Bamboo Bonzai

What Makes a Good Bamboo Rod?
(Excert from Chaper 4: Rod Design)
The Lovely Reed
By Jack Howell
Our sincere thanks to Pruett Publishing Company

July 20th, 1998

"Rod building is a lot like homebrewing: Maybe nobody has made a raspberry-honey-spruce-espresso porter before (someone probably has), but that's not to say it wouldn't be good. The endless possibilities are intoxicating, and whether you get the urge to build a 4-foot 1-weight or a 10-foot, one piece, hollow-built nodeless salmon rod, there's nothing stopping you. A little madness is probably therapeutic, and some rod builders seem to be engaged in an unspoken competition to see who can build the wierdest rod.

As any angler knows, there are many different kinds of rods, because different kinds of fishing require rods with specific qualities and dimensions, and because people like different things. Not only is a good rod for 10-inch high-country brookies different from a good rod for Umpqua steelhead, but one steelhead fisherman's ideal rod may be quite different from his partner's. An important part of a rod maker's education is his development of a keen sense of rod action and utility, his ability to judge rods and to translate that judgement into rod action.

This mean, among other things, learning to cast well if you do not already do so. I approach this subject with some caution, because I have plenty of work to do myself in this regard. Still, the better caster you are, the better you will be at determining the limits, capabilities, and shortcomings of a particular rod, and the better your rods will be. It's certainly not necessary to be a champion caster to build great rods, but then again, it doesn't hurt, and what I'm talking about is a continuum - every little bit helps. Having great casters (or other great caters, if you are one) try your rods and offer opinions is one measure that you should probably consider no matter how good you are, but it's not a very satisfying substitute in the end for using your own muscles and trusting your own senses. The pure sensation of throwing a beautiful line with a bamboo rod is something that you deserve to experience, especially if you made the rod. I don't consider myself to be a particularly good caster, but one of my ambitions is to become as good as my late start and limited aptitude will allow, so I try to spend at least a little time practicing every day. There are lots of books and videos available on casting, as well as some fine instructors but, once your mechanics are decent, it all boils down to the same thing: Practice.

Just as there are various qualities, often expressed in terms of absolutes, that one might hope to find in a friend, there are absolute qualities that any good rod is said to posess, though the mixture of qualities that any one person finds satisfying may seem inexplicable. It is well that this is so. Otherwise, there would be one good rod design in the world and the overwhelming majority of us would be friendless. If you ask any angler whether his favorite rod has enough power for the fishing he does, he will say yes. If not, the rod would not be his favorite. Does the rod have a pleasant action? Does it throw a smooth line? Can he achieve adequate accuracy with it, and mend line effectively? Does it roll cast well?

Absolutes, though, are useful only to a point. Affirmative answers to the above questions tell you little about the rod, other than that the angler likes it, no matter what you think. Here's my own ideal: a rod that is powerful and crisp without sacrificing delicacy, accuracy, smoothness, or the ability to make short, soft presentations. Who could argue with that? The problem is that those are just words. My ideal fly rod, should I ever achieve it, might be too slow for one judge, or too fast for another. This is why an appreciation for and the ability to cast a variety of rod actions is valuable if you really want to learn, or if you wish to build custom rods for other.

There have been a few attempts here and there to quantify rod action, to assign a numerical rating of fast or slow based upon stress curves, rate-of-change graphs, static deflection tests, oscillation frequencies, and so forth. I certainly would not discourage anyone from pursuing such standards. Anyone who improves them significantly or who discovers new and useful ones, will do the rod-building world a service.

What a fly rod should be seems to be an even more inexhaustible subject than how to make it, which is a large part of why this stuff is so much fun. Althis sections includes quite a few tapers, it seems in order to discuss rod design in general, because sooner or later you'll want to try your hand at it. There aren't any charts and graphs in this section because I'm not an engineer. If your're really interested in numbers I'll try to point you in the right direction, but my approach has always been to try to build great rods by hook or by crook, and if my limited work with numbers has taught me anything about rod design it's that numbers don't tell the whole story." ~ JH

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