Nearby in Carroll Valley, Pennsylvania, an avid fisherman and his family construct top-notch saltwater fishing rods that have become well-known around the Chesapeake Bay waters. The family business is called JLS Custom Rods.
The inspiration for the business began when Ron Buffington set out to solve his dissatisfaction with saltwater fishing rods that he was using to fish in the Chesapeake Bay. He felt the commercially mass-produced rods fell short on quality. The line guides were too few or too small, and the quality of the overall rod, even on high-end models, was going down.
“I just wanted to build my own stuff, and I wanted to be able to build a rod the way I want in order to hold up to strong migratory saltwater fish,” said Ron.
Determined to learn how to build his own rod, Ron sought out training tips from watching videos online and asking questions in online forums. As a result, he created the “perfect storm” of a product. Ron describes his rods as “light and sensitive and built well to hold up against harsh bay conditions and big saltwater fish!” Most importantly, Ron knew his rods “had to be made with high-quality components.”
Ron is proud that all the parts on the rods are sourced from the USA (including his proprietary rod blanks hand made in Arizona), with one exception. He uses Fuji guides and components. These are considered well-known parts that are manufactured in China to “gold standards” for high-end rods. He commented, “Japanese build the best of the best; they are very serious about their fishing.”
It takes anywhere between three to five hours to make a rod over the span of several days. Everyone in the family has a roll in the business. Ron’s duties include a little bit of everything: ordering, negotiating sales, designing with clients, and assembling his rods. Ron’s wife, Jaime, assists Ron with the assembly, as well as graphics and marketing for the business. Their son, Hunter (17), manages the social media and website content.
Both Ron, who works at Lehigh Cement, and Jaime, who works for Wellspan, have full-time careers. They fit JLS into their hectic schedules. Ron’s average day runs four to six hours of sleep, eight hours of work at Lehigh, and then six to eight hours on rod-building at home. The family has the building process down to a systematic process. While six to eight rods are turning to dry the epoxy, another set of rods are getting handles, guides, and components put on. He admitted, “This year, we’ll be hiring help.”
As of now, 30-40 percent of their business continues to be custom builds. As they keep expanding, JLS projects to go from 200-300 rods a year to as many as 1,000 in 2021.
Ron has concocted a perfect recipe for his rods, which landed his small business into the big ocean of the fishing industry. Specifically, JLS is filling the niche of “light tackle saltwater rods.” At present, no other company really focuses on this niche.
As business picked up, and the JLS name for a quality rod began to spread in the bay area, this provided JLS a great opportunity to start to retail the products in commercial storefronts. Currently, they are available in a handful of shops, such as Angler’s and Island Tackle Outfitters. Most rods that you see on the store floor will range between $130-$200. For a custom build, they start at $200 and go up.
One of the neat aspects of the retailing on the shore is that Ron’s products are alongside other well-known products such as Bass Kandy Delight (BKD)—Ron’s go-to bait when he hits the brackish saltwater. He notes, not only is BKD another local company right out of Waynesboro, Pennylsvania, but many lures and things of such are locally made in the Chesapeake radius.
If you’re not ready to invest in a light-tackle rod, you can always schedule a charter to try one out. Ron works with six bay-area “best of the best” guides, including Captain Jamie Clough of Eastern Shore Light Tackle Charters, Captain Tony Moriera of Morefins Charters, Captain Brad Foxwell of Chesapeake Fishing Adventures, Captain Nick Lombardi of Redbeard’s Charters, and Captain Lonnie Johnson LJ’s light.
Even if you’re vacationing in Florida, you may come across a JLS rod on the peninsula. “Down there, you have a much bigger pool of rod builders who are kind of doing what I’m doing.” Ron recognizes the competing products are not built the same way and notes that JLS has entered the Florida Market and is selling some rods there.
Ron’s motivation for building a better rod has resonated with individual clients, as well as fishing charter captains and guides. Ron said, “They could use any other rod. It’s a real honor for them to choose to use our products on their boats.” He appreciates all who religiously use his rods and feels the products help everyone’s livelihood.
Ron loves to see captains and clients send in pictures of their trophy catch. Often, he finds JLS being recommended from one angler to another, online. Ron and his family also do what they can to help conservation efforts on the Chesapeake Bay by actively participating in the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland and sponsoring other activities such as local tournaments and benefit banquets. One example is the Tangier Classic, which every year selects a local youth in need to benefit. All activities help spread awareness of the Chesapeake waters and help people in need. He also takes an hour or so each month to go live on social media to educate his followers about fishing, the parts they use and why they use them, and to answer any questions.
The best advice Ron has for all of us is, “Go fishing more and join a local fishing club in your area.” It’s really a great way to get the family outside or get friends together and create some new fun memories.
Next time you’re on your way to the bay, stop in and pick up a handmade rod made by the Buffington Family of JLS. It might just land you a big one! Like any good angler, you’ll at least have a rod that will make your fishing story believable.
If you are interested in purchasing a custom-built rod, contact JLS through Facebook, Instagram, or online at www.jlscustomrods.com.
Ron Buffington displays the catch of the day, a 38” striped bass, caught with his very own custom rod.
Jaime Buffington carefully adds fine details to one of their custom rods.