On a rainy day in the rainy season, Telluride Angler’s John Duncan visited G.Loomis in Woodland, Washington to tap the mind of Steve Rajeff on the subject of rod design. Joined by Communications Manager Bruce Holt, Duncan and Rajeff shared time in the factory and casting on a nearby pond, splitting hairs over materials, construction techniques, casting nuances and perhaps most importantly the waters and fish that inspire these legendary fly rods.
The fiberglass mount of a 202 lbs tarpon hanging on the wall sets the tone for daily activity at Loomis. It was landed near Homosassa on a GLX 12-wt. The tarpon has hung on that wall for 13 years, but I noticed that every staff member glances and smiles when passing, as if to say, “Good morning, how was your weekend?”
Admittedly humbled by the prospect of interviewing the greatest fly caster who ever lived, I was even more humbled by the warm welcome and generosity of spirit offered by Rajeff and Bruce Holt. These are two of the nicest guys in the business. For all of Rajeff’s accomplishments, he is still deeply inspired to build the best casting fly rods and fish them on the great waters of this damp planet.
Duncan’s notes from the Loomis factory
1) I found a surprisingly practical side to both Rajeff as a rod designer and G.Loomis as a manufacturer. Rajeff is in no hurry to build “extra rods.” He designs models that serve a clear purpose and refines them until they are simply magnificent. Holt describes Rajeff building a prototype from tip to butt in one day, including blank rolling. He might cast the rod once, put it aside and build another proto the next day with minor adjustments to the first. Cranking out protos at this rate, it’s easy to imagine Rajeff tweaking a rod model to the finest detail before listing it in the catalog.
In many cases, a whole series of fly rods will consist of just 3-5 models, compared with 10-20 models found in a given series from another maker. Rajeff feels no compulsion to build every trout rod in 7 ½’, 8’, 8 ½’ and 9’ models. The NRX Trout Series, flagship of the entire Loomis brand, consists of only five models, each close to perfection. Asked when he might design a new series to supplant the NRX, Rajeff simply stated, “When I have a better building block.”
2) Rajeff is a true perfectionist when it comes to rod design. I could listen to him talk all day about materials choices and tapers. Herein lies much of the magic. It should surprise no one that Rajeff actually designs the mandrels himself. Some of his mandrels actually have a varying taper. A big reason why his NRX and GLX rods cast so incredibly well is that he is unconstrained by the conventions of mandrel use. In many cases, Rajeff uses multiple mandrels and also multiple materials in the design of just one rod.
3) Loomis stress tests every single rod before it goes out the door. I am quite sure that no other company does this. For an entertaining demonstration, Rajeff broke an 11-weight under 23 pounds of pressure on his leveraging rack. Prior to breaking, the rod was contorted so hideously that everyone except Rajeff averted his eyes.
4) Loomis rods have a reputation for being finely tuned for experienced casters. In casting them, however, I found the rods to be extremely approachable, easy to cast in a wide range of distances with a variety of lines. Rajeff explained that he designs every rod to be progressive. “Some are progressive fast and some are progressive slow, but every rod should flex evenly based upon the amount of line and application of casting power.”
5) Bruce Holt, fisherman, outdoorsman and gentleman, explained why Loomis rods are offered in such a wide range of prices. “We base our retail prices on the exact cost of the producing each rod. The materials, workmanship and components all affect the cost, so we simply charge accordingly. If it is an expensive rod to make, it will be an expensive rod to buy.
[and my favorite quote from Bruce] “We don’t attempt to compete on price. We compete only on the performance level. We think only about making the best fly rods in the world.”
6) Holt and Rajeff believe that several Loomis rods are, in fact, the best in the world in their model class, including the NRX 1085-4, NRX 1085-4 LP, NRX 1088-4 and NRX 1567/8-4 two handed rod. They maintain, without doubt or qualification, that the NRX 13’ 7/8 is the finest two-handed fly rod in the world.
7) G.Loomis extensively cross trains staff to assure continuity on the production floor and improve the quality of each rod. Holt observes that rod builders take a greater interest when they personally walk a rod through several stages of production, rather than merely repeating a single process.
8) Donna the patterns cutter is a Packers fan. Do not mention Golden Tate or the Seahawks. She has lived and worked in Seahawks country for 30 years, earning the right to choose her alliances. She may also remind you that she cuts the patterns for the besting casting fly rods in the world.
9) Over lunch, I learned that Rajeff and Holt feel a tremendous attachment to their home water. A new netting regulation will prevent mid-stream netting on the Columbia, confining the practice to less-traveled side channels. They speculated on the benefits to steelhead and salmon in every upstream river: the Deschutes, John Day, Wind, Methow, Snake, Grande Rhonde and Clearwater.
10) Rajeff is inspired by other legendary anglers, such as Thomas McGuane. He also admires McGuane’s skill on a cutting horse. I wonder what McGuane thinks of Rajeff’s fly casting.
We concluded our day on a local park pond, a derelict channel of the Lewis River inhabited by ducks, swans and unquantified species of fish. Because I had this experience, I must state the obvious:
11) No one casts like Steve Rajeff. In reviewing our video footage, every cast draws attention to the acceleration and hard stop on his back casts. His ultra-compact casting stroke is imitated worldwide by novices and tournament casters alike, but never equaled.
I noticed that Rajeff still watches his backcast. Maybe I should, too.
12) Rajeff loves the little things. On his first cast, a stocked trout tried to eat his bright yellow yarn indicator. I noticed he stripped in the rest of his casts with lifelike rhythm, one eyebrow hitched whenever a V wake appeared behind the yarn.
After casting, Steve wanted to drive up the Lewis River to watch hatchery fish jump over a fish ladder falls. He was disappointed that we ran out of time on account of darkness.
13) Rajeff recommends overlining NRX trout rods for fishing nymphs and streamers at short range. We cast the NRX 9’ 5-wt with a 6-wt line. It handled beautifully and mellowed the casting action. No problem with wobble or bouncy tip. Rajeff says this puts the action of the NRX squarely between the NRX LP and normal NRX with its designated line. This is a great fishing tip that makes the fabulous NRX even more versatile.
In parting, Rajeff vaguely swept a hand toward all of Southwest Washington. “The next time we do this, we need at least 3 days for fishing,” to which Holt replied, “Yes, on the Kispiox.”