May 21, 2023May 21, 2023

A door in the kitchen of Alex Baxter's Newport News home leads to a room where he and hs wife, Peggy, share a work space. Above the washer and dryer used to do the family's laundry, several 10-foot-long fishing poles hang from wall hooks.

Baxter began making the handcrafted fishing poles, known as "Hatteras Heavers," 12 years ago. He began building the custom-made rods after a visit to the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

He was in the area to do some surf fishing, when he saw a lone fisherman haul in a 40-pound channel bass using a "Hatteras Heaver."

"I couldn't believe something that big comes so close to shore. I was fascinated by them," says Baxter, who refers to channel bass as "oversized croakers."

Channel-bass fishermen use the whip-like poles with heavier sinkers, which are needed in the rolling surf, to cast longer distances than the regular spinning rods used by most surf fishermen.

Fishing for these reclusive, canny bass is difficult. They live and feed in holes and sloughs 100 yards or more off shore. Suspicious by nature, they only come out at night.

It took Baxter three to four years to catch his first channel bass, or redfish.

The channel bass is found in abundant numbers in the southern coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The rod, says Baxter, is named after the area of North Carolina were the largest channel bass are caught, Cape Hatteras.

The fish has a gray skin with a coppery sheen. Channel bass can grow to 5 feet in length, and may weigh up to 75 pounds.

After watching the fisherman for a while, Baxter asked him how much his rod cost. When the Newport News native found out that the man had paid $100 for the custom-made item, he was a little taken aback at the price.

"I decided maybe I could make one of these heavers myself," he says. "I went to a local library and found an instruction book, and decided to test my skills."

The book, "Fiberglass Rodbuilding" by Dale Clemens, listed the items that the would-be craftsman needed to make the special poles.

"According to the book, I simply needed a few parts; a hollow fiberglass blank, foam or cork grips, a reel seat, line guides, a tip top guide, nylon thread, a butt cap, some glue, epoxy coating and a lot of patience," Baxter says, his voice full of wry humor.

Baxter rationalized what he was getting into by thinking about all the money he was going to save by building his own fishing rod. He found out that it took a lot of delicate and time-consuming work to make the rod.

He still has the first "Hatteras Heaver" he ever made. It took him 16 hours over a four-day period, but he completed the project, which eventually led to a hobby that turned into a business.

What started out as just a way to save some money snowballed into a thriving enterprise. The first rod he made was such a success that he made several of them for friends.

"They became very popular, but they were too painstaking to make," he says. So with necessity being the mother of invention, Baxter fashioned an electric motor with a rheostat pedal from an old line-winding machine.

This cut in half the time he spent making a rod.

Before he found a mechanized way to wrap nylon thread around the fiberglass blank – the rod part of a fishing rod – he did it by hand, strand by strand.

The thread keeps the guides in place on the blank. When done by hand, it required him to rotate the blank, which was balanced on the backs of two kitchen chairs. This, he says, took hours and hours to do.

The last step in this involved process was coating the wraps with a two-part epoxy for protection that also required hand-turning, which took from four to six hours.

"At this point, I began to think it wasn't worth the trouble to do this, but I was determined to complete my first custom-made rod, " he says. Eventually, he began selling heavers, other types of rods and sinkers at tackle shops throughout the Outer Banks.

All of the rods he makes are numbered and considered by some to be collector's items. According to Baxter, there are about 10 people in the United States who make "Hatteras Heavers."

Baxter has made rods as long as 15 feet and as short as 4 feet. Over the last 10 years, he has made more than 500 rods and repaired more than 2,000, he says.

"I think my success has a lot to with my being a fisherman first. I know what is needed to catch fish, cast long distances or match a person's physique," he explained.

Although he has had offers from investors interested in expanding his business, he eventually had to stop mass-producing the rods. In recent years, he has turned the business back into a hobby.

He still makes eight or 10 a year as well as repairing twice that many, but he makes the heavers for the fun, now.

A graduate of Warwick High School and Old Dominion University, Baxter is a contract administrator for Newport News Shipbuilding.

When he retires from the shipyard, he says he will probably open a tackle shop in the Outer Banks.

But right now, he is looking forward to the fall storm season, so he can start fishing for channel bass.

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