I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with a person who builds bamboo fly rods. I am working on a book on traditional arts, crafts and trades of Atlantic Canada and I was very pleased to find a person who continues to build bamboo fly rods by hand from start to finish.
His rods are beautiful, almost too pretty to fish with, but he builds them for people to use and they are a real pleasure to cast. I have a number of wooden fly rods, made from bamboo and greenheart, which I have picked up or received from friends, and I am interested in how rods have evolved over the years.
The history of fishing rods goes back a long time. The earliest drawings of fishing with a rod were found on an Egyptian tomb which dates back to 2000 BC. The first book on angling in the English language was published in England in 1496 and is credited to an English nun, Juliana Berners.
In the Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle Berners gives detailed instructions on how to build a fishing rod. She called for a piece of hazel, willow or aspen a fathom and a half (9 ft) long and as thick as one arm. The centre was burned out with a hot iron from one end to the other. The middle section was of hazel and the tip section of blackthorn, crabtree, medlar or juniper. These were bound together with cord and resulted in a fishing rod about 18 feet long.
Most early fishing rods were made from native woods such as oak, ash, cedar and maple. However, as the British empire expanded throughout the world rod makers turned to more exotic woods to fashion their rods. These new woods were generally lighter and stronger. Rare woods that found their ways into fishing rods included ironbark, snakewood, lancewood, purpleheart and pingow.
The favourite, however, was greenheart. Greenheart, which grows in British Guinea, is a straight grained, strong wood which made a very fine rod and it remained the rod wood of choice up until bamboo fishing rods began to appear in the early 1900s.
It was American rod makers who perfected the art of splitting bamboo into strips, milling and tapering them to shape and then binding and gluing them. These cane rods, as they are referred to, consisted of six strips, milled to within 1/1000th of an inch.
The first bamboo used was imported from Asia and was known as Calcutta cane. Later another species of bamboo was discovered in China which produced better rods. This Tonkin cane grew straighter, longer and was much stronger. The beginning of the Second World War marked the beginning of the end for wooden rods. The war embargo stopped the supply of Tonkin cane and after the war fishing rods of steel and fibreglass began to appear, followed in 1973 by the appearance of graphite.
Today a handful of craftspeople continue to build and fish beautiful rods of cane and greenheart to maintain the long tradition of the wooden rod. There were a lot of inexpensive bamboo rods made over the years so not all old wooden rods are worth a lot of money but a small number which were made by well-known builders are. You never know, you may have a fortune hanging up in the garage.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.