On a frosty winter morning, wood smoke wafted from the workshop outside Geoff Vukelich’s home north of Duluth, just up the road from the Rice Lake dam.
What seems odd, however, is that he has a wood stove at all. Vukelich has such a love affair with wood that it’s hard to see him parting with any piece to burn.
“Yes, I have saved pieces (of firewood) over the years that talked to me,’’ he admitted.
Vukelich, 37, grew up here on the family homestead, and still lives next door to his parents with his wife, Katie, and two rescue dogs, Brie and Milo.
For his day job, he’s a supervisor in the City of Duluth's Street Maintenance Department. But he’s been building his own fishing rods, landing nets, canoe paddles, snowshoes and other outdoor gear for two decades. About 10 years ago he started selling some of his handmade gear. Gradually that business has grown, all by word of mouth, all custom work.
He calls it Dam Goods and Gear. You might call it functional art.
“I’m kind of at a disadvantage because people want to see examples of my work and I really don’t have any. I build them one at a time, specifically for each customer, and then they're out the door,’’ Vukelich said, conceding that “it’s not a very good business model to never have any stock on hand for people to look at or buy.”
But it’s a model that Vukelich is sticking with. It’s more of a life philosophy.
“My definition of true custom work is that the customer is part of the build from the start,’’ he said. He wants to know how and where you fish, what you fish for and what makes you happy on the water.
“I realize that not everyone is willing to be that involved (when buying outdoor gear). It’s a niche of a niche,’’ he said of his business. “Our goal is that it’s more than a paddle, more than a rod. It sounds pie-in-the-sky, but it’s what I do.”
He doesn’t sell his gear in any stores. You can see one of his paddles on the wall at the Bent Paddle brewery taproom in Lincoln Park “but that’s as far down that road as I want to go,’’ Vukelich said of having his gear stuck on the wall as art. (Other than that, you’ll have to go to damgoodsandgear.com to see his work.)
One of Dam Goods' customers is Mike Sertich, the former UMD and Michigan Tech men's hockey coach and an avid fisherman. Sertich and Vukelich met when both tended bar at a supper club on Fish Lake. The two connected immediately and have remained friends, confidants and fishing partners. Sertich helped Vueklich straighten out some kinks in his once-wayward young adulthood. Vukelich helped Sertich portage into premier, hard-to-access fishing lakes.
“He’s one of those people who, even though he’s young, seems like he was around before. He’s wise beyond his years… Geoff’s in his 30s and I’m in my 70s and we get along like we went to school together,’’ Sertich said. “He’s a free spirit. Very creative. Very smart... He’s very ecologically aware, environmentally aware, and very much conservationist. He really respects nature.”
Sertich said he is very fussy about his fishing rods. Most of the ones he uses were custom-built by Elsie Kueten at Jim’s Bait in Duluth back in the 1970s.
“But the rod Geoff made for me, it’s a live bait rig, is very good. It’s beautiful and it works,’’ Sertich said. “If you ask him to make it one way, that’s the way it is… For me it was a fast tip, no reel seat, just a cork handle, Fuji guides… it’s truly custom-made for me.”
Vukelich’s workshop is the former mechanic’s garage of his grandfather, Len Nowak, who operated a small-engine and outboard motor repair business. Vukelich said he learned a lot of his woodworking skills here from his father, Tom, a carpenter and construction worker at times when Geoff was growing up.
“We didn’t have a lot (of money) growing up so he was always a make-what-you-can-use kind of guy. And that bled into me pretty bad,’’ Vukelich said.
Or pretty good. That mindset now has Vukelich scanning for wood from pieces of old decks and docks, an old oak file cabinet he found at the end of a driveway and planks that survived the 2018 Globe Elevator fire in Superior.
“This is wood with history. With character. I like the wood to tell a story,” Vukelich said. Sometimes that means using pieces of wood with obvious imperfections. If needed, Vukelich will fill holes with a glue mixture and sand it down.
"More character,'' he notes.
Vukelich calls himself the king of lamination. He loves to use small pieces of wood from multiple sources and bends them all by hand — free-form, no templates, no patterns, dry bending — using lamination to build-up strength.
He has rough size specifications customers choose from, but each piece is different. For landing nets, customers pick the wood type, wood pattern, hoop size, hoop shape, handle width, handle length, net fasteners, type of finish and more. Vukelich invites his customers to bring in their own wood for all or part of the project, whether it’s from a piece of grandpa’s furniture or a chunk of old cedar tree from their yard.
Vukelich has a strong environmental ethic, and tries to have the smallest possible carbon footprint from his work and his life. To Vukelich, almost every scrap of wood can be repurposed, or “upcycled’’ as he calls it, rather than tossed into a landfill. That old wooden file cabinet he found was stamped as being built in 1906. That’s a history worth saving, Vukelich insists, and one of the pieces is now part of a canoe paddle.
“It’s not just plastic. We throw out too much of everything,” he said.
He often uses multiple types of rescued wood in each piece. A landing net handle might be part Douglas fir from the grain elevator, with a mahogany accent where the angler’s hand will rest. There might be oak, maple, redwood, popple (aspen) and other woods as part of the net hoop. The end result is contrast in wood grains that can be stunning.
“I’m 100 percent a science believer. And there's a lot of history in woodworking, people’s experiences,’’ he said. “But I always wonder when people say ‘never do that.’ Sometimes I still do that.”
Rest assured, the piece will be functional. Business consultants have warned him against it, but Vukelich offers a lifetime guarantee on all his pieces from defects in the wood, or something he did wrong. He’ll fix it or replace it.
Making new, fixing the old
Vukelich also repairs gear made by other people, including landing nets, canoe paddles, fishing rods and reels and snowshoes, a service hard to find even in the outdoor-centric Northland. On the day we visited his shop, he had old snowshoes hanging with repaired cracks in the wooden frames and new lacing where old cowhide had split or torn. But his repairs are as small as possible, replacing only what’s needed to make the piece functional again.
For his new pieces, Vukelich’s prices are high, even compared to other custom-made paddles and rods. But Vukelich insists his customers get more than a piece of gear; they're getting a piece of him. Vukelich figures he has at least 12 hours of work in each net he makes.
Dam Good landing nets range from $180 for the smaller “Creek’’ model designed for small fish, to $190 for the middle “Stream’’ version and $200 for the larger “River’’ model. Dam Good Ojibwe-style snowshoes run $320. Canoe paddles run $185, straight or bent shaft, with stand-up-paddleboard paddles at $325. Rods range from $115 for an ice fishing jig stick to $425 for a specialized steelhead fly rod. (He’s also building retro bamboo rods now and he’s a big proponent of the comeback of fiberglass rods for specific applications.)
Jason Swingen, a Duluth-based web developer and an avid angler who combines both in an online blog (js-outdoors.com), first met Vukelich “on the river.’’ Swingen purchased one of Vukelich’s steelhead-sized landing nets two years ago using some old pine that had been cut in his wife's grandfather's sawmill a century before. Vukelich added several other wood types, too, all of it reclaimed.
“So not only does it look great, and works really well, but it has this sentimental value to me,’’ Swingen said. “I wanted a specific length handle, and a specific size net, and Geoff made it to my specs… You can spend just as much money, $200 or more, on a fancy landing net (from a national manufacturer) and not get nearly the money's worth you get with Geoff’s stuff.”
It won’t come quick. Plan for at least six weeks from your first meeting with Vukelich until you pick up your new piece — a little longer in the summer, when he’s fishing more, a little less time in winter when he’s building more.
Vukelich seems to enjoy building custom gear almost as much as using his stuff own to catch brook trout. But he’s also keenly aware that not everyone can afford his work, and he doesn’t think fly fishing needs to be a rich man’s sport.
“I tell people they don’t have to spend $2,000 to get that (brand name) fly rod. You can buy really great, fantastic rods for $200,’’ Vukelich said. “Then, if you get into it and you might want something special, come see me.”
His goal is to make a sustainable living off Dam Goods and Gear, enough to be his own boss.
“I don’t need to make a lot of money,’’ Vukelich said. “My goal is to make a living doing what I like to do. My goal is to be able to write my own story.”