It’s All About How You Handle It

Hawg Heav'n pistol grip handle circa early 70s.

Hawg Heav’n pistol grip handle circa early 70s.

I wonder if any of the new anglers of today have any idea what it was like to fish the old rods of the 50s through the 70s? You know, a 5 or 5-1/2-foot pistol-grip rod. When I started bass fishing in 1974, my first casting rod was a Fenwick Lunkerstik coupled with an ABU Garcia 5000C. The rod was light by the standards of the day and actually very comfortable to fish.

The nice thing about the pistol-grip rod was the fact that the handle, more specifically the reel seat, was lower than the centerline of the blank, which put the reel spool closer to your thumb. Another advantage of this feature was it made palming your reel much easier.

Featherweight pistol grip ad from the early 70s. The name Featherweight must have been an oxymoron because they definitely weren't light.

Featherweight pistol grip ad from the early 70s. The name Featherweight must have been an oxymoron because they definitely weren’t light.

The reason the rods were so short was due to the fact you couldn’t really make a rod longer than 6 feet in length without it getting too tip heavy. There just wasn’t enough weight on the butt end of the rod to make for an enjoyable day on the water.

There were disadvantages to the handles, though. First off they were heavy – made from either some type of metal or in the later years fiberglass and graphite. Secondly the blank was attached to the handle via a ferrule system, which always seemed to fail (i.e.: break) when you set the hook into that big fish of a lifetime. Either the blank would break at the edge of the ferrule or the handle would break. The third problem, and probably the most important, was another attribute of the ferrule – the fact that the rod stopped at the front of the handle, which cut down on the rod’s sensitivity.

The old adage, ignorance is bliss, definitely comes into play here. Casting rods had been made this way for decades, people bought and used them without complaining so why change?

Then the Fenwick and Dee Thomas set the world on its ear with flipping. At first the rod was only used for its intended purpose but as more angler began to buy the rods, they started using them for more than just flipping.

An early 70s Fenwick ad describing how their pistol grip system was superior to their competition.

An early 70s Fenwick ad describing how their pistol grip system was superior to their competition.

The main problem and reason so many anglers stuck with the pistol grip rods was the fact the reel sat so high on the rod (remember, there weren’t any low-profile reels at this time) making casting and retrieving an ergonomic mess. But anglers finally realized that the long rod and handle offered more in its advantages than in disadvantages. For one, the long handle offered true two-handed casting, which allowed the angler to put more energy into their cast. Second, the longer blank stored more energy resulting in the same. The extra length of the rod also allowed for better hooksets and control over the fish. The long rod was here to stay and the pistol grip rods went the way of the Packard and Studebaker.

Unfortunately, the pendulum swung so far to the long-rod side that today you’re hard pressed to find a rod adorned with a pistol grip that’s actually suited for bass fishing. It’s a rare sighting on any lake to actually see an angler wielding one. The reason I say unfortunate is, as with anything, short pistol grip rods still have a place in every angler’s arsenal. They’re great for pinpoint casting at short targets and performing an underhanded roll cast with one is a dream. There’s a reason tournament casting pros still use them to this day – they are far more accurate than the long rod.

Unfortunately it’d take a tour win or eight with the pistol grip to bring it back from the grave. The worst part is that they’re best utilized with a spinnerbait in close quarters and when was the last time a major event was won on the blade?

  • Bob Uhrig

    One thing to consider about the 70’s was that we fished sitting down. Our boats were smaller and less stable with a lot of them having stick steering. The 5’6″ to 6″ rod was almost the limit under these conditions. I remember a couple of guys who were on the cutting edge of long rods when in the early 70’s they started using a Browning 6’6″ salt water rod for worm fishing . It was more balanced and could cast farther. I believe Sid Menge of Gainesville, FL started this trend in our area.

    I remember the old Fenwick Lunker sticks – the original 1200 series was the best with its comfortable V ferrule handle and carbide guides. The 1256 was my favorite model and a good all around rod..

    I also used a heavy action Eagle Clay rod that I customized with a Featherweight reel seat to which I added a Le-Dar rubber pistol grip handle. I would combine that with a black Ambassaduer 5000C reel and 25 lb blue stren. It was very heavy outfit weight wise by todays standard.

    • Bob, do you still have the rods and if so, do you ever pull them out and fish with them?

  • Bob Uhrig

    Terry, they are long gone although I may still have an old Skyline.

  • I used to make casting rods with blank through handle pistol grips back in the who-knows-what-year-that-was-anymore day. They weighted next to nothing in comparison to commercial pistol grips. I also made some longer rods with two handed handles. I recall a trip to Mexico where a couple Browning execs were on the trip, one of whom was head of fishing product development. He looked at my two handed 6-3 jig rod and I told him they should make one in their new Boron rods, and he told me that market research indicated the bass market would not buy a rod that long for casting applications.

    • You’ve got to love tackle execs Rich. 🙂