The emergence of the Sweetgrass Rod Company has spurred yet another round of interest in bamboo fly rods and each week we answer dozens of questions from folks who are starting to give bamboo a look. With the price of high quality graphite rods climbing higher and higher, a fine bamboo rod is no longer out of reach and to some they are starting to seem downright affordable. So with that I thought it would be useful to create a small primer for those looking to purchase their first bamboo rod. This will by no means be a complete “how-to” but it should point someone in the right direction when they begin searching out a bamboo rod.
First and foremost, don’t believe the myths you’ve heard about bamboo fly rods. They are not all slow, whippy delicate sticks that break easily. Remember, once upon a time all fly rods were made of bamboo and quite a few of them are still being fished today. Bamboo, pound for pound, is stronger than steel and a well cared for rod can last several lifetimes.
Learning a bit of bamboo rod history can be very useful. The so-called “golden age” of bamboo fly rods lasted from about 1920-1970 and the names of the well-known makers come up in nearly every conversation about bamboo rods. Just like today’s Winston, Sage and St. Croix, each maker had differing levels of style, quality, value and performance. Among the company’s and makers you will want to familiarize yourself with are Leonard, Payne, Dickerson, Young, Edwards, Granger and Heddon.
Figure out what you want the rod to do. Are you looking for a “tuxedo” rod? That is, one you’ll pull out once or twice a year for a special outing or do you want something like a solid, dependable 8 ft. 5 wt. that you’ll use every time you go fishing? Bamboo fly rods come in as many lengths and line weights as graphite rods and are just as useful for a multitude of fishing tasks. Unlike a graphite rod, however, a skilled rod maker can custom tailor a bamboo rod to fit your particular casting or fishing style. I promise you, there is a bamboo rod out there that will suit your needs perfectly.
Go out and cast some rods. One of the toughest things to come to terms with, at least in the beginning, is that there are so few bamboo rods available to cast. Here at Backwater Angler we always have a selection of both new and lightly used rods available for your inspection but in most fly shops this is the exception rather than the rule. In our area, the National Capitol Angling Show usually has at least one vendor with a few bamboo rods available to cast and purchase. A little farther from home, the Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, NJ attracts a number of today’s finest custom rod builders who will gladly take time to speak with you about their rods. They may not always have rods to sell but they will always have a few to cast. And they gladly take orders on the spot. Which brings me to another important point: get to know the guy who made or is making your rod.
A few words about price; as John Geirach observed in his book Fishing Bamboo, a good bamboo rod has never been cheap. You will no doubt encounter rods selling anywhere from $700 on the low end to over $3,000 on the high end, with most rods priced in the $1,000-$2,000 range. That might sound expensive but if you weigh the price against the cost of labor (about 70 hours per rod, give or take), parts, materials and wear and tear on equipment the rod maker is only earning between $10-$25 per hour. And don’t always look at the price as the determining factor in picking out your fly rod, an expensive rod isn’t always great and an inexpensive rod can sometimes surprise you with its quality. I will strongly suggest that you avoid buying rods on eBay and any bamboo rod made in China. Finally, use the internet to your advantage. There are dozens and dozens of rod makers out there with highly detailed websites. Do some poking around and you will be amazed at just how many rodmakers you’ll find.
Good luck in your search!