Christmas will be here before you know it. If you’ve ever tried to find the perfect gift for the person who has everything, an Altenkirch precision-built fishing rod is a great way to go.Not only are Altenkirch rods beautiful, they are, according to many anglers, the most sensitive and yet toughest, longest lasting fishing rods in the world and they can be found right here on the East End.
“First of all, we don’t make poles,” Hank Altenkirch told me during a visit to his workshop, when I made the mistake of asking for a “fishing pole.”
“Poles live on the other side of the ocean and drink vodka,” said the third-generation rod builder.
His grandfather, German immigrant Charles Altenkirch, sold his sand and gravel pit in Bayside, Queens in 1929 and moved to Hampton Bays, where he opened up an auto repair shop, C. Altenkirch and Son. He quickly moved from fixing cars to boats.
Charles made quite a name for himself by building handmade weakfish rods. Jackie Gleason was a fan of those first rods and used to come out east to fish and play cards in the shop, as did Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who liked to wrap their own rods.
Charles’ son Mickey started working in the shop at the age of 12 and took over when Charles died in 1952. Mickey continued to perfect and expand their line of fishing rods, specializing in big game, and invented what became the modern day fighting chair used on fishing boats.
Back then, business flourished. The Altenkirchs expanded to Canoe Place Dock, equipped with 28 charter boats on the Shinnecock Canal. The family ran the dock, sold gas, fixed boats and tackle, sold bait and made precision rods for customers.
The high-end rods have been compared to Rolls Royce cars and Rolex watches so it’s no wonder they have a long list of famous customers. Ernest Hemingway, Steve McQueen, David Niven, George W. Bush, Roger Waters, James Taylor and Martha Stewart, just to name a few.
“Billy Joel has all of our sticks,” said Mr. Altenkirch, “as did Mr. Entenmann, a real nice fellow, a customer for 60 years.”
Mickey told Sports Life magazine in 1962, “There’s a lot more to a rod than just a fiberglass blank, some cork rings, reel seat hardware, a set of guides, silk thread for wrapping and some cork rings for the grip.”
“A rod must be designed so that when all these parts are assembled they result in a unit that not only meets the specific needs of its owner, but also is an effective, efficient fish-catching weapon,” he said.
Hank Altenkirch started to help his father in the shop when he was 12 years old. “Of course, I was cleaning toilet bowls and packing worms,” he said. His eldest daughter Janis started wrapping rods with her grandfather when she was also 12 years old.
“Some early 1930s rods made out of bamboo by my grandfather still bend beautifully,” he said grabbing an antique rod off of a rack and bending its tip against the ceiling. “Look, it still has the Altenkirch seal,” he said proudly.
While his grandfather Charles crafted rods out of bamboo or hickory, his father Mickey used fiberglass blanks. Mr. Altenkirch uses the more sensitive graphite to make his rods.
Unless the rod is going to be used for travel, Mr. Altenkirch starts with one piece. “I don’t like two-piece rods,” he said, “it takes aways some of the action.”
First he gleans information from his customer. What type, size and location of the fish. Glove size, length of forearm, height, weight, and favorite colors, are things to consider even before the materials.
The highest quality cork is hand-turned on his grandfather’s lathe so grips are perfectly smooth and ergonomically shaped. Hardwoods from all over the world are used for their unique colors and shine, including cocobola, East Indian rosewood, tulip wood, black walnut, purpleheart and the currently popular teak and mahogany.
Materials found along the length of the rod have grown sophisticated. Reel seats may be stainless steel, chrome plated, with a curved billet aluminum board and tapered from fat to thin for lightness.
The eyelets that guide the line along the rod may be made out of titanium, lined with ceramic and include ball bearings. These guides are attached by tightly wrapping nylon thread (formerly silk was used) around the rod, a skill historically stewarded by the women in the Altenkirch family.
Lastly, Altenkirch applies several coats of varnish as well as an ultraviolet protection to keep the color from fading. At one point, he reaches into the depths of the narrow varnish room to fetch his favorite, electric blue and silver, stand-up tuna rod. The “all Altenkirch” rod has a $3,500 price tag. “There is no tougher rod on market. The best of the best. An awesome, rod,” he said.
He asked me to hold the grip. At the other end of the rod, Altenkirch barely touched the tip with his “fingerprint” and the vibrations could be felt all the way down. “Our rods are the most sensitive there are,” he said.
Sensitive, but strong. “You don’t want it to break when you’ve got that one you’ve been waiting for your whole life.”
The family’s iconic tackle shop is long gone. He misses the flow of people and cash but said, “I’m too damn old to work 12 hour days. I’d rather ride my Harley or go fishing, or play with my grand kids.”
Though his pace has slowed, hopefully the Altenkirch family will continue to hand-craft precision rods for years to come.
“I made my grandson a rod before the critter was hatched.”
Find Altenkirch Precision Outfitters at Altenkirch.com.