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"Stradivarius or Yamaha; Tool or Treasure"

by Ralph Moon (Part 1)

Arnold Gingrich made the assertion that on the day that Jascha Heifitz played a plastic violin in the New York Philharmonic he would consider using a rod made of synthetic materials. From the advent of the first fiberglass fly rod to the present day, the controversy between users of bamboo fly rods and rods made of synthetic materials continues. A number of years ago, Eric Pettine asked me to do a seminar on bamboo rods at the Federation of Flyfishers Conclave. He assigned me a theme, "The Mystique of the Bamboo Rod."

I was a bit upset at being thus constrained until I looked up the definition of mystique in my dictionary: a body of attitudes, opinions or ideas that become associated with a person, thing, institution, (etc.) and give it a superhuman or mythical status.

It seemed then and still does now that the definition of the word was particularly meaningful in terms of bamboo fly rods. There has developed around bamboo rods a body of attitudes that do give it a mythical status.

When one looks at this idea objectively, an apparent dichotomy leaps out. How and why can a utilitarian object, a tool if you will, instill in its users the powerful emotional appeal that bamboo seems to evoke? I use a lot of tools in my making of bamboo rods, yet none of them are more to me than just tools. I do not venerate them, they inspire no awe, there is not the least semblance of a mythical status. Indeed there are those who make very pointed objections to the mystique of bamboo.

Paul Schullery, a former director of the Museum of American Fishing denigrates the whole idea with the pungent commentary "Sticks." "... (a flyrod) no matter how much attention and ornamentation we may lavish upon it, is after all just a stick."

He further says that as a wood (grass, if you must) bamboo is singularly lacking is visual appeal. "It was boring." , and he categorizes the first bamboo rod he saw with the comment, "why it is almost ugly."

My first reaction to Paul's comments was most violent. Blasphemy, of the first order! Then I remembered a few other friends who in kinder terms had said much the same. I began to realize that each of us is entitled to his own opinion (no matter now misguided he may be).

Even today with the myriad of new technologies for making fly rods, we hear that some graphite rod has the feel of bamboo. So what is it that distinguishes bamboo fly rods from all other types of fly rods? I can't presume to speak for others, but there are a number of factors that I think might be considered.

The first of these is aesthetics. Despite Schullery's comment that bamboo rods are almost ugly, I must maintain that they can be beautiful works of art solely in and of themselves. One of the real thrills I get in building a bamboo rod comes when I scrape the enamel from the rod section and watch the lovely grain and vibrant color emerge.

While the grain may be uniform, its very straightness is a thing of beauty. The color may range from pale lemon yellow hues through wheat, tan, and rich browns. Each has its own appearance which is intensified by the mirror perfect coating the craftsman applies to the rod. Jewel-like colors of silk winding thread, the luster of subdued nickel silver ferrules,rich exotic woods in the reel seat, and the velvety smoothness of the cork all combine and blend into an elegance of true artistry.

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