Wrapped Too Tight?

The resin-impregnated wooden handle of this spiral-wrapped Tracy King rod allows for greater sensitivity. “It’s like holding a rod blank,” he said.

Are you missing out on a really good bass rod that’s been around since Noah was a pup — just to be stylish?

No one knows who first described B. Everett Jordan’s largemouth bass as “swimming footballs,” but the depiction is an accurate one given the short, stocky nature of the fish that meander throughout the lake’s underwater gridiron.

During February, Tracy King, a 46-year-old distributor of Little Debbie snack cakes from Godwin, invited me to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment in Chatham County, a short distance from Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham, to try spiral casting for largemouth bass.

“Spiral casting” was a mystery to me, but the approach sounded logical, given the pigskin depiction of the lake’s piscatorial inhabitants.

After meeting King early in the morning at Ebenezer Landing, King promptly stopped at the rip-rap bank near the landing.

He immediately handed me the tool by which I would employ spiral casting, a 7-foot graphite rod dubbed the Trap n Rap. The rod was designed to cast lightweight baits, such as Shad Raps, small-sized Speed Traps and Rat-L-Traps, that are deadly for bass in the late winter and early spring if a fisherman doesn’t lose his composure while trying to fling the little baits in the wind.

To my delight, the rod propelled my 1/8-ounce Speed Trap a good distance with a minimum of effort on my part. Yet something looked peculiar about the rod, and then it struck me — the line guides appeared to be out of whack, revolving gradually around the rod in the manner of a slowly descending spiral staircase.

“What’s with these crazy guides?” I said, only to have King chuckle and tell me I had uttered one of the most frequently-asked questions posed by fishermen when they see the rod at bass shows.

“You’re holding a spiral- wrapped rod built by John Ballard of JB Custom Rods of Erwin,” said King, who became one of Ballard’s first pro staff members seven years ago after a friend introduced him to Ballard who, in turn, introduced him to the odd-looking rod.

“I fished the rods in tournaments and have never fished with anything else since,” said King, who became sold on the merits of the spiral wrap.

“The spiral wrap was invented in 1920 (a patent was taken out in 1909) and has been around ever since, but few bass fishermen have seen one or know of its concept or of its advantages.

“When fishermen visit our booth at fishing shows, the first thing many try to do when they see the rods is grab one and twist it thinking it’s a two-piece rod with the guides in need of alignment,” King said. “I have to wrestle the rod away from the angler before he damages a $200 piece of workmanship.”

The encounter usually leads to another frequently asked question: What is spiral wrap?

As I awaited the answer, King halted the conversation and motored to another spot midway down Little Beaver Creek where a lapse in the action (all too frequent in February) allowed him to satisfy my inquiring mind.

”A rod with a spiral wrap has more line guides than a conventional fishing rod and takes the guides of the rod around the bottom of the rod. With this guide placement system, the line comes off the bottom of the rod blank like a spinning rod.

“The line can’t rub against the rod blank at any point, thus reducing strain on the line and rod since there’s no line slap against the rod blank. The spiral wrap eliminates the twisting and turning of the rod blank, which is inherent with a straight-line guide system.

“The results are casts about 20 percent longer than with typical rods, less chance of rod breakage, and a balanced rod where the fish doesn’t fight against the rod itself.”

There was another pause in the conversation as King motored to a rocky point further down Little Beaver Creek where he put down his Trap n Rap rod in favor of a JB spinnerbait rod.

I was about to ask about the unique reel seat of the spinnerbait rod, but I hung my Speed Trap on the lake bottom, so King moved closer to the bank so I could retrieve my bait. After I freed it, he made a cast with the spinnerbait and let out a holler.

“There he is!” he said, putting my question on hold.

The bass powered near the boat, and King asked me to get the net, forgetting he had locked it in the boat’s storage compartment.

Consequently, I kneeled on deck and lipped his fish, a typical Jordan swimming football weighing more than 6 pounds.

“Do you believe that?” said King. “In February I expected the fish to be on the main body, and here we are midway down the creek and get a big bite.

“I wish you had caught the fish so you could feel what it’s like to play a fish with this rod.”

“I wish I had caught it, too,” I said, which caused King to break out in laughter.

After I took several photos of the bass, King released it. Then I asked about the reel seat of his spinnerbait rod, which had caught my eye before the big bass hit.

“The reel seat is made of resin-impregnated, weather-impervious wood,” King said. “The wood in conjunction with the high-modulus graphite rod results in greater sensitivity.

“It’s like holding the rod blank in your hand. The wood transmits vibrations better, and it’s fitted directly to the rod blank without any fillers or fittings.

“Some models come without foregrips to make the rod even lighter and more sensitive. Most anglers only use the foregrips of rods as lure holders.”

Although I didn’t want to be discourteous, I felt compelled to ask King one of those “tough questions” about the spiral wrapped rod.

“If the rod is so great and so sensitive, why haven’t I seen more of them?” I asked.

King grinned.

“That’s another one of the most frequently asked questions we get from fishermen at bass shows,” he said. “The answer is threefold.”

First, a spiral-wrapped rod can’t be successfully mass-produced, even though several major rod manufacturers have at one time or another offered spiral-wrapped rods. A properly-built spiral wrapped rod is too time-consuming and costly to make by mass consumption.

“Spiral-wrapped rods aren’t suited for assembly line productions,” King said. “Each guide has to be hand-placed precisely on each rod for perfect balance.

“Every rod blank has a sweet spot where it wants to bend. John ‘spines the blank,’ which puts torque on the blank to reveal its sweet spot. He places guides in that area so the rod won’t fight itself when a fish is caught.

“Each rod must be custom built to achieve perfect balance and sensitivity. John also accommodates requests for changes in the basic rod blank by fishermen.

“If a fisherman wants a shorter or longer handle or a shorter or longer rod than the standard sizes or if he wants the rod wrappings to match the color of his bass boat or if he wants his rod personalized, John can build the rod to meet his needs.”

Secondly, some fishermen can’t mentally block out the unusual appearance of the rod with its turned-around line guides, though casting a rod with a Spiral-wrap is no different than casting any other rod.

“As the first member of John’s pro staff, John asked me to find other fishermen who would be interested in trying the rods,” King said. “Most loved the rods the moment they tried them, but a few couldn’t cope with the different look.

“One of the worst was my cousin, Tim Jacobs, an excellent fisherman who taught me most of what I know about bass fishing at Jordan Lake. At first, Tim wouldn’t try the rods because they looked funny.

“Eventually, I got him to try a spiral-wrapped rod, and he was immediately sold on its performance.”

In an article “Spiral-wrapped Rods,” KO Tamura confirmed King’s assessment of the rod and the difficulty anglers have overcoming its appearance.

“Rod manufacturers build rods that sell,” Tamura said. “A ‘weird’ spiral-wrap will not sell as well as a conventional rod, even if it is a better fishing tool. Spiral-wrapped rods are more stable fish-fighting tools.”

Finally, spiral-wrapped rods are expensive because they’re custom built. The rods cost about $225 or a little more or less, depending upon the requests of the customer. They’re not for casual fishermen who fish only a few times a year.

“The rods are for serious fishermen who want an edge so they can catch more fish,” King said.

When I later visited Ballard at his rod shop in Godwin, Ballard elaborated upon the background of the rod.

“I didn’t invent the spiral-wrap rod and don’t have any rights to it,” he said. “I came upon the concept doing research about fishing rods. Any rod-builder can build the rod, but most find it too demanding to make and not overly profitable.”

Ballard explained the effort that goes into building each rod and the need to spine the rod.

“If I could work on a single rod all at once, it would take 6 to 8 hours to build,” said Ballard, who got into the rod-building business after he lost his regular job.

“Of course, I can’t build a rod that way; it’s a stop-and-go process where I have to wait for one part to dry, go back to the rod, then wait for another part to dry, and so forth.”

Working alone, Ballard said he could build 25 to 30 rods a week, which is far short of the thousands of assembly line rods that can be produced each week at the various plants of major rod manufacturers. Because of increased sales, Ballard has hired additional employees, a lady who wraps the rods and pro staff members who are interested in rod building.

His main sales are east of the Mississippi and strongest in North Carolina and Virginia.

Despite the growing demand for spiral-wrapped rods, Ballard said he doesn’t want to expand beyond his present shop, which has a downstairs workshop area and an upstairs display area for his rods and other merchandise.

If he grows larger, he fears he couldn’t give the product the attention it requires to be the best.

He said the spiral-wrap rod, also known as the “Robert’s wrap” and “acid wrap,” needs to be spined accurately with the guides hand-placed for maximum rod performance, a slow endeavor which runs counter to mass production.

“When I started building rods, I set out to build the best possible rod,” Ballard said. “I already had a strong background in woodworking from my dad and experience with tooling. I researched rod building on the Internet and traveled about to meet other custom rod builders to learn from them.

“When I came across the spiral-wrap, it made sense to me. Once fishermen try a spiral-wrap rod, they’re sold on the concept, too.

Seventy-five percent of my business comes from repeat customers who want to buy another rod.

“That’s one thing about bass fishermen. They’re like trout fishermen,” Ballard said. “They appreciate and recognize a good rod.”

Ballard’s motto on his Web site — “Sensitivity is Power” — captures the essence of his rod building. Since Ballard operates a small company with a limited budget, he can’t afford to bankroll famous pro anglers to endorse his rods like national manufacturers.

Ironically, one of the biggest names in professional bass fishing sought out Ballard instead.

At an FLW fishing show at Richmond, Va., Payden Hibdon, the grandson of Missouri’s Guido Hibdon, the former Bassmaster Classic champ, visited the JB Custom Rods booth and became enamored with the Spiral-wrapped rod. Young Payden asked “gramps” to buy him the rod, and as most grandfathers would, Guido purchased the rod.

Some time later, Guido’s wife, Stella, called Ballard requesting two more rods for their twin grandsons, Lawson and Conner.

But grandpa proved to be a sly fox rather than a soft touch. Evidently, he took note of his grandsons’ rods and asked Ballard to make him some spiral-wrapped finesse rods for his own use.

Those contacts led to a mutual friendship and business relationship whereby a Guido Hibdon Series of power and finesse JB Custom Rods came into being.

Ballard and Hibdon are now designing a high quality spiral-wrapped rod at a lower cost for the average fisherman.

Of course, there’s not a fishing rod in the world that can make a fish bite. Since King would like fishermen to experience what it’s like to catch fish with a spiral-wrapped rod, here are his tips for locating bass at Lake Jordan this June.

King said that while there may be a topwater bite early in the morning, the better fish in June will come from offshore structure, such as road beds, drops, humps, and the submerged pond dam at the lake. Main-lake points and ledges in 10 to 20 feet of water are other productive places.

Any topographical map of Jordan will reveal offshore structure.

“The fish build up at Jordan in June, so sometimes one spot will give up several fish,” King said.

Absent from King’s hot spots are rip-rap banks and bridges, frequently targeted areas at Jordan.

“I don’t have much luck fishing rip rap in June,” King said. “That’s better other times of the year.”

For deep structure, King uses deep-diving crankbaits, such as Fat Free Shads and Norman DB-22 divers in crawdad colors to mimic what the bass will be eating.

For cranking, King likes a JB deep-cranking rod, preferring the graphite model over the fiberglass model because he can feel every wobble of the bait with the graphite rod.

King’s preference runs contrary to the current swing back to soft fiberglass rods for crankbait fishing to keep fish from tearing loose.

But Ballard said a graphite rod can be constructed to function the same way.

“I build graphite and glass models, but I can create a soft graphite rod with enough give to prevent fish from tearing hooks out,” he said. “It’s a matter of extra time and care which doesn’t happen with mass-produced rods.”

In conjunction with his graphite rod, King favors a slow-speed reel with a 4:3 or 5:1 gear ratio and spools it with 10- or 12-pound-test green P-Line.

If crankbaits don’t produce, King switches to a Carolina rig with a 10-inch red plastic worm at the business end.

His gear consists of a 7-foot, 6-inch JB Carolina-rig rod and a high-speed reel with a 6.2:1 ratio to take line up quickly and to keep the fish coming his way. He prefers braided line with a Carolina rig because it has less stretch. He completes the rig with a 15-pound-test monofilament leader.

Occasionally, Jordan experiences flooding in June with the water rising into the bushes.

“When that happens, the fish will move into the bushes, even in the summer,” said King, who looks for stained water so he can flip without scaring the fish away.

King said the 10-pound fish Jordan was once noted for have become scarce, and the lake-record fish of more than 14 pounds taken by Phil Cable may never be broken.

“I don’t know if it’s the fishing pressure or what,” he said. “The 16-inch minimum size limit on bass is helping. Five-fish limits weighing 20 to 25 pounds are still common and so are 8-pound fish.”

King offers this tip to catch Jordan bass during heavy summer boating traffic.

“The Carolina rig is more effective when there’s boating traffic,” he said. “With traffic, the deeper fish move shallow to laydowns where they’re susceptible to Texas-rigged green pumpkin lizards.”

Like flipping, pitching, and traditional casting, spiral casting has its own distinct advantages to help fishermen catch more fish. Those who try it may soon discover why long, accurate spiral casts are as advantageous on the water as they are on the football field.

For more information about the Spiral-wrap, call Ballard at (910) 897-6119 or visit www.custombassrods.com.

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