A bird's eye view of the blank racks and high-tech machinery.

There must be few sea anglers who have never heard the name Conoflex rods. For many, they are the benchmark of British rod building quality, a rod that will rarely, if ever, let you down. Competitively priced. Easy to get in either full build or part build, or even just the straight blank. Rods that have, in the beach fishing world, set many World records for long distance casting, and as a fishing journo from years ago I got to fish with some of the long lead throwers, and it was then I realised that Joe Average, like me, is hardly ever going to compress a beach rod to the same extent as a Tournament caster. Never mind about pulling a cod in, these top casters are throwing lead weights over 250 yards. And then I used a couple of their black Avon rods for freshwater fishing. I can’t say how many Chub and Barbel I took on them, but if you weighed them all in it would equate to a bad day on a Russian Factory ship!They never let me down. As for the boat rods. It was when I was fighting a Thresher shark off the Pacific coast of Mexico that I had to “lock and load” which in fishing terms

Aidan orders up some fittings for the next set of rods.

is lock the reel on full drag, and load the rod up until the foregrip creaked. I was amazed nothing exploded into shafts of fibreglass, and I landed the fish, which at about 130lbs was nice on a 30lb rod. In this age of tackle manufacturers battling cheap foreign imports it is good top see that a British product, with a classy pedigree is holding its own in what is undoubtedly a tough economic climate. I drove down to Crowborough, in East Sussex for an interview with Conoflex, and was given an insight into exactly how your fishing rods are made….The British way.

It was started back in 1972 by Michael McManus who ran the rod building from a unit in Hailsham as a partnership with Carroll/McManus. The Dennis O’Kennedy Tackle shop in Newhaven first approached Michael with a request to produce 30lb blanks, with the addition of “Paramount” chrome fittings. These gave the uniform Rainbow arc bend, and were popular in that era. Today Michael is almost retired, leaving the business to sons Aiden and Steve to run, and it almost put 10 years on me to learn they were just a couple of nippers when I was fishing

Aidan peels off the plastic covering to reveal the ridges. Leaving these on actually increases the strength of the rod.

with their dad’s rods. The Hailsham depot was initially an all –fibreglass production, and covered the whole spectrum of British fishing at the time.Freshwater, Game and Sea. It was no secret that the success of their long distance beach rods coincided with an era of shore Cod fishing that has never been seen since. Venues like Eastbourne, Dungeness and Deal were synonymous with huge hauls of Cod and big Whiting. When you started to get frostbite you knew it was time to get out the cod rods! This was the same time that places like the Royalty fishery on the Hampshire Avon were in their prime, again coinciding with the Avon trotter rods I had been using. But then came the real turning point. Michael started to use Carbon fibre as a composite with the fibreglass, and this made a vast improvement in quality, like moving from the spear to the gun. It was in an old catalogue from 1978 that I found reference to the true “Britishness “of carbon fibre. Like many, you may have thought such techno-wizardry was American, but wrong, it was British through and through. Here is the quote I found from Dermot Wilson’s Nether Wallop Mill catalogue…..”The material itself was of course originally invented in Britain, at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. America produced the first carbon fibre fly rods ever to be marketed, and over there the “correct” name for the material is considered to be Graphite. The correct word is Carbon fibre, and technically speaking the material is of turbo-stratic structure as opposed to being a regular array of planar hexagonal carbon rings with small interplanar forces”. So there you have it. The true definition of British Carbon fibre.

Aidan puts some blanks into the warming oven

The material was used to reduce the weight and thickness of the rod wall, and with this new composite they moved, in 1982, to the current Crowborough address. They were one of only four units operating on the Millbrook Industrial Estate, and it was from here that they started trading as Conoflex Ltd in the mid 1980’s.As a rough guide to making a rod, a sheet of fibreglass is rolled around a steel rod or mandrel. Michael looked at the “E” glass, and started wrapping the carbon fibre as you go down the taper. But he really wanted a product with carbon already interwoven. So in 1985 he added Kevlar for its tremendous hoop strength, interweaving it with the fibreglass. But Kevlar quickly became expensive due to its association as lightweight body armour. As demand for Kevlar as a material for security forces grew, so did the price. Trends and fashions called for rod walls to be thinner, but then came the problem of breakages. You can’t go thin and still expect strength.

Steve prepares to roll a sheet of fibreglass and carbon onto the mandrel.

Conoflex found they could more than hold their own against the import market, especially with their Tournament “Extreme” 13 ft.The first rod to cast over 300 yards with Neil Kelland.They had already set the world record of the first over 200 yards, and about a dozen other world casting records. They started building 3-stage tips with glass rod tip for sensitivity, carbon for stiffness and extra carbon for casting power. Requests for power coupled to bite detection resulted in one of their best sellers, the famous “FLICKTIP”, favoured by match anglers, and effective all round the British coast. They are still in demand today, and Aiden told me they must have run off over 1000 blanks. They were never afraid to experiment, and took advice from many leading names at the time, building a customised rod with a top finish, that you cannot get with a mass produced import. So with this pedigree how exactly do they turn from strands of fibreglass into a quality boat or beach rod?                     

Steve wraps a sort of cling film around each mandrel to cook the resins inside.

I was taken on a tour of the factory to get a step-by-step introduction into their secret world. Some of their Cod mandrels are over forty years old and still usable. Basically a solid stainless steel bar, machined to design tapers, they came from America, who were the first to do what called Centreless is grinding. Throughout the mid 80’s they had started to sell their rods as a finished product, as myself included, used to adhere to the fashion of buying the blank and then custom-building the rod yourself.Gradually, more anglers asked for finished rods, so that boosted the Conoflex name with quality fittings like Fuji, Aftco Rollers, Hopkins & Holloway, and”Armacote”, their own high build epoxy ring whip covering. There are literally dozens of steel mandrels lined up against the walls in racks, and I soon found the section with uptiders.Conoflex were one of the first to add carbon to their glass rods making a ¾ tip style, which is basically a 6 foot tip, with a 3 foot butt extender on the bottom. This product enabled them to develop a soft rod top for absorbing the bow in the line required with uptiding and their famed “INTEGRA” was born, with its 4/5 and 6/8 ounce interchangeable tips. They have made some all-carbon boat rods which are lighter, but they have what Steve called a “Flat” action, something of an acquired taste.

                   

The carbon and glass cloths are cut,sized and tapered to match the tapers of each mandrel.

Following what was undoubtedly a fashion of its time, they followed the rage for catching World records on various line breaking strains. There was also all the British Line Class records, with 6/8/12/16 and 20lb classes being popular. They supply some of the England team with various types of rods, right down to ultra-light quivertip style boat rods for anglers wanting to catching different tiny species. They still sell to Germany and other European countries where they actually like the British fibreglass rods as they fish quite differently. Some of the European boat anglers already fish with very slender tips spliced into their rods, and the need to detect bites in waters that are getting harder to fish may well be the style of the future.

 

The factory at Crowborough, East Sussex produces customised rod blanks that are all-British

 

On the big fish front I favour the Conoflex rods after I “doubled up” on a monster Porbeagle shark of 550lbs down in Cornwall a couple of years back. Angler One was knackered, so angler Two (me) had to come off the boat controls and take my spell on the rod. Trust me I explained the only was to lift it was with tuna pumps, short and hard to keep the head up, but also said if I broke the rod with my technique I would buy another. I had that shark basically fighting off the foreegrip, and how it never broke was beyond me. We got the shark, and released it, and have since hooked up many giants of 300lbs and up. On the foreign fish I had had Marlin, various species of shark and stingrays, but a couple of memorable battles were in the Florida Keys on Tarpon over 100lbs, and last year I got a 150lb Common Skate on what is basically a 20/30lb class rod. Lovely to use on small fish, but still with the absorbing bend that cushions the dives and headshakes of various ton-up species. I’ve now just taken delivery of a second one, this time using the new “S” glass that Conoflex are using. Here’s another tip from the Conoflex stable. Standard “S” glass can be better than carbon if you are using braid in conjunction with a light leader. Carbon is stiff and unforgiving, which coupled to the non-stretch qualities of braid means you can pop fish off. The “S” glass absorbs any sudden shocks from braid.                          

The secret blank-wrapping specs are shielded from the camera as Steve and Aidan check the cloth size before cutting.

 In these testing times of finance and fishing in general it was good to see both Aiden and Steve are upbeat about producing quality British fishing rods. There will always be a demand from the anglers to change techniques and requirements of each blank are often catered for by the brothers. They want people to tell them about the various rods, and they want good solid tests on rods that have actually caught some big fish. As for me, I reckon I am within a whisker of finding the best 50lb blank action for sharking. No broom handles that beat the angler before they beat the fish. Nothing all glitz and glossy glamour that catches more eyes than fish. Hopefully, when I get there you’ll be able to fish with a rod that really has been loaded to the max on toothy critters. And now, approaching 40 years in the rod building trade, you realise that the name CONOFLEX really is a true British legend….

COPYRIGHT: Graeme Pullen. All rights reserved.