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COUSINS TACKLE: Old-school business style, new technology


Wade Cunningham and Bill Buchanan grew up in the tackle business at Fenwick and Sevenstrand and are back in the thick of it; after a year of planning and building the factory in Huntington Beach, they are have begun shipping their top-of-the-line rods and lures to independent retailers.

BY PAT McDONELL
WON Staff Writer


THE BLUEFIN BITE is going off, and Cousins Tackle is out taking its toll on the fish. This Pacific Dawn angler was part of a two-day trip with full limits of 30- to 70-pound fish. Twenty Two (22) rods in various actions, including a custom-wrapped set of four trolling/standup rods in a special team drawing, will be awarded by Bill Buchanon, president of Cousins, at the Cabo Tuna Jackpot.

HUNTINGTON BEACH -- Bill Buchanan and Wade Cunningham grew up in the tackle business. And while their names might not be familiar to average fisherman, the companies of Sevenstrand, Sage, Fenwick and others they owned or worked for over the years are only too familiar.

Cunningham is considered the "rain man" of rod design. A perfectionist. His cousin, Buchanan is the planner, the creator. The facilitator. They started as kids in the industry, working at the Fenwick plant as teenagers. Buchanan's father Buck owned Sevenstrand, a longtime wire company, it expanded into lures and skirts, bought Fenwick, and after Buck retired, Bill ran it from 1983 to 2003 when Pure Fishing bought it. In 2007 Bill had enough of the corporate game and stepped away and went fishing.

But if the tackle business is in your blood, you don't stay out for long, and the two have formed Cousins Tackle, based in Huntington Beach.


WADE CUNNINGHAM, VP, has designed rods for Sage, Seeker, Fenwick, Berkeley, Abel and Shikari. He began working as a teenager with his cousin Bill Buchanan when Fenwick was at its zenith, putting out 1,000 rods a day.

After a more than a year of setting up a business plan and building infrastructure, Cousins Tackle's factory and its 26 employees are shipping high-end rods across the country to independent retailers. WON took a tour of the factory recently, and it's impressive. The game plan is simple Make the best possible freshwater and saltwater rods, and pick high-end independent retailers to carry them. The first rod shipments and the custom wood racks for them began shipping to dealers this month. The focus is on top-of-the-line freshwater and inshore rods, with saltwater boat and big game sticks filling out the line.

"What we told ourselves that when we wanted to launch the business we wanted to build the best rod we could build, with the finest components and material regardless of price and we wanted to build rods that we would fish with," said Buchanan. Thus, cork dominated the discussion on the tour. "One of the things that has bothered me about rods are split grips, especially in freshwater rods. The reason for split grips is not about balance and sensitivity, it's about economics. It's about the fact the most expensive part of a fishing rod is the cork."

Really? That's right. "More than graphite, more than reel seats, more than thread, more than anything else, the most expensive part is cork. We don't care. We think it's beautiful, it fishes the best of anything. So we import it, glue the rings, and we shape all of our own grips. The grade of cork we need is almost impossible to find. Ours comes from a direct source in Portugal. We do it because we come from a heritage of building our own."


WADE CUNNINGHAM, left, VP and rod designer, and Bill Buchanan, right, president, at the factory's showroom in Huntington Beach. IN the other photo, the pair are in the factory where the cork is glued onto the rod shafts and then taken to another section of the factor to be custom shaped and ground.

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They have signed on as a Cabo Tuna Jackpot sponsor, and will be awarding 22 rods in various actions, in special drawings. One drawing, for a set of four trolling/standup rods custom wrapped with the Cabo logo, will be in a special team drawings. The rods would retail for around $600 to $800 each.

Doug Kern, owner of Fisherman's Landing in San Diego was among the first dealers the first to order rods. "He bit hard," said Buchanan with a smile. He ordered two racks, 92 rods.

"Basically this is culmination of 50 years of Southern California knowledge and participation in the industry and fishing. These guys go way back to Sevenstrand and Fenwick and Wade pretty much started Seeker. But let's face it, over history there have been these price ceilings. When G. Loomis went over the $200 mark people thought they were crazy, but eventually it worked."


THE HUGE ROD BAKING OVEN was bought from Shikari's plant in Tulsa, OK is one of the biggest in the U.S. It can bake 1,000 rods in a 2 1/2--hour bake in 3 lines up to 13 feet. The oven reaches a temp of 300 degrees. The massive oven (which was idle for five years at Shikira's plant) and other equipment there was dismantled, packed up over seven weeks by Cunningham, trucked in four semi trucks to the Huntington Beach factory, reassembled, refurbished and rewired by Buchanan and Wade.

The final vote, said Kern, will be the customer's. Right now, most inshore and freshwater rods catch fish, but the quality from overseas manufacturing is degraded to reach a price point. Cousins is the highest end. A rod to collect, as well as fish.

"I'm perfectly willing to showcase their products," he added. "I know they are getting the best quality cork and they know how to build a rod better than anyone in the world. I know the spline is perfect, that the guides are perfectly spaced, that the finish is quality. I think the customer base will grow into the line. Right now, no one knows what Cousins is, and it won't sell like crazy right out of the gate, but I want to be associated with the product from the start."

The key is the dealer network. Buchanan said dealers are added when the rods are available. Nationally, there are 14 and slowly rising. In California that dealer number is 7. It will cap out at 14, he said. "There is no point in adding dealers until we have the rods. We don't want to upset them right out of the gate."

At 14,500 square feet, the plant is huge, and is expanding and changing as needs shift to boost production and shipping. The great part of a factory tour is seeing the "proprietary" machines. They are fascinating in their simplicity and uniqueness. The cork "grinder" is combination of two simple machines. But, said Buchanan, no pictures, please. "I'm sure some of the finer fly rod companies (like Sage) do this, but all the production rod companies buy their cork already pre-shaped from China, but we don't do it."


THE HUGE ROD BAKING OVEN was bought from Shikari's plant in Tulsa, OK is one of the biggest in the U.S. It can bake 1,000 rods in a 2 1/2--hour bake in 3 lines up to 13 feet. The oven reaches a temp of 300 degrees. The massive oven (which was idle for five years at Shikira's plant) and other equipment there was dismantled, packed up over seven weeks by Cunningham, trucked in four semi trucks to the Huntington Beach factory, reassembled, refurbished and rewired by Buchanan and Wade.

Opening a plant that combines marketing, design, manufacturing, shipping, receiving and accounting means starting from scratch; building or buying your own tools, creating custom finishing room wall racks, and most important, creating new rod mandrels for the actions designed by Cunningham.

There are some things you can't build yourself, and one is the massive rod baking oven that dominates the sprawling factory that by now, a month after the interview, has likely morphed into new phases of expansion. Believe me, the 30-foot high rod baking oven isn't going anywhere. It stays put. It came from Shakira rod plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The oven sat dormant for five years. Cunningham stayed in Tulsa for seven weeks, dismantling and packing the oven and other machinery into four semi trucks.


"We rebuilt it from the ground up. Every bolt was painted and rewired. It was a labor of love," said Buchanan. "The oven is one of the biggest in the U.S., and can bake 1,000 rods at 300 degrees in 2 ½ hours. "We can do about 1,400 shafts in a day shift in three lines of rods up to 13 feet."

As mentioned, the rod mandrels for hundreds of actions were designed by Wade, and precision ground to exacting specs.

"Wade is the rain man of rods," said Buchanan. "We both started at Fenwick as kids. I worked my first tackle show when I was 9 years old. I'm 55 now. It was the old H. Werner Buck show in Anaheim. Wade is 58, and he started there (Fenwick) in 1972."


THIS C/B 80M-CT 8'0" rated for 25-40-pound is a beautiful cork-handled detailed rod with top-of-the-line Fuji guides.

Cousins is truly a family enterprise. Buchanan's wife Rhonda and daughter Paula work at the plant as office manager and receptionist. So does Cunningham's wife, Suzanne, who is in production control. Buchanan's business partner is Jim Schorr. The families go back a way in Long Beach. Schorr is an ordained minister and married Buchanan – twice! What is amazing is that nine of the 26 current employees are from the old Long Beach-based Sevenstrand lure and wire plant that Pure Fishing shuttered in 2003.

"I sought many of them out when I started hiring," said Buchanan. "I felt terrible when the Sevenstrand plant was shut down and put the people on the street who had worked for us for so many years. And to have them come back to work with us, well, it's pretty great."

What fishermen care about, though, is product quality.

Among Cousins' full line of rods will be the new IM-8 Graphite Freshwater Rod series, with 38 casting and spinning models engineered for specific bass, trout, walleye and steelhead techniques. These rods feature quality IM-8 graphite blanks with a gloss clear finish, refined actions for technique specific performance, Fuji K-Series "Tangle Free" Alconite guides with black stainless steel frames, Fuji graphite reel seats with black fittings, and hand-sanded and fitted Grade A cork grips. Each rod is treated with three coats of slow cure, UV-resistant Flex Coat for good looks and durability.


THE FINISHING RACKS on the walls after the wrapping are filled each day, and the room's size will double in size as production goes full tilt.

The new Cousins XF Inshore Series of lightweight graphite rods has been engineered for outstanding sensitivity, lightness and hook-setting power. Finely tuned actions and tapers help inshore anglers fish plastics, baits and jigs with precision. Quality features include Fuji K-Series stainless steel frame Alconite guides, Fuji reel seats with black silver fittings, and hand-turned cork handles. Each one of these 22 casting or spinning rod models is triple-wrapped with distinctive black, metallic blue and silver threads and finished with three coats of UV-resistant slow-cure finish – for durability and lasting good looks.

Cousins offers bay and light line inshore anglers the new LSW (Light Saltwater Series) rods, 25 models built on Cousins' Graphite II blanks. Each lightweight model is finely tuned to provide the action, sensitivity and power required for specific inshore and bay fishing techniques, whether it's stalking snook, bonefish or permit on the flats, battling a bull-headed redfish or gator trout, or fishing West Coast-style saltwater bass tournaments. Each spinning or casting model is built with Fuji K-Series guides with superline-proof Alconite inserts and polished stainless steel frames, Fuji reel seats with black stainless steel fittings and hand-sanded cork handles. Each one is painstakingly wrapped with black, blue and silver metallic thread and treated with three coats of UV-resistant, slow- cure finish for a custom-rod look that stands the test of time.


MORE THAN 200 variations of colors and designs in trolling lure skirts are available at Cousins. The skirts, depending on how they are dipped, and cut, and re-dipped are truly works of art. (PHOTOS BY PAT McDONELL)

Offshore anglers will appreciate the new Cousins SE Series Graphite Composite Offshore Rods, a full family of premium saltwater sticks designed for West Coast California and Baja-style fishing. Refined actions cover the gamut of live bait, jig fishing, and stand-up tuna applications. Lightweight graphite composite blanks are finished with ALPS S-6 316 Stainless frame guides with Rolled Ring Design (RRD) and hard aluminum oxide inserts. All roller models feature the finest AFTCO roller guides and tip tops, Guides are triple wrapped and treated with Cousins' three-coat UV-resistant finish. Most models feature premium Hypalon sponge rubber grips and sturdy Fuji reel seats with matte silver fittings. Five "Deckhand Style" SE Series models feature cork tape wrapped grips for lighter weight and custom reel positioning.

These are only highlights of the comprehensive rod offerings Cousins plans to introduce in 2013/2014. When complete, the Cousins rod line will also include fiberglass steelhead and salmon rods, fiberglass spinning rods for specialized light-tackle trout techniques, and rods for many other angling applications.

As for the lures and especially the skirts themselves, there is high demand for them in the market. Even custom lure head makers on the West Coast and in Hawaii have said another source of high quality trolling lure skirts is sorely needed. Eat Me Lures toured the facility and ordered a batch. "The quality and consistency is better than anything else out there," said John Boyer of Eat Me Lures, based in Salem, Oregon.


THE COUSINS plant personnel is a mix of family, nine former Sevenstrand employees and a number of new employees working in Huntington Beach. (PHOTO COURTESY OF COUSINS TACKLE)

The skirts in the Sevenstrand tradition are truly a work of art with Kahm It the artist-in-residence. When Sevenstrand was shuttered, the old mandrels were shipped to a plant in Cambodia. The new ones Buchanan designed are far more detailed. The plant can daily dip, bake and cut 800 to 1,500 skirts in 200 color variations.

Promotion will be a huge part of the Cousins emergence. To that end, they have signed on as a Cabo Tuna Jackpot sponsor, and will be awarding 22 rods in various actions, in special drawings. One drawing, for a set of four trolling/standup rods custom wrapped with the Cabo logo, will be in a special team drawings. The rods would retail for around $600 to $800 each. Buchanon is a veteran Cabo angler and will be in Cabo at the event as an attending sponsor, showing off the rods at the check-in booth, participating in the drawings. A full range of saltwater rods will be available for sale at Minerva's Tackle in Cabo.

And so it begins anew, as a new tackle company essentially ups the ante in high-end rod production in Southern California where graphite composite design began and two cousins learned their lessons well.

"Well, it finally happened," said Cunningham, looking over at Buchanan. "We've been in this business a long time, and I guess we finally know what we're doing."

Contact Cousins Tackle Corp. at (714) 893-0423 or www.cousinstackle.com.