Interest in bamboo fly rods has enjoyed a renaissance during the last two decades. This has been a welcome development, particularly to those of us who have been at it for quite a while! Trends come and go, but bamboo fly rods - and what they represent - clearly has some staying power. If anything, there are now far more people interested in their history and the finer points of how they’re made.
There are a number of good resources on specific topics that I’m happy to recommend, but this simply intended as a useful starting point aimed at those who are newer to bamboo fly rods and wondering where to start. We'll cover several topics:
A brief history of bamboo fly rods and what makes them special.
An overview of how they are constructed.
Some recommendations on where to find rods, names to look for, and suggestions for fisherman and collectors both.
So if you are just getting started with bamboo fly rods and want to know what all the fuss is about, you've come to the right place.
First, let’s back up a bit. Bamboo fly rods were a 19th century innovation. Prior to their development the sport of fly fishing utilized tackle that would be scarcely recognizable by modern standards. Enormous wooden rods were the norm for the early part of the 19th century, many of which were measured in pounds rather than ounces. As with fly fishing in general, rodbuilding techniques were transplanted to America from Europe, and many of the construction methods had their roots in England and Scotland.
“Greenheart” rods are perhaps the most recognizable from the period prior to bamboo. Greenheart has a dark, almost mahogany color, and you can spot it easily if you visit any fly fishing museum and take a swing by the fly rod exhibit. Many rods were well over 10 feet in length, and salmon rods could easily go 15 feet or more. The most famous were those developed at the tail end of the Greenheart era by Scotsman Alexander Grant, the "Wizard of the Ness", who once famously used one to lay out 65 yards of line in a spey casting competition, besting his nearest competitor by a full 10 yards (and this was without shooting any line, as we do in modern casting!). Even in the hands of less skilled anglers than Grant, many Greenheart rods cast surprisingly well given their bulk, though I suspect that even the most barrel-chested Scotsman would have needed a wee dram after fishing one all day.
It’s no surprise then, that rodmakers of that era would have been keeping their eyes open for ways to make fly rods a little lighter and easier to use. Bamboo was used in a variety of capacities in the first half of the 19th century, often in simple, somewhat rustic forms. Samuel Phillipe, a Pennsylvania gunsmith, is regarded as being the first rod maker to build the hexagonal bamboo rod in 1849, though his reach and reputation were modest.
Hiram Leonard — the godfather of the bamboo fly rod and the creator of the eponymous HL Leonard Rod Company — is widely credited with popularizing bamboo as a superior alternative to wood. While the first attempts used Calcutta bamboo and sanded off the edges where the strips of bamboo came together in order to give it a familiar, round look, over time Hiram recognized that he could produce a stronger rod by leaving more of the outer bamboo - where the strongest fibers are - intact. This, coupled with the adoption of far superior Tonkin cane (so named from its source on the hills surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin in China), helped produce what we would recognize today as a “modern” bamboo fly rod. Though they were still on the large side, at least by contemporary standards, the basics were there. The bamboo fly rod that we know today was born.
Over the years the HL Leonard Rod Company would flourish, alongside a number of other companies and makers, who would bring their own style and approach to building rods. In addition to Leonard, names like EF Payne, FE Thomas, Edwards, and Paul Young, were significant players in their heyday, and a few, such as RL Winston, are names that we still recognize today. The collective history of this community, and the craftsmanship of the men and women behind it, is a big part of what makes it special.
At the most general level, bamboo fly rods are constructed by taking long strips from the outer part of the bamboo plant — the species Arundinaria Amabilis or sometimes Pseudosasa Amabilis — and gluing them together, often in either quadrate or hexagonal form (pentagonal and heptagonal forms do exist but they are rarer). The purpose behind this design is simple: to maximize the use of the bamboo’s “power fibers”, the portion of particularly dense fibers on the outside part of the plant. In the photo above you can see that the fibers closest to the exterior wall are darker and denser while those closest to the interior are lighter and more diffuse.
As Hiram quickly recognized while working away in his Bangor, Maine workshop in 1869, bamboo is an almost perfect material from which to build a fly rod. Growing hundreds of feet tall on windy hillsides, Tonkin Bamboo had evolved to be incredibly strong yet also flexible. Indeed, it might be said that the swaying motion of tonkin cane in its natural habitat almost perfectly mimics the angler’s ten-and-two fly casting stroke in his!
The challenge lay in taking advantage of this high-performance part of the plant, achieved by taking the aforementioned strips of bamboo, cutting them in carefully pre-determined tapered sizes, and then gluing those strips back together. This is also where the rodmaker’s design skill, along with a careful attention to detail, would perhaps come most into play.
Construction Basics: Tapers, Nodes, and Ferrules
Using suitable materials, of course, is only the first step. How you use those materials matters just as much. That "how" can be roughly broken down into two parts, (A) the design of the rod shaft itself and (B) the quality and care taken by the person building it.
Let's take design first. Ask any rodmaker about the topic of “tapers” and you’d better get comfortable — it’s a topic of great passion and enthusiasm by anyone who has tried to build a fly rod. The “taper” in question is exactly that - how the rod tapers from the handle all the way to the tip. Both the magnitude of this taper, as well as the distribution of the taper, have a profound impact on the way a rod performs, and makers have been tinkering, modifying, comparing, and developing tapers for as long as bamboo fly rods have been around. Indeed, they can be the difference — and often are the difference — between a rod that functions as a graceful casting tool, and one that might be better used staking up tomatoes in your garden.
Functionally, the taper is what determines the rod’s action - how it moves back and forth through a casting plane - and which in turn determines how power is transferred to the fly line at the far end. In the hands of a competent caster a well-crafted fly rod with a sensible taper design will produce nice, tight loops, the hallmark of skilled, efficient fly casting. While you might expect rod design to have developed some natural convergence over time - rodmakers collectively arriving at a consensus "best" taper, for example -- the fact is that there is a surprisingly wide variety of tapers that can work well. Some actions are deliberately a little slower and more methodical, while some are a little crisper, but there are a multiple ways to create a "good" fly rod. This is also because what "good" means changes a bit depending on the caster and the specific angling situation that the rod is being built for.
The entirety of taper design is a whole other topic, but suffice to say that rodmakers use of a taper may be the most important consideration in rodbuilding. The ability to engineer a variety of nuanced outcomes is part of what makes bamboo rods so much fun.
The second component is craft. This can be a bit tougher to spot by the casual observer — but the care that goes into the actual build process itself, also matters a lot in terms of performance. A design might look great on paper, but if the rod is built without sufficient care and precision, that can adversely performance in a big way.
One example of this is how nodes are dealt with. Nodes are natural weak spots in the exterior power fibers of the bamboo (not everything is perfect about bamboo, as it turns out!) which the builder must reckon with to maintain the integrity of the rod. In its natural state, a bamboo plant has leaves that grow out from the shaft at roughly one to two foot intervals.
If one puts too many of those nodes in a single place, the risks of breakage or failure increase. Most rodmakers deal with this by distributing them evenly throughout the rod according to a few well-established patterns.
Lastly, there are ferrules, the joints that hold the rod sections together. While there have been a variety of approaches to ferrule design over the last century and a half — from splices, to locking joints, to avoiding them altogether by building one piece rods — the standard modern ferrule plays an important role in fly rod design. Sure they make life a little more portable for the angler, but they also impact the transfer of power through the rod. Well-designed, well-crafted ferrules placed at the right points greatly preserve the natural power and flexibility of the bamboo itself.
Bamboo Fly Rod vs Graphite Fly Rods
For the vast majority of anglers today, graphite will have been the only fly rod material that they’ve ever known. And graphite does have some phenomenal properties, to be sure. For one, the strength-to-weight ratio far surpasses what bamboo could ever achieve, which in turn enables the paper-thin walls of today’s graphite rods (most graphite rods today are almost startlingly light). And secondly, they’re cheap, thanks to inexpensive overseas facilities where most graphite fly rods are made these days - more “manufactured” than “crafted”. You can get a perfectly fishable graphite fly rod for the price of a decent dinner out (though this may be a mixed blessing, as one major concern that’s often discussed among the rodmakers I know who build graphite rods is how today’s low-cost, lifetime warrantee, approach to fly rod manufacturing has created a “race to the bottom” in fly rod quality - a topic for another time).
So what will the angler notice the first time he or she picks up a bamboo fly rod? First, of course, is the slight increase in weight. But once they start casting a bamboo rod, they will undoubtedly notice the more delicate, deliberate casting stroke. Bamboo fly rods tend to feel smoother. Or as it is sometimes said - a graphite fly rod “shoots” while a bamboo fly rod “casts” — a fair description, in my opinion. And best of all, if the rod has been matched to the particular angler — much of what we rodmakers often do is try to create a “bespoke” action for our customers — then that casting action will be all the sweeter.
Secondly, there is the question of fighting a fish. Nothing — and I mean nothing — compares to fighting a healthy, fiesty fish on a bamboo fly rod. Without getting too poetic about it, a bamboo rod does tend to “come alive” with a fish on the other end. For those of us for whom this connection is a big part of what makes fly fishing fun, this is a huge plus.
And lastly, of course, is the matter of craftsmanship, of all of the small touches that go into making a bamboo fly rod a thing of aesthetic beauty, beyond its purely functional dimension. Most quality rodmakers are equal parts engineer and artist and will labor painstakingly over the finish of the rod’s varnish, the guide wraps, the hardware design, or any number of other tiny details that have to work together to create a thing of beauty. That’s something that you just won’t get out of a mass market fly rod.
Craftsmanship and Process
While all bamboo rodmakers approach the rodbuilding process in slightly different ways, the bottom line is that it often takes on the order of 40-80 hours of work to build a quality fly rod. And this doesn’t account for the considerable downtime, waiting for glue to set or varnish to harden. Most serious, full-time rodmakers I know will create only a few rods each year, maybe a dozen or two, depending on their schedules and customer demand.
Once an order is taken, the process entails hundreds of tiny steps to bring a bamboo fly rod to completion, though broadly speaking the process can be split into four phases.
Bamboo Preparation & Construction
During this phase the rodmaker selects, splits, and prepares bamboo to be cut into strips. Some rodmakers hand-plane these strips, while others use a beveler or milling machine. Once cut with their appropriate tapers, these strips are then glued into their four or six strip form.
Not all rodmakers make their own hardware, but those that do must make ferrules, front and rear cork checks, and reel seat hardware in preparation for mounting.
Mounting & Assembly
At this juncture, the hardware is mounted on the bamboo sections which have been cut to the proper length. The rod typically receives a pre-coat of varnish and the grip is mounted and shaped.
Lastly, the guides are sized and put on, the rod is varnished, and all of the final cosmetic work is finished. The rod is also given a final straighten before it heads into its tube and on to its new owner.
To the uninitiated there are a bewildering collection of names attached to bamboo fly rods. Some are recognized as true masters and widely admired by bamboo rod enthusiasts, while others are less well so, their influence more regional. Like many crafts, knowledge of building bamboo fly rods has often been passed down from one person to another, creating a number of lineages. For collectors, the following are some of the most prized makers, loosely grouped by their geography and connection to one another.
Today, enthusiasm for bamboo fly rods may be at an all-time high, and we have witnesed a dizzying proliferation of makers, many of whom produce on a small scale (a few full-time rodmakers with connections to the earlier rod shops still build rods, of course — like yours truly — but the landscape is more diffuse and less concentrated than it used to be). For the most part, this proliferation has been a good thing. The internet has made it easier to share best practices and for rodmakers to try and test new approaches. Rodmakers have pushed the boundaries in rod design, largely toward ever more specialized rod models. The downside, at least for the unitiated, is that it can be difficult to make sense of this proliferation, and to make meaningful distinctions when thinking about buying a bamboo rod. As always, the best policy is to do one’s homework and ask lots of questions.
Collecting Bamboo Fly Rods
The collector’s market for bamboo fly rods, and vintage fishing tackle more broadly, remains healthy. There are a number of collectors around the world who have built substantial collections of rods, reels, and other tackle, and many more who eagerly buy rods and reels as their more modest budgets allow. Some collectors gravitate toward particular makers or styles, while others tend to collect a broader cross-section of work. As with most collecting, the possibility of picking up a rare and valuable find can be an irresistible, and intoxicating habit!
While values fluctuate, and certain makers and names rise and fall in popularity, most collectors tend to focus on the higher-end of the market, where quality and scarcity are the two main drivers of interest and demand. Unfortunately many of the rods that people come across are the mass-produced models of the post-war boom, which have little value today. That said, it’s always worth doing a little homework to see what you might have on your hands, just to be sure! Collectors today have roughly three options for finding new tackle:
they can scrounge through general estate sales and little known auctions, which tends to be a high-labor but potentially high-reward endeavor.
they can participate in the small handful of tackle-focused auctions, which tends to surface a more obvious opportunities.
they can go to a repuable dealer who will ensure that the collector gets exactly what they are looking for.
All three options have pros and cons, of course, but provide different ways for aspiring collectors to be able to build their collections.
Resources for Further Reading / Learning
Classic Rods & Rodmakers - Martin Keane
Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod - Hoagy Carmichael