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ris Kristufek was a fisherman first and a craftsman second. A passion for the sport led him from a highpowered sales career to an unexpected second act creating artful, ergonomic fishing rods for anglers all over the world. Many of his customers use their rods on the lakes that dot the Midwest. But others cast out into the waters of New York and New Jersey, Georgia and Alabama. They take their saltwater fishing rods to Florida and fish rugged spots in Wyoming and Colorado. Kristufek’s custom rods can be found as far away as Norway, Portugal and Australia. A military friend took a travel rod to fish in Saudi Arabia. All of these rods started in the same place – the LakeLady Custom Fishing Rods shop on the shores of Pelican Lake. When Kristufek isn’t in his studio in Breezy Point, Minn., he’s got his own line in the water. If he’s not on Pelican Lake, you might find him on Leech Lake or Lake of the Woods, chasing trophy northern pike in northwestern Ontario or seeking out salmon and rockfish in Alaska.
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“I think my customer is a whole lot like me,” says Kristufek. “I enjoy the out of doors. I enjoy fishing. I enjoy being with nature and trying to outsmart the fish long before the catch. Catching is the bonus. Just being out there is total relaxation for me and makes me one with everything that’s going on around me.” The idea for LakeLady Custom Fishing Rods sprang from a simple need. “I’ve spent my life fishing in the United States and many foreign countries, but I never ever felt like I was fishing with a tool that really fit me, that gave me the sensitivity, that gave me the extra punch I needed to outsmart the fish,” Kristufek explains. “I found I could build a much better, more sensitive rod than I found in a sporting goods store.” Kristufek isn’t against the basic rods you find in sporting goods stores, necessarily. He acknowledges everybody needs to start somewhere. But as an angler’s skill and passion for the sport grows, they’ll need to take the next step and select tools that best fit the task at hand. In this way, he says, fishing is just like any other sport.
I" found I could build a much better, more sensitive rod than I found in a sporting goods store." Kris Kristufek LakeLady Custom Fishing Rods
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“A professional golfer would not use golf clubs he got from a sporting goods store,” he explains. “He would have those clubs made for him.” When an angler is ready to take the next step and invest in a fishing rod made specifically for them, Kristufek is ready. Each finished rod is as distinct as the user, but the customization process always starts in the same way. “What we do with custom rods is find the spine or backbone of the rod,” Kristufek explains in the patient, deliberate cadence of a man who has taught the craft of custom rod building to groups of high school students, artists, outdoors enthusiasts and retirees across the Midwest. “It’s inherent in all tubes. And we need to utilize that for strength and flexibility.” The spine is the natural bend in a rod blank. It’s a tangible, tactile thing that a rod maker can feel. This is the backbone of the rod, the element that centers and supports every other part. Working with, not against, the
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backbone helps every element function together elegantly and efficiently. “If the custom rod is built on the spine, it will remain stable in your hand,” explains Kristufek. “It will not twist and turn. You’ll be able to use all of your thought process and energy to focus on the fish.” The location of the spine determines where every other element on a custom rod – from the reel seat to the guide stations – will be placed. LakeLady Custom Fishing Rods uses high quality components, including carbon fiber, bamboo rod blanks, Portuguese cork, lightweight CNC seats and high strength ALPS seats and guides. “We locate the guide stations so that there are no sharp angles and so there is no friction,” Kristufek explains. “Once we reduce the friction in the rod, you can feel more.”
I“f the custom rod is built on the spine, it will remain stable in your hand.”
LakeLady Custom Fishing Rods
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Kristufek considers a variety of factors when creating a custom rod, including, “Favorite color, hand and arm measurement, where and what species they’re going to fish for, what technique they’ll use, how often they fish.” Kristufek specializes in creating spin, casting, saltwater, fly fishing and ice fishing rods, as well as rods geared toward catching musky and salmon. With all these variables to consider, no two rods are the same.
design. Kristufek explains that most rods in the sporting goods store are made for the average angler – a 5’10” man with a size 9.5 shoe who fishes four times a year.
Each LakeLady rod is ergonomically fitted for its user, which reduces casting fatigue and makes a rod feel almost weightless. A customer’s height, hand size and the length of their arms and forearms are measured and incorporated into the
The end result is a well-constructed tool that’s been customized to suit its user’s build, needs, skills and goals. But when customers and fellow anglers see a LakeLady rod in person, the bells and whistles are sometimes what they notice first.
“I mean, does that sounds like you?” he asks incredulously. “You wouldn’t pick up a pair of shoes and just walk out. We all wear shoes. But mine don’t fit you. You need to measure. It’s the same thing with custom rods.”
“A lot of people think a custom rod has to have all kinds of fancy bling to it, lots of artistic embellishment,” Kristufek says ruefully. “That’s the pixie dust for custom rods. It’s the way the rod is built that makes it special.” That might be true, but that doesn’t mean that Kristufek doesn’t employ a little artistic pixie dust of his own. He has two shops in his Breezy Point home, one for the wood turning and carving and one for wrapping and finishing and a second for packing
and finishing that’s stocked to the gills with rod blanks, dyes and colorful threads. If a customer wants an intricately carved wood handle, Kristufek will create a custom inlay, illustration or checkerboard pattern in the first shop. If the client is after something a little more colorful than stained and carved wood, he’ll dye, wrap and weave designs onto the rod that are as unique as the user themselves. Kristufek uses a variety of artistic techniques to take a client’s vision to the next level.
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“My very favorite technique is crosswrapping,” says Kristufek. “It’s threads that are wrapped on cross point. You can make boxes and squares and circles and hearts. They become allusions based on the way the thread is wrapped on the rod blank and the colors.” Kristufek has wrapped intricate images of fish on rods. He’s inlaid tiny feathers, engraved meaningful dates and honored family members, sports teams and family tartans. He’s also proficient in several dying techniques. “Marbling is fun,” he says. “It’s colored dyes that are applied to the rod blank and manipulated with tools as the rod is turned.” It’s a labor of love. It takes between seven and 10 hours to complete an average rod, but Kristufek has spent up to 40 hours working on one weaving project alone. Carving the segmented wood handles can be equally time consuming, since he has to cut, dry and shape the wood. Many customers choose stabilized burl woods like black ash, maple or box elder, or opt for exotic woods from around the world. Sometimes the wood itself is meaningful to a customer. This can sometimes present new challenge for Kristufek, like when a customer asked him to give a rustic cedar fence post new life as a fly rod handle.
“I think I counted 110 growth rings in this gnarly fence post from western North Dakota,” says Kristufek. “It took about four hours just to turn the handle of this fly rod just because of the knots. I didn’t want it to explode.” This hands-on process, the focus on the tiny details is part of custom rod making’s appeal. Even though the materials have grown more lightweight and durable over time, the process of crafting a custom fishing rod has changed very little. “Rods are built today much like they were 30, 40 years ago,” Kristufek explains. “The guides and handles and reel seats are all attached to a rod blank by hand. The rod blanks are wrapped by hand. There’s a lot of hand labor involved in the process.” The rod building process attracts skilled craftspeople and individuals interested in working with their hands, people drawn in by a desire to take an old art and make it new, and anglers looking to take their own fishing to the next level. Kristufek has taught the art of rod building to over 400 students, both at North House Folk School and at high schools around the upper Midwest. With such an impressive body of work and deep artistic cultural connections, it’s easy to assume that Kristufek had always been an artist. That assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
The rod building process attracts skilled craftspeople and individuals interested in working with their hands. Kristufek has taught the art of rod building to over 400 studentS. “I had no idea that I had any kind of artistic ability in me at all,” he says. “I didn’t study art when I was young or in college. I enjoyed artsy things but it really didn’t intrigue me to the point where I studied it. My mother was a charcoal artist. So she had some artistic talent. But none of the others in our family did. This thing just kind of came naturally to me as I got into it and learned how to do these different types of illustrations.
Given his success, Kristufek has been featured on numerous Midwestern television shows and in many magazines and newspapers. He has built custom fishing rods for then-Governor Jesse Ventura and professional anglers, earned Best of Show awards from the Custom Rod Builders Guild and been mentored by rod builders from around the world. You might assume that rod building was a long time dream. Wrong again. Kristufek tumbled headlong into his vocation by accident. After working 60 to 70 hours a week in sales for a major oil company, he retired early and soon found himself at loose ends.
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“The day after retirement I had nothing to do,” he says. “I had no previous outside experience other than work or family. So I went down to our local library in Brainerd and I found two paragraphs in an old “Field & Stream” magazine that talked about building custom rods and what they were. It was enough to intrigue me, and I bought a kit from a component supplier. I built the rod. It had a one-page instruction sheet on how to put this rod together.” And how did that first rod turn out? Kristufek roars with laughter. “It was just atrocious!” he says merrily. “It was terrible. Every once in a while I go look at it and marvel. That got me started.” He kept at it, applying the same dedication to his craftsmanship as he had to his sales career. He improved, picking up and refining the skills he needed as he went. The rods he made for himself began attracting notice. The trickle of commissions grew into a steady stream. “Since then I’ve sold something pretty close to 3,000 rods,” Kristufek says with pride. “They’re being used all over the world. I’ve built rods for governors, senators, four-star generals and everyday fisherman like you and me.”
Every LakeLady rod is inscribed with the owner’s name, signed by Kristufek and numbered like the fine art that it is. Then it’s carefully placed in a custom embroidered rod sock made by Kristufek’s wife Wini to protect it during its travels. Some LakeLady Custom Fishing Rods travel around the world, just like their owners and their maker. But sometimes they don’t go far at all – just a few steps down to the boat on Pelican Lake and out onto the water. So how many rods has Kristufek made for himself? Since he considers himself to be similar to his customers in his quest for superior quality, beauty and function and travels around the world chasing the next great catch, it’s not a random question. He stops for a moment to consider the question. “I think I have somewhere in the range of 40 to 50 rods, from fly rods to boat roads,” he muses, making a quick tally. “I have a couple saltwater rods. Ice, walleye, muskie rods, little tiny ice rods…” He stops and cracks a grin so broad you can almost hear it. “My wife says way too many. So I ask her, ‘How many pairs of shoes do you have?’” He pauses, wryly triumphant. “And that ends the discussion.”
As far as Kristufek and his customers are concerned, custom rods from LakeLady Custom Fishing Rods are even better than shoes. They’re just as practical, but much more durable. And there’s no question that they’re more beautiful. A custom fishing rod is a sophisticated tool that doubles as a work of art, an investment in an angler’s sport and passion that will pay off for years to come.
A custom fishing rod is a sophisticated tool that doubles as a work of art, an investment in an angler’s sport and passion that will pay off for years to come.