Idaho Falls man builds custom fishing rods

John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com John Rivera poses for a portrait Dec. 5 in his workshop in Idaho Falls. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

John Rivera puts a fly rod away Dec. 5 in his Idaho Falls workshop where he hand makes bamboo and fiberglass fly rods. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

A fly reel and figurine are seen Dec. 5 in John Rivera’s workshop in Idaho Falls. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

A drawing of a fly-fisherman casting is seen Dec. 5 in John Rivera’s workshop in Idaho Falls. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

Handmade flies are seen Dec. 5 in John Rivera’s workshop in Idaho Falls. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

Tools of the trade are seen Dec. 5 in John Rivera’s workshop in Idaho Falls. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

After selling his eighth or ninth custom fishing rod to the same man in Oregon several years ago, John Patrick Rivera offhandedly said “I hope you’re happy with the stuff, and the fishing is good.”

The man didn’t fish with the rods; he bought them as collector pieces.

“‘Because I think you’re a great artist,’ the man told me. I’d never thought of that,” Rivera said. “I just thought you make a really nice rod that someone is proud to fish with.”

These days, Rivera is conscious of both the function and aesthetics of his rods.

His business, The Fly Rod Company, began on eBay in 2010. Since 2015 it has been based in the Idaho Falls home he shares with his wife, Fabia Fuenzalida.

After a midlife career change, Rivera is able to take pride in products made for a field he’s passionate about.

“I just enjoy helping people with the sport of fly-fishing,” he said. “I guess it’s really about feeling like I have something to offer. And when somebody asks me about it, I stand behind my work. I sign my name on everything.”

Rivera grew up south of California’s Bay Area with a spinning rod in his hand. He was accustomed to the type of fishing afforded by the Pacific Ocean and other nearby waters, not the world-class fly-fishing rivers that now surround him in eastern Idaho.

After nearly 30 years in the printing business, the Great Recession claimed the business Rivera was part of, and he couldn’t find another to hire him.

In 2010, 20 months out of work and three years into a growing fly-fishing habit, Rivera decided he wanted to make bamboo rods. So he took a class.

“And it was just kind of religious to me. I took to it really well,” Rivera said. “I didn’t have a background in woodworking, it was just something I enjoyed.”

In addition to selling refurbished vintage tackle, Rivera began listing his own handmade rods. He made several dozen before he felt comfortable asking for money.

Rivera was a quick learner, though, according to former instructor and current friend Joe Douglas, who makes custom rods in Washington state.

Out of 20 years’ worth of students, Rivera was among a half dozen or so who consistently kept in touch with Douglas to ask craft-related questions.

“He was an excellent student,” Douglas said. “Nowadays we talk about rod building on a much higher level, but I’d tell him how to do something, he’d do it and it was learned. He didn’t need to learn it again.”

Rivera’s business — once a source of income between jobs — started to consume more of his time, and he decided to move north, where property taxes were low and access to recreation was high.

Deciding between Butte and Livingston, Mont., as well as Idaho Falls, Rivera and his wife chose the latter.

“There’s Beaverhead, Madison River, Henry’s, the Snake … the access to water was excellent. It was a strategic decision, and we also fell in love with Yellowstone, but didn’t want to live in a tourist town. So it made a lot of sense,” Rivera said.

The business continued to grow; it’s now Rivera’s “80-percent job.” He spends the rest of his work hours at Sportsman’s Warehouse off Hitt Road.

Though he eventually expects to run his business full time, Sportsman’s is a place, in addition to the internet, where Rivera connects with customers. He’s allowed to offer his personal business card.

Through the The Fly Rod Company, Rivera makes repairs, refurbishes old equipment and makes new rods. He’s also a certified casting instructor.

The diversity of his skills comes from an adage of famed fisherman, instructor and writer Lefty Kreh.

“He said you shouldn’t focus on one thing in this business because you’ll starve,” Rivera said.

About half of the bamboo, graphite and fiberglass rods from Rivera’s shop are new; he makes about 30 per year.

The other half of Rivera’s rods are refurbished. Rivera said his used equipment fills an underserved niche of entry-level buyers who still want quality equipment.

“If I only put $3,000 rods up for sale it would limit who is searching for my things, and my parents would be upset at me,” Rivera joked.

Customers order from as far as the Vatican or Japan, or as close as Idaho Falls.

Rivera works in a shed off the side of his house near Melaleuca Field.

Fishing books are stacked in the rafters overhead, while shelve space is taken by plastic containers of raw materials, including metal fittings, wood rounds and bits of cork.

A painting purchased from Villa Coffeehouse hangs on one wall. A wooden animal sculpture from Fuenzalida’s home country of Chile sits atop a drying cabinet.

Rivera tries to build personality into his work. The autumnal colors of the Villa painting may show up in a rod’s varnish, while a reel seat could be composed of the same Chilean alerce wood that makes up the sculpture.

“I try to use stuff that is relevant to me, like Chilean wood, Hawaiian koa or Californian buckeye burl. I lived in those places, so it’s all part of my personalization,” Rivera said.

The small, personal details come, in part, from a conversation Rivera had with a California rod maker.

“I asked how to make things people like, and he said ‘Just make the stuff you like, and the people who like the things you do will find you,’” Rivera said. “If your rod’s in the corner you want to strive to make it so when someone sees it they say ‘That’s a John Rivera rod.’ I had no clue how to get there originally, but I kept making, selling and talking to people.”

Among them is Leroy Cook. A retired Bureau of Land Management employee who started fishing in the 1950s, a hand-carved wooden “self-portrait” of Cook hangs above Rivera’s work bench.

Cook met Rivera at Sportsman’s, and asked him to build a long, custom fly rod for lake fishing that could float in case it was dropped in the water.

“I told him what I wanted; he did it and I’m quite happy with it. I’d buy another rod from him,” Cook said. “I hate liars and thieves, and there’s a lot of them these days. John is the real deal — straightforward. That’s the thing that stands out. I don’t think there’s a better man out there as far as being nice and honest. He’s done right by me; I can guarantee that.”

Rivera said customer service is central to his work. He beams when a fly-fishing neophyte, eager to learn, visits Sportsman’s and“the light goes off.” Rivera has been known to spendhours talking to potential customers in his shop, even if they don’t buy a rod.

“It’s important to form relationships; it’s basic customer service,” he said. “I’m also more social than I thought. I need to network. I need fish stories. There’s plenty of books, but you can’t just read them and figure you know everything. You talk to people, meet people.”

The desire to teach comes from Rivera’s own experiences learning to fly fish around 2007. Rivera said the community was insular — “it used to be like a country club thing with golf.”

Someone eventually gave him a chance and taught him, then the industry became his own.

“This business is not an empire, but it’s a life I have now. And 15 years ago I thought I’d be a printer until I retired at 65,” Rivera said. “Now, because somebody shared their knowledge with me, I can follow my passion until I’m physically unable. That’s what I get out of it — doing the same for other people.”


Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.


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