Hooked on rods: 17-year-old catches custom rod-building bug, starts business
Fly rod maker Sam Cornthwaite of Clyde Park carefully winds thread onto the eye of a rod he is making for a client.
DAVID GRUBBS/Billings Gazette

CLYDE PARK - At the age of 17, Sam Cornthwaite says he's dedicated his life to building fly rods.

"I enjoy it so much that it's not work," he says.

The young entrepreneur has taken over most of the space in his family's rural home to build custom fly rods that customers order via his Web site, www.shieldsriverrods.com.

Shields River Rods, so named in honor of the river near Cornthwaite's home, took root about four years ago when he sold his first rod through a 4-H competition. The next one was sold on consignment through George Anderson's Yellowstone Angler, a Livingston fly shop where he works part time. Sensing an opportunity, he started his own custom rod-building business. So far, he's sold about 100 rods ranging in price from $290 to $475.

"It's a little vicious circle that steals my money," he says. "All the money goes to the rod roller in New Zealand or Connecticut for reel seats."

Cornthwaite caught the rod-building bug after taking a class from the Federation of Fly Fishers in Livingston when he was only 12.

"When I moved here in 2001, my mom suggested I take a fly-fishing class," Cornthwaite recalls. "With that, I got more and more involved with the Federation of Fly Fishers and kind of caught the fly-fishing bug again."

Matt Wilhelm, education coordinator for the federation, was Cornthwaite's teacher in the class.

"Sam's a really interesting kid," Wilhelm says. "He builds very nice rods. He even taught a youth rod-building class. It's kind of rewarding, to me, to see a kid like Sam take what he's learned to the next level. He's just a great guy."

It helped that Cornthwaite connected with master rod builder Tom Morgan of Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, west of Bozeman. Morgan formerly owned the internationally famous Winston Rods, based in Twin Bridges, and set out on his own in 1995 to build high-end custom rods that cost up to $1,300 for a graphite rod, $3,850 for a bamboo one.

"We've helped him some," Morgan says. "My wife, Gerri, and I can't believe his enthusiasm, and the way he follows through is pretty amazing."

Cornthwaite realizes he hit the jackpot getting Morgan as a mentor.

"He's probably one of the greatest rod-making mentors I could have," he says. "I'm lucky enough to own one of his rods. I bought it a year after I met him. I use his to see how mine should look. It's something to base my rods off of."

Morgan says he's not worried that Cornthwaite will mimic his rods.

"Anybody that can do it at the level we do is welcome to it," Morgan says. "I'm not worried about it."

Cornthwaite admits Morgan's rods are the ideal that he aspires to reach. "A lot of the things I picked up were from his fly rods," he says.

Cornthwaite says his dedication to rod building has on occasion caused friction at home. After all, he is still a teenager.

"It takes up a lot of time," he says.

So much so that his mother, Debbie, will sometimes ask, "What about your homework?" to which Cornthwaite will reply, "What about this $600 rod I have to build?"

"But they've definitely helped a lot," he says of his parents. His mother even sews the cloth rod bags.

From start to finish, a rod can take him as much as three months, allowing shipping time for the pieces from various manufacturers. If he has the material in stock, he can put one together in two to three weeks.

"I'll usually go through a spool of thread per rod, about 25 yards," he says, "I try to make sure each wrap looks good because if it doesn't, it won't make the cut."

He calls Morgan "Eagle Eye" because of his ability to see small flaws in craftsmanship.

"My employees used to hate that," Morgan says.

But Cornthwaite appreciates the critical eye. "When you're commercially selling them, that little millimeter really matters and can affect how the rod casts, as well," he says.

Cornthwaite says he likes the creative side of rod building the most.

"Say I don't like a fly rod on the market. I can design a blank to do what I want for me. It doesn't matter what you want, it can be done," he says.

But he's not interested in setting any new trends. Instead, he sees himself as a traditionalist.

"The commercial market is going to fast-action rods for the most part," he says. "My preference, and a lot of the people who fish small streams, is medium action. Too many people are worried about casting 100 feet and getting the newest technology. I'm like, 'What was wrong with the old stuff?' I'm bringing old school back."

Cornthwaite plans to keep pursuing his rod-building business even after he graduates from high school this spring and goes on to college. He wants to attend the University of Montana-Western in Dillon to study business administration with an emphasis on tourism and recreation. Beforehand, he hopes to get his fishing guide's license. Beyond that, he's not sure.

"I'd like to stay in Montana, do some guiding and continue with my fly rod building," he says. "Wherever it takes me, I'll go."

Morgan doesn't doubt the young rod builder will continue.

"He's got a lot of enthusiasm," Morgan says, "a lot of stick-to-itiveness."


Reporter Brett French can be reached at french@billingsgazette.com or at (406) 657-1387.

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