RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THINGS OF EXCELLENCE, BAMBOO FLY RODS AND SOME OF THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE THEM
‘The handful of truly great fly rods I’ve ever cast have all been made of bamboo.’
John Gierach, from ‘Fishing Bamboo’
People have this idea that bamboo fly rod devotees are a small bunch of fly tackle fundamentalists who orbit the outer fringes of the fly fishing world keeping up a purposefully smug pose. Of course they’re right up to a point, though you won’t fully understand the underlying cause for all the hype until you come into close contact with a few true converts, get to try out a few bamboo rods and eventually once you understand the language and what they’re all on about, maybe buy one yourself.
Then you’ll start to feel the real pull of this deep, traditional, woodsy movement. One minute you’re in a stream casting graphite, the next you’re waving a bamboo stick with an action you feel right into your wrist and it all seems so natural that you’re left wondering why it took you so long to arrive in the first place.
They’ll talk of your entering ‘the dark side’ (bamboo-speak for, well, a love of bamboo fly rods) and they warn you it’s addictive. Sooner rather than later they say you’ll be calling graphite rods ‘plastic’ and putting great store by people and things you’d never heard of, like the ‘Boo Boys’, Tonkin Province in China, planning benches and Garrison’s original rod tapers.
But I don’t want to put too fine a point on it. I still use plastic sticks, love them, but increasingly find myself reaching for bamboo even when graphite would do just as good a job. The reason being that I’ve come to enjoy good bamboo rods for their own sake; meaning their smooth, almost intuitively forgiving casting rhythm, their natural beauty, their total absence of glitz and the way they connect me to one of the world’s most endangered human skills – true craftsmanship.
These are all understandable sentiments when you’re holding the business end of a product that took someone near on 100 hours to make splitting culms of cane to tolerances measured down to a few thousandths of a millimetre and catching pretty trout.
FROM 'A CABINET MAKER'S NOTEBOOK'
Steve Boshoff sent me one of those thought provoking notes he’s well known for, this time about James Krenov, arguably the world's foremost cabinet maker who died last year. Steve is a skilled rod maker and artist in wood, and he chose to quote a piece from Krenov about working alone at a craft, people’s appreciation of your work and the spectre of competition, maybe the demons all true craftsmen have to come to terms with. This is what Krenov says;
‘You stand there with your skill, patience, and something even more unique - and you feel alone. It is a critical point in your life; you are afraid, yet you want to go ahead and do it. Certainly the odds are against you. Most of the critics are concerned with art trends, 'forms', marketing. Most of them wouldn't recognize a low tone, subtle, and warm piece of wood if they saw it.
People will buy second and third hand imitations, the current overstatement, the by-the-roadside-charming. They don't want your quiet, out-of-place message. They are not prepared for it because that sort of thing belies their whole way of living. Most good craftsmen work by themselves, doing all their own work. So if you are a loner, you and your work are different from most. Accept that, and be glad. Either you are the competitive, speculating sort, or you’re not. And if you aren’t, then turn this fact into an asset; it can be the greatest asset of all. Realizing it helps you to stop being afraid and allows you to be proud of living with what you do best.
Stick to what you believe in; go into the work and listen. Forget about competition. Find a pace and a balance that make sense out of long hours.
Try to reach the level where there is no competitor except excellence itself.’
FROM STEVE BOSHOFF, BAMBOO ROD MAKER
I grew up in a family, where on Sunday no one fished; you went to church and Sunday school, and for that you wore your best – often hand-made – down the village street.
I soon found more solace in the sermons of streams. Perhaps I started making rods as a boy in an attempt to continue putting my best foot forward, and looking for forgiveness because I broke the family tradition.
Boshoff bamboo fly rod and net destined for a London client. The engraved butt plate of the rod, a Cape Disa
Somehow, I still hold onto this belief; putting the best foot forward. And this doesn’t mean now, as in Sundays past, making the most expensive, but rather creating something tailor-made and unique. To the stream I bring the best my mind and hands can offer. Working at the bench I’m happy and never far removed from the small stream dreams of my clients.
A bamboo rod well made by hand, beautiful in form and function, carries a load of mystery; mystery locked in the extraordinary properties of natural materials, but also the methods of rod-making, still developing to this day. Then there is the crazy mystery of the maker himself; the mystery of someone wanting to spend so much time just to make the perfect fishing pole. All this mystery is not far removed from the mystery of trout themselves or from why we engage so enthusiastically and so tirelessly in trying to catch them in the first place.
The Boshoff workshop
As one grows older, other reasons become clearer. In a world where we often lack control, the future of ideas is dependent on the discretion and whim of others, as well as ruthless competition; the workshop offers total control, and no excuses for failure.
Boshoff bamboo and a wild trout
Steve Boshoff on the banks of a stream as snapped by Peter Brigg
STEVE DUGMORE, ARCHITECT AND MAKER OF FREESTONE RODS
I have always had a fascination for the subliminal relationship between the language of science and mathematics on one hand and the emotional content of the arts on the other. For example I am amazed that the feeling tone of a minor chord in music differs so markedly from a major chord and yet the two are mathematically describable. In architecture, spaces that are physically describable in mathematical terms, have distinct emotional tones arising largely out of their proportions. This relationship between science and art is encapsulated for me in ‘design’ and the realisation of design. It is a fascination that initially led to my becoming an architect and later also a rodmaker. In the same way that I try to design architectural spaces that will ‘sing’ to the senses, my rods are attempts to design fishing instruments that too will ‘sing’.
Dugmore casting by Andrew Ingram
The ‘simple’ act of casting a fly line is for me a metaphysical experience that is deeply pleasurable – a pleasure that is multiplied when exercised in pristine natural environments fishing to spooky fish.
The rod is the music and, for me, bamboo is a material that ‘sings’ ever so sweetly. In casting, the movement and weight of the line is felt in the hand through the loading and unloading, bending and unbending of the rod. The way the rod gradually loads and then gradually unloads gives it its character. Some rods are short and sharp, some deep and luxurious. As a rodmaker I enjoy the challenge of trying to design and make rods that will have particular characters.
The Dugmore Freestone 8' 6" 6 weight
I do so through a combination of designing tapers from mathematical and scientific principles and through a process of trial and error i.e. casting rods of known measurement and feeling where the rod wants to be thicker and stiffer and where it wants to be thinner and softer. I am constantly playing with tapers. I now have some rod tapers of which I am really fond and my efforts are perhaps a little more directed toward the refinement of the finishes on my rods.
For me bamboo rodmaking is a never ending process of discovery and learning. The physical act of making a finely crafted object and working with fine hand tools, is a wonderful complement to the different satisfaction I get out of making architectural designs and drawings.
Steve Dugmore on the Witels River with his pack rod
The small rod is a 5ft 3 piece 3wt ‘pack rod’ I made for myself. The length when dissembled is 21”. I experimented with a slimmed down all wild-olive wood reel seat. I used the rod on the Witels River earlier this year and it’s a quick but delicate little stick.
Freestone 000 weight fly rod
TOM LEWIN ON BAMBOO FLY RODS
Lewin fishing bamboo on a high mountain creek
Tom Lewin is a true bamboo fly rod convert, a devoted disciple of the dark side and in all likelihood, this country’s most informed authority on using split cane fly rods. Here he goes on about one of his many bamboo sticks:
Tom with his Battenkill, Barancosa River, Patagonia
The rod in the picture above is a 1978 Orvis Battenkill impregnated rod. It’s 8 feet long and weighs 4 3/8 oz. For me, the lights come on with this rod when I throw a D/T 6 line on it. It was one of Orvis’s most popular rods and in fact it was the rod used by Orvis for many years at their famous Fishing Schools. This particular rod travels to Patagonia with me every year and is always treated to a session or two on the Barancosa River. I’ve landed some pretty hefty trout on it too – the largest if I recall correctly, went about 13 pounds.
Yet in all this robust magnificence, among all these giant trout, I still snatch moments to enjoy the natural power and the smoothness of this lovely bamboo fly rod.
One of Tom's proudest moments. Fishing with world renowned bamboo rod maker, Mike Clark
AJ THRAMER BAMBOO FLY-RODS IN SOUTH AFRICA
Renowned bamboo rod maker AJ Thramer’s exquisite bamboo rods are now available in South Africa. With more than thirty years of experience under his belt, Oregon-based AJ Thramer is one of the most respected bamboo rod makers in the world today. In collaboration with Frontier Fly Fishing, AJ has produced a taper that is ideal for South African fly-fishing conditions.
The rods are seven and a half feet in length, designed for a 4 weight line and consist of three pieces with matching mirrored tips. Ferrules and reel seat hardware are blued and the rods feature antique agate stripping guides. AJ Thramer’s bamboo rods are known for their flawless cosmetics and buttery smooth actions and around a hundred hours of work goes into the crafting of each of them.
STEVE BOSHOFF ON A J THRAMER AS A ROD MAKER
AJ Thramer is a true stalwart of bamboo. He must be elderly now, but he has been at it since his youth. Personally, I think that he is an "unsung" contributor to the bamboo revival. In earlier years he focused on producing affordable blanks - advertised in American magazines for as long as I can remember and later, outlets such as Len Codella and Goldenwitch. Traditionally he offers a huge range of tapers and good prices. The taper I am sure, is based on what Tom Lewin likes best so it should be good. The rods will be extremely good value. I also imagine that AJ is entering the latter years of his life in rod-making so these rods offer excellent investment value.
LANDING NETS AS HANDMADE WORKS OF ART WILL BE POSTED NEXT ON THE SITE
Deon Stamer, Steve Boshoff and Mario Geldenhuys show me a few things I’d never hoped for from a landing net.
Prototype nets made of Guajuvera wood from Mario Geldenhuys