The Magic & Mystery of Bamboo

My one hundred and four year old Thomas Dirigo and it’s young companion, a Hardy Perfect from the 1930’s

Old fish poles, tomato stakes, them old wooden poles… they have been called many things by the modern fly fishers. Like so many in our society today, they are obsessed with technology. Why study the old masters, why learn the traditions when one can pull up some app on their phone to tell them where to catch a fish? They miss so much of what makes fly fishing a lifelong passion!

Certainly, I began this journey with a graphite fly rod, though the history and the traditions of the game enthralled me from the outset. That history, and the people who made it, drew me first to Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, the pivotal site of the second great revolution in American fly fishing. Following that history along the highway north, I came at last to the Catskill Mountains and stepped into the hallowed waters of the Beaverkill. Along the way I read, groundbreaking works by current anglers, thinkers and experimenters, and always the classic tomes by those who came before us; the teachings of the dry fly.

After a few years of fishing, split bamboo entered my world when my uncle handed me my late grandfather’s fly rod. I fished it with reverence and an appreciation of my own humble history. More than twenty-five years ago I made a new friend, Tom Smithwick, and acquired a beautiful little bamboo rod that he had designed and made with his own hands. That rod truly awakened me to the magic of bamboo.

My five and a half foot Tom Smithwick bamboo fly rod, and a fine, wild eastern brook trout from a tiny mountain stream.

Ed Shenk had already opened my eyes to the pleasure of fishing short fly rods, and Tom’s amazing craftsmanship taught me what care and tradition could produce. The beautiful little rod was crafted in one piece, as lithe and light as the quicksilver streams I trod with it. It was designed for a four weight fly line, so I spooled one half of a double taper Cortland line upon my smallest CFO reel for a perfect balance.

My favorite wild brook trout stream, where the short, quick Smithwick rod proved the perfect foil! I learned Lee Wulff’s oval casting technique from reading the classics, and the rod’s performance astounded me in the tight quarters where the speckled trout waited secretly for my carefully presented dry fly!

Tom’s masterpiece was not limited to close quarters work. On the meadows of the Falling Spring I made pinpoint casts and battled wild browns and rainbows much larger than my mountain trout, and learned the power of the magical golden grass that rod makers call Tonkin cane.

As my interest grew I found a young rod maker in eastern Pennsylvania, travelled to meet him and wrote a feature for the newspaper about his journey in discovering the craft. I was talking about that meeting at the Fly Fishers Club of Harrisburg when my companion mentioned another young rod maker right back home in our town of Chambersburg. Meeting Wyatt Dietrich drew me deeper into my quest for cane, as his youthful enthusiasm was equaled only by the skill and craftsmanship displayed in his gorgeous, deeply flamed fly rods. I began to long for an all around dry fly rod, one I could fish on the classic Catskill rivers, as well as our limestone springs.

Wyatt and I met on one of the Falling Spring’s meadows, an open area perfect for casting. He brought several rods for me to cast, his Dream Catchers, and one 7 1/2 foot 5 weight stole my heart. The taper he told me was taken from an old F.E. Thomas rod, one of the classic makers from the Golden Age, and he agreed to make one just for me. I chose a special reel seat hand made here in the Catskills, my own little mojo to make the rod at home here as well as in the water meadows. That rod has visited all of my favorite waters. It has landed the largest wild trout I have ever been blessed to cast a dry fly to, and my two largest Catskill browns since retiring here beside the rivers of my heart.

The Dream Catcher SDF with it’s first twenty inch Catskill brown trout. Nature has since removed the grassy island where they laid, but the memory burns as bright as if it was still that misty June morning!

Eventually the ghosts of the past called me and I let some vintage rods seduce me. Whether one of those accompanies me, a Dream Catcher, or one of Dennis Menscer’s masterful wands, I feel the magic and the history each time I walk along the rivers of my heart, a treasure born of the lovely reed in my left hand.

I long ago heard the siren call of the dry fly, and there is no better, more perfect way to offer it to the shy trout than with some lithe rapier of cane!

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