If you’ve ever tried to find the perfect gift for the man (or woman) who has everything, an Altenkirch precision-built fishing rod is a great way to go. Not only are Altenkirch rods beautiful, they are—according to many anglers—the most sensitive, and yet toughest, longest-lasting fishing rods in the world and they can be found right here on the East End.
“First of all, we don’t make poles,” Hank Altenkirch tells a visitor to his workshop who made the mistake of asking for a “fishing pole.” “Poles live on the other side of the ocean and drink vodka.”
Hank Altenkirch, third-generation rod builder, grew up in Hampton Bays. His grandfather, German immigrant Charles Altenkirch, sold his sand and gravel pit in Bayside, Queens, in 1929 and moved to Hampton Bays, where he opened up the auto repair shop C. Altenkirch and Son the following year. Surrounded by water, he quickly moved from fixing cars to boats.
Charles was instrumental in keeping the Shinnecock Inlet open after the hurricane of 1938 gouged an unexpected trough in the shoreline that connected the ocean to the bay. “He raised money to stabilize the canal,” says Altenkirch, “He knew if there was a hole in the wall, revenue would come into Hampton Bays.”
Charles made quite a name for himself by building handmade weakfish rods. Jackie Gleason was a fan of those first rods and used to come out East to fish and play cards in the shop, as did Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who liked to wrap their own rods.
Charles’s son, Mickey, started working in the shop at the age of 12 and took over when Charles died in 1952. Mickey continued to perfect and expand their line of fishing rods and invented what became the modern-day fighting chair used on fishing boats.
Back then, business flourished. The Altenkirches expanded to Canoe Place Dock equipped with 28 charter boats on the Shinnecock Canal. The family ran the dock, sold gas and bait, fixed boats and tackle and made precision rods for customers.
The high-end rods have been compared to Rolls Royces and Rolexes, and the list of famous customers is long. Ernest Hemingway, Steve McQueen, David Nivens, George W. Bush, Roger Waters, James Taylor and Martha Stewart, just to name a few. “Billy Joel has all of our sticks,” says Altenkirch, “as did Mr. Entenmann, a real nice fellow, a customer for 60 years.”
Local writer and fisherman, Michael Wright, who grew up down the road from the shop, appreciates the attention to detail and decades of reliable use. “My dad started taking me to Hank and Mickey’s shop maybe before I could walk. I own at least 15 Altenkirch rods and still have the very first one my dad ever bought me. Caught a fish on it on Wednesday night as a matter of fact.”
“There’s a lot more to a rod than just a fiberglass blank, reel seat hardware, a set of guides, silk thread for wrapping and some cork rings for the grip,” Mickey toldSports Life magazine in 1962. “A rod must be designed so that when all these parts are assembled they result in a unit that not only meets the specific needs of its owner, but also is an effective, efficient fish-catching weapon,” Mickey said.
Like his father, Hank Altenkirch started to help out in the shop when he was 12. “Of course, I was cleaning toilet bowls and packing worms,” says the Harley-riding rod-maker. Janis, his eldest daughter, also started wrapping rods with her grandfather at age 12.
Once in a while, someone will find an old Altenkirch at a yard sale and have it refurbished. “Some early 1930’s rods made out of bamboo by my grandfather still bend beautifully,” he says, grabbing an antique rod off of a rack and bending its tip against the ceiling. “Look, it still has the Altenkirch seal,” he says proudly of his name.
While his grandfather crafted rods out of bamboo or hickory, his father used fiberglass blanks. Fiberglass gave way to graphite, the sensitive material Altenkirch uses for his rods today.
Before the materials are touched, the rod maker gleans information from his customer. “What are you going fishing for? Where are you going fishing? What size fish?” Glove size, length of forearm, height and weight, and even favorite colors are also important details.
Although some materials have changed, rod-crafting basics have stayed the same. Unless the rod is going to be used for travel, Altenkirch starts with one piece. “I don’t like two-piece rods,” he says, “it takes away some of the action.”
The highest quality cork is hand-turned on his grandfather’s lathe for smooth and ergonomically shaped grips, and hardwoods from all over the world provide unique colors and shine.
Rod fittings have grown sophisticated—reel seats may be stainless steel or chrome plated, with aluminum detailing for lightness; while fishing-line eyelets may be ceramic-lined titanium (with ball bearings) and attached by tightly wrapping nylon thread (formerly silk was used) around the rod, a skill historically stewarded by the women in the Altenkirch family.
Lastly, Altenkirch applies several coats of varnish as well as an ultraviolet protection to keep the color from fading. At one point, he reaches into the depths of the narrow varnish room to fetch his favorite, an electric-blue and silver stand-up tuna rod. The “all Altenkirch” rod has a $3,500 price tag. “There is no tougher rod on market. The best of the best. An awesome, awesome, rod.”
He asks his visitor to hold the grip. At the other end of the rod, Altenkirch barely touches the tip with his “fingerprint” and the vibrations can be felt all the way down. “Our rods are the most sensitive there are,” he says. Sensitive, but strong. “You don’t want it to break when you’ve got that one you’ve been waiting for your whole life.”
Altenkirch specializes in saltwater fishing, but he’ll make a rod for anything that swims. “They were one of the first shops in the world to design and build rods for specialty uses, especially fighting big game fish on very light line,” says Wright. Until about the mid-1990s, there were no quality mass-produced surf fishing rods. “You either had an Altenkirch or you might as well have had a cane pole.”
Altenkirch closed his family’s iconic tackle shop in 2005, the result of a messy divorce and a downturn in the economy that he says dried up the disposable income that people used to spend on custom rods. “I miss the old store, but it was two lifetimes of work,” he says, “I’m too damn old to work 12-hour days. I’d rather ride my Harley or go fishing. I miss people coming in and the residual money but I want to play with the kids.” He continues to sell rods through the Web at Altenkirch.com.
Fishing and fishing rods have come a long way since Charles used linen fishing line, which required removal, washing and drying between uses, but the end result remains, and the tradition continues. “I made my grandson a rod before the critter was hatched. He’s two and a half now. We’re going to catch his first porgy on Peconic Bay this summer.”
Kelly Ann Smith lives and writes in Springs.