Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why Bamboo? Custom Rod builders Guild National Conclave January 2003

A few years ago I spoke to the Custom Rodbuilders Guild on why, and how, to build bamboo rods. A comment on the Rodmakers Email List prompted me to post here the thoughts I shared in 2003 in Nashville. Quite a bit of my thinking came from my rod making friends. They deserve the credit for much of what follows.

I have one objective today, and that’s to try to provide some answers to the question: Why Bamboo? I won’t get confrontational with you like one author I know. Someone asked Sparse Grey Hackle when he was going to start fishing a plastic rod. He said that he would start fishing plastic when they started using plastic violins at
the N.Y. Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m not that way, at all. I’ve been fishing for about 40 years. My mother taught me to fish. She showed me how to sift through flowerbeds for nightcrawlers and black crickets. As a little fellow, my part was taking fish off the hook and stringing them up because Momma didn't like to touch them. We ate everything big enough to scale and fry, having never heard of catch and release.

When I was 10 years old, our family vacationed at Roaring River State Park in Missouri. Activities at Roaring River revolve around a rather contrived put and take trout stream. Fresh fish are stocked every night, a morning whistle starts the day's action. I still have the first tan fiberglass fly rod my folks bought me at Roaring River. That rod and reel package came with a half-day's instruction from the local fly-fishing expert. After a few minutes coaching, I was hooked on fly-fishing.

Perhaps one good way for me to begin this presentation today is by asking you a question: Why do you fish? There are lots of reasons, and they are good reasons. Some of us like the comradery of being with a good friend or two, alone in a boat, sipping a beer and solving all the world’s problems. For others of us, maybe shark fishermen, it’s the adrenaline rush that comes from subduing a creature that we really have no intention of messing with any other way. Some fishermen enjoy relative solitude, being miles away from another human being, beautiful places and enough quiet that you can hear your hair grow.

I enjoy lots of different kinds of fishing, but my very favorite is the quiet that comes in fly fishing for trout. For me, the fishing itself is almost reward enough, though it helps to actually catch a fish now and then. Don’t get the wrong idea.... I’m pretty deadly on a trout stream. Put me on the Norfork River in Arkansas and not too many folks will consistently catch more fish on average. Fishing to me is most enjoyable when I use a rod I made myself, and a fly I tied myself.
But, if you and I really want to catch some big fish, we would all use worms and live bait. Heck, I release about 99% of the fish I catch. This is supposed to be fun.

At the same time, I like acoustic music. I like the original Coca-Cola better than Pepsi. I like my old worn out boots better than these shiny new boots. And I like bamboo rods. Hopefully after we’ve spent a few minutes together today you’ll understand something of my love for bamboo rods.

But why bamboo, you keep asking. More than once (last night in the Vendor area) I was asked “Do you actually fish with those rods?” That question really means anything from, “aren't you afraid you'll break ‘em?” to “Isn't bamboo out of date?” to “Wow, you must be rich!”

Well, let’s have a little history lesson. Fifty years ago, a time when some of you remember, almost all fishing rods were made of bamboo. Today all rods are made from some kind of fiber. The most common fiber is graphite. Only twenty five years ago the most common fiber material was fiberglass. Both are manmade fibers and to be sure there are some advantages to manmade fiber. (The main reason being that, with today's tooling, building rods from manmade fibers is definitely more efficient)

The decline of bamboo as a rod making material began because of two events. First, the Japanese occupation of China and the embargo on Chinese goods and products after the Communist revolution; and second, the introduction of a reasonably inexpensive replacement, -- fiberglass. Fiberglass was not only fairly simple to make, but in those days fiberglass was classified as “Modern.” In those days, that label that was popular, back in the fifties and sixties.
It wasn't easy for rod makers to convert from bamboo to fiberglass. If you look at the names of the major rod makers in 1954 you'll see that a few survived the embargo and the introduction of fiberglass, but not many of those names are still around in 2004. Plants closed, milling machines fell silent. Old technologies were lost to the new. Only a handful of rod builders continued to use bamboo.

So why are there still folks around making and using bamboo rods? Well, fast forward to about twenty five years ago... A new generation of fly fishers was flailing away at the water with new rods made of this new wonder material called “graphite,” when a young writer by the name of John Gierach published “The View from Rat Lake.” John soon became a sort of folk hero to the "new" breed of fly fishers. When he began to let it slip that he fished bamboo, a subtle shift started to take place. Ex-hippies, who now had disposable incomes of up to four or five figures started buying cane rods. And as the supply of older rods became scarce the price went up, especially for the shorter, faster, "dry-fly" rods that had never been produced in great quantity to begin with.

In 1977, my freshman year in college, Hoagy Carmichael wrote a book about his friend and mentor, Everett Garrison called “A Master's Guide to Building a Bamboo Flyrod.” About that same time the embargo on China was lifted, and Tonkin bamboo again became available. A few old craftsmen continued to make bamboo rods. Most of them had at one time been employees of the large rod making concerns in the days when all rods were bamboo, and had quietly kept making rods. Very few of them actually made a living at it. It was more a labor of love than a paycheck. There was enough of an undercurrent that many of the best bamboo rod makers developed waiting lists for their rods. And they weren’t making rods for collectors, but for fishermen! They were expensive, and hard to get. People who wanted bamboo rods, but couldn’t find them (or couldn't afford them) began to think about building their own.
In 1992, Wayne Cattanach published and widely distributed his book, “Handcrafting Bamboo Fly Rods.” Wayne started rod building as a hobby. He said anyone who would take the time, could build a bamboo rod. Wayne's book was the spark that started many would be rod builders on their way.

New glues began to replace the older, less dependable glues. Old, heavy, slow tapers began to be updated. New, quicker, more responsive tapers began to be introduced. Today’s new bamboo rods not only rival the old masters, but are probably the best bamboo rods ever made.

So we keep on asking the same question: Why bamboo? Well, I like them. And lots of other folks do, too. If a fly rod is to be considered only as an instrument to deliver
line, leader and fly to a feeding fish, then you could say that in some ways bamboo is an inferior material, I guess. And, for a lot of folks, that's probably about all there is to it.

I am going to make a statement that will probably sound like heresy, and anger many bamboo rod makers. In my opinion, graphite is a wonderful rod making material. Now, not all graphite rods being made today are great rods. There are more terrible rods being made today, in my opinion, than have ever been made at any other time. But graphite does make some great rods. They are lightweight, strong, don't take a set, they can be made to cast quite well, and can be beautiful if well done.
But that doesn’t mean that bamboo rods cannot be great fishing rods. Lots of them are. Bamboo is a great material and can be crafted into a beautiful rod that has a sort of uniqueness which isn’t matched by any other material. Bamboo is the traditional rod material that fly fishing was built upon. That traditional appeal won’t go away.
Just because a rod is bamboo, that doesn't make it a great fishing rod. I’m pretty critical of any rod -- whether it’s bamboo, fiberglass, or graphite. Regardless of the material the rod is made from, it has to perform well. With bamboo the weight of the material itself affects the rod action more than fiberglass or graphite. It's critical that the tapers be worked out carefully and tested to insure that the rod performs well.
One great thing about bamboo is that you can actually build your own blanks. That gives you the ability to experiment with different tapers and develop a rod action you prefer. Most of us can’t do that in graphite or fiberglass. (My good friend Don Morton has done some exciting things in designing new graphite rod tapers, but most of us can’t do that. Lamiglas and St. Croix Loomis are able to design tapers.) But if you only build on blanks that someone else creates, then you’re stuck with what they design.

Why bamboo? Well, for me, I prefer bamboo to graphite for the same reasons I like old flintlock black powder rifles with bird’s eye maple stocks more than new composite stocked engineering marvels. I like over and under shotguns more than pumps or automatics. The flintlock isn’t any better gun than the Weatherby. Neither is the Parker Shotgun any better than the Remington. In fact sometimes there’s a disadvantage to a flintlock rifle or a Parker over and under. But, and this is important to me... they are better for the soul. Silly, well maybe, but I still have a deep reverence for natural materials, fine craftsmanship, and labors of love.

Modern fabrication, materials and big businesses are great for efficiency and practicality, but that is not why I like to fish. I fish because I enjoy it. And bamboo is not necessarily better than graphite. It’s just that I like it better.

Here’s another analogy: Do you remember when we you were young and foolish and you would build book shelves out of cinder blocks and pine 2x8's? Lets compare that with a fine antique book shelf, like a Stickley cabinet, or an Ethan Allen hutch.

How do we compare the two approaches, what are the criteria which we judge?
Strength....... 2x8 wins, hands down
Portability..... 2x8's win again
Performance .... well, the 2x8 bookshelves hold books just as well as the Stickley hutch.
Cost............. priced any Stickley furniture lately? Again, 2x8's win.
Aesthetics......... Ahhh, there’s the rub
Why do we buy Ethan Allen hutches and Stickley cabinets? They lose on most judging categories. We buy them because they look so good, and they don't present a significant disadvantage in our day to day use over the 2x8. That is why I choose bamboo. Not because of any perceived technical advantage of bamboo over graphite. I choose bamboo because it does the job quite well, and I like it better.
So what are the drawbacks of bamboo?

Is bamboo weak or fragile? Well, let’s do an experiment.... Hammer bamboo through pine 1x4. Try the same with Sage.

Is bamboo slow? Compared with some graphite rods it might be. But the heart of any rod is in its taper. I think I could successfully argue that very usable bamboo tapers can be developed for all stream fishing.
Now at the same time, I’ll be very up front and say that I believe in almost all saltwater fishing, the advantages of graphite rods are obvious. I do have a 9 weight bamboo rod, and a graphite 8 weight, but if I were exclusively a saltwater fisherman, I would fish graphite.

Is bamboo expensive? Well, yes it is. But I have lots of friends who price their rods not much higher than top end graphite rods. My rods are more expensive than factory graphite rods. But they’re not any more expensive than say, Tom Morgan custom made graphite rods.

Bamboo's greatest drawback, bluntly, is its weight. It's usually heavier than Graphite or even Glass. But is that weight always a real disadvantage?
One explanation basically relates to physics and the well known equation that e = mv2. that is: energy equals mass times the square of velocity.

A bamboo rod has more mass than a synthetic fiber rod. Therefore, it can impart the same energy to the line at a lower line speed. It is therefore possible to achieve the same power in a cast at a lower line speed, particularly in shorter distance casts where the line is a lower proportion of the total mass and also for lighter weight rods where the difference in mass may be significant. The slightly lower line speed required allows the fisherman to concentrate more on presentation and accuracy and have less false casting than required with a graphite rod where line speed is essential to successful casting.
Rod companies have sold the story well that high line speed is an important asset, but they fail to mention that that high line speed is at least partially required to overcome the lessor mass of the rod.
Here’s another experiment for you. I have here four different hammers. If I wanted to drive a nail through this board, which one is the best tool? Well, this little hammer is too light. Not enough mass to do the job. I can get more speed with it than with any of these others. Same for the plastic hammer. On the other hand, this sledge hammer is so heavy that using it all day would wear me out. The carpenter’s hammer is just about right. It has enough weight to do the job efficiently, yet is still light enough that I can use it without wearing myself out. In some ways, the extra weight of a bamboo rod might just be an advantage.

So our original question comes back to us: Why Bamboo? I like the feel of the mass in the bamboo rod when casting. You can achieve a higher velocity using a lighter hammer, but a heavier hammer often feels better and can be less tiring and less work. You still gotta overcome the same forces to drive the nail - to throw the fly line. I don't often fish where I need longer than 50 foot casts. More like 20 to 40 feet. Again, in saltwater applications, graphite may well do the job more efficiently. But when stream fishing for trout, I see no real disadvantage to bamboo. If a nine foot 5 weight graphite rod weighs 3 ounces, and an eight foot five weight bamboo rod weighs 4 ounces, that’s not that big of a deal to me. Maybe it's a macho thing, but I somehow manage to carry that extra ounce or two around all day without falling over. As someone has said, some folks aren’t man enough to carry around that extra ounce.

Will most of you, or even many of you, wind up with a burning desire to make bamboo rods? Probably not. My hope is that you will see that there is great potential for making fly rods, and even light casting and spinning rods. If you’re looking for rods for dragging tuna up from the depths, bamboo might not be the best choice. But for delicately landing tiny dry flies in mountain streams, bamboo is fantastic.

(Most of you are custom rod builders.) When someone asks you about bamboo you want to be well-informed enough to talk intelligently. A couple of things come to mind.

1. Don't be afraid of a bamboo rod. (People want to treat them like Faberge eggs.) They are no more fragile than a good graphite rod. This is the most important tip.

2. Treat a cane rod like a good gun. Make sure its clean and dry when you put it away. Store it in a dry place. Once a year give it a coat of paste wax. If something goes wrong, take it to a competent professional for repair.

3. You shouldn't bend a cane rod in a circle like you can do with a graphite rod. That will damage it. In other ways it is tougher than a graphite rod.

4. If you have an old bamboo rod, take it fishing sometime. Of course, if its an old Montague or Horrocks-Ibbotson, it wasn't really made to cast like we cast now, but to swing wet flies in the current, or live bait. The point is, enjoy it.

5. Finally, if you’d like to try a modern bamboo fly rod, it’s easy enough to do. Just invite me to come fishing with you some time, and I’ll bring rods for both of us. Or stop me anytime, and I’ll string one up for you to try.


  1. at the fly fishing show denver sun 1/10, I saw one of matt schlitkes 7.5 4wt bamboo rods throw a line 80 feet. I only got 60 some feet because I did not want to push an 1800 dollar rod which I could not afford to buy if it broke. But the rod cast like a dream.

  2. No way you would break that rod by casting it. I passed my Certified Casting Instructors Exam using a bamboo rod I made. Bamboo is an amazing material that will tolerate much more than we think. A solid bamboo rod is probably much tougher than a tubular graphite rod.