In June 2004, I began the fishing column that I write for The River Reporter with this sentence: “I’m in love again, head over heels in love again.” Readers were momentarily startled by this seemingly public confession of being unfaithful. As they read further they found my new love was seven and one half feet tall and weighed only four ounces. I had gone back to casting an old, long-unused, five-strip bamboo fly rod made by that maverick among rod makers, Nat Uslan. The sweet feeling of casting that rod made me wonder why on earth I had forsaken bamboo for graphite these many years. Barb and I had simply allowed ourselves to be swept up in the graphite revolution. Lighter, faster, newer, better than those old hat bamboo rods. As the song goes from “Porgy and Bess,” “it ain’t necessarily so.”
May I pour you two fingers of John Jameson Irish Whiskey while I elucidate? Glass, graphite and bamboo can all be used to manufacture fly rods. Glass and graphite rods are coldly efficient, mass-marketed tools produced by the thousands. Every year we are bombarded with advertisements touting the superiority of the latest models. In contrast, the majority of bamboo fly rods are made in small one- or two-man shops. The men who work in these shops are truly engaged in the pursuit of perfection. They take pride in putting their names on the rods they produce. These rods are naturally more expensive than mass produced products.
Take another sip of that fine Irish whiskey as I point out a major difference between graphite and bamboo rods. If you sell your graphite rod after years of use, you will get far less than you paid for it. A bamboo fly rod from a maker with a fine reputation will either hold its initial value or in many cases will appreciate in value. Does that statement leave you skeptical? In the last five years I have sold four bamboo rods that originally cost between $200 and $250 in the early ‘60s. I fished them for decades, yet when I sold them they brought me between $2,500 and $3,100. Buying a fine bamboo fly rod is an investment that will not only give you years of pleasure but may well allow you a profit when you wish to sell it. Try doing that with a graphite rod.
I am sure you have been told that bamboo rods are fine if you only need to cast 30 feet. Now, I am a very average caster, which is why I refer to myself as “the complete tangler.” I can, however, reach out to 60 measured feet with only a tiny little single haul, using any of the bamboo rods that I fish with. I should add, that even on the Main Stem of the mighty Delaware, I hook nearly all of my trout within 40 feet of my wading position.
Bamboo rods are too heavy? An average 8-foot, 6-inch rod will weigh within 4.25 and 4.75 ounces. That is fine for me, but too much rod for Barbara Ann. Dennis Menscer, the fine rod builder from Hancock, NY, just delivered a perfect rod for the little lady. Dennis built an 8-foot, 6-inch rod for her that, on the scales of the Roanoke PO, weighs only 3.5 ounces. This rod is “hollow built” and comes with a cork reel seat and two sliding bands. She recently had a chance to fly fish this rod for the first time on the Elm Fork. Barb remarked that the rod casts a line with no effort at all. She also reminded me that Dennis had built this rod for her. Older bamboo rods were built by the legends of yesteryear. The young rod builders of today do not have to take a back seat to anyone. If you haven’t cast one of the rods they are now building ,you are missing one of the great pleasures of life. Oh yes, grass rods? Bamboo, Arundinaria amabilis, is classified as being a grass, not a wood.
[A sharp-eyed reader caught an error in the attribution of “Goodbye to a River” in my May 12 column. The author is John Graves.]