New Mexico fly fishing business on the move since 1980
This article first appeared in the Outdoor Reporter, the quarterly newspaper of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
Now they’re entering yet another new phase, focusing less on building custom rods and more on helping others create their own. As Custom Fly Rod Crafters (www.flyrodcrafters.com), Bob and Lee provide the blanks, handles and other components to anglers worldwide. You don’t hear any complaints from the Widgrens, however. “We’re two happy campers,” Bob said recently as he and Lee put the finishing touches on another order. “We started out with absolutely nothing,” he said, and built it into a thriving business known for high quality and personal attention.
Bob began fly fishing in the early 1970s when the main decision was whether to buy a bamboo rod or a Fenwick fiberglass. “I always had a ‘how-things-work’ type of mentality,” he said, and after the first graphite rods came out in the mid- 70s, he decided to make his own. Friends then started asking him to make rods for them, too.
At the time he and Lee were living on San Antonio Mountain. Undaunted, they formed Los Pinos Rods and started building custom rods using top-quality blanks from Sage, Scott and others. What made their rods stand out was the overall quality topped off by a phenomenal finish, they said. Building a custom rod consists of three phases, according to Bob. Assembling the pieces, handle and hardware is what Bob called “the blacksmithing.” Next comes the process of wrapping the guides with thread. Last is the finish work. Before epoxy, Los Pinos would give each rod up to 10 coats of varnish. Before the last coat, Lee inscribed each rod in fine, hand-painted lettering. Her lettering was among the details that always set Los Pinos Rods apart, they said. One recent customer had his rod inscribed with his name and the fishing trip he had it built for: “Alaska 2013, 9-foot, 9-weight.” She also inscribes the rod’s serial number. In June they built rod No. 5615. If the owner of No. 2 or 2222 were to call the shop and need a replacement part, Bob and Lee could check their files and know everything they needed: what blank was used, the length and weight and even what type and color of thread. Repair has become a major part of the business, they said. “The more rods you have out there,” said Lee, “the more you’re repairing.”
Fly shops in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona as well as Atlanta and Chicago eventually began stocking Los Pinos Rods or having them built specifically for the shop. At one time 32 dealers carried the New Mexico brand. “Nobody bought a ton of them,” but from the mid- 1980s to the late 1990s Los Pinos was producing an average of 600 a year. Like a tiny stream feeding into bigger creeks and rivers, Los Pinos Rods has been part of a major industry. The number of fly anglers is estimated at more than 3.8 million, according to a 2012 report prepared for the American Fly Fishing Trade Association by Southwick Associates Inc. Together those anglers spent almost $750 million in just small to medium size, mom-and-pop stores. That figure excludes sales through the large national chains such as Cabela’s. As the American industry grew, so did Los Pinos. Sensing demand for high quality products, they began making their own wooden landing nets – Lee hand-tied all the net bags while Bob bent the wooden frames. They also got into rod tubes after their supplier became unreliable. They started a new brand, Black Guard, building and powder-coating aluminum tubes in Albuquerque. Initially the rods were only for Los Pinos, but they eventually began supplying for Scott, Winston and several smaller companies. At its peak, Black Guard built about 15,000 rod cases a year. “That’s probably the only way we survived,” Bob laughed. By then they had moved their operations to Albuquerque. They soon saw the need for a storefront operation, and in 1988 the Widgrens opened Los Pinos Fly Shop. Business was booming, but between the shop, rods and tubes, “We were working 24/7,” Bob said. That pace eventually took its toll, however, and in 2008 they sold the fly shop to Mark and Cindy Sawyer. They also closed down their tube business, even as they established their online operation. They still build custom fly rods, however. “We’re down to a couple dozen per year, but that’s great,” Bob said. While many small businesses have suffered as the result of the Internet, Bob and Lee said they could see change coming and went with it. And now they’re part of the global supply chain, shipping everything needed for do-it-yourself rod builders from Deming to Dubai.
Bob has been teaching rod-building classes for many years and continues today, passing on his passion for finely crafted fly rods to anyone willing to make the same effort he did nearly 40 years ago. Perhaps one of them will take it as far as he and Lee have.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 Outdoor Reporter, the quarterly newspaper of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. Other articles in the issue focused on hunting and fishing equipment made in New Mexico. To read more, go to www.nmwildlife.org. Story by Joel Gray.