Cool stuff Pete. I particularly liked this:
The Little Old Rod Maker
By Nick Curcione
Reprinted from "ANGLER", Late Summer, 1979 edition
My father was the first in our fishing group to acquire one, but I gave it the first real workout. It all began on a restless night on board a 65-foot sportfisher that sailed out of San Pedro. After the ritual of taking on bait from a receiver in the harbor, we headed out to sea, bound for San Clemente Island. The rhythmic drone of the boat's engines lulled me to sleep, but I was periodically awakened every time the hull fell off a large wave, causing my knee to slam into the bunk's partition. Anxious thoughts about prospects for the following day's fishing made falling back to sleep difficult.
It always strikes me as a bit curious that when I accommodate myself to the whine of the boat's engines and am able to fall asleep, the sudden absence of that sound or a change in pitch can cause me to awaken. Just cutting the engine's revs can stir me from a sound sleep. And it was no different early that morning, when the skipper cut back on the throttles. I clumsily exited from the bunk, groped around for my rubber deck boots, and made my way topside. The island was barely visible through the morning haze, as the boat slowly headed for the east end. There was still plenty of time for breakfast, before the deckhand began his chumming duties, and I usually would have headed straight for the galley. But this day was different. Instead of satisfying my hunger pangs, I had to go make sure that my father's prize possession was still securely on board. A week before this outing, he had purchased a beautiful, jet-black Harnell live-bait rod and grudgingly consented to let me use it, since he wasn't able to make the trip.
Then, as now, a rod that bore the mark of John Harrington represented the state of the art in tubular fiberglass rods. Like many other anglers, I take a great deal of pride in owning finely crafted tackle, and merely having that rod in my possession was a mark of status. More important, however, was the fact that it performed as great as it looked.
For about an hour and a half, the yellows failed to show, and calico bass provided most of the action. There were some nice-sized fish in the 3- to 5-pound class, and the rod handled them with ease. But I really wanted to see how it would hold up when I pulled on something big and strong like a yellow. Fortunately, the yellows eventually cooperated, and I had ample opportunity to test the rod. At the day's end, I had landed six yellows, and one topping the 30-pound mark won me my first jackpot. Now I certainly cannot attribute all this success to the rod. On the other hand, there is no doubt that it made fighting those fish a lot easier. After pinning the first yellow, I knew I had to have a rod like that of my own.
Now granted there are other rod manufacturers that turn out some outstanding products, and a number like Fenwick, Lamiglas, Sabre, and Truline are located right on the West Coast. But part of the unique feature of Harrington rods lies with the man himself. His life-style has been infused with a combination of Wild West adventure and Yankee ingenuity, both of which have earned him the reputation as the granddaddy of the fiberglass industry.
Looking back on his early years, no one would have ever predicted that he would wind up in the rod business. John was born in 1901 on the Choctaw Nation Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. A sepia print hanging on his office wall depicts John, his mother, two brothers, and a sister standing beside the covered wagon they traveled to Phoenix in about 70 years ago. At age 17, with the outbreak of World War I, John struck out on his own to fulfill his one big ambition to enlist in the army. He made his way to Los Angeles, but the recruiter turned him down because of his age. Shortly thereafter, he took a job as a cowboy on a King City cattle ranch. He liked the work, but realized he couldn't support a wife on the low wages, so he hired on as a road surfacer with the State Highway Department. Eleven years later found him back in Los Angeles, where he eventually worked his way up to shop foreman in a conveyor factory. He soon outgrew that job and took a position as a tooling advisor with Douglas Aircraft in 1940
This was the turning point in John's career as a fishing rod designer and manufacturer. John had been fishing most of his life, and when Douglas transferred him to Chicago, one of his vacation plans included a fishing trip to Minnesota. He had left all his tackle back in California, and since the war was on he had difficulty buying any sort of decent equipment. He rummaged around and finally managed to come up with two old split-bamboo rods, which he promptly broke on some hefty northern pike. It was then that he decided to make his own rods.
His position at Douglas gave him access to virtually unlimited quantities of a square-weave glass material being used in the construction of various aircraft parts. Having worked with this material for quite some time, he hit upon the idea of trying to make fishing rods with it. So one day when he had a little free time, he took some of this material, spread it out on a big planer board, squeezed casein glue through it, rolled it by hand, and used the shop grinder to form it to a taper. Although it was primitive by today's standards, John had himself a rod that was superior in many respects to the bamboo sticks that were currently in vogue then. It was also during that same fateful year of 1943 that John started casting his own pistol-grip handles out of aluminum.
At the war's end, he wanted to go into business for himself, and much to the company's displeasure he made his break with Douglas. He moved back to California and went about trying to set up a business in Venice. Ware shortages were still the order of the day, and John was hard pressed for basic materials. The square-weave glass cloth available because of its use in the aircraft industry was unsuitable because it did not have any longitudinal strength. Resin was extremely scarce, and the unmodified phenolics that he could obtain proved to be very brittle, greatly reducing the strength of the rod, Finally, with the help of his friend Ted Thal, who was the West Coast distributor for Ownes Corning, John was gradually able to get the materials he needed. For months, he experimented with the resins and perfected them to a point at which the rod would flex correctly without breaking up. He also hand-machined his first eighteen steel mandrels.
In those early years when John was experimenting with his rods, he also came up with the idea for roll-on perfume dispensers. Unfortunately, as was his custom when he developed something new, he never bothered to get a patent on it. Years later, as he found out, this practice cost him dearly in the rod business.
John recalls the first six months in 1945 as the period during which he developed what he considers his first good glass blanks. It was also during that period that he and a friend names Lavern Rennells were manufacturing casting-rod handles. That business was going well, and in 1946 the two men formed a partnership.
When it comes to radical innovations in product development, many anglers tend to be skeptical and prefer to stick with what has proven itself in the past. This was the case when John first introduced his glass rods. People during that time associated the word glass with material that was fragile and broke easily. On the other hand, the flexibility and strength of a properly wrapped bamboo rod was recognized for generations. John met this skepticism head on, giving away literally hundreds of rods in an effort to convince potential customers of the superiority of glass when compared with bamboo. When it finally caught on, fiberglass knocked bamboo right off the market.
One indication of the material's acceptability is the fact that in 1946 Harrington and Rennells produced an estimated 1,333 blanks. At that time a pharmaceutical salesman named George Hines had been buying rod handles from the two men for a line of Calcutta rods that he was building in his garage. He was affectionately called P.P. Hines, because he sold pills (vitamins) and poles to physicians in the area. When he became familiar with the glass blanks, he was immediately convinced of their superiority and asked for a worldwide exclusive on sales. John recalls that when Hines first made the offer, he told him to "go jump in the lake." But then he reconsidered. Hines was a salesman of proven ability, and John needed someone to mount a sales campaign to familiarize the country with fiberglass rods. A handshake between the two men was the only contract that sealed the deal. Hines invested several thousand dollars of his own money in Harrington and Rennells, and a successful venture it was indeed. By the end of 1946, Harrington and Reynolds had $80,000 in profit.
For the next few years things went so well that Hines was able to turn down a $250,000 offer for his exclusive sales rights. John had similar offers, but also refused sale. But one day, John's basic trust in people was misplaced. And that, coupled with his failure to obtain patents, burned him badly. A shop foreman whom John befriended and helped out financially turned over all the important rod data to a man who tried to buy the company. It was though a series of similar misdeeds that John claims rival manufacturers were able to come by a lot of his ideas and trade secrets.
But despite these troubles, the company continued to prosper, and in 1950 it incorporated. According to John, they would have preferred to retain the partnership, but the insurance on himself was too costly. So in 1950, the firm came to be known as Harnell, Inc., a title that combined both men's last names.
For a time, the business went quite smoothly, until Rennells began to have personal difficulties and finally succeeded in persuading John to move the plant from Venice, California to Safford, Arizona. Looking back on it, John recalls this period as one of the lowest points in the company's history. Due to mismanagement and a host of related problems, they lost 40 percent of their business in one year. In an effort to salvage the company, John bought out his partner and moved the operation back to California into a section of Santa Monica. Unfortunately, he was unable to recoup the staggering financial losses. In 1962 alone, he lost about $22,000 of his own money. With his savings nearly depleted, John grudgingly accepted an offer by the Schultz Tool Company to buy the business. But Harrington never lost his love for the rod industry, and in 1965 he formed another partnership and opened a small plant in Oxnard, California, which has been his home base ever since. Due to legal considerations, he can no longer use the Harnell name, but it didn't take long for aficionados of fine glass rods to associate the Harrington label with a high quality product.
There are two features in the construction of Harrington blanks that set them apart from other rods available on the market. First of all, John begins the manufacturing process with the best materials he can get his hands on. Fiberglass cloth is a good example. The number of longitudinal fibers in a given section of fiberglass cloth will determine the flex strength of the rod; the more fibers, the greater the strength and the higher the cost. And this is why you can put unbelievable pressure on a fish without fear of having the rod blow up in your hands; your main concern is the breaking strength of the line, not the rod.
Second, unlike most other manufacturers that incorporate only one basic taper in their blanks, Harrington rods have three such tapers. This is a difficult process, requiring specially trained personnel to control the pressure during the rolling operation. And although this adds to the cost, it makes a rod that is a sheer delight to fish with.
This description of the rod's handling characteristics is not culled from data furnished by some over enthusiastic promotion man. It is based on years of fishing experience by myself and fellow anglers who have come to regard Harrington rods as prized possessions in our tackle repertoire. And as testimony to the fact that quality is still the byword with John Harrington, I need only recall the experiences of a friend of mine who was on a trip last May. He had just finished wrapping the guides on a 6-foot saltwater Harrington bait rod he purchased earlier in the month and was anxious to give it a try on some yellowtail that were making periodic showings at the Coronado Islands below San Diego. The fishing grounds were located in what I like to refer to as a "bad neighborhood," meaning that plenty of rocks provided convenient cutoff points for the hardpulling yellows. When you get bit in such places, you have to apply maximum pressure to prevent the yellows from "rocking" you. It was also one of those days when the yellow's favorite bait, the squid, was not available. Squid is a pleasure to use, because it is hardy, it stays on the hook well, and it casts easily due to its bulk. But on this particular day, my friend was forced to rely on a "hot" anchovy to entice a strike from the schools of breezing yellows.
So here you have a set of conditions that impose dual requirements on the rod. On the one hand, it has to have enough reserve strength down through the butt section so that you have sufficient power to turn the fish before it gets to the rocks. But on the other hand, the tip section has to be sensitive enough to permit relatively easy casting of practically weightless baits like anchovies. The seven nice yellows my friend landed that day were certainly a good indication that his new rod effectively measured up to both sets of conditions. He was able to cast the anchovies the required distance, and once he had a fish hooked up he didn't lose even one to the rocks.
There is no doubt that luck and skill both determine one's fishing success. And the old saying that a rifle is only as accurate as the guy pulling the trigger is just as applicable to fishing tackle. Providing a duffer with the best equipment will not turn him into a pro overnight. But equally true, a good fisherman with cheap tackle will seldom realize the full potential of his skill.
When it comes to evaluating a rod's performance, John himself has more than mere statistical data, because he has fished with them from the beginning. In fact, the fish-rich waters off Mazatlan, Mexico, became one of his favorite test sites for experimenting with different rod designs. And as a result of these yearly excursions, John can be credited as one of the few men who were responsible for establishing Mazatlan as a mecca for saltwater anglers.
He first started going to Mexico in 1947 when he vacationed in Tijuana. But one day, he decided he wanted to try something different, so he walked up to a wall map, closed his eyes, and thrust his finger forward. He was pointing directly at Mazatlan, and that's how he decided he would give it a try. On his first trip down, he didn't plan any fishing, because Mazatlan simply did not have any reputation for this sort of thing. But John was always a fisherman at heart, and when he stood on the beach for the first time and took in that beautiful panorama of blue-green ocean he knew he had to wet a line. He made a few inquiries in town and found that there was only one boat operating; the Marichu, owned by Luis Patron. The skipper was prepared to take the gringo out for a few hours of fishing, but he got quite a surprise when John informed him that he wanted to charter the boat for ten days. And at $10 a day, I guess that was quite a bargain. Since he didn't originally plan to fish when he first flew down, John didn't bring any tackle, and he had to make use of what little the boat had. And according to his memory, this tackle was quite primitive, even by the standards of yesteryear. Nevertheless, he managed to take at least one marlin every day they went out. John's appetite apparently was really whetted, because he charted the boat for a full month the next year and established the area as his own fishing playground for the next thirteen years.
The turning point for Mazatlan as a fishing resort occurred when the Marichu burned. John was making good money at the time, so he asked Luis if he would like him to get another boat in California. At first, the skipper couldn't believe what he had heard, but he knew that John was the kind of guy who made things happen, so he got himself stateside.
The people at the first boat yard John and the skipper visited spied John in his work clothes and wrote off his inquiries as a waste of time. But the sales representative at the S & D Boat Works in San Monica was a better judge of character and knew that John was serious. He, John and Luis went for a test ride in one of the 26-footers that had just been completed, and it was decided on the spot that this was the type of boat needed for the Mazatlan operation. John has as much business sense as he does fishing savvy, and to everyone's surprise he decided to purchase three boats instead of one. He realized the potential of Mazatlan and was willing to invest in it. Also, when he wanted something to happen, he wanted it right away, so he held the boat yard to a 45-day delivery date. Part of the reason the yard was able to meet the deadline was that Harrington bought the boats stripped. They were practically bare hulls, unpainted and without engines. John shrewdly figured that he could ship these to Mexico much more cheaply, and he ended up paying an import tax of only $35 per hull. Once in Mexico, they were painted and fitted with engines that cost Luis's father 40 percent less than the stateside price. The three boats were christened the Apache, Azteca, and Maya, and were the start of the famed Indian fleet in Mazatlan.
These were great fishing days for John, topped by a magnificent single day's catch of sixteen marlin, all of which he released. When newspapers began running stories of John's fabulous outings, it didn't take long for anglers the world over to get the word that Mazatlan was the place to go. Now John's age prevents him from doing battle with the offshore giants, but he still makes regular jaunts to the Channel Islands off Oxnard to sample the smaller game fish these waters have to offer. From a barefoot kid in a covered wagon to one of the most respected names in the tackle industry -- the little old rod maker has come a long way. Angler/Nick Curcione
Reprinted from "ANGLER", Late Summer, 1979 edition