I preface it by saying that my experience and views are limited to trout fishing - presentation distances from the rod tip to maybe 50-60 feet or a little more. I’m also taking rod lengths of 6 to 7 1/2 feet, and line weights of say #3 to #5, maybe #6 (90% of my fishing is done with a #4 or #5). There may be benefits outside of these parameters, but this is where my interest and experience exists. Specifically, my own path to bamboo came from the requirements of a particular fishery, not just wanting to fish bamboo for any other spiritual, aesthetic, or traditional reasons.
Click in images to enlarge
The Monaro region, here in Southern New South Wales, is arguably the most ‘technical’ fishery in Australia - large, educated, selective brown trout, cruising clear water pools on small weedy streams and feeding on mayflies. Accurate, fast, and often delicate presentations are needed, as well as the ability to play large fish among dense lily pads and weed and other obstructions. (We’ve just had our opening weekend here and my fishing mate Troy’s son Kel - caught the Monaro brown on Saturday in the photo below - after hours of stalking on one pool, on a tiny Baetis dun pattern.
This is the sort of “technical" fishing I’m referring to in the discussion below. Below is an old slide picture of me with another Monaro brown pulled out of the weeds, having risen to a dun in a gap between the lilies, to give you an idea of the type of water that defines the Monaro. My friend and long time guide, Paul Bourne helped dig it out after a spirited tussle on a 6’6” #4/5 bamboo).
Beyond the Monaro, I use bamboo on all the rivers here (and in New Zealand, where I go every year), for small fish and large, and the discussion below is applicable to these fisheries too.
Nick with New Zealand trout on bamboo
In this ‘trout rod’ range, the combination of the medium modulus of bamboo (between glass and graphite), plus its weight has a number of advantages. The rod will load under its own weight during the casting stroke, allowing it to accurately, powerfully and yet delicately, deliver the fly. Similarly, the combination of flex and weight in bamboo allows for ‘push mending’ (loading the rod under its own weight, pushing a mend into the line, without pulling back on the line, which causes drag). Stiffer, lighter materials won’t do this. Glass has the flex, but not the weight, and seems to keep bending the more it is loaded (I think it’s referred to as ‘fading’), while bamboo bends to a certain point and then locks up, giving more power when needed.
More on the weight of bamboo. The additional weight inherent in bamboo gives the rod drive/swing/momentum, aiding in accuracy - there’s enough time with the length of casting stroke necessitated by bamboo to be able to ‘steer’ the momentum a little, to minutely adjust the delivery/direction of the presentation cast. All the fuss about lightness in already light (#3-5) weight rods is absurd to me. My wife, Miri, at 5’6”, has the gentlest, minimal effort cast I’ve seen, and has no problems at all with the weight of bamboo. In fact, she complains when handed ANY graphite rod about the extra effort needed to cast.
Miri into a decent New Zealand trout
And yet I’ve had burly, hairy-chested men moaning about fractions of an ounce between two ultralight graphite rods, and then reels to balance them. Really? They’ve been had by the marketing of the major rod companies, who’ve competed with each other for too long over the lightest rods. The companies have painted themselves into a corner with their own ‘lighter is better’ marketing I’m afraid - who’s going to ever say that a bit of weight is an advantage after all those years down the ‘lightness’ path... It’s possible that a graphite rod could be ‘weight-loaded’ with extra resin to bring it closer to the performance of bamboo, but my experience with the Japanese ‘Freestone Proudace’ graphite is that it would feel like glass. Nice enough, but lacking the ‘lockup’ reserve power of cane.
And stiffness… You need line or a ‘pulse’ of extra effort to load these stiffer rods at close range (before line loading kicks in - often beyond the presentation distance required to cast to a fish that’s been sighted). The short, sharp loading action needed to do this is not as accurate as the longer, smoother, ‘steerable’ ability of bamboo. A leading long time angler in the region here once said to me that stiff, fast action rods were too slow for the close range, sight fishing that we have here, to cruising browns in clear water. This sounds back to front, but when I asked him to elaborate he said that he could get an easy loading bamboo rod to present the fly much, much quicker at fishing distances than a stiffer rod - the bamboo is ‘pre-loaded’ as it were, under its own weight and flex, and will shoot a lot of line out with just the leader through the tip if needed – ‘spitting it out’ from the pre-load.
Another related point is that with the pre loading, you can start the forward cast with bamboo before the back cast has fully loaded up, with an ‘open power loop’.
So both the weight, and inherent amount of flex in bamboo each contribute to technical fishing advantages in my view, but it’s the combination of these elements together that I think provide a ‘sweet spot’ of performance in trout-sized rods.
The ‘pre loading’ I’ve referred is also applicable in false casting, where dampened stop at each of the forward and back cast can be utilised to keep the load held in the rod, meaning there is less work to do at the start of the casting stroke. This ‘constant tension’ casting is being written about quite a lot lately, can be done, to some extent, with a rod of any material. The difference is that with stiffer materials, some amount of line is needed to provide the tension in the system. A bamboo rod will do it on its own - with just the leader or a short (fishing) amount of line. To prove the point, you can demonstrate it with a bamboo rod without any line on it at all. This is in fact a good way to practise ‘shadow casting’ with a rod at home, to get the feel and natural cadence of any given rod.
And striking playing fish? Outside of casting, (and mending, which I’ve only touched on briefly) there are significant technical benefits of bamboo rods (in their stream configurations - shortish and medium-light line weights) in striking and playing fish. For striking, the additional flex protects light tippets over stiffer materials. The shortness gives the angler a mechanical advantage over longer rods, the additional flex provides even more mechanical advantage, and even more again from the ability of the softer material to let the angler use a lower rod angle. The slower recovery and lockup means that a bent bamboo rod tends to stay bent, putting a smooth, deep, constant pressure on a fish rather than bouncing or twanging up and down like a fast recovery stiffer rod, so is less likely to ‘bounce break’ a light tippet.
In short, I love the romance, tradition, aesthetics and handmade aspects of bamboo, but to be honest, if I thought anything was better for the sort of fishing I do I would be using it. Period. It’s just a bonus that it feels better, looks better, and I can make any taper, length and configuration that I choose. And don’t get me wrong - I like both graphite and glass rods too. I’d rather be on the stream with any of them than sitting on a couch at home.
To take the discussion a little further, the comment you related from Stephen Dugmore is well made. What is meant by the terms ‘technical’ (and even ‘advantage’) are subjects for discussion in themselves. The term ‘technical’ needs to be qualified by the intended goal (hence my limiting discussion to stream-based trout fishing). And advantage? The case can be made for us choosing fly fishing because it is the most effective method for catching trout (which it can be at times, but compared to bait etc, is certainly not always the case), the most fun, OR the most challenging, requiring hard work and skill. If the latter argument is used, I always find it interesting that we pride ourselves on using the most challenging method, but then so many of us try and buy better (or is that EASIER) equipment for the job.
Again, this mindset is the bread and butter of the marketing machines of companies that need to sell rods to keep their profits up and employ their staff (which I totally understand, by the way, but it gets tiring to hear Pro Staff rubbishing last year’s rods from their own company to get you to buy you a new one)! And even methods... European nymphing, and other techniques are being lauded as the ‘best’ ways to fly fish, but to me, some of these techniques bear little resemblance to fly fishing at all (fly fishing to me, anyway).
I have no problem with people fishing however they like, but they’re not for me. Who knows, if anyone believes what I have to say about bamboo, maybe they will be banned for being having too many ‘technical advantages’!
Nick Taransky Fishing the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, USA, for native Brook Trout.
(Nick’s business is based in the Blue Ribbon trout fishing Monaro region of NSW in Australia. The diverse waters and selective trout of the Snowy-Monaro region provide an unrivalled environment for testing and developing fly rod actions and construction for Australian conditions. The low humidity, inland climate is also ideal for bamboo rod making.
Nick uses traditional methods and the best materials available to make his rods. Only the highest grade Tonkin Cane, grown in the Kwangtung province of China, is used. These culms are imported in full 12 foot lengths. Over 10 years he has accumulated a stock of over 250 culms, with the emphasis on sourcing extra large, and AA culms when they have been available, from leading suppliers such as Andy Royer at The Bamboo Broker.
The bamboo is flamed to give it additional strength and stiffness, and to accentuate the colours of the power fibres and nodes. Strips are hand spilt and planed, to ensure the power fibres are retained for the full length of each section. He turns his own grips from high grade Portuguese cork, and uses the best nickel silver ferrules and reel seat hardware available from the USA. Australian hardwood burls are sourced from local supplies for use in reel seat spacers. Guides are bound with the finest Japanese silk.
Tom Sutcliffe )
Visit Nick’s website at http://www.taranskybamboo.com.au/