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College Player Builds Custom Rods for Hardwater Anglers

At 6-foot-4 and a lean 240 pounds, Joe Swanson fits the profile of a college football tight end.


Swanson, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, will consider his post-college football options after graduating next year with a degree in sales and marketing. Meanwhile, he’s using the spring 2022 semester to expand his Gold Standard Outdoors company (www.goldstandardoutdoors.com/) by building fishing rods full-time in his upstairs apartment near the UW-Eau Claire campus.


Swanson looks comfortable and well-prepared for that endeavor, too. That’s not surprising, given that he built his first fishing rod at age 11, which for him was a half-lifetime ago.


To demonstrate his current 9-to-5 job, Swanson rolls his chair under a rod-building bench in his bedroom, and mounts an icefishing rod blank on a small machine-powered axle. He then presses a foot pedal to spin the rod blank while his hands deftly wrap blue thread that secures five metal guides and a hook-holder to the rotating rod. After adding four bands of red thread to accent the white rod, he applies epoxy to ensure the threads never unravel.


Swanson finishes the job by affixing a GSO decal just above the handle to identify the rod’s make and model. This particular ice rod, a popular model he calls the “Alpha Noodle,” is 28 inches long and dressed from tip to handle in patriotic red, white and blue colors.


Serious ice anglers are willing to pay for high-tech rods that detect light bites no matter how harsh the weather. Unlike their grandfathers, today’s anglers demand more than a stout stick with two pegs to hold 100 feet of thick braid or monofilament line.


That’s where Swanson comes in. He builds sleek, good-looking ice rods from blanks with fast-action tips that turn stout about halfway down the shaft. That combination provides enough sensitivity and backbone to hook and land everything from panfish to northern pike.


If Swanson could build custom rods without interruption, he could probably assemble 10 to 15 icefishing rods daily. That never happens, though, because he stops often for phone calls, customer questions, order writing, and strategy talks with helpers and advisers. Those tasks restrict his production to six custom rods per day.


“I really enjoy what I do,” Swanson said. “It's my kind of art. The plan is to make this my career. We’ll see where it goes, but the demand is there and I think it’s sustainable. And because I’m still in school, the university offers business advice, so I keep learning how to expand what I’ve started.”


Swanson didn’t enroll at UW-Eau Claire to create a custom rod-building company, however. In fact, he wasn’t always enthralled by the craft, which he learned as a pre-teen in Osceola, Wisconsin, by taking a class taught by his neighbor, a Twin Cities schoolteacher. Although Swanson paid attention and learned the basics, he preferred staying outside and playing sports rather than sitting inside at a workbench.


Two years ago, Covid-19 changed his thinking. The pandemic canceled the 2020 football season for state colleges, leaving him with more free time than seemed possible. He filled those hours by building fishing rods, and soon taught himself to craft custom designs that combined function with eye appeal. He posted photos of his creations on Instagram, and soon started building rods for friends and other admirers.


“The next thing you know, we’re filing for an LLC (limited liability company), and we’re paying taxes instead of just doing a hobby,” he said.


GSO also employs part-time help from Joe’s brother Ben, an Air Force officer stationed in Valdosta, Georgia. Ben Swanson builds a few rods when time allows, but also helps with tax requirements, legal questions, website designs and other issues.


Also helping is Tyler Gregory, a University of Central Florida student who is a gifted rod-builder and consultant who formerly worked for a rod-building parts distributor. Another friend, Nick Leary, is an avid trout and fly-fishing angler who builds rods in between his studies and college classes in Duluth, Minnesota.


Swanson and his GSO helpers also build custom full-size freshwater and saltwater rods, but they’ve stayed especially busy making icefishing rods for anglers who dislike the stubby, low-budget ice rods that most stores sell. “I started making ice rods a year ago, and that market exploded,” he said. “I’ve already made three times more ice rods this year than last year, so it’s going well.”


Swanson credits some of the demand to serious “hole-hoppers” who want longer ice rods because they don’t like dropping to their knees after jumping hole to hole to find hungry fish.


“A lot of them like to stand while jigging,” Swanson said. “They want a longer rod that keeps the tip near the ice so the wind can’t mess with their line. The ideal length varies by a person’s height and how they like to jig. We sell to some bigger guys who want 36-, 44- and even 50-inch ice rods, but our most popular length is 32 inches.”


Still others want custom rods with specific actions for targeting a favorite fish species or to get the best action from a preferred jigging lure. As they consider their rod options, they get more choosy and specify color schemes, line guides, rod handles and decals bearing their name.


“People really like customizing their gear,” Swanson said. “Some guys want a decal that says, ‘This rod was made for …,’ and maybe they want it in a specific color scheme. We can build whatever they want.”


Swanson said GSO makes most of its sales from phone calls, but he also sells rods through one bait shop, and recently sent a shipment to an Ontario guide who likes GSO’s lineup. “I’d like to be in more bait shops but we can’t build enough right now for what they need,” he said.


No matter who buys the rods, Swanson strives to satisfy his customers. “We stand behind what we build,” he said. “We fix or replace anything that was our fault. This isn’t rocket science, but it requires a lot work and attention to detail.”

Joe Swanson builds a custom icefishing rod for his company, Gold Standard Outdoors, which offers anglers a wide variety of lengths, actions and color schemes.

— Patrick Durkin photos

Ice anglers are no longer satisfied with short, stubby rods for jigging while seated on buckets inside shanties. “Hole hoppers” like longer rods they can use for jigging while standing up outside.

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