Master Craftsman: John Wanag, Montauk Custom Rods

John Wanag’s Montauk Custom Rods, Photo: Courtesy Montauk Custom Rods

The East End has changed much over the centuries, but fishing remains a stalwart constant upon our shores. Long before robust homes laid lengthy shadows across the dunes, and long since, local men have cast net and line to pull their harvest from the sea. The traditions are time-honored and the tools and techniques largely unmodified.

John Wanag of Montauk Custom Rods in East Hampton continues this tradition, crafting fine fishing rods for customers throughout the Hamptons, North Fork and around the country. Using a wide range of materials, the artisan imbues unique character into each rod, combining his aesthetic sensibility with buyers’ tastes and personalities to create a signature piece that’s the envy of fellow anglers.

Wanag’s keen eye and talent for making dream fishing rods real come from lifelong experience in the industry and a love of the sport.

Photo: Courtesy Montauk Custom Rods

“It started eons ago, when I was 12 or 13 years old. I lost my father when I was young, about 9, and these two guys from a tackle shop in the next town over, Westport, Connecticut, took me in,” Wanag says, recalling the first step toward his future business. “I was hanging around there and they would put me to work, making the boxes for sandworms and counting them. I would sweep up the store or whatever, and one of the guys, Larry, was building a rod–he would do custom rods and I would watch him. He showed me.”

Those men also dragged young Wanag to Montauk for charters, but by age 16 his interest turned from fishing to more enticing pursuits. “I found girls and cars,” he admits, noting that he attended just one semester of college after high school before the fishing muse took hold again. “It wasn’t for me, but I always had Montauk in the back of my head.” As a young man, Wanag returned to the sea and worked sport fishing charters in Montauk and Florida. He later became a commercial fisherman, sailing aboard the Deliverance and Restless, tile fishing mostly. “But I did everything–I dragged, whatever I needed to do to make a buck.”

Once he had a wife and children, Wanag became more attuned to the dangers of commercial fishing, and he eventually gave that up, too. “We were losing guys,” he says. “A couple buddies of mine who had kids the same age as my daughter, they went down.” By that time, Wanag already had vast experience on the water and continued to fish for fun. Even his next move, joining the restaurant industry, fittingly led him to the After Fishing Bar & Grill at Gone Fishing Marina and Montauk’s Star Deck.

Photo: Courtesy Montauk Custom Rods

Wanag’s destiny finally took hold after his newly divorced wife threw away all his best fishing gear. What felt like a great loss, put him back on course to his calling. A friend gave Wanag a couple of old rods to get him back in action, and his instinct as a craftsman took over. “I fixed them up,” Wanag says, noting that his buddy couldn’t believe what he was able to do with the worse-for-wear castoffs. “That’s how it really all got started.”

After impressing everyone with his remarkable talent for rod building and repair, friends and acquaintances began requesting Wanag for small jobs here and there, and he did them well. “I ended up buying and building a couple of custom rods for myself, and somebody asked me, could I build them one?” He agreed and then took more custom orders. At a certain point, Wanag ended up building some rods for a customer who never paid or picked them up, but once again, his loss brought even greater prosperity and clarity of vision. “Somebody suggested I put them on eBay…within about an hour they both sold.” So Wanag built and sold more rods. “It slowly grew,” he says, explaining how Montauk Custom Rods took shape.

In time, Wanag built a website, began attending shows and selling his creations to fishermen all over the United States, especially the West Coast, and even far-flung locales like Australia and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Though he could live off Montauk Custom Rods alone, he also works at a local lumber yard, remaining an active member of the Teamsters Union for the benefits.

Wanag’s designs go from traditional to highly customized, with everything from his second wife and fellow fishing maven Helen McGuire’s pink “Fishing Diva” rods and hats to a one-of-a-kind Avengers-themed rod, plus custom gaffs and even tackle and fly-fishing rods. Materials include handmade blanks, cork or foam grips, carbon fiber, real rattlesnake and copperhead skin, graphite, abalone shell, psychedelic hydro-dipped paintjobs, airbrushing, camouflage patterns, Zirconia (or Zirconium) guides and ring inserts, team logos, band names and just about any graphic one could imagine–as long as it works on a cylindrical shape.

“I’ll work with just about anything that I can get on a rod. I’m always experimenting, always trying to figure out something different–something you haven’t seen yet,” Wanag says, acknowledging that his rods are always on his mind. He’s now considering trying to replicate vintage wooden rod butts with a duplicating lathe and is adding a “Tiffany Blue” rod to the Fishing Diva line. “It’s endless,” Wanag explains. “It’s endless when you start to think about some of this stuff.”