Blackberry Farm

Friends of the Farm

Cane Rods and Classic Fly Fishing

When I open the beat up aluminum tube and pull the paper thin and off colored rod sock from the tube, I can’t help but think about all of the stories an old rod like this could tell.  The odd smell of the Bakelite, an early form of plastic, reminds me off how old the rod really is.  As I string the guides with the fly line, I try to imagine fishing in the days when there were not anglers around every bend and fly rods were not made out of space age materials.  Eyeballing the rising fish in the top of the pool and laying out the cast, I quickly realize the nearly 70 year old bamboo rod still had it.  While playing the fish and watching the soft flexible cane bend, I also realize there is still a new pleasure to be found with classic materials and old rods.

Bamboo fly rods are an original American art form.  Early fly rods in Europe were crafted of solid woods such and green heart and even in the early 1800’s in America of hickory.  However, these rods were often long and cumbersome.  In the search for early light and durable rods bamboo became the material of choice.  The early masters used cane from several sources including Calcutta cane from India, but settled on Arundinaria amabilis, or Tonkin cane.  This tall smooth bamboo is named for the small 25 square mile region of China from which it originates and is noted for its strength in other trades. Early master rod makers toyed with rods of many shapes and styles in crafting the rod.  However the six sided, hexagonal, design stuck and is how most classic and newly made rods appear today.  In this fashion, a culm of cane is split into strips and then planed down to 60⁰ triangles of a chosen taper.  Once the strips are planed down, six strips are meticulously glued back together to form the hexagonal rod.  The early makers did this all by hand often investing more than 60 hours of work in each rod.  By the late 1800’s, machinery was developed allowing these cane rods to be mass produced.

Now it seems to be all the norm, anglers standing in the stream with all of the latest catalogue items hanging from their vest or pack.  Gripped tightly in their hands, the cork handle of an increasingly lighter fly rod made of space age material.  In their fly boxes are the flies tied with synthetic materials and rubber legs.  Seemingly almost forgotten, or unheard of, are the classic rods and fly patterns that saw their golden age in the early twentieth century.

It may be the nostalgic draw that lands a bamboo rod in the modern angler’s hand.  But in that rod made of cane there are many lessons to be learned, of one’s self, and of the sport in general.  A cane rod takes a different hand to cast.  Whereas most modern rods are “made” to cast.  The bamboo rod is much softer and slower, requiring a caster to fully let the rod do the work, the caster only to steer much as a carriage driver directs his team.  A bamboo rod is always giving back to the angler during the cast and often telling him or her something about himself or herself, provided they are willing to listen.  You cannot force it, and to try typically only makes it worse.  Rather, letting your heart rate slow, and listening to the river will typically improve the cast of a bamboo rod.  It also draws the sport into closer perspective.  Modern technology has no doubt improved the sport, often making it easier for one to catch a fish.  But the classics were not necessarily only about catching fish.  Crafting a rod out of an Asian grass, and setting out with the chance of fooling a fish, at his own game, with a fly crafted of feathers and fur may have been more of what it was about.  

Bamboo rods are still made today, some by hand and others by machine, Technology has improved even the bamboo rod as we now have stronger glues and the true artistic element of a bamboo rod has become more understood. Brightly colored silk threads and beautifully milled woods and metal often adorn the modern bamboo rod.  The old classics can also still be found.  Old or new, the bamboo rod is an original American art form, and still catches fish.  Along with a handful of classic dry flies such as a coachman, trude, or wulf, the bamboo rod is perfectly suited for an enjoyable outing in the Smokies where there they were once the only instrument a fly angler had.

Small fish and big memories…..
Alex Quick, Fly Fishing Manager