone tries to say the higher the modulus and lighter the rod the better…that's not true in my opinion.
AD: That seems to be the consensus amongst the rod designers like yourself. However the general public has been bombarded with so much marketing that tends to glorify the other end of the spectrum of lighter and lighter and faster and faster.
PP: Yes and I don't know where that marketing comes from? There are a lot of people who don't listen or tend to make up their own ideas, and a lot of them aren't good casters or good fishermen! I wouldn't mention any names, but I have cast and fished with some of the so called “big names” and when they get out of the casting pool in the auditorium or the concrete or the grass, they have big trouble…BIG TROUBLE when it actually comes to the applications of fishing. You know in trout fishing, which is the biggest of all in flyfishing, we teach people to cast at 35-40 feet, yet most of the Trout are caught within 25 feet. At that distance, you're really changing the line weight. My father would never designate a rod with just one line weight, because if you have a long skinny line or a short fat line, what is the difference? It is all a weight factor, and now a lot more people are coming around to that realization.
AD: Do you know Kerry Burkheimer?
PP: Oh sure, I have known Kerry for years.
AD: He and I were just speaking about this subject the other day. Kerry actually rates his rods for three line weights.
PP: I do it for two, I think you can do it for three, but just to keep people from making comments I do it for two (laughter!) But I would say if you're a good caster a rod will easily cast three line weights. The constant is that you have to be a good caster and know how to apply your power. My dad always put three line weights on a rod. For over thirty years he did that, and many people couldn't accept that.
AD: After the AFTMA line rating system came out…which nobody seems to adhere to these days anyway with the weights of the actual fly lines themselves.
PP: Oh absolutely, I hate to name rods, but take Sage for example. How many times have you heard someone say “Well it's rated for a six so I fish a seven on it”? That's not to say it's not a wonderful rod, it's just that the fisherman makes up his own mind what he wants to fish. I think that as a Rodmaker that's what you are trying to do is make a rod that fishes well and that people are comfortable with. Not some super high performance machine like a racecar or something. You're trying to make a very comfortable machine, and a fishing rod is a machine. It is a complex machine that utilizes several different functions like leverage, spring, and momentum. Let's put it this way, I think a caster becomes a very good caster when he learns that he no more casts the rod than an archer shoots an arrow, and the caster's responsibility is to apply the power to the rod in the right amounts at the right time.
AD: That is a very good analogy, I have never thought of it that way, but that is a very good way to put it.
PP: I feel very strongly that you can tell a good caster, because the cast looks effortless. I know I was lucky because I had great teachers when I was young. I don't even remember how I learned to cast. I watch people and pick up real quick on who really knows how to cast. Take a guy like Jimmy Green. He is an excellent caster. When you watch him, his cast is effortless and the mechanics are perfect. He also knows what he is feeling in a rod when he casts it. In the late 1970's I was in Jackson Hole and had a graphite rod that was getting some good hype. Jimmy asked if he could cast it. He did say he liked it and asked if he could fish it that evening, and I said yes. You know in the old days, things were different. You did not give away your trade secrets, but in the flyrod industry even competitors were friends. I feel very fortunate to have been part of that era in flyrod manufacturing. Even though we were competitors, I considered people like Tom Morgan, Larry Kinney, and Joe Fischer very good friends. My dada and I worked very close with both Dick Kantner and Gary Loomis. Dad first met Gary in 1983. Their relationship became very close and dad almost felt like Gary was a son. We actually purchased the property that Gary's plant was on and had a complete set of graphite equipment built and set up in the factory. The property was an old church school. The factory was built in the gymnasium that still had hardwood floors and lines for when they played basketball. The little schoolhouse was used as the finishing facility.
PP: Absolutely and we had an agreement that we would have all our graphite rods built there. We had a strong proprietary involvement with him. They weren't similar at all to the Loomis rods though. I am a really fortunate guy, I got to work with Dick Kantner and Gary Loomis and you're talking about two guys who may be the two best materials applications people ever. And Gary is the best mechanic in the fishing rod business as far as building composite equipment.
AD: What would you say the most important thing you learned from your father and your grandfather is as far as making fishing rods goes?
PP: (pausing extensively) Well, I would say the mot important thing I ever learned from my Grandfather was to pay attention to the quantities of details. Now this was on bamboo rods, there is so much detail and you're dealing with variables all the time. Don't ever try to shortcut and let one go, take care of every detail as it comes up in front of you. Something I learned from both my Grandfather and my father is if you make a lousy rod, break it! Don't let it get out there. In bamboo, it doesn't matter who you are, you can make a lousy rod. Don't make it up and give it to a kid or give it to your neighbor, then they run off and show a Powell rod to somebody who knows what they are looking at. Whereas with graphite we would give the rods with cosmetic defects to kids or groups or something like that. With bamboo it doesn't work that way because people like to talk about it. From my Dad, I would say that you only make rods that you like and would personally fish. And that you are a good fisherman and you make rods that are fundamentally correct…what kind of answer are you looking for? (Laughter)
AD: That was just fine.
PP: I think my father's greatest contribution to flyfishing, and I think it was a huge contribution was his reelseat. You know many of the reelseats out there on the market are copies of my father's and grandfather's reelseats. Ever since I was in high school everyone always said we were crazy because we used uplocking reelseats…try to find a downlocking one today! So my grandfathers were hidden under the cork. My dad who did all the reelseat and grip work for him noticed that the cork would chip off where it was very thin around the hood. So what my dad did was he made the first uplocking reelseat with an anodized aluminum hood that wasn't recessed. You see a lot of those, there are copies of them all over. Reelseats provide a very important function of keeping the reel on the rod, and there are a lot of reelseats out there that just don't do that.
AD: Would you say that you guys were instrumental in the usage of uplocking reelseats as well?
PP: Oh yeah, There were a couple of other uplocking reelseats out there, but my grandfather liked to fish reel up with his hand almost underneath the reel. That is how he fished, he felt that from a balance point of view, and a feel point of view there were so may advantages to uplocking. That is why he used an uplocking reelseat. I can remember we used to go around to places and people would always say “Boy, that is a beautiful rod, but why do you have this crummy reelseat on it?” But we never changed, we stayed with it because we liked it. My dad always said, “When you like it, and you're convinced it's the best, you stay with it”. That was what I learned from my dad. Some of people didn't like my dad because when he liked something he stuck with it. He didn't like some of the ferruling systems and he was adamant about it and he would talk about it. Here is something else I could tell you about my Grandfather. If you would see the equipment he built, and the system he built for making bamboo rods, it would blow you away. He was so far ahead of everybody, and that's a credit to Grandpa. It's still light years ahead of anybody else. My dad improved it, dad was a better machinist than Grandpa was and he actually improved some of the equipment, but not the system, the system has stayed the same. I have got it all here, and now my nephew is making bamboo rods that are just gorgeous.
AD: So now we're going on four generations?
PP: Yeah, it's going on four and were hoping to keep it going. Along with the bamboo, we have a line of about 30 models of graphite rods and blanks and it is really a fine bunch of rods. You know if I were to make my comment on the rod building industry, the biggest thing that ever hurt the flyrod industry and the most critical thing was that ridiculous…and you can print this all you want, “replace it no matter how you break it” warranty. It was bad for the industry and ultimately it will be for the consumer because the rods will be made bulletproof, so bulletproof they wouldn't be good rods. You know I have never ever in my life been in a situation where a person told me that the rod was at fault that I didn't replace it. I know sometimes the rod was at fault and sometimes it wasn't. We never had a warranty problem and we always stood behind our product and we never had that much breakage. But when it's used to sell, a product, people are buying a warranty not a rod. I have always though it was an immoral deal because it opens up the situation for the consumer to be a crook.
AD: Would you say in the long run that the prices of the rods ended up going up because they have to cover the cost of maintaining the no fault warranty?
PP: There is no question about it, and I think a lot of rods are way overpriced anyway. Something I have been thinking about doing to be honest is making about three or four models of reasonably priced bamboo blanks for the custom Rodbuilder. I don't think anybody else is doing it, not like we could make. I have thought about this many times. You know, there are a lot of custom rodbuilders out there. I have always told a person, if you want a good rod reasonably, make your own rod. It is not hard to learn to make a fundamental rod. I think you're magazine does an excellent job. I really do, it fills a nice little void because there are a lot of custom rodbuilders out there.
AD: Do you keep up with a lot of the advances that are going in the industry today? I am just wondering if you have any thoughts on where manufacturers can go from here in terms of material and designs.
PP: Well, I haven't been into everything, but I think that IM6 and IM7 are about as good as materials as there are, and I think most good rodbuilders would say that. When you start to get into the higher modulus aerospace materials, the breakage is just too much. I don't subscribe that philosophy that lighter is better. You know, this may be a weak thing to say but I think we have come a long way towards making about as nice of a rod that you can make. I don't know how much better you can make a rod without creating a rod that will break.
AD: Without going to a completely new material I guess…
PP: Right, or going to a new material, and I don't know what that material is.
AD: You know it seems like every year each manufacturer comes out with twenty models of rods, and in spite of what they tell you, there is really nothing different about the models that were out the previous year.
PP: No there isn't, the materials are the same, they just copyright another name for them. You know in the flyfishing industry we got into hyping new materials so much that it was like everyone was having a race there for a while… remember that? And it hurt them because they got into materials before they were ready to be released.
AD: And maybe not even tweak the taper, it's just a marketing ploy.
PP: No, a lot of times they don't, and I think it's totally marketing. Do you know, at Powell it cost us more to convince people to buy our fishing rods than it did to actually make the rods! This is a problem, we used to all make good livings, and all of a sudden you had to spend more on advertising than you can afford. You write for a magazine, you know these ads are not cheap, and all of a sudden you've spent $100,000.00 a year. Well the most sales we ever did were around a million a year. We'd sell 5000 rods and blanks, that was where we wanted to be, that was our niche. We couldn't advertise like someone who was selling 25,000 rods. Then a lot of the stores would say, “well you have to advertise like that or we don't want to sell your rod, and you just can't do it.
AD: When you build out a rod, what details do you tend to look for in a finished rod?
PP: First of all, we give our blanks a good once over, to make sure they don't have a cosmetic error in them, and that could be from painting or anything else. Those are separated real quickly. Then when we line them up, they are lined up so they are perfectly straight. I don't know if you have really ever looked down the tips of a lot of rods, but they have doglegs in them. I think that's pathetic, and that's something that we have wiped out. We have a standard by which our blanks have to meet. One of them is no doglegs, or a double twist or a twist in the tip. Very rarely do you have a problem with the butt, but now and then you do. We take anything out like that. Our system of mounting is kind of unique, everybody really cared, as each process went along. We have always mounted all of our rods by sight, and I'll be darned, I have never seen any spining or anything else that is a better system. We always mounted on the opposite side of the natural curve, and even bamboo has a natural curve to it. What does the spine really matter? I hear about people who mount with it, on the opposite side of it, on the flat side of it, there are all these different philosophies. We have found our method works and we have never had a complaint, not one complaint. Then we always try to put really nice pieces of wood in our reelseat. We get Madrone and Rosewood, Burl Walnut and Maple. You want your rod to really stand out and look sharp, and that means good cork, and good cork is getting increasingly hard to find. Very critically is the finish work on the guides, it has got to be perfect. This takes talent, these are people with a great talent to do that. We have always had people where if someone else sees something that's wrong, they'll call it to their attention so they can change it.
A good friend of mine, Less Eichorn who used to be the sales representative at Fenwick and Sage once told me his opinion of the importance of cosmetics, and the sales of rods in retail stores. At the time Powell was only in a few stores, however he told me “Nobody wants to be next to your rods, and Orvis will never be seen next to yours”. That is what I was told by Les, whether it was true or not, I do not know.
You know, that brings up a flyfishing story. If two companies ever owned flyfishing…think about it, it was Fenwick and Pflueger. Everybody had a Fenwick rod, and everybody had a Pflueger reel. I still have a lot of Pflueger reels, but as soon as they tried to mass market their products, they lost their dominance in the industry. In my opinion there is something about flyfishing where you can over market yourself. You really have to come down to the level of the people. The flyfishing customer really likes to feel like he has dealt with the people who are close to the manufacture or part of it. I think that it is incredibly important in flyfishing that you are a grass roots company.
AD: Well Mr. Powell, I really want to thank you for taking the time to share your family's story with me. The depth of your family's involvement in this industry is truly amazing.
PP: You know, I haven't known any other way to make a living except for fly fishing and selling high grade fly fishing equipment all my life, outside of when I was a school teacher right after college. All my life, me and my family, that's how we made our living. You won't find many people that can say that…I don't know if that's anything to be proud of! (Laughter!)
AD: Well, the fact that you guys have been so successful and influential at it is certainly something to be proud of!
PP: You know something, we never got rich but we were always able to make a good living.
AD: Thanks again Mr. Powell, I really appreciate your help.
PP: Your welcome Andy. Let me know if I can help with anything else.