CHISHOLM, Minn. — 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.
Lesch has been making fishing rods from the ground up since 1967, when he was 16, and grew up in Tulsa, Okla. He mailed a rod construction kit to Herter’s, the Minnesota-based sporting goods catalog company that was the 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.
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 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 is in the process of switch from a secondary activity to a hobby.
“I could do 20 rods this year, that’s it, for friends and family…a few to donate to the Legion or 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.
“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
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 wound neon green yarn over a line guide, clamping it onto 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 have a good pair of cheaters,” Lesch said.
He used a dental tool to align the wire perfectly.
“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.
SAGANAGA LAKE GUIDE
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.”
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 Greg Clusiau, fishing guru at Iron Range, 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 get better rods for ice fishing,” Clusiau said. “He also does a lot of rod repair and refinishing. He’s a practical guy to be around.
Lesch has also worked to pass on his passion and skills, teaching cane building in the Hibbing and Chisholm community education classes.
ALWAYS A BUCKET 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.
“I’ve always loved fishing and talking about fishing,” he says, noting that rod-making meets 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?
“It’s probably crap,” he said. “But I also like these hybrid striped bass. They are the most combative fish I have ever had in fresh water.
Lesch was a member of the Bucketmouth Bassmasters Fishing Club for many years and hopes to fix 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.”