Most people in the fishing industry know Larry Hopper as one of the toughest anglers the west has ever produced. He’s won a number of western events over his 35-year career, including the U.S. Open on Lake Mead in 1987. What most people don’t realize is Hopper was instrumental in the development of the graphite rod. Because of this, I felt it was important to interview him on this advancement in fishing technology. Here’s the story.
Many of today’s anglers take for granted one of the most important pieces of equipment in their arsenal – the graphite rod. In fact, I’d be willing to bet a bag of Senkos that most anglers today don’t remember the days when your choices of rod materials were bamboo, fiberglass, beryllium and steel – with fiberglass being the number-one choice.
I even venture to say, and this might be going out on a limb here, that a lot of the younger anglers didn’t realize when fiberglass came back on the market in the early 2000s as a crank- and jerkbait-rod material that they thought it was a new concept in fishing. Like I said, maybe I’m stretching it here folks, but there are younger anglers I’ve talked to who had no idea.
Anyway, back to the rod material that’s made such a difference in the way we’ve fished over the last 40 years.
Hopper’s Non-Fishing Background
During his college days and right after graduation from UCLA, Hopper started out as a developmental chemist for a composites company in Costa Mesa, CA named Narmco Materials. Narmco mainly dealt with the aerospace industry supplying fiberglass materials and structural film adhesives. Then one day in the late 60s, one of their joint venture partners, a British company, introduced them to carbon fiber technology.
“I got my start at Narmco in the late 60s,” he said. “At the time the main focus was on the aerospace industry because it was our bread and butter but we also supplied the fishing industry, mainly Garcia Conolon, with woven glass prepregs to make fishing rod blanks.”
For those that don’t know what a prepreg is, it’s essentially woven or unidirectional glass or carbon fiber that’s been impregnated with resin. The prepreg is then wound onto a tapered mandrel, baked at a preset temperature and then taken off the mandrel as a hollow tube.
“The fishing industry wasn’t our biggest customer but it was fun for me because I was a fisherman,” he said. “We did supply tons of the material to the fishing rod industry though.
“Then in the late 60s, we began a joint venture with a British company that was producing carbon fibers. We started making prepregs out of that material and then cured composite laminates that we tested for mechanical strength.
“I remember taking mechanical test reports of these new materials to McDonnell Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach,” he said. “The reports showed them the modulus, tensile strength and specific strength (tensile strength divided by density) of the materials and they didn’t know what to do with them because they’d never seen a material with these types of properties before.
“For example, steel has a tensile strength of around 300,000 psi and a modulus of 30-million psi. Carbon fiber, on the other hand, had a tensile strength of 550,000 psi and a modulus of 32 million psi. The other big factor was carbon fiber had a specific gravity (density) of 1.8 grams/cc where steel is 8 grams/cc. That means the carbon fiber material is greater than 4-times lighter than steel and nearly 2-times stronger for a comparable modulus.
Aerospace to Fishing Rods
The introduction of carbon fiber materials from aerospace to the fishing industry wasn’t that simple, though, due to the high cost of the matrix resins used.
“In about 1971-72, the aerospace industry took a nose dive and we (Narmco) made the decision to introduce carbon fiber prepregs to the fishing and golf industries for fishing rod and golf shaft production,” Hopper said.
“Due to the high cost of the matrix resin, my boss came to me and said, ‘Larry, we need a commercial resin that’s cheaper than the aerospace resin so we can supply materials to the fishing and golf industries.’
“That’s when I formulated one of the first matrix resins to make carbon fiber blanks for the fishing industry,” he said. “That resin became our standard for the industry for quite some time. I think I was around 27 at the time.”
So with this new product, the next goal was to introduce the new material to the fishing industry.
“At this time I belonged to a bass club in southern California called the Saddleback Bassmasters. Dave Myers was in the club and he worked at Fenwick in Westminster. (Editor’s note: This is the same Dave Myers who helped Dee Thomas develop the Flippin’ Stik. See Birth of the Flippin’ Stik – Part One and Part Two)
“Fenwick was always a leader in research and development,” he said. “We took them some of the material and they rolled their first blanks. This was around the 1972 – ’73 timeframe. From what I remember, they were the first rod company to come out with a graphite rod and they started selling carbon fiber fishing rods in 1974 (Editor’s note: see Graphite Rods: Only for the Wealthy Angler).
“After Dave got some of the first prototypes out, I remember him taking them to a club meeting to show the guys. I started talking about the properties of the material and Dave looked at me as if to say, ‘They don’t know what you’re talking about, Larry.’ Then I held a glass rod in my hand and placed the rod tip an inch or so away from the wall. Then with a swift motion, I pushed the rod tip away from the wall.
“What happened was the rod tip, instead of following the motion away from the wall, actually went the opposite direction, hit the wall and then started moving away from the wall. I did the same thing with the graphite rod and the rod tip didn’t hit the wall.
“This little experiment showed the guys how much more responsive a graphite rod was compared to a glass rod. In fact, this is one of the reasons guys would lose worm and jig fish back in the day with glass rods.
“Shortly after Fenwick commercialized carbon fiber fishing rods, we started supplying Lamiglas with carbon fiber materials,” he said. “At one point we were supplying Lamiglas, Loomis, St. Croix and Skyline with all their prepregs. Carbon fiber had definitely taken hold in the fishing industry.
“At this time, Gary Loomis worked for Lamiglas. He and others at Lamiglas then also started to develop carbon fiber fishing rods using advanced composite design methods (consulted with Boeing Aircraft) and commercialized their rod in 1975 and 76 – the second company to produce carbon fiber rods.”
(Editor’s note: Because of Gary Loomis’ impact on the carbon fiber rod industry, I thought it appropriate to direct you to an historical view of his life in the fishing industry. This can be seen at Tackle Tour. For Part One click here and for Part Two click here.)
The approximate timeline for various carbon fibers in fishing rods looks like this:
“The new fibers, alone or in combination with earlier fibers, are still in use today along with advanced design techniques and new matrix resins that translate the new fiber properties,” he said. “Use of the new fiber properties with the new design technology and new matrix resins result in the fabulous lightweight rods we use today.”
So far, Shimano is the only company who has developed a rod with the new IM10 carbon fiber.
It’s amazing what one person can do to change an industry. If Larry Hopper hadn’t majored in chemistry at UCLA and got a job working as a developmental chemist at Narmco back in the 60s, we may still be using glass rods today. He was the right guy at the right company at the right time.
On another more humorous note, I also wonder if he had an advantage in those early days of western tournament fishing being that he undoubtedly had the best rods no one could buy.