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Bamboo Fly rods: Too Slow, Too Soft, Too Fragile. Dont you believe it! by Ron Barch

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

As I travel around the country the stories I hear are as varied as the anglers that tell them. The stories, the tall tales, the campfire fodder are all about big fish and the methods and rods used to catch them.

As a maker and collector of cane rods the stories that catch my attention are about bamboo. Bamboo, as in a split bamboo fly rod. The kind of rod your grandfather used to catch impressive brown trout from Michigan’s Ausable or Pere Marquette rivers, monster Rangeley Lake brook trout or silver sided screamers called rainbows in the American West. For almost a hundred years from Samuel Phillipe’s day in 19th century Pennsylvania up until the end of World War II, if a man went fishing, if he was serious about his sport, he carried and cast a split bamboo fly rod. So if these rods were good enough for granddad and his pals why aren’t they good enough for modern day anglers? Well, maybe they are.

The first time I witnessed a large fish hooked, played and landed on a split cane rod was more than 25 years ago. The location was Michigan’s Pere Marquette River in early April, the fish, a fresh run steelhead and the angler was noted Midwest rod maker, Leon Hanson. I, like almost everyone else on the river that day, was toting a new graphite rod, the latest in modern space age technology. As I waded around a bend and witnessed Mr. Hanson casting a cane rod to a pod of steelhead I thought to myself, “What the hell is this guy up to?” A few casts later I got my answer! Mr. Hanson, classic split bamboo fly rod in hand, was catching fish, big, leaping, chrome colored fish. Later that evening when I ran into Leon celebrating over dinner and drinks his steelhead score was more than mine. Hmmm? I had the new graphite rod and Leon stuck with a traditional cane rod. He caught more fish than me. Was I missing something?

That afternoon on the PM haunted me for years and years and in June of 2004 I decided to travel to the Big Fish capital of the Midwest, the rapids of the Saint Mary’s River to fish a cane rod for Atlantic salmon. The Saint Mary’s River defines the border between the United States and Canada in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula and is well known for monster trout and salmon. It’s a poor man’s Atlantic salmon River and John Giuliani is the areas best known guide. At dawn when a cane rod collector (better known as a caniac) from Ann Arbor, Michigan and I met our guide John G. I had expected to catch some flack for planning to fish a split bamboo rod in the treacherous Saint Mary’s rapids. On the contrary, Mr. Giuliani was of the opinion that guys who carried split bamboo fly rods, in his experience, usually did just fine. The edge, he thought, may be attributed to experience or the cane rod, he wasn’t sure and wouldn’t commit.

Anyway, both my pal and I used vintage 9’, 8wt. cane rods that morning and hooked fish, big fish! The rods were from another era and other rivers and as I sent cast after cast into the rapids I felt like I had stepped out of a Roderick Haig-Brown or Ernest Scweibert story. I wish this tale had a happy ending, for me at least, but that’s not the case. Although a 15 pound plus (Guide’s estimate) Atlantic salmon grabbed my tandem streamer, after the usual 1,000 casts, I was unable to land the fish. Did the rod fail? Did I do something wrong? Were the fish gods against me? Nope, after a long tug of war the hooks just pulled out! On a happier note my partner hooked and landed some very respectable 20 inch plus resident rainbows and a very powerful late run steelhead, a fish by the way that dwarfed the resident rainbows. Since that morning I’ve contemplated the loss of the big salmon and the 1,000 casts it took to hook up. I’ll remember the power of the fish but also the cadence of the cast and heft of a well balanced split bamboo rod. I’ll be back on the St, Mary’s again and I’ll bring a cane rod.

Big fish and fly rods can and do lead to disasters but when tragedy strikes, in most cases, a split bamboo fly rod can be repaired to fight another day. Take for example the story of a fellow I know, a well known angler and guide with a reputation bordering on celebrity, who went under-gunned one autumn day. The guy (who knew better) made the mistake of tangling with a full grown Chinook salmon armed with an 8ft. 6wt. classic Hardy C.C. deFrance. When the rod ended up in my shop for repairs, I knew right up front who had won the battle, the fish! Like so many of us mistakenly do, the angler, to slow the powerful surge of a runaway King salmon, had placed his left hand on the butt of the rod, halfway between grip and stripping guide. As the fish ran the rod blank exploded much like an obstructed shotgun barrel banana peels. I’ve witnessed similar situations with synthetic rods, only they snap clean and end up in the trash. Not so with a bamboo rod.

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