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A short history of the bamboo fly rod

E ven though it may seem like it, bamboo fly rods haven't been around forever.  Granddad and great granddad may have fished them, but if you go back many  generations, you'll find that bamboo wasn't the "wood" of choice for fly rods.  It was materials like Ironwood, Greenheart and other exotics that built most of yesterdays rods.  These rods were often 14 ft (or longer), two handed beasts.  Sections were spliced together.  Reels were small.  Occasionally bamboo was used for the tips of theses rods.

Your personal history The story of the split cane bamboo fly rods actually starts after the American Civil War. Builders on both sides of the Atlantic started to use "split" cane -- strips of bamboo cut to shape and glued together. These rods were shorter than the older wood rods. Experiment showed that the best bamboo for rods was Calcutta bamboo.  It was light, strong and available.  Rods were glued with the strongest glue available at the time -- hide glue. As a safeguard, wraps of silk were placed every few inches. Eventually, Ferrules replaced splicing. The rods began to take on the look of today's rod. A standard began to emerge. Because most fishers used wet flys, the rod was 9 ft long. For ease of transport (and production) the rod was made in three pieces. "Dry fly" rods were often shorter and only two pieces. 

By the 20th century companies like Leonard, Payne, Montague, Horric-Ibson and a host of others were making bamboo fly rods commercially.  Fly rods were going for the outrageous price of $3.00, some as high as $15.00. Several smaller companies also emerged. Between them, these companies supplied sport fishing needs for the new middle class. The quality of the rods built by these companies ran all the way from junk to fly fishing works of art. 

In the early 20th century rod makers also discovered a new bamboo.  Tea stick bamboo, commonly called Tonkin bamboo, became the standard. Tonkin bamboo came, not from the Tonkin area of Southeast Asia, but from a small province in China.  It's qualities of straight sticks, long node spacing and strong outer fibers made it ideal for fly rods. It's still the standard today. 

the "Golden Age" of bamboo rod making stretched from the '20s to the '50s.  Not only were rods mass produced by such companies as Wright and McGill, Heddon and Sons, Shakespeare and Southbend, but many rods were also produced by small, high end companies. New material and processes allowed the creation of some of the best fly rods made to that time.. Intermediate wraps disappeared as newer stronger glues became available.  Reels were held in place by screw locking, spring or other means.  Fly rod quality was available for every pocket book.  Most fly rods sought after by today's collectors come from this period. 

The golden age ended in the early '50s with two events.  President Harry Truman placed an embargo on Chinese goods ending the import of Bamboo and Shakespeare released the "Wonder rod," made of fiberglass. Between these two events, bamboo fly rods almost became extinct. Companies such as Orvis and Winston continued to build bamboo rods but only as a sideline, almost a curiosity.  Many other rod companies could no longer compete and disappeared. (Thomas & Thomas  purchased the old Montague Rod Co and facilities.  T&T only built cane rods for several years before they also introduced a line of carbon fiber rods and slowed the production of their Bamboo rods.)  But bamboo fly rods didn't disappear.  It's a tribute to the material that bamboo fly rods continued to be sought, not only by collectors, but by fly fishers as well. 

As production rods disappeared, custom rods from small makers began to take their place. Over the years a number of makers have been willing to share the art with those interested in making their own bamboo fly rods.  A few books appeared on the market, explaining how to build bamboo rods.  Thanks to these authors a new generation of makers has taken up the standard.  New materials, new techniques and new tapers continue to enter the market.  A cottage industry came into being. Names like Tony Young of Australia, Terry Ackland of Canada and host of Americans such as Cattanach, Boyd, Gould, Curry, Thramer and others build not only great copies of yesterday's rods, but some of the best rods ever made.  Some say that we've entered a second "golden age." 

It speaks highly of the rod builders of the past and present that bamboo continues to be what many consider the pinnacle of the fly fishers tools.  But if bamboo weren't as pleasant to use -- as fun to fish as any other material, the bamboo rod would have long ago joined Ironwood and Greenheart to gather dust in the attic. 

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Bamboo fly rod history

And what about our own history?
While corresponding with a friend, Conrad Black of New Zealand, the topic of one’s legacy came up.   Of all the sporting equipment we use only hunting and fishing gear seem to have the character to be passed on.  I don’t remember ever seeing anyone playing a round of golf with dad’s old wood shaft clubs, or catching nine innings with Granddad’s mitt.  But it’s not uncommon to hear of a person hunting or fishing with equipment handed down by a relative. Here are some experiences I’ve experienced:
The first Bamboo rod I received was from a man who had pulled it out of a trash can.The son of a recently deceased homeowner was cleaning out his father’s effects and had thrown two rod tubes away without looking inside. (I’d guess he didn’t fish.) My friend was going to take both of them for me, but the son reconsidered when he saw what was in the tubes.  He kept one for himself, but allowed my friend the other, as “finder’s fee.”
I remember meeting my grandfather, stream side.He was carrying a metal casting rod with a level wind reel and a terrible plug with about five treble hooks on it. After he died, my father sold or gave away all of granddad’s gear. Years later I hunted down a metal rod and a level wind reel of the type I remember. Though I don’t fish it often, I keep it in his memory.
I have two Remington shotguns (based on the old Browning automatic design) that belonged to my Father (.20ga) and Grandfather (.12ga).  I don’t hunt them, but I won’t part with them. They’re days afield with my father from another time.
For quite some time dad kept a 6 1/2ft bamboo rod with a broken tip in his garage.I remember seeing it when I’d visit home.  After he died I looked through his fishing gear but couldn’t find it. I’ve always wondered what happened to that little rod.
All this is a way of asking the question, "what will I leave behind?"  I have some of my fathers inexpensive glass rods and some of his old reels.  Now and then I take them out and fish them.  To me they have value far above their dollar worth.  Conrad reminded me that it’s even more so with bamboo.  The beauty of a bamboo rod adds to the feeling of history.  I know of several people who have “dad’s” or “granddad’s” rod hanging in the den or over the mantle.  I’ve often been ask about the value of a father’s rod.  I sometimes am asked to teach a person how to fish those same rods.  The warm glow of even an inexpensive bamboo rod seems to hold magic for the son or daughter of a fisherman or fisherwoman.  I somehow doubt that many graphite rods will make it into such a place of honor. 


Building a bamboo fly
Rod an outline 
The Fish-Tested Rods
Other Information about 
Bamboo Fly Rods
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