As I've mentioned before on this blog, I was first introduced to the idea of flyfishing by my stepfather Harry Faville. Following a divorce in the mid-1930's, he had embarked on a protracted sojourn across the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest states, probably in an attempt to wash some of the bitterness out of his soul, or perhaps it was sheer escapism. He fished the head waters of the Missouri, around the Yellowstone, and eventually ended up in Washington State working as a logger while attending writing classes with Dalton Trumbo. Harry would reminisce once in a while about growing up in Wisconsin before the First World War, fishing with a bamboo flyrod.
During the 1950's and 1960's, when I was growing up, bamboo flyrods were going out of style, to be replaced by "glass" rods, and later by "Graphite" flyrods--or glass rods augmented by graphite. Glass rods were initially much less difficult to manufacture than bamboo rods, and cost a lot less. They were considered to be the material of the future for fishing rods. People would speak reverently, on occasion, about the qualities of the old wood rods, but the old rod-building companies were slowly, inexorable, seeing their businesses close. By the start of the 1980's, only a handful of small outfits were turning them out, and the prices of their labor-intensive manufacture were rising out of reach of all but the well-to-do or the most committed devotees.
Perhaps responding to the vague myth implanted in my imagination in childhood, and abetted by a casual reading of a few 20th Century angling authors such as Roderick Haig-Brown, Ernest Schwiebert, Robert Traver, and Arnold Gingrich, I became interested in flyfishing, albeit in a much more sophisticated way than my stepfather had decades before. One of the books I discovered in my researches on the subject was the book on bamboo fly rod making by Holden, pictured above. Holden, like a lot of typical early fishing writers, created an aura of myth around the sport; but he was also interested in the tools of the trade.
As early as the middle of the 19th century, wooden fishing rods had been made from various kinds of native hardwoods, but it soon became apparent the the demands presented--a need for great flexibility without brittleness, and strength, as well as durability--could best be met by bamboo. Bamboo's unique qualities--its hardness, stiffness, and extraordinarily tough, long, straight longitudinal fibers concentrated along the outer edges of its trunks--made it an ideal material for rod-building. As fly fishing progressed through the latter half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, the technique of casting, as opposed to just dropping a line into water, became increasingly emphasized. Fresh water fish feed both under the water, and on the surface, but it's necessary to put some distance between yourself and the fish in order not to spook it. In addition, as fishermen realized that imitating the food that the fish eat--the insects, mostly--required that the fisherman manipulate the "presentation" of the imitation "fly" on or in the water--and a rod with great flexibility and control was necessary to perform these tasks.
Rod technology went through various stages. Eventually, through trial and error, it was discovered that planing down thin strips of the outer edge of bamboo, and fitting these together to make hexagonal, tapered sections, was the right solution. It was discovered that the best bamboo came from the Tonkin Gulf region of the Guangdong Province in China--where it grew tall and straight, with long sections between the "dams" or nodes. This special bamboo was available to makers in the Wests until 1950, when a trade embargo on goods from China virtually wiped out the bamboo rod business, which quickly declined.
Below, I've set out a suite of photos of the Tonkin cane, and some of the steps in the manufacture of cane rods.
A stand of bamboo
Bamboo culms lying out
A stack of cut culms (or cross sections)
A cross section of a culm
Cross section with a check or split
Close-up of split
Cross section of halved culm with cut strips
Close-up of edge of dense longitudinal fibers
Magnification of tight fibers near skin
Detail of cross section of culm wall
Cut strips or splines ready for planing
Planing a spline inside a metal planing form
Winding the thread to secure the guide(s)
View of male and female ferrules (joint match); note the singeing from the heat process straightening at the node
To replace bamboo, makers began to experiment with plastic and plastic compounds such as graphite, boron, and these new synthetic materials can be made to very favorable specifications. But the unique characteristics of highly engineered bamboo rods remain superior in some respects. Though heavier than some graphite rods, bamboo rods can furnish the same "power" in the butt section, while retaining a gentler, more forgiving pliability in the tip section. These qualities can be measured as moments of stress and "recovery"--but I won't go into the engineering math used to express these qualities. Suffice it to say that the bamboo fibers--one of nature's miracles of design--are still superior to the synthetic versions, and many fishermen prefer them for this reason, despite their much higher expense. With the restoration of availability of bamboo, cane rods can once again be made, but there are questions about its present quality. Cane obtained "pre-embargo" was probably better in some ways. Old stocks of pre-embargo "culms" (the big long uncut poles) are highly coveted today by makers of heirloom rods.
In the late 1970's, I got it into my head that I would try my hand at making split bamboo flyrods, in moments stolen from my regular workday routine. I thought it would be an interesting hobby, and I might actually teach myself to be a one-man manufacturer. As I eventually learned, the technology and facilities needed to accomplish that, were much more demanding than I could have imagined. I acquired steel planing forms, a heavy metal lathe, and ordered a gather of Tonkin Bamboo from a New Jersey importer. Bamboo, or cane, is not easy to work with. It splits longitudinally, and can make hellish slivers, as tough as steel needles. The measurements required to correctly "mic" ("mike") the splines--that is, to measure the widths of tapering splits (or strips) as you plane them down to required tolerances of a millimeter (!)--demand that you proceed with maddeningly small increments of shave. To understand and execute the various steps--the milling down of the tapers, the joining and gluing of the gathered matched strips, the placement of the eyelets, the varnishing, the making of the grip and reel-seat (where the reel is held to the butt of the rod)--each step required a degree of exactitude and dedication which I was incapable of mastering. So I gave up on the idea. I've just touched the surface on the technology of bamboo rod making. There's a lot of precise, intricate decision-making and elaboration which goes into the construction of a well-balanced, high performance, beautifully finished cane rod.
But my interest in fly fishing continued. I purchased my own bamboo rods--from two highly skilled and admired makers. One from a fellow named Dennis Bailey in England, and one from Gary Howells, close to where I live in the Bay Area. Both of these makers are now dead. Howells had begun as a rod-maker for the old Winston Rod Company in San Francisco in the 1950's, and had eventually struck out on his own. Howells rods are considered among the finest, with prices to match. Great old rod making companies, such as Leonard, Edwards, Young, Payne, Garrison, Winston, Powell, are all collectors items, and there's a lively exchange for them on the used market. I never got into collecting old fishing equipment, but as a part-time rare book dealer, I always jump at the chance to acquire collectible titles in the angling field.
Flyfishing has many aspects. There's the equipment--the rods, the lines, the reels, the artificial flies, the net, the pliers, the priest, the waders or boots, the vest, the shoes, the hat, and float-tubes and boats. Then there's the skills--casting, playing the fish and landing it, stalking, identifying naturals (what the fish are biting on). And then there're the issues of access, preservation and restoration, private versus public water, the ecosystem, etc. All of these things play out in the sport. For devotees, it can get pretty complicated. And it's not cheap. A two day trip to a faraway piece of good water can run into the thousands. Some of the less spoiled and worked-over water in the world is in remote corners of the globe: Chile and Argentina, Alaska, New Zealand, Florida. When we were in Scotland and France, I saw a few places that looked promising, but I didn't have my equipment with me, and most of the old-world beats are tied up in private estates that charge steep fees for just a few hours access.
I must admit, to my chagrin, that I'm not a very good fisherman. I've never quite gotten the knack of casting well. I can "false" cast nicely, and if the wind's right, I can land a good short drift presentation, but making one perfect presentation at the end of a series of falsies I've never been able to master. The idea of wet fishing--that is, presenting a wet, sinking fly under water, either in drift or from a small indicator float, has never much appealed to me, and I've never caught many fish that way. For me there's nothing quite like watching a tiny dry drift over a promising "lie" (where a fish is likely to be lurking in a feeding station) and seeing it strike upwards or sip the artificial, is one of the great excitements of life. It puts you in touch with the wildness and unpredictability of nature in a way that is not duplicated in any other outdoor sport. Fish, like all wild animals which stalk and capture their prey, don't respond in a completely rational way. They waver back and forth before attacking. They aren't "thinking" in the sense we know it, there's a shifting, intuitive, instinctual trigger that we don't yet understand, a variability which is probably a survival mechanism, a combination of caution and aggression in a teetering balance.
Sometimes I wish I'd had the chance to do more fishing over the years since I became interested in it. Maybe I'd have become better at it, if I had. But I think I was always a bit more interested in the history and lore of the sport, than in the performance aspect. I've caught some wonderful fish over the years, and fished in some of the prettiest, classic watering holes of the West. I love it, but I'm not interested in competing with other fishermen. For me, it's never been about skills and who's hooked and landed the most, or the biggest trout.
Sometimes, after I've landed a nice fish, a feeling of sadness or remorse comes over me. I do feel empathy for these finny souls. Here I'm tricking them into biting something they think is their food, only to be terrorized by being hooked in their mouth for a couple of minutes, pulled out into suffocating air, near death, before being despatched back into their element. Fishing is a blood sport, and for the game it's a life-and-death affair.
Like most serious flyfishers, I don't keep the fish I hook. Catch-and-release has become the new ethic of the sport, which I fully support. It permits the fish populations to survive the heavy pressure they get from sportsmen. If there are to be any good streams to fish in the future, or any fish in them, they'll have to be protected from the hoards of people who like to eat what they catch, or mount their trophies on the wall. I'm just grateful to catch a few nice respectable trout, and savor the experience, the surroundings, and the sense of communion with nature that being out in it provides. I'm content to have this pleasure in solitude; not needing the confirmation of anyone's witness to verify my success.
It's almost like a sacred meditation. Writers many times more poetic than I have given the sport its literature. A good "fish story" may well be a more imaginative experience than the actual event itself. Great pastimes need a little augmentation to make them come alive, to evoke something of the excitement and pleasure of the moment. At least in retrospect--recollected in tranquillity. As I age, I can still appreciate what I remember, and to share the accounts of others.