Interview: Kevin Shaw of Stiffy Brand Products

Skiff Republic:    We’re here today talking with Kevin Shaw, who started Stiffy Brand products in 1991. Welcome, Kevin.

Kevin Shaw:     How are you doing?

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SR:   Good. Let’s talk about pushpoles. I think like everybody else I have a love-hate relationship with pushpoles. They just have taken me to some really awesome places that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way, and of course I have broken a few and done all the bad things that a person can do to a pushpole over the years and I know you have …

KS:    I’ve think I’ve done the same thing.

SR:   I’m sure you have a few stories to tell. Some of my favorite stories about pushpoles involve I think people driving over them with their trucks. In fact, my wife at one time decided to close the garage door on my pushpole and broke a $1,000 pushpole in half. Do you have any great stories about things you’ve heard happen to pushpoles?

KS:   When we had come out with the Extreme pushpole, we really had designed that pole for the kayak market as a paddle shaft and we were doing a show in South Carolina one year. Tom Rowland was at that show and convinced me to let him take that pole home and try it out as a pushpole.

SR:   No kidding.

KS:   Yeah, so he was the first to ever get one. That’s kind of how that started. He owned that pole for probably two-and-a-half years, three years. Then I finally got up where I took him up on a fishing trip with him one year. We go out and we’re fishing. He’s been telling us he’s been using the pole for two or three years. We’re out there and he’s out there poling and telling me how great it is, that he’s put it to this and put it to this. He can’t break it. He can’t break it. Guess when it decides to break. [laughing].

SR:   [laughing] As a long-time Stiffy Extreme user, I can also vouch for it being one of the least-likely-to=break poles. I think I’ve broken a half a dozen poles in my poling career and it is super tough.

KS:  That Extreme is super light. It’s a tough pole. My dad always told me and my brothers as we grew up if you give us some rubber mallets or an anvil, we’d have it torn apart within an hour. You can break anything. I recall the first time when Rob Fordyce had gotten one of my poles. We went and fished and he told me, “Hey, the first time you use one, I’ll find out if it’s any good or not.” We came across a sandbar where he had to push. I think he was fishing out of an Action Craft at that time. We had to push that Action Craft up and over the sandbar a little bit. You know Rob, how big he is. When I saw him flex that pole to the back of that boat and basically lifted himself up off the back of the boat, he looked at me and said, “You know what? That pole’s pretty strong. ”

SR:   It used to be that pushpoles were delicate instruments. I think, if I’m not mistaken, Harry Snow was the guide in the Keys who really took the concept of a pole vaulting pole, which I believe were all fiberglass and an early form of fiberglass, and began using it for poling.

KS:   Yes.

SR:     Prior to that I’m sure pushpoles were an ancient way of propelling a boat and probably poles have been used for eons to push small boats around, but the first poles that were available commercially in the 1970s and ‘80s were really fragile devices. You really couldn’t stick the pole in the flat unless you were super careful about the angle in which you stuck it in. Even pushing on a pole with a heavy boat particularly you just risk that the pole would bow and the boat would blow backwards and you’d end up hearing that resounding crack as you heard the pole break.

KS:    A lot of the guys, as we came into this industry and as people started using my product, a lot of the guys had told me basically they had figured in a pushpole a year, and the guys that were really poling. Not the ones that were just pulling it out and used it every once in a while, but the guys that were really poling.  They just always figured that they would go through at least one a year.

SR:  Yeah.

KS:   I [would] wish they would break one, because it’s about time to buy them a new one.

SR:   I think it’s a smart guide had a backup, one pole that may have had a broken tip or something like that, because it was just a given that sooner or later you were going to break your pole, but I think that’s all changed. I know that pushpoles don’t have an indefinite lifespan and there are good pushpoles and bad pushpoles but now at least you can buy a pushpole that you can expect to fish with for years without issues.

KS:   Yeah, now that you’ve got the power poles out there. We do a poor man’s version of that which we call the Ramrod. You’ve got a lot of products out there now where guys are not using them so much for staking out anymore and doing the anchoring system with them, which is giving the poles years of longevity at that point.

SR:  True.

KS:   There’s guys out there that have had their pushpoles for five to seven years, same one they bought from me five to seven years ago and still using it. Guys that have hybrids, they’ve recoated it once or twice since then, but the Extreme or the Guide Series, they don’t break down.

SR:    Beyond not putting undue stress on the pole, are there things that a pole owner can or should do to be sure that their pole lasts longer?

KS:   If you can keep the pole out of the UV rays, just where your boat’s just sitting outside and it’s not being used. If you can put the pole up and get it out of the sun for half the time you can double the life of a pushpole. Now you’re talking ten or twelve years out of a pole. We don’t even get that out of our fishing rods. Graphite poles, as far as breaking them down, the sun breaking them down over a long period of time, you don’t really have that because on the Extreme or the Guide Series there’s not a resin surface. Those poles are meant to be the ideal as far as resin and glass percentages. There’s no resin content on the surface like our hybrid or just the regular Graphite Series pole where they’ve got about 80 mils of resin. Guys that are using that product will slowly wear that off in three to four years. Of course, guys that just have it on the boat and use them as, “Every once in a while I get out and pole,” those are lasting seven to eight years.

SR:   It used to be that the graphite poles, or graphite glass hybrids, used to have a problem with the fiberglass actually shedding and really being uncomfortable to use after a while. That problem has seemed to been solved in recent years.

KS:   It still occurs. Like I mentioned, if you’re using that pole on a weekly basis, then in four or five years you’re going to start getting a little shedding where you’ve actually worn the resin content down enough where you’re coming into the fiber wrap. What we do with ours–and we have a spot on our website that tells you how to recoat your pole–we recommend an automotive paint when you go back to re-coat it because you have a high UV content in automotive paint which keeps it from breaking down so fast. There is a spot on our website that talks people through it, tells them what we could recommend if we re-coated one of our poles.

SR:     Tell us about if I was going to go out and buy a pushpole for the first time.  What should I consider when I decide which pole to buy, what material, what length, and that sort of thing?

KS:     When we do shows or seminars and that question’s asked, the first thing we tell people is first of all, How much poling are you going to do? Is this going to be a product that I’m keeping on my boat so when I run aground or when I get myself in a situation I want to push myself out and I’m going to put the pushpole right back into the holder and then only use it when I get myself in that situation? We recommend a glass pole at that time, 10-foot, 12-foot, it’s plenty. For someone that’s gone out and spent the money to buy a nice skiff –you could spend $20,000 on one or you could spend $50,000 on one just depending on what you want to buy–I recommend a hybrid at least as his first introduction pole. It’s got the lightweightness, it’s 80% graphite, has the strength the graphite has, the stiffness that the graphite offers, but it’s got that outside wrap of glass. Maybe I’m pulling up to the dock and banging my pushpole on the barnacles of the poles. There’s a forgiveness factor.

As we said when the conversation first started, I’ve been doing this a long time and I tell people I still break pushpoles. I get excited. My buddy’s got a fish on the front. I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing. The boat’s drifted up over the edge of the pushpole.  I’ve got to yank on it and get it out.

They float. Drop it in the water.  Drift over and grab it as you pass by.   But we don’t think about that when we’re poling. [laughing]

SR:    Right. There’s something in the human psyche that says, “Don’t ever let go of your pushpole.”

KS:   Yes. Yes.

SR:  Sometimes that’s the best thing to do. [laughing]

KS:   A hybrid pole again is a pole that someone can get into in that $600 range. There are poles out there on the market that are my competition and they are good products. Everyone has something difference than everybody else.  That’s what sets us aside from the majority of the pushpole manufacturers, is that we built something lighter than everybody else, way stiffer than everybody else, but didn’t compromise that fragile part. We see this in fishing rods a lot. The rod islighter than a feather. Yeah, it is, but you’d better be very gentle landing a fish with that rod, too.

SR:   Sure, sure.

KS:  Then of course, you step into a graphite.   We make a regular version of a graphite which has a high gloss to it. Then we do our Guide Series which is the same pushpole but we use a wrap on it that squeezes out the rest of the resin that is not needed, so we’re actually removing about 30 mils of resin from that pole, which gives you that optimal 70% fiber, 30% wet-out, and then you move into a Graphite Extreme.  We’re using a different modulus graphite with that. We’re using HR-40. Our pushpoles–normally our graphite, our hybrid, and our fiberglass poles–are just a little under an inch and a half in diameter. The Guides Series Extreme pole is an inch and a quarter in diameter. A lot of your guides that are poling eight hours a day, as many days a week as they can possibly charter, those guys are moving to that pole. It’s a little bit more comfortable inyour hands, being an inch and a quarter in diameter, but it’s extremely stiff and the pole only weighs 2.2 pounds. It matters when you’ve been up on the tower all day long for eight hours.  If you can save yourself a half a pound every time you pick that thing up and every stroke you make in a day, the difference on your body at the end of the day or the end of the week is unbelievable.  You’ve done this for years, so you know exactly what I’m talking about.

SR:   Sure, and then the other thing to talk about maybe is that the rib surface with less resin in the pole you’re feeling more textures in the surface of the pole. I’ve always found that to some degree, at least, having that extra grip is helpful though I would also say that in some early poles that I poled with, they were actually very abrasive, which the newer poles are not.

KS:  Yeah, when we originally come out with that the whole concept of that was actually a Flip Pallot idea. It was, one, for the grip when your hands are wet, and two for when you’re really on those fish that are just that much more spooky. The little bit more noise, the harder push on the bottom on the pushpole makes a difference of running them off or keeping them there. He was going for the no-gloss finish. We first did that pole I think we probably were a little more rougher than what we’re making now. We’ve toned it down a little bit since then but it still has a great grip. People will ask me, “Well, what’s that’s feel like in your hand?” The way I explain it to them is that when we all played basketball or football or baseball and they used to spray that glue on your hands to make everything hold a little tighter. I think when my hands get wet that that side of that pushpole gives me more of that kind of feeling where I don’t have that slip.

SR:    True.

KS:   Most of the days when you’re just going along a nice quiet and decent wind, no big deal but we’re here in south Texas and our average wind speed is 18 miles an hour so you’re on the pole a lot.

SR:  What about multi-piece versus single piece or do you recommend one over the other? Are there reasons why someone would want a multi-piece pole?

KS:   If my only boat is a poling skiff, I want a one-piece pushpole. I want to be able to let that pole take a natural arc. If I’m going to stake out I ain’t got to worry about anything. It feels better. I’m trying to keep all the weight out of it I possibly can. They all get a one-piece pole. The guys that are doing the two-piece poles, you know, are people that have multiple boats, and they can put it in a rod locker. They’re not necessarily poling all the time but they want to have that with it if they decide to do that. They’ll use the trolling motor in a lot of situations but hey, you know what, we’re here to fish. Let’s put the fishing pole together and go from there.

When we originally had made our first two piece connection, we really didn’t sell very many of them. It wasn’t something that we pushed because the majority of the people wanted a single-piece pole. When we took the time and developed a new two-piece connection that we have now–and there is about seven years of development in that thing–our target was to open a new market for ourselves and try to hit the bass world. A lot of people pole after bass, and it’s not politically correct to pole on spawning bass, but every bass tournament out there is set up around the spawn on every lake. We have a two-piece connection version which will be our multi-piece pole, and then we do a modular pole which is a ferrule-system pole like a lot of the guys in the past have done on all of the other brands of pushpoles out there. The only reason we did that is for shipping. For me to ship a one-piece pushpole, 20 feet long, one at a time, or 20 of them at a time, costs around 325 to 350 bucks.

SR:  Sure.

KS:  What we do now is we do a ferrule system where we will ferrule as much of the pole and put as much of the pole together as possible at my shop, keeping it down to that size where we could ship it UPS. Now I can ship a pushpole for $35 instead of $350. Once they get the pole themselves, it comes with the glue and instructions and we have a video on You Tube that people can watch that they can go to from our website to it and put that pole together and still have a nice quality pole. The difference in my modular and my competition’s modular poles is most of my competition, if they had just a one-piece pole, it would fold like a straw. They need that ferrule in there to give them the strength. Our pole doesn’t need a ferrule. We’re just doing it for shipping purposes only.

SR:  Can you repair a single piece pole easily or is it easier to repair a multi-piece pole?

KS:  If they’re both the same, they could repair either of them just as easy as possible. We have a ferrule kits, two-piece connection kits.

SR:   OK, last question. What’s the best way for somebody to learn how to pull a boat?

KS:  The best way is to go out and just start doing it. The biggest thing that I tell people when they’re trying to learn how to pushpole is don’t overpower and don’t overcompensate for overpowering because that’s the two biggest flaws that the majority of people make.

SR:   Well, Kevin, that’s all super advice, so I’d have to echo everything you said. Thanks so much for talking to use today. I know that Stiffy is doing lots of other exciting things including building a skiff and other products that sort of extend the technology that you guys have learned over the years, so I look forward to talking to you about some of those other things one day.

KS:    Thank you very much.

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