Fishing Cane

I had an impromptu “discussion” with a fellow at the Troutskellar a couple of years ago about fly rods. Some might find this guy’s downright belligerent attitude excusable since he was working as a factory representative for one of the prominent plastic flyrod companies, but I didn’t.

I don’t recall how things got started, but very soon he got pushy, telling me I absolutely had to have the newest (and stiffest) $900 stick of graphite his employer was advertising ad nauseum as revolutionizing fly fishing as we know it. I calmly explained that “technology” wasn’t a substitute for casting ability regardless what his latest ad copy proclaimed and that, from my experience in the industry, ever stiffer fly rods typically made bad casters worse. I went on to say that the 80 odd year old bamboo rod I was fishing on that trip would do everything I needed it to do on the water, and was a heck of a lot more pleasurable to fish throughout the day.

The truth hurts I guess, for my words got this fellow all bombastic and blubbering about line speed and guide friction and shooting capability under low gravity conditions in a vacuum or some such nonsense. I turned him off and turned away at that point, acknowledging there was no hope for him, another soldier in the army of combat fishermen.

My statement about stiff rods made that guy come unglued I believe because he recognized it as the truth.

When I owned a small fly shop, I worked with a lot of fly casters on a regular basis. My shop wasn’t located in an urban center with loads of disposable income, so my customers put some real thought into buying a fly rod. They tended to be skeptical of advertising claims per se, and wanted some personal feedback. I carried a lot of slower action flyrods, even though the new top of the line rods my manufacturer was pushing in their advertising were stiff, fast action rods. Whenever I worked with a newcomer, or anybody who complained about dissatisfaction with their casting, I invariably took one of the traditional action fly rods when we walked outside to the casting lawn.

If you spend enough time in this sport you learn a couple of universal truths: fly rods are supposed to bend, and the more easily and uniformly they bend the more feedback they give the caster, leading to better casts; and, long distance casting is generally not the holy grail of catching more and larger trout.

The rod in the picture at the beginning of this post is Mr. Jim Downes’ beautifully crafted rendition of a classic Everett Garrison 206 taper, a very, very full working 7 1/2′ 4 weight, photographed with its first better than 20 inch trout. I was talking to Jim at the PA Fly Fishing Museum Heritage Days event a few years ago when I spied that blonde rod in his rack. It stood out between all of the more darkly flamed rods Jim is known for. I cast the rod out of curiosity, and I simply had to have it.

The Garrison felt very soft at first, but as I adjusted a little I felt the perfectly smooth way it loaded, and the hidden power it held. The photo was taken on a stormy morning on the West Branch when the river, already high for wading, rose by a good 250 cfs during my hour and a half of fishing. The trout were tight to the bank that July morning, and they weren’t interested in rising in the fast current for less than a mouthful. The Garrison let me consistently place my size 10 isonychia cripple within an inch of the vegetation on the river bank; the only place the trout would take it.

That Garrison designed full working action proved to be extremely accurate, even when casting large dry flies some would call too big for a four weight rod in blustery conditions. I have used that rod frequently fishing a long, light line in the summer, as it allows wonderfully controlled, gentle presentations on calm water. It does that because its power doesn’t come from stiffness and high line speed, it comes from superior design and craftsmanship by rod makers who understood fly fishing.

There truly is a sensuality about fishing bamboo. Each rod has a personality and an ability to communicate with the caster if only he learns to feel what the rod tells him. Bamboo rods bend, not in that fraction of an inch microsecond only in the very tip way that carbon does, but smoothly and progressively, with touch and power and control. I think that bamboo simply gives our brains a better stimulus, and a little longer to feel that power so that we can apply just the right touch instinctively to make the line and fly do what we want them to do.

Certainly bamboo rods are beautiful, the warm tones of gently flamed cane highlighted by the translucent colors of natural silk windings and the mystery of figured wood. There is a wealth of history and tradition in the craft of rod making to enhance the enjoyment of fishing.

I get tremendous enjoyment out of fishing rods made by artisans I know. It always brings a smile when I think of those friends each time a trout takes the fly and the art of their genius rises into a throbbing, glowing arc transmitting the wild energy of a Catskill trout to my quivering hands.

I also have a special feeling about vintage rods, for I love to fish tackle that is older than I am. I know a little of their histories, who made them and where, but nothing of the rivers they have seen and of those who wielded them. Thinking about that past builds an extra touch of wonder into the experience.

Bamboo can speak to you. All you have to do is listen…

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