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Desire for better fishing rods prompts founding of Radcliffe Custom Rods near Cashton

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CASHTON — Dale Radcliffe of rural Cashton and his nephew, Eric Horstman of Winona, Minn., figured they could build a better fishing rod.

So they started Radcliffe Custom Rods in 2018, and have been busy making custom fishing rods in their home workshops ever since.

“We started with about 30 rods our first year, and have about doubled (production) every year since,” said Radcliffe, who is majority owner of the business.

The coronavirus pandemic this year hasn’t affected sales, except for the cancellation of fishing equipment shows that Radcliffe and Horstman had planned to go to. “We had planned to attend and debut our products at the St. Paul Ice Fishing Show this coming December, however with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was canceled,” Radcliffe said.

“Demand is high for quality outdoor products, so we are ramping up our social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter along with revamping our website,” he said. “Ice fishing rods is our thing, so we hope this year with the pandemic, more guys will look for a quality ice rod and look to us once ice season hits. These are great birthday and perfect Christmas gifts for the angler who has everything,” Radcliffe said.

Radcliffe Custom Rods began in 2018 by making ice fishing rods. “We began building technique-specific walleye, panfish and trout stream rods in 2020 after we added new wrapping equipment and a designated workshop” in a building at Radcliffe’s home, he said. “We had a lot of anglers who had bought our ice rods, who were looking for innovative summer fishing rods, asking for us to expand.”

Radcliffe and Horstman, who also have full-time jobs elsewhere, make many models of rods for ice fishing and open-water fishing.

“Our rods are ultra-lightweight,” Radcliffe said. “Most (of their) carbon and (fiberglass) noodle ice rods are between 1 and 2 ounces at 36 inches” in length. “High-quality blanks, carbon fiber grips and little finishing components like anodized aluminum winding checks and specialized chained wraps make the rod not only look great, but add strength and overall performance.”

Radcliffe said he and Horstman are avid fishermen. “I grew frustrated with the poor quality and craftsmanship of the products on the market and knew I could build something better to enjoy my time on the ice,” he said of their decision to begin making custom fishing rods.

In July 2018, they started building custom in-line long rods for ice fishing. (They also make traditional shorter ice fishing rods.) “The word spread quickly through friends and family about what a unique product this was, and how well they performed on the ice,” Radcliffe said. “Others began ordering them and before long, we were shipping these throughout the Midwest.”

Radcliffe Custom Rods’ long rods for ice fishing generally are 42 to 72 inches long, and are available in one piece or in a telescoping version. “However, we make specialized lengths and offer many blank offerings,” Radcliffe said. Both traditional cork grips and carbon fiber grips are available.

Prices for the firm’s ice fishing rods start at $90 and go up to $160, Radcliffe said. “Open water rods start at $220 and can go as high as $350 depending on the model and amount of customization the customer wants,” he said.

The company is one of the few builders of ice fishing rods with carbon fiber grips. “Carbon fiber grips are the most expensive grip material that a rod builder can use,” Radcliffe said. “This adds to our cost” and is a reason why “our rods cost just a little bit more. We strive to use nothing but the best top-shelf components.”

Many colors of blanks are available for customers to choose from. “We currently offer over 100 thread color variations and can add a specialty color if requested on a build,” Radcliffe said. “We enjoy doing theme-based color wrap rods such as sports teams, Harley-Davidson, USA, and many, many more. We encourage our customers to dream up something unique to them, and we will do our best to meet or exceed their expectations.”

Radcliffe does custom rod design, sourcing of materials, building and finish work for each rod, at the workshop in a building at his residence. Horstman does the custom rod wrapping in a workshop area at his Winona home. “It takes eight to 10 hours to craft each rod we build, sometimes more on specialized builds,” Radcliffe said.

“It’s really exciting when I’m in my shop at home and am wrapping a rod and sending guys pictures of builds and I’m on the phone with them,” Horstman said. “If they want a specific theme, I might say ‘I think I have a better color, let me show you this.’ And they get so excited on the phone.

“I love fishing with my own stuff,” Horstman said. “But I like it when other people get excited about the things I’m building for them.”

Horstman said some customers have sent him photos of themselves fishing with their Radcliffe Custom Rods. “It’s hard to beat seeing the smiles on grown men’s faces, watching them look like kids in a candy store or opening Christmas presents,” he said.

“It’s so great to hear back from the customer later about how dramatically it improved their angling experience and ultimately increased their catch rate,” Radcliffe said. “The satisfaction of knowing you can make one’s experience in the outdoors better is so rewarding. I like fishing and designing rods nobody else has, and seeing the positive results when using them. That’s very gratifying.”

Since 2019, Radcliffe Custom Rods also have been sold on consignment at Fat Cat Bait & Fishing Supply in Trempealeau. Radcliffe and Horstman often are building ahead and often have inventory to sell at the workshop at Radcliffe’s home. “However, we have very limited hours (at the workshop) and with current COVID-19 risks, we prefer interested parties look at Fat Cat Bait & Fishing Supply first and support that small business as well,” Radcliffe said.

“Every single one of them is unique,” Radcliffe said of the Radcliffe Custom Rods that are on display and for sale at the Trempealeau shop. “There’s not one that is a duplicate of another.”

Radcliffe said his wife, Jenny, and Eric’s wife, Janessa have been critical to the success of Radcliffe Custom Rods. “Jenny is key to web design and helping maintain our bookkeeping,” he said. “Jan has great attention to detail and helps Eric in making color selections in his custom wraps.”

Radcliffe said a pro staff of 10 avid ice and open-water anglers helps the business promote, field test and refine its products.

The Radcliffes operate another business, Mighty Miss Walleye Series, which runs four walleye fishing tournaments each year on the Mississippi River from Pool 4 (Lake Pepin) down through Pool 9 (past Lansing, Iowa). A few people, including the Horstmans, help them run the events during the spring and summer months.


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