‘Let It Fly’ With a Custom Rod

By MARIA SCANDALE | Mar 23, 2018

Fly fishing is a paradox calling for finesse: use the lightest rod possible to snag the biggest fish.

The only thing better than building a sleek custom fly rod is catching a once-in-a-lifetime fish on it. Jeff Davis of Brant Beach has both under his belt. He has the hobby that connects with the sport that catches the experience. The gear that he uses, he has fashioned himself, and made hundreds of custom rods for other anglers over 40 years.

When he’s not building rods, the licensed captain’s passion for fishing is spent guiding his charter business, Let It Fly Charters, and he has also experienced some of the most notable and remote angling waters of the world.

His workshop, steps away from the ocean, is a freestanding shed in his side yard, the envy of any hobbyist. It is decorated by photos of his impressive fly fishing catches and one mounted trophy, a 100-pound tarpon.

“These pictures on the wall, just about every single one of them was caught on a fly rod,” he points out to visitors.

For those hooked on the sport, the workshop holds fly rods (and some spinning rods, conventional rods and tuna rods) in all stages of completion. They range from ultralights to the heavy rods that can tackle a tuna.

The largest fly rod and reel outfits are secured horizontally on the ceiling; an onlooker instinctively offers a hand to grab one hefty piece as Davis balances it and himself on a chair to hoist it down. Not that help was necessary – this duo has seen much rocking and reeling.

“The sport is catching the biggest fish on the lightest tackle – let’s give the fish a fighting chance,” Davis gives a glimpse into the sport.

“These are to IGFA – International Game Fish Association – specifications for giant tuna. You’re strapped into a chair with a fighting belt, battling a tuna that is hundreds of pounds. These rods are internationally matched to international Penn reels.”

Incidentally, Foster’s Farm Market, now run by his son, Kirk, is the workplace that many Islanders knew Jeff Davis from before he retired from owning that business. Today Foster’s is also a landscaping design and installation, and building contracting business.

But not everyone knows there was a corporate career previously.

“The first half of my life was with corporations – Procter and Gamble, Clairol hair coloring division of Bristol Myers,” Davis said. (A quick online check of how the names interrelate shows that in 2001 Procter and Gamble agreed to acquire the Clairol hair care and coloring business from Bristol-Myers Squibb for $4.95 billion in cash.) Davis continued, “and finished up as vice president of sales for L’Oreal haircoloring and cosmetics. We used to fly the Concorde to Paris.

“I gave it all up and bought Foster’s from Joe Veitch, ran it for 20 years and sold it to my son, Kirk.” That freed him up for fishing.

We asked him if he caught on to fly fishing because it can be considered a challenge. The answer begins: “It evolved from bigger boats. We used to go out to the canyons to catch marlin, tuna, swordfish, and then as I got older I went back to fishing inshore, inside of 10 miles, for flounder and stripers.

“Then I had a 10-year hiatus because I bought and owned Foster’s Farm Market and I couldn’t go anywhere else in the summer, so I started taking trips to the Caribbean in the off-season, and I wanted to get into fly-rodding some of the world-class destinations.”

He has made 35 trips to Turks and Caicos, along with ventures to the Marquesas, Andros Island, a whole list more.

We had mentioned the once-in-a-lifetime catch. A photo on the wall shows the game fish called permit, a highly sought-after species of the western Atlantic.

“Fly anglers sometimes go their entire lives without catching a permit on a fly rod. They are the most difficult fish in the world to catch on a fly rod,” Davis said. “They are just very wary. They swim in clear water up to your knees, so you’re wading and looking ... and they just know when you’re close.”

He caught his first permit on a fly rod in the lower Yucatan, Mexico. “The story goes, that night you eat a scorpion. It was soaked in tequila, but I ate a scorpion.”

It had taken “years” before the prized permit was landed.

“You have to be a die-hard fly fisherman who’s ready for rejection. Going out all day, maybe you get to see a dozen. If you have the perfection to cast a fly to them, you might have six perfect shots, presentations, and it’s one in a million if you catch one.”

Barracuda, tarpon caught on fly rods, there are stories for each. He displays the deceptively small hook that caught the hundred-pound tarpon on the wall.

Asked if anybody famous owns his custom rods, the answer is no. But he did just finish two high-end orders, one a $900 fly rod. A good deal of that cost is the price of the components themselves – “this is not a cheap sport.”

“The customer is a regular with my charter business – he wanted a 10-weight fly rod to catch a 30- and 40-pound striper, and he wanted top-of-the-line components.”

Adornment is part of the customization. Along the back wall is the rainbow of nylon thread that he winds into double reversing chevrons and other unique patterns – “one thread at a time” –  on a lathe powered by a foot pedal. Three to four layers of flexible epoxy coat the finished work.

Among all the physical considerations, like the right flexibility, people want their fishing rod to reflect their own personality. All rods are personalized. One man is getting Oakland Raiders decor on his. Davis located a tiny Raiders decal from a nail artist out West. The entire rod will be done in black and silver, including the reel seat. The guides are titanium.

The blanks are 100 percent graphite – the same blanks are used whether he is building a fly rod or spinning rod. He touches a graphite rod against the ceiling to demonstrate how supple it is.

“There is a spine – the term is actually a spline. There is a stiff side and a soft side. This soft side, the underneath side, you need it soft when fighting a fish because the reel is underneath. You need the stiff on the top to have the backbone of the rod to fight the fish.

“Now, if it’s a conventional rod, a spinning rod, I can use this same blank, but it’s opposite. The soft side needs to be the top ... here I need the strength under the guides to fight the fish because the reel is up top.”

When the extraordinary battle is won by the angler, the fish is released. The specimen on the wall is an exception.

“You don’t kill the fish; they’re classy enough that they swim another day.”

The ceiling loft holds rods from his father that are split-cane bamboo. Grandchildren will fish in the bay on ultralight spinning rods that Davis made for them.

’60s music is the work rhythm on the radio – Davis is 71, and this is the quiet phase of a retirement winter; in another week he was about to embark on a 10-day angling trip in Florida.

His wife, Jane, his high school sweetheart from Haddonfield who is a retired teacher, is comfortable at home – this is his time for his own pursuit, she says. Jane was the librarian at the Ethel Jacobsen School in Surf City and the Long Beach Island Grade School in Ship Bottom.

Davis still substitute teaches, and he also paints landscapes in acrylic. “There is not one bit of white in that painting,” he pointed out about a snow scene. “So, in the evening when the sun is going down, it all looks like it turns blue.”

He enjoys “all” types of fishing. “I love being on the water; that’s why I charter. Pretty much every day in the summertime I’m fishing, so I do a lot of this rod building in the off-season.”

His Let It Fly, LLC charter fishing goes out of Lighthouse Marina at Sixth Street in Barnegat Light. To learn more about ordering a rod or fishing from area bay or ocean waters, contact Let It Fly LLC at letitfly.org or by phone at 609-377-1299.

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