Situated in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Crafty One Customs is a brick-and-mortar shop created and owned by custom rod maker Ralph Craft. With a loyal and growing base of customers who, for the last six seasons, regularly come scoop up the newest Shimano reels, Ron-Z baits, and Jigging World products, it’s Ralph’s hard-earned and well-deserved reputation as a rod builder that sets Crafty One Customs apart. Over the last 17 years, Ralph has established himself as a premiere builder and creator of highly respected fishing rods, and orders from 48 states and 23 countries keep his staff of ten employees busy wrapping, painting, and drying rods. With the input of other respected rod builders, and feedback from captains and professional anglers, Crafty One’s unique, sometimes outside-the-box, rod-building techniques create some of the most coveted rods in New England and beyond.
On The Water: How did you get into making custom rods?
Ralph Craft: Well, I’ve always been involved in fishing since I was young. After many years of service to our country in the military, I found myself at a crossroads. I eventually realized that I was suffering from PTSD, which is not uncommon for many military veterans. I realized I needed a hobby – an escape and outlet to occupy my time and mind. With my background working and being around fishing shops, combined with my passion for precision tools and excellence in craftmanship, I started building rods as a hobby 17 years ago.
OTW: How did you take it from a single-man operation to the Crafty One Customs brick-and-mortar, full-service tackle shop that exists today?
RC: A little over six years ago, my wife and I sat down and decided there was a market for custom rods, reliable customer service, and giving anglers something that is theirs to enjoy on the water and pass down to their children … or even hold onto for their lives. We wanted to evolve. It was a substantial conversation, as you’d imagine, because the risks of opening your own business are very real – it’s pushing all your chips to the middle of the table.
My name stands behind every rod and product that we sell. I knew that if we were going to do a fishing and rod business, I wanted to do that business my way. I didn’t want to be a huge shop – I wanted to be a good shop. I have that mindset of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” And, so, we’ve been extremely fortunate and humbled by the response of the local fishing community and the loyal customers we’ve gained over these years. I can’t express my gratitude enough to the fishing community in our area and at large – it’s my mindset that everyone should support their local shop. It’s so critical!
OTW: Is there a rod that you consider your “specialty”?
RC: My team and I can produce everything from freshwater rods for largemouth to fly rods to surfcasting and canal rods. We pride ourselves on being able to meet the unique needs of each customer’s request. If I had to single it down to one, the AMF series of rods I produce are probably my favorite. These tuna rods aren’t just aesthetically pleasing and custom down to the wrap colors and grip configuration, more importantly, they are capable and proven rods for landing big tuna. With feedback from anglers like Lou Defusco, the Bacon brothers, and Captain Jack Sprengel, I’ve been fortunate to get insight from the guys who are out there day in, day out on the front line. Over the years, we’ve been able to tweak or make improvements to meet the needs of anglers. Our logo, the tuna inside the target, comes from the AMF line of rods.
OTW: Describe what a typical day looks like at Crafty One Customs.
RC: At times, it can be overwhelming to deliver so many custom rods—I just shipped rods to Italy and France—so there’s pressure to make sure my team and I deliver. Like many small business owners, it’s long hours. I’m usually in the shop around 7 a.m. and my GM gets in at 8 a.m. for our daily meeting. We go over the orders for the day – what the builders need from the staff in terms of gripping and wrapping. We have templates of rods I’ve crafted over the years, then it’s just a matter of “tricking it out,” which is where the fun, creative process of rod building comes in. On any given day, we probably have between 20 to 50 rods drying, being readied to send out.
OTW: What does it take from a quality-control standpoint to produce that volume but not cut any corners?
RC: It starts with hiring and training the right people. Look, we’re not trying to take over the world. We know who we are: a trusted local shop that stands behind the product we sell. But, to ensure quality control, it certainly starts with having a well-trained, capable staff who know our products and processes, and who understand the level of excellence I’m looking for. We operate under a premise that if you strive for perfection and reject mediocrity, you’ll always achieve excellence.
OTW: What changes over the last 5 to 8 years have you seen in the industry and client needs? Is there a demand for a certain rod, product, specialty service?
RC: Consumers are more educated these days. We ask upfront, “What’s your goal?” From there, we kind of reverse-engineer what the consumer wants. Nowadays, E-commerce and price shoppers can hurt local businesses more than ever. I have nothing against being price conscious—but there’s a fine line. Local shops need to stick together and support each other. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the experience, advice, and guidance from Sam at Sam’s Bait and Tackle, and Charlie and his crew at CMS Tackle.
You must be upfront and ask, “What is a custom American crafted rod worth to you? Is it a commemorative gift? Or, is this the rod you’re using for the next 10 seasons to chase the massive bluefin you’ve always wanted?” By the way, the commemorative aspect, where a rod may never get used but is hung as art, is one of the highest compliments I can receive. How cool is it to think something I designed and built will be passed down one day to a future angler out there? It’s pretty cool.
OTW: For someone interested in ordering a custom rod, what are the first things he or she should know?
RC: We’d start by asking what species a customer is primarily targeting. What is the goal? Is this a rod you’ll have clients using on your boat, or is this a special piece you want to hang on your mantle? I then walk the customer through the options. Like anything that’s custom built, there are choices in materials and technologies used, which ties directly to the question of a person’s budget. We can then make recommendations based on that information. After 17 years of doing this, I have a good sense for what an angler will benefit from the most. After that, the fun is customizing the rod and making it a piece of art.