A lot of folks asked for a transcript of the talk I gave to the Fourth Corner Fly Fishers ( http://www.4thcornerfly.org/ ) at the Bellingham Golf and Country Club, the FCFF is one of the oldest and most established fly fishing outfits in the state and for an evening we talked everything bamboo. Local bamboo rod maker Hugh Lewis was also on hand demonstrating some of the hands on steps to the craft.
anyway here’s a copy of the notes I talked off, I’m happy it was appreciated.
Hello, thank you for inviting me. I’m Jimmy Watts.
As the program mentions Shuksan Rod Co. is my business. I’m also a Seattle Fireman and have spent the last ten years working in the cities busiest and rowdiest firehouse in its poorest neighborhood, which according to my wife has ruined any notions I have about whats ever socially appropriate. If you’ve ever met the guys at my firehouse you’d understand. The career pairs well in contrast to my esoteric love affair with rivers. In the world of an urban firehouse our sense of humor reads at about a tenth grade grade level, which is acceptable, …the best fireman can bring it down to about the 7th grade. For example taking the chain off a chainsaw and drop starting it above the head of a fireman, who’s sleeping, is funny at the tenth grade level. Throwing a pack of firecrackers at his feet while he’s on the crapper rates at a 7th grade and puts you on tenure track in the firehouse.
So given that background, now you’ll also understand why when I looked for a title of tonight’s talk my first thought was… “Bamboo Fly Rods and Sexual Intercourse: A Discourse on Sensitivity” ….but at my wife’s discretion I’ll stick mostly to bamboo fly rods…
One of the first things I like to do when I talk about bamboo fly rods is dispel the myth about their being flimsy or delicate, or white gloved and aristocratic or fancy. This couldn’t be farther from the truth and if anything is a very recently acquired reputation. The reality and the history of split cane fly rods is much more down to earth and grounded in blue collar practicality, and they’re tough as hell [[demonstrate rubber mallet to blank…now do that to your graphite rod]]
As with any history this stuff is up for debate to some extent, but the origins of split-cane fly rods are uniquely American and came about in the back country of New England in the late 1800s and the turn to the 20th century. Stylistically fly fishing much like we know it today came from England and was practiced in the early colonial states. However rods were generally made of a nimble willow and lacked the backbone to tolerate the larger and more powerful fish found in the new world. Fisherman began to approach lever-loaded rods using laminates of ash and lancewood about 1850 and with promise. These woods were stiff and when laminated to itself could generate an effective cast. However this also proved too brittle a material and over the course of a generation they were abandoned but these same construction techniques continued, experimenting with various materials, settling on the use of Calcutta cane, bamboo.
The result was a durable, light (relative to the time) powerful lever that could tolerate Atlantic salmon as well propel flies in the tight quarters of NE trout streams. There are a handful of woodsman and craftsman who share in the responsibility of this evolution but they all share this in common.. They were fisherman. Down to earth, practical minded, worked well with their hands and with tools, …they were rarely sober. …They fished and drank for the same reason…because they had to. Fishing wasn’t a leisure activity and fly fishing wasn’t done to enhance some spiritual connection to nature, fishing was done to survive, probably along with drinking, and fly fishing was the most effective fishing technique for the waters of New England.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century the development of split cane fly rods was perfected, utilizing quadrant and hexagonal tapered laminate construction, incorporating metal ferrules, varying line weights were developed, such that by 1950 a split-cane fly rod was the only and superior choice on the market for a rod. And among the species of cane used now was one called Tonkin cane, grown only in a small region in china. The characteristics of the cane, dense powerfibers that run the entire length of the culm, straightness, less prominent and evenly spaced nodes….these made this species of cane so superior as to render even a close second species like Calcutta cane simply junk.
And at about that time the United States entered into a no-trade embargo with communist China and bamboo fly rods all but disappeared along with their craftsman. This is the reason fiberglass and then graphite fly rods came about…rod companies couldn’t get Tonkin cane nor could they reproduce the species elsewhere, and so the sport discovered a substitute in synthetics, fiberglass and then graphite. This time period coincided with the worlds ability to mass produce goods in industry.
By the time this embargo ended, in the 70s, the craft of making split-cane rods all but disappeared and historians agree that none but perhaps a half dozen people in the country knew how to make split cane rods and had equipment to do so. But then why would anyone want to make them much less buy them when at our disposal were these newer, lighter, faster, stronger and CHEAPER synthetic fly rods, which for all practical purposes were far superior. It made no economic or business sense to go back into bamboo.
Slowly bamboo fly rods became a garage industry apart from the major rod companies, a hobby practiced by a quiet few who really had no idea about each other. Now Its hard to think about life before the Internet, but you can imagine how nearly impossible it would be that outside word of mouth, how the Renaissance breed of bamboo rod maker would learn about each other, especially with their products lacking broad market appeal.
Slowly however, networks grew and trade secrets were explored and developed and shared and a niche industry was born….that of the hand-crafted split cane fly rod. This is also where it the false reputation I spoke of earlier was born, though to no fault of the rodsmiths of the time.
The industrialization of synthetic fly rods made them so cheap, bamboo couldn’t come close to their price share so by default were left available to only the wealthiest among the sport, there by earning a reputation of affluence. The money then paid for them made them ‘too expensive to fish with’ so they were hung on walls as a piece of art and as such couldn’t be touched garnishing an image of delicate. This to my thinking is one of our sports greatest shames, albeit an understandable consequence.
I would like to add at this juncture, that I hold no ill will toward graphite and fiberglass as one may presume, quite the contrary actually. These new rods weren’t a curse to bamboo but a blessing in disguise to fly fishing. By making synthetic rods and making them mass produced and affordable, it made them available to a larger and growing market creating a boom of more fly fishers. While on the surface we think of more fly fishers as more crowding on our rivers, but what it actually does is create more protectors of those rivers which is fantastic. The more people we have fly fishing the more people we have caring about our waters which translates into more and better conservation. More so than any other breed of fisherman, fly fishers almost to a person care about the sustainability of their water systems.
But I digress, so back to bamboo fly rods, where I started. … And sensitivity. Sensitivity is talked about as a true privilege of bamboo. As well as its intrinsic value and the love it has bestowed by its maker and the experiences given it by its fisherman, its the ‘feel’ of bamboo and this love that sets it apart an cannot be replicated by its counterparts in synthetics.
Short of catching a fish with your bare hands, a bamboo fly rod is as close as you can get to tapping into the spark we call ‘fish on’. I use words like, ‘alive’ and ‘electric’ to describe the experience. Though my favorite word to use to describe this experience is ‘gracious’.
For today’s angler, this is all we’re after isn’t it…some experience. I can’t presume to say what that experience should be as it is be different for each of us but their are common themes.
Hand made, and custom made in particular, split cane fly rods enhances our relationship to the fishing experience. It does so in the same way as when we land fish on flies we tie, as most of us do. Or better yet land them on flies tied for us by friends. Not only now is the landed fish a gift, but now one received with added gratitude because a friend enabled the experience with a gift for us of their own, of their time and creation. When i catch fish on my friends flies I’m always moved by their inclusion in the moment, aware and appreciative of the time and care they labored in tying.
Bamboo rods are no different. Whether or not you know the maker of the split-cane rod in your hand, there cannot be denied a relationship between you two and one of mutual admiration, tied by a common love of rivers and trout.
Now I’m not a Christian, I don’t think. I worship Rivers. But I do pray often as Christians say we should, and offer thanks and my chosen time to do so is always kneeling to the river in gratitude for all she’s blesses me with, the least of which being the fish.
I also have another habit of the Christian tradition, which is to evangelize my passion and so given the opportunity I always ask a congregation of trout bums to approach our rivers as servants to them, and not their consumers. I know I’m preaching to the choir but what worries me the most about the current state of our broader culture is the full court press on us to be consumers, the flip side of which being disposers, and totally absent from the equation is any notion of service…Even the industry of fly fishing isn’t immune to this by any stretch. But…Serving, if only we approached our work, family and relationships, ambitions and our Rivers toward that end, and not to consume them what a different world it would be. Not to use things toward our own end but to use them toward theirs. Service carries alot meaning when its identified and defined against its antonym, consumption.
This what I love most about bamboo fly rods…they are served to their own end, nutured. They have to be cared for at every turn, maintained, when broken they are repaired, fixed…mended. They can’t be set aside. They’re never thrown away, even if their life has run its course it ends up in an attic, its passed down to generations, heirloomed and eventually known as ‘great grandpa’s old fly rod’ and hung on a living room wall. They hold a certain personification that develops over the course of time in its relationship to the fisherman, and long after the fisherman is gone a spirit they leave behind still lives in the rod.
I digress a little, sorry. Service aside, we all fish for different reasons but we share more in common..
,,,,,We’ve all identified something in clean mountain water that we relate to and are drawn in for, it isn’t the catch in particular so much as its the ethos it lives in; the freshness of alpine rivers, unspoiled foliage on her banks, the absence of mechanical noise in exchange for of the tumble of current or a stiff breeze in the ear, the splash of a fish. We have our relationships in flies tied or rods made for us by friends. We all feel a connectedness to this in the wait of a rise and the shock of a take, the heart-pause that ensues and for the moment the forgetfulness to breath. In the act of a take we’re tied to a life force far greater than our own and the fish is simply the porthole to it, while the play is on the pulse of the river sustains you along with her rich oxygen infused h2o you breath.
I like to think, or have to, that these things are universal to all who walk into rivers with the prayer that fish will rise to our fly. Love is inseparable from the hope and the love we have for our rivers and the fish who call them home has to be rife with optimism and stewardship.
Before passing the torch to the generous and wonderful rod maker Hugh Lewis to tell us more about the art and science of crafting bamboo rods, I’d like to end with what some of you may have already read, because it summarizes why I fish and make these split-cane witches.
…a split-cane bamboo fly rod. It can take you in and out of time. To a world aside. To a world apart.
To the other side of Wonder.
Casting with split-cane turns time around. Suspends it. Removes from the moment the progressive. Disregards along with it the synthetic. The rod is as ancestral to the Earth as the rivers it reaches out to. A fly fisherman’s longing for both, at once anointed, tied to them by a blade of grass in silk wrappings.
I make bamboo fly rods for the same reasons I wade into rivers. Maybe for the same reasons you wade into them. Not to catch a fish, so much. But for a fish to catch me. To drag me into its liquid alpine. Take me into its timelessness. Its cold and clean. Blue and green. To feel a wet Earth; to see if I can feel some pulse in the easy runs and riffles…see if I can get lost and found in the rhythm of a cast; …And taken to the other side of Wonder.
Thank you very much my friends.