WOODLAND — Gary Loomis has never been far from fishing, whether for fun or profit.
Loomis has reeled in his share of fish from Southwest Washington rivers and around the world. He’s also been involved in five fishing rod companies in Woodland.
Loomis, a passionate man with a booming voice, sits at the heart of the Woodland fishing rod industry. He helped build up one of the major companies, Lamiglas. He started G. Loomis, though he no longer works there. These days, he works just up Down River Drive at North Fork Composites, a company that he started a decade ago.
“I have a fifth-grade reading and a fifth-grade spelling level,” he said. “But the good Lord gave me the ability to look at anything and know how to build a machine to build it.” And, as he puts it, he’s served by “my alligator mouth and my hummingbird butt.”
He can recall production figures from 40 years ago and loves to delve into the physics of fishing rod design.
A native of Centralia, Loomis, 77, recalled that “as a kid, there was not a safe fish within the distance I could ride my bicycle.”
In 1964, after spending four years in the Navy as a machinist, Loomis moved to Woodland, where his older brother Bob was teaching and coaching at the high school. Loomis got a job as a machinist at Schurman Machine. He also developed a passion for summer steelhead fishing in the Kalama River. “I’ve never been hooked on heroin, but if you catch six summer steelhead in one night, you’re hooked for life,” he said.
Not satisfied with fishing rods available, Loomis started making his own, converting a fly fishing rod to one that would work with a conventional casting reel for summer steelhead.
Another fisherman on the Kalama who wasn’t landing as many fish offered $200 to buy the rod Loomis had made for $35. He realized that he had a future in the fishing industry.
Loomis started building machines for the Cascade Rod Co., which was later purchased by Lamiglas.
Working at the Schurman Machine shop seemed like the ideal job. “I got to go fishing every day,” he said. “I had the keys to the shop.”
However, Loomis went to work for Lamiglas in 1973 to get involved in a quantum shift in the fishing rod business: Graphite.
Graphite rods were one-sixth the weight of fiberglass, which then dominated the industry. “They felt like a wand,” Loomis said. “It felt like you didn’t have anything in your hand.”
Loomis said that at the time, Fenwick, in Kent, dominated the fishing rod business on the West Coast. Fenwick had come out with a graphite rod, which Loomis described as “the sleeping giant” of the fishing rod industry. He urged his new employer to let him help awaken it.
Loomis fished for information about graphite at the Seattle public library, but couldn’t learn much. So he stood outside the Boeing factory gate and asked people getting off work if they knew about graphite. He found an engineer who was working on designs for the SST, a proposed supersonic airliner that never was developed. That project involved graphite, and he and other Boeing engineers came on board to develop a graphite rod for Lamiglas.
The new Lamiglas graphite rods got a boost when baseball great Ted Williams admired one of them at a sportmen’s show in Chicago in 1974. “He said, ‘That is a hell of a rod,’ ” Loomis recalled. Loomis said Williams’ plug helped Lamiglas outpace Fenwick in graphite rod sales.
“From that time on, every new material that has come along, I get it first because I’m known as the graphite person in sporting goods,” Loomis said. He added that he’s designed graphite tubes for the military and science labs. “I made the first air duct tubes for the Boeing 777. I’ve made baseball bats and arrows and everything.”
In 1978, Loomis and Lamiglas parted ways and Loomis went back to Schurman Machine. But soon he started a short-lived company called Loomis Composites.
He also was part of a company that built rods in Taiwan that didn’t work out. Since then, he has championed building rods in this country.
Despite his early setbacks, Loomis couldn’t stay away from the fishing rod industry.
He and his wife, Susan, sold all their possessions except for an ’82 Chevy Chevette diesel. He rented a shop and worked 16-17 hours a day building machines to start yet another business called G. Loomis. He said he recalls the time Sarah told him when they had only $32.10 in the bank.
However, Loomis’ reputation was still a source of riches. “Within one year, it was already around the world that I was back in business,” he said.
A buyer from outdoors chain Cabela’s offered him $50,000 to purchase the last machine he needed to start production. “He said, ‘What’s your bank account.’ I never signed a piece of paper. I made blanks for them for 24 years and never missed a due date.”
The G. Loomis company got orders to make blanks (basic rods without handles or line guides) for 28 other companies, including Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops and L.L. Bean.
In 1995, Gary Loomis was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “The doctor says, ‘You have 18 months to live.’ ” He decided to sell G. Loomis to Shimano and also sold several other businesses he had. “I didn’t sell G. Loomis to get out of it,” he said. “I stayed with them for another 12 years.”
But Loomis complained that he could no longer design fishing rods. “The bean counters got ‘hold of it,” Loomis said. “I couldn’t tell everybody that it’s the best rod in the world.”
So Loomis left the company that still bears his name and in 2009 started yet another company, Composite Ventures, another purveyor of high-quality rods.
“He’s known as the godfather of graphite,” said Composite Ventures CEO Alex Maslov. “He’s a graphite guru and a rod-building master.”
Loomis has also been a guru in fishing advocacy organizations.
In 1995, he helped start Fish First, which raises fish in net pens on the Lewis River and improves habitat for salmon and steelhead.
Loomis also was instrumental in establishing chapters of the Coastal Conservation Association in the Northwest. The CCA has been a major player in lobbying Washington and Oregon fishery managers to move commercial fishing off the Columbia River mainstem and to require gillnetters to switch to different kinds of nets that are less harmful to wild fish.
Loomis is unabashedly patriotic about his successes.
“Do you think that if I had been in any other country in the world, I could have done what I had done? No way! This is the greatest country in the world.”
Between all the companies he’s had, he figured that “I’ve employed at one time or another about three-forths of the people in Woodland, at least the women.”
That gives him the same satisfied feel as hooking a summer steelhead when the next guy on the river isn’t having any luck.
“It’s never been how much money I could make,” Loomis said. “It’s been how good of a product I could make and how good I can treat my employees.”