COTTER, Ark. | There was a time when Tycoon Tackle Company led the world in the production of deep sea rods and reels. Founded by Frank O'Brien in 1935 in Miami, Fla., the company soon came to worldwide prominence.
Frank's son, Tim O'Brien spoke at the Southern Rod Maker's Gathering here back in October. He has brought the company back and hopes to guide it to its former glory.
So why was a company aimed primarily at salt water on the program of bamboo rod makers? We'll get to that in a moment, but first let's learn a bit about Tycoon Tackle.
"My dad was an experienced angler," Tim said. "He moved to Miami just at the time when stories of giant marlin abounded. But no one could catch them for two reasons. There was no adequate tackle and if they could keep the fish on long enough, sharks would get to them."
Deep sea anglers in those early days plied the waters from Catalina Island to Nova Scotia where they found the big swordfish.
"But it wasn't long before they discovered the mother lode was in the Florida Straights around the Bahama Islands," Tim said.
"My dad was a young man and he really didn't like the rods that were available so he began making his own as a hobby," Tim continued. "He was going out and catching fish. People would ask where he got his rod and he'd tell them he made it. In May of 1935 Ernest Hemmingway catches the first unmutilated marlin and Tycoon Tackle was born."
Those first rods were made of solid hickory, but Frank wanted a lighter rod that had strength. He began building hexagonal bamboo deep sea rods, but they did not meet his high standards. In 1936, he began experimenting with a radical new approach to rod building. He began laminating different woods to create a rod.
"What he did is make the center portion of hickory and on each side of the hickory is a strip of snakewood, a tropical wood being used in bows at the time. The outer layer was Tonkin cane on each side," Tim said. "Then he sanded the square blank into something that looked almost heart shaped in cross section. The heart-like shape made the blank 60 percent stronger than a square."
In September of 1937, Frank had this process patented. Not long after, famed saltwater angler Michael Lerner caught a new North American Swordfish record with one of these rods. Now the question was, could Frank produce lots of these rods.
He could and did. At one time 95 percent of all salt water world records were taken on rods based on that construction, Tim said.
Later the company began producing laminated bait-casting rods and in 1937 Frank began working flat laminate strip bamboo fly rods. In 1938 these rods were in the company's catalog and offered in sizes from 7 feet to 10 feet. They sold for $75 (about $1,220 in today's money). The last Tycoon Tackle fly rod was offered in the 1941 catalog so the rod only had a life of about three years. It was the start of World War II that brought it all to a halt.
"In the spring of 1942 the government declared a halt to the construction of fishing tackle as it was not essential to the war effort," Tim said. "My dad thought, 'I have a machine shop so I can take a contract for something.' He got a contract for making tail struts for airplanes. He ran three shifts a day, seven days a week. The company went from 18 to 400 employees in four years. The company was cited five times for excellence in manufacturing. At war's end, we were a completely different company.
"The war gave rise to the fiberglass rod revolution," Tim continued. "It's my theory that in these tumultuous climates, Tycoon Tackle decided to concentate on its more famous offerings, the big game trolling rods, and drop their line of laminate strip bamboo fly rods."
Tim added, "In 1949, Tycoon Tackle struck an exclusive deal with fin-Nor, a maker of big game reels and in 1956 the two firms merged to create the Tycoon/Fin-Nor Corporation," Tim continued. "Their attention was clearly on high quality big game fishing tackle, and not on fly rods."
So why is Tim at a bamboo rod makers' gathering? It began several years ago when he decided to write a book detailing the story of Tycoon Tackle. It took four years. It was published by Whitefish Press. Dr. Todd Larson of Whitefish Press started talking with Tim about bringing the company back.
"We talked a lot about fly rods and the interest in bamboo and wood rods," Tim said. "We began doing more and more research into fly rods. I own one of the originals and I know where one of the others is. All told, we know about four of them.
"We started trying to figure out how to make these rods and Todd said, I know one rod maker in particular who could figure it out and that is Jeff Hatton of Paonia, Colo.," Tim said. "Our association has been going on for three or four years now and Jeff has refined the process."
Jeff followed Tim with a presentation on how the rods are made and had one on hand for rodmakers to cast. Amazingly this rod, a 7-footer, handled lines from three weight to seven weight. The rod is an absolute delight to cast.
Visit the Tycoon Tackle web site to learn more about what is being produced, including reels, fiberglass casting, spinning and trolling rods and glass and laminated bamboo fly rods at www.tycoonoutfitters.com.