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What is "The Old Rod" Made Of?

By Harry Boyd

As a maker of bamboo rods I'm quite susceptible to fascinations with all things bamboo, and must confess that Castwell's recent article on "The Old Rod" tantalized me more than a little. JC seemed to be lured by the siren song of days past, back to a simpler, more excitable era. Reading his article reminded me of sitting on the well worn dirt path leading to Bayou DeSiard, watching a bluegill inspect my cricket a few feet beneath the dark water's surface. And it brought fond memories of my own beginnings in fly fishing, learning to tempt those same bluegills with big-eyed popping bugs and graduating to teasing the "educated" trout in Missouri's Roaring River State Park with tiny artificial ants.

My first fly rod was a Cortland fiberglass rod. I have held on to that rod for nearly 40 years. Today it occupies an honored place on the wall above my fly tying bench. Like many of you I graduated to graphite rods early on, but a nostalgic bent lured me towards bamboo more than a dozen years ago. My wife gave me my first bamboo rod for my thirty-fourth birthday. I loved that old rod. Somehow for $150, she managed to find an unmarked Leonard 50DF in great condition through one of the dealer's lists.

While fishing the Little Red River in Arkansas one day, a friend and I swapped rods for a few minutes. Billy wound up fishing with my bamboo rod for the rest of the day, and I fished with his graphite rod. At the end of the day Billy asked, "What do I owe you Harry? You aren't getting this rod back." Foolishly, I saw it as a chance to make some money, and sold the rod for twice what my wife had paid for it. I thought I'd get another nice bamboo rod and have a few dollars left over. Little did I know that rod may well have been worth 4 or 5 times what Billy paid for it. For over a year I searched for another rod. In the process of the search I became familiar with the prices classic bamboo rods demand. The more I tried to get the Leonard back from Billy, the more he teased me. You know how friends are.

About that time at our local Federation of Fly Fisher's Club meeting a young man presented a brief program one night on how he had made two of his own bamboo rods. He brought in a few tools, and both the rods he had made, and talked for half an hour about the processes involved. It was an epiphany moment for me. If Doug could make a bamboo rod, so could I. Gathering the necessary tools, supplies, and components took me eighteen months. My first bamboo rod is too soft. (Shown below). The wraps look funky. The grip is uncomfortable. And when I finished that rod I thought it was the prettiest thing I had ever seen except for my wife and daughter.

I have rods 106-109 on the bench now, ready for ferrules. Hopefully I've made some improvements along the way.

Just twenty or thirty years ago bamboo rods were almost completely written off by the rod buying public. Today there is a real renaissance of those who appreciate the lovely reed. I'll wager a guess that there are nearly 200 folks in the US who make and sell bamboo rods, and three times that many more who craft rods for themselves and friends. Last year several of us, headed by Jeff Fultz of Colorado, decided to start a promotional organization known as the American Bamboo Rodmakers Association to preserve the legacy and craft of making bamboo fly rods. One of ABRA's goals is to help keep the nostalgic fires and feelings of folks like JC alive.

Are bamboo rods better than graphite? Well, are Fords better than Chevys? No, bamboo rods are not better, nor are they worse. They're just different. You might be surprised to find that modern bamboo rods are quite enjoyable to fish and cast. One of ABRA's goals is to dispel some of the myths about bamboo rods and show the fishing public that bamboo rods are a viable alternative to some high-end graphite rods. "After all, some of the biggest rod companies have been trying to mimic the feel of bamboo for years. We want anglers to know that nothing can bring that lively feel to a rod like bamboo," says Fultz.

Not all bamboo rods are alike. Back when your grand-dad fished bamboo rods, wet-fly fishing was the name of the game. Fishing a brace of three or four wet flies without tangling your leader into a bird's nest requires a slow stroke and an open loop. Grampa's rods were made with slow actions to fit the fishing methods of the day. Today's rods often have quite modern actions. Most of the rods I make are quite fast-actioned to fit the needs of modern fisher persons. Many quality bamboo rod makers will work with you to create a rod that fits your personal desires.

One hundred percent of American Bamboo Rodmaker Association dues are used for national advertising campaigns and administrative expenses. Board members volunteer their time and energy. The advertising helps educate the rod buying public about the differences between quality handcrafted rods and cheap, imitation cookie-cutter rods. If your initial impression of bamboo rods is based on cheap labor and poorly fitting, ill-formed components, you miss much of the joy of a quality rod. For more information, please visit our website at, or email Jeff Fultz at or me at ~ Harry Boyd

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