Rewind 82 years. It’s 1932. Ernest Hemingway, with A Farewell to Arms looming as suppressed musings in his mind’s periphery, sips away at a whiskey and coke on a barstool in Sloppy Joe’s Bar, bumming away with his fishing-minded acquaintances. Outside, gin-clear saltwater laps upon the sands of Key West; and like so, rumors of elusive, uncatchable, finned, marine giants filter west from the Bahaman Islands. There is a catalyst in the air, a catalyst for the onset of the gilded age of sport fishing, and for a self-made, inventive, American success story.
Frank O’Brien, an industrious man doing his best to make money to live off of during the height of the Great Depression, is selling cutlery on the streets. A fisherman at heart, O’Brien makes the acquaintance of Jack Reynolds, a local man and owner of Florida Fishing Tackle, a company concerned largely with the sale of small hardware items—hooks, line, and sinkers. O’Brien partners with Reynolds as a salesman—his trade and talent—and becomes imbued in the saltwater fishing trade.
In this he came to understand the nature of fishing on the East Coast. Big game fishing was no main stage there—the West Coast held that authority. However, the rumors of large unconquerable game fish in eastern waters that awaited Hemingway’s adventurous spirit outside the bar did not escape his attention. In fact, he recognized the shortcoming in tackle to handle such large fish, and made it his personal mission to solve it.
It’s 1934, and Frank O’Brien has just split parties with Jack Reynolds of Florida Fishing Tackle. O’Brien moves to Miami and establishes a business making heavy big game rods out of hickory, snakewood, and Tonkin cane, and selling them for $150--$2,600 today.
At the height of the Great Depression, such a sum was steep and unthinkable to the vast majority, to say the least; but O’Brien’s ingenuity hinged on that concept. Fishermen—big game fishermen, more importantly—in the 30s had money. Lots of it. In fact, an appropriate rod was preceded on the shopping list by an appropriate boat, gas, reels, and the appropriation of a worthwhile crew. When it finally came to choosing a rod, O’Brien’s “Bimini King” rod was the only and best on the market; and on that concept, the Tycoon Tackle brand was born.
The very same year, 1934, 90% of all world record saltwater game fish caught were fought on Tycoon rods. A few years later, Michael Lerner caught a world record swordfish; and Hemingway got to breaking records too, on his “rod of choice,” the “Bimini King.”
In 1942, WWII was looming, and the Government placed an embargo on fishing tackle, effectively converting the Tycoon operations to wartime supply.
After the war, O’Brien joined forces with Fred Grieten of Finoor Reels, but Tycoon Tackle soon sold out of the incorporation.
Following the onset of the 70s, Frank O’Brien passed away, while his son, Tim, was still in college, and the company fell into disorder and fizzled.
Jump back. It’s 2014, and I’m ending my day on a soft note. The stars are out, the crickets and peepers are singing, and I’m standing upright in a canoe, casting to the lily-padded edge of a farm pond silhouetted by the moon against dead calm, reflective water. I have no visual cues to time my fly casting—it’s all feel in the dark. There’s a fiberglass Tycoon Tackle fly rod pulsating in my hand.
|Photo by Matthew Reilly|
Tim O’Brien, a businessman, and Frank O’Brien’s son, snatched up the unclaimed Tycoon Tackle trademark several years ago and put Tycoon rods back into production with an expanded repertoire, thus continuing the family legacy. Behind the name now sits world-renowned rod builders and a prestigious company history.
My fly lands with a splash in the shadow of a bush that I cannot see. I strip twice, and an abrupt splash shatters the water’s surface, and I know I’ve got a fish on. To fight a fish in the dark marries you to the rod—it is your eyes. And when I hoist a sizeable largemouth from the warm summer water, I see a story, a faded tradition rekindled, and a future ripe with historical flavor; and I see it all through the cork of the handle.□
*Originally published in the Rural Virginian