You really fish that?

F. E. Thomas Dirigo, circa 1918

There have been any number of times I have been asked that question by passing anglers, many with incredulous looks upon their faces, rooted in their belief that bamboo is delicate and that such rods are relics too dainty to survive.

Then there are the guys that don’t believe that anyone can cast more than ten feet with a classic rod. “How do you reach rising fish on a big river like the Delaware?” they say. Many of those encounters have involved sports in passing drift boats, and I have chuckled at the looks on some of their faces when, after they passed, I resumed my fishing and laid the fly out over a rising trout seventy odd feet away.

I honestly believe that bamboo can make you a better caster, if you give it the chance. The modern marketing machine that dominates popular fly fishing preaches the supposed virtues of fast action, to be surpassed only by ultra-fast action rods. They are generally so stiff that novice anglers have little hope of learning to cast them competently.

The key to casting, once the basic mechanics have been demonstrated, is learning to feel the rod loading. That is absolutely necessary to develop a sense of timing. A bamboo rod provides a lot of feedback to the caster, and doesn’t require a lot of rapid movements. A typical modern fast action rod doesn’t hardly load at all on a short cast, the kind beginners should be trying. The rod tip deflects an inch or two and does it in a microsecond. There is no loading for the initiate to feel. Why do you think the industry is marketing so many half to full line weight heavy fly lines?

Bamboo is a highly resilient material, and thus is very durable when handled as it was designed to be handled. That’s why you see a lot of 50 to 80 year old cane rods still being fished regularly by enthusiasts.

The Thomas Dirigo pictured here is a favorite classic rod of mine. It was meticulously restored by Dennis Menscer and fishes beautifully. F.E. Thomas rods were know for their fine delicate tips, one of the attributes that made them a caster’s rod. My rod is a classic 8-foot three piece for a five weight line, and it has shown an affinity for Rio’s recently introduced Light Line DT5 floating line.

I took it fishing on the West Branch when I first bought it, and landed wild browns of 19 and 18 inches in fast water. It handled both superbly, but the real test came a couple of months later.

Picture a wide deep tailout, whose glassy surface belies the strong current rushing toward the riffle downstream. It is a place where a careless step will let that current take your feet out from under you in a snap. I was fishing that tailout when a new player appeared. Downstream, against the far bank, there was a heavy bulge in the surface and the telltale sipping rise of a fine brown trout. Some of these fish show themselves very briefly, as the river is very heavily fished. Knowing this, I turned and made my cast without pausing to wade closer.

My target wasn’t close by any means, and I stripped most of the flyline from the reel. My cast was about 75 feet, down and sharply across stream, finishing with a kick and a reach upstream to lay the tiny fly just above the rise. I didn’t overpower the rod, I simply let my timing adjust to the amount of line in the air each time I gently hauled and released a few feet of line fore and aft, until I made my presentation; easy to do with the smooth, progressive action of that classic Thomas dry fly rod!

That brownie liked my cast too, for the bulge came again, followed by the little sip that removed my size 20 sulfur from the surface! I had a little luck just then, as the fish flashed toward midriver when I struck, probably planning to bury his head in the water weeds. I led him right along the line he started on, keeping the rod low and to the side with the tip pointing his way. That maneuver uses the mid section and butt of the rod to pressure the fish rather than the delicate tip.

Getting that fish out in the middle of the river saved the day. I got most of my fly line back on the reel, until he turned downstream and bore straight toward a protruding snag. I kept the rod low and pointed toward him and palmed that CFO reel for all I was worth, the scream of the spring and pawl click adding to my excitement. Somehow it was enough to turn him, just a few feet short of that snag.

We began a back and forth game as he ran upriver toward me, giving me backing and line only to turn and run it right back off the reel, using that strong current to add to his speed and power. We must have played that over three or four times until he started to tire. He stayed downstream that last time and started bulling toward the bottom. I feared he would eventually get his head in a weedbed and end the game, so, while he wasn’t running, I slowly walked down to him reeling all the way.

The great fish was beaten but there was still the problem of getting him to the net in that strong, slick current. What you cannot do with a classic bamboo, or any rod for that matter, is hold it high and put a tight bend in the very tip while netting. It took patience, a scarce commodity when the trout of the season is close at hand on a worn tippet and a size 20 fly, but I finally got him into the net!

He was gorgeous, and I was honestly shaking as I slipped the fly out of his jaw and taped his 24 inch length! I turned and held him, facing into the current that had nearly defeated me, until he gently slid from my grasp and settled to the bottom, finning softly. I watched him there, my heart still racing, finally touching his tail with my toe and smiling as he shot away. I lifted the 100-year old Thomas to the heavens and admired that classic fine rod tip, it’s golden varnish and bright red silk intermediate wraps gleaming in the summer sun; and still arrow straight!

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