“I’ve just always been a fisherman, and I just always knew,” Dave Norling, Sr., explained how he inadvertently took the first step towards creating a world-renowned business in 1946 when he made his first fishing rod out of a piece of fiberglass he ordered from a sportsman’s catalog. He was in tenth grade at the time. “I guess it started there, and I just absolutely never got tired of doing it.”
When he started making fly fishing rods, Norling didn’t even have a sander in his workshop; everything was done by hand. He worked mainly with plastic, fiberglass, and graphite, and was churning out rods with such frequency that he had one made for just about everyone he knew. These days, Norling works with his son, Dave Jr., who has a more equipped workshop where he machines the raw materials for new rods before giving them over to his father to finish.
“What happened was I found a place where I could get free graphite blanks, so I just made them for everyone … I ran out of people to give them to!” said Norling. “What got me was when I brought a rod to David [Jr.], and he told me ‘what the heck am I gonna do with another fly rod?’”
After that, the elder Norling started to think about how he could make his craft more interesting. He felt like he’d tried almost everything, but he had a book by an author called George Barnes on bamboo rods inspired him to try out a new material.
“I decided then that I still wasn’t tired of doing it. I knew [making rods out of bamboo] would take a really long time, and I could start over giving them to people,” recalled Norling. Even if the new style of rod is slower to make, that doesn’t stop him from trying to ensure as many people get one as possible. “There’s a lady on the Kinnickinnic who allows us to cross her property, and she hasn’t even got one yet!”
The younger Norling joined his father in the craft roughly 10 to 20 years ago (neither of them could quite remember exactly how long it’s been). The operation started small in Dave Sr.’s basement, but eventually spilled over into the younger’s basement, too, before continuing on into the garage, dominating their houses one room at a time. They still haven’t run out of people to give them to, or new things to try.
“There’s always another taper, there’s always another rod type, or another rod length, and another idea that comes up,” said the elder Norling. “It seems to me that he’s as excited about it as I am.”
Technically, the Norlings run two businesses: Dave Norling’s Fine Cane Rods is the original, but Dave Jr., runs a secondary business called Rush River Rods, which manufactures separate rod parts that can be bought individually.
Dave Jr., bought out Rush River Rods three years ago, though the company has been around for about 20. A self-taught machinist, he acquired the company from a career machinist named Tony Larson, and his wife and business partner, Pumpkin. Tony manufactured metal components called ferrules, which connect the pieces of a multi-part fishing rod together, and Pumpkin was in charge of public relations and sales. Unfortunately, Pumpkin passed away and Tony didn’t have the heart to carry on the company alone, so he passed the enterprise along to Norling.
While he outsources a little of the work to keep up with demand, Norling has been bringing Rush River home little by little, and with the help of new drafting software, the manufacturing process has been getting easier. Soon, he hopes that all of Rush River’s ferrules can be made under his roof. The components he makes also go into finishing the Fine Cane Rods he and his father produce.
It takes between 60 to 80 hours to make one rod, though they don’t really keep track. Together, the Norlings build roughly a dozen rods a year, and many of them go toward charities for conservation groups. Their rods have ended up in the hands of fishers around the world.
“We have rods in Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Chile,” Dave Sr. said “You know, it’s not a business. It’s monkey business! I remember one time David said to me ‘Dad, you do know that guy was trying to buy a rod,’ and I said, “Yes, I do know that.’ We do sell some now and then, but the big thing for both of us is giving them not only to people we really like, but also to Trout Unlimited, the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust and the Lake Superior Steelhead Association.”
These conservation groups use the Norlings’ rods for their fundraisers.
“Not only do we get the enjoyment of building them and giving them away, but it gives us a chance to give something back to a hobby that’s given us so much pleasure,” said Dave Sr.
There’s a lot of community behind Norling’s Fine Cane Rods. The Norlings travel all around the country to meet other rod makers and swap ideas; they’ll travel to North Carolina later this year. Through the years of doing these meetups and conventions, they’ve met a lot of people and gotten a lot of ideas for their craft.
“It’s not unusual to sit down and talk to a guy about varnish for two hours,” said Dave Sr. “It’s kind of a gathering of like-minded nitwits.”
Norling has also met extended family he didn’t know he had through his rods. While he was researching types of rods, he found a book that featured a Håkan Norling from Sweden. Håkan had apparently made a name for himself designing his own fly fishing equipment. They contacted each other and found out they are distant cousins who both found themselves in the same industry. Dave Sr. sent him a fishing rod, and Håkan sent back a painting that belonged to their great-grandfather, now on his dining room wall.
He has made about 265 rods over the course of his life (bamboo ones, anyways. There are too many graphite Norling rods to possibly count). Currently, he and Dave Jr. have three or four orders that need filling, but he said they always prioritize prizes for conservation groups first.
“It’s really been an adventure,” said Norling. “If anything, it’s the friendships we’ve made over the years…The fellowship of what’s happened with these rods is unbelievable.”
Below: The Norlings get bamboo in small shipments from a business partner who travels to China often. Dave Jr. starts the rods by splitting the raw bamboo thin strips and shaving them down into long triangular sections, which are later pieced together into one whole rod by his father. Norling rods usually come in two parts, each section fitted with ferrules from Rush River Rods so the parts can be taken apart for ease of transport.
Dave Sr. puts the finishing touches on the blanks, including his signature, which is a tradition originating from Hiram Lewis Leonard, the father of the modern fly fishing rod. Norling has signed all 265 of his rods the same way.
“These rods come to us from over a hundred years,” said Norling, explaining the traditional appeal of his older style of rod. “There’s a degree of nostalgia … People buy old ones just to use them.” (Photos by Alex Schlee)