Chet Kiekhafer’s business requires the precision of an engineer, the steady hands of a surgeon, the creativity of an artist, and the skill of an avid fisherman.
Hutchinson’s Kiekhafer incorporates each of these skills when building custom fishing rods.
From a bare graphite pole, he transforms it into a work of art, with expert craftsmanship. Yet, once he’s made rods for his clients, “a lot of times they’ll say, ‘I can’t use that, it’s too good. I have to put it on the wall,’ that’s why I educate them on the do’s and don’ts,” Kiekhafer said. “They (the rods) are to be used, but not abused.”
Kiekhafer has been making rods for five years, since retiring from 3M in 2011 at the age of 56.
“I kind of had a feeling I wanted to try it. My dad had been into rod building 45 years ago, and I have a couple of his rods. He did it. done for a few years, but it was always on my mind,” Kiekhafer said. “Before I retired, I thought it was something I could do — I’m patient; I could handle it. And we have to retire from something, my financial planner told me, not from something. So I see it this way, I retired to do this.
Kiekhafer grew up in Lake Elmo, east of the Twin Cities, and started fishing when he was around 5 years old.
“We were fishing all the time. Dad took us to many different places. We went as a family – three boys and mom and dad,” he said.
Kiekhafer met his wife, Vickie, who had also been fishing since she was a child, and the two were supposed to be together.
“She has loved fishing since the day we met. She knew how to bait the hook,” he joked.
They moved to the Twin Cities area while he worked for 3M in Maplewood. In 1990 he was transferred to 3M in Hutchinson and the Kiekhafers moved to town. He worked as a process engineer, ensuring that large rolls of blue painter’s tape made by 3M were properly converted into small hand-sized rolls sold in stores.
The Kiekhafers have been married for 40 years and have two adult daughters, Jessie and Sara, and five grandchildren.
They all plan to go fishing this summer at Rainy Lake near International Falls, Kiekhafer’s favorite place to fish.
His hobby of building fishing rods grew as Kiekhafer pondered how to catch more fish.
“I wanted a rod to fish for walleye. I like to fish for walleye. I may not always be successful, but I like to fish them,” he said with a laugh.
He took a five-minute class at a store in the Twin Cities where he bought his rod-building supplies. Then at home, he watched a few videos online, read books, asked questions, and “the rest is history,” he said.
He started by building a cane for himself. Then he made one for his wife, then for family members, then for friends, and now for clients.
It wasn’t long before his hobby turned into a business, Crow River Custom Rods.
“There was enough interest from other people, and it was to the point where I needed it – not that I was making money – but there were expenses involved.”
ADVANTAGES OF CUSTOMIZED
Kiekhafer sees a big difference between his rods and store-bought ones. He builds his rods with performance, strength, durability and cast in mind.
“A custom rod that I build will be built to maximize its durability. It will be technically perfect in that regard. Every rod has a spine like you and me, and I find that spine, and I build keeping that in mind. spirit,” he said. “Then the rod will – 99% of the time – have more guides than a store-bought rod, and that preserves the integrity of the rod, gives it more durability, better line control, which means greater accuracy and casting longer distances.”
As he holds the rod vertically, with the base anchored to the ground and the tip of the rod resting in one hand, he feels the spine of the rod with his other hand.
“A rod blank will snap in one place. It’s the spine, I just found it,” he said as he demonstrated his technique.
“When you find the spine, bend the rod and release it, it wants to wobble. If you hold it on the spine, it will wobble up and down, which means if it flexes that way , it’ll go straight. Now, if it’s twisted and wobbly, and you’re going to throw it, which way is it going to go?”
So finding the spine and fixing the guides in the right place will help anglers cast where they aim.
When he finds the spine, he marks the spot. Then it uses Morton’s Equal Angle Guide Placement System to figure out where to place the guides.
“I’m not saying all custom rods are built on the spine, but I chose to do it that way. There are many ways to put the guides. It’s been proven and it works well,” said he declared.
Before starting to build a cane for a client, he wants to know more about how he will use the cane, for example, standing on the shore, sitting in a boat or right-handed or left-handed?
“There are so many rod lengths that can be adjusted, or fish species specific rods. You don’t want something with a long shaft if they have a short arm,” he said. “Another way to ask is, ‘what don’t you like about the rods you have?'”
Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that can make a fisherman happy, he says. “You ask where would you like the hook keeper? They’ll say, ‘I never thought of that.’ It’s the little things that can make it easier to use.
He also wants to know what type of reel they will be putting on the rod, as this may affect the guides he attaches.
When the customer approves their plan, the customer provides a deposit, and Kiekhafer orders materials and gets to work.
“I like the interaction with people, customers, because they have a passion for fishing, and I like to fish. And I can help them. I think that’s why they come to see me,” he said.
“Last fall I was watching someone fishing on the river here who was having trouble casting. I spoke with him for a while, explained to him what I think I can do. He thought about it, and the next day he came and he ordered a cane, three weeks later he went out and used it, and emailed or texted me and said it was the best cane he ever had. He caught a lot of fish in the river. So I was happy.
The rods he made can be found as close to home as Hutchinson, Litchfield and Glencoe, and as far away as Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Texas.
Its custom rods start at $350, and the cost goes up mostly depending on the rod blank used and the artwork involved.
“No matter what price we start at, they’ll all be made the same, they’ll all have the same features, they’ll all have the same craftsmanship.”
Rod blanks come with a manufacturer’s warranty. “My work, I guarantee it forever. If something falls, let me know, and I’ll fix it,” he said.
It manufactures the handles according to the customers’ wishes, from the type of material to the color, including the balance of the rod.
For the catch of his wife Vickie’s fishing rod, he used over 200 cork inlays to create a checkered pattern.
“It could be just as fancy as that, or more fanciful. The sky is the limit,” he said.
Other handles he has built have been created from cedar, stabilized wood, foam, and acrylic, which come in a variety of colors and patterns.
Initially, Kiekhafer wasn’t interested in the artistic part of building a custom cane.
“Not at first, it was just, build the rod functionally, put the handle on it, put the guides on it, go use it and have fun,” he said.
That was until 2011, when he attended a sports show in the Twin Cities and met Kris Kristufek with Breezy Point, Minnesota-based Lake Lady Custom Fishing Rods. Kiekhafer learned that Kristufek was going to teach an advanced rod building course that involved adding artistic touches to fishing rods, and Kiekhafer signed up.
“He was my mentor, so to speak. He is world famous,” Kiekhafer said.
Today, Kiekhafer has drawers full of plastic containers that hold almost every shade of embroidery floss imaginable.
“I use the other side of my brain that I haven’t used in 35 years because I was working in the industry,” he said.
“I never thought I would really get into all things artistic. It was more about building a functional, superior upper first – and I’m always proud to do that. Then, if me or the individual would like to have something beyond that, in terms of artistic things, we can do that as well. But first comes the functionality of the upper, making it the best it can be,” he said.
From the start, Kiekhafer learned from expert rod builders, then expanded his knowledge after joining the Custom Rod Builders Guild, which is based in Texas but has regional chapters. The guild, which has members worldwide, promotes the craft and teaches the craft.
“It’s fun to meet people and interact. You get to the network, and that’s where it really pays off for me,” he said. “A year and a half ago I had to build a fishing rod that I had never made before – a short saltwater rod. I didn’t want to refuse, so I got at least one half a dozen people across the country to help me design what was needed I couldn’t have done this if I hadn’t joined the guild.
Kiekhafer also shared his knowledge with others. He taught students how to build a fishing rod in two science classes at Hutchinson High School, and this spring he taught a weekend class on building a custom fishing rod by through Hutchinson Community Education.
He also does repairs on other fishing rods, whether it’s fixing broken guides or handles.
Kiekhafer enjoys every part of building a fishing rod.
“As far as cane making goes, I really like everything,” he said. “I like to put the rings on because now it’s a fishing rod. I love getting my hands on them because they are all so unique. Then, the decoration makes it a unique piece because no two are identical.
And when it comes to retiring and starting a new career, “I’ve been happy ever since,” he said.
Juliana Thill is the editor of Leader’s sister publication, Dockside: A Magazine for Lake and River Living.