A MidWest Outdoors 50th Anniversary Legacy Feature: A Connection to the Past, to your Hands or to the Fish, St. Croix rods ‘bend’ to the pulse of fishing

One day back in the mid 1970s, the phone rang and Gordon Schluter picked it up. The voice coming through the line described how difficult times had become for St. Croix Rods, a company Schluter had worked for. He’d been CEO, in fact, pouring his heart and soul into the small and proud brand with roots dating back to the late 40s.

The perfect storm, in this case, came in the form of competition from low-cost fishing rods being made overseas and the rising cost of making quality products in Park Falls, Wis.

In discussions that quickly followed, Gordon Schluter was forced to imagine driving past an empty factory, in the event that St. Croix’s manufacturing was shifted to Japan in order to try to compete with a strong price-driven current flowing through the fishing industry. A nest egg earmarked for retirement was rolled into the marketplace. Schluter’s conscience and vision took him from the doorstep of retirement to owning the keys to the building, and under his leadership a special brand rose from the brink to a thriving American success story.

It’s hard to imagine that tipping point now, when you can walk into any tackle shop or browse catalog or web pages and find many of about 900 possible St. Croix rods, each one hand-crafted, from an expanding physical footprint in Park Falls.

During Gordon Schluter’s tenure as owner, the company went all-in on fishing rods, having produced pool cues, marine antennas, shocking rods, landing nets, and more, at one time or another. He forever left his mark on the world fishing scene, because St. Croix has become a treasured name in freshwater rods, saltwater rods and fly rods wherever water holds fish that we try to catch.

Family legacy
In 1990, with the company healthy, excited, and continuing a passion for innovation, Gordon Schluter sold the keys to his four children, Jeff, Paul, David, and Pam Schluter Smylie. Roots had grown deeper and stronger, as more anglers embraced the rods because they felt right in the hand and became like favorite blue jeans.

St. Croix’s spirit of investment in new technology and better products gained momentum.

“The rod is your connection to the fish,” says Jeff Schluter, vice president of sales and marketing. “The line and bait are there, too, but the rod is what you have in your hands. It has to feel right. It has to transfer the signals your lure is sending to your hands, and you have to come to trust it. That’s what we build, every day, and we never stop making that connection better.”

If you only knew
When you pick up a St. Croix rod in the store, press the tip to the floor and flex it, if you only knew how many rod crafters had touched it before you did.

“A minimum of 32 people handle every rod while it’s being built,” says Paul Schluter, company president. “There’s a process, and a pride, at every station. It’s unlike anything in the industry.”

You can be there as rods are being crafted, by taking part in a tour.

“The tours are very intimate,” Paul says. “We only allow 10 people a day, to make it a special experience. You will be walking around while manufacturing is going on, so we need to keep the tour group small so the workers can focus on their craft.

“What people often say after the tour is they were unaware that so many people work on every single rod. This is a special place, and we know every rod is being made for somebody who loves to fish.”

Passion-driven products
Fueled by knowledge of what makes a great fishing rod, along with constant feedback from a legion of professional and everyday anglers, ever-improving designs are a natural result of life at St. Croix.

“Designing, testing, modifying, is how we live,” says David Schluter, vice president of manufacturing. “Our designers and engineers are outstanding. They know how to take an idea and make it into a rod. Some things are brand new, others are improvements to rods we already build.

“Technology doesn’t stand still, and we constantly look at new materials, new components, new ways of making things. We also look at what’s happening with fisheries and techniques. Our rods reflect state-of-the-art, but they come from a place that lives and breathes old-fashioned knowledge and craftsmanship.”

In essence, St. Croix makes fishing rods that bend not to the will of market forces, but the natural pulse of the sport itself.

CUSTOMER APPRECIATION DAY
To experience the full flavor of life at St. Croix, head over to Customer Appreciation Day, held every year on the Saturday before Father’s Day. This year, it’s set for June 17. Meet and talk to pro staff members, find special sale prices on rods and other gear, eat a free brat off the BBQ, maybe win a raffle prize. For details, visit stcroixrods.com.