Coming off the Smalblaar recently (and losing my best-ever river trout drifting a Soft Hackle on a fixed line), I received a WhatsApp message from PJ. Given a kindred spirit, I was excited to share my news with him; me, finally beginning to understand the joys of employing a Soft Hackle onstream. PJ asked me to engage further on my rod making, specifically about why I started working in bamboo, what the attraction was and what sustains ongoing work on rods. I was somewhat surprised by the question. I suppose because we are both craftspeople and because I know that his question is one which we both confront or ponder often, and it is not easily answered to oneself, let alone others, especially as in today’s world the activity of true craft is often demoted to a mere past-time or hobby, a non-essential thing.
It is extremely hard to make craft work, to cover expenses, not to use your time more profitably in monetary terms. Others think that you must be in a fortunate position to be able to spend your time in this manner. This, in turn, leads to an undervaluation of the work. You cannot expect to be paid what the work is worth because it is believed that you surely do not need the remuneration to live. The lonely years of learning are not acknowledged. While no one will barter the price of the latest-model Sage in a shop, you often have to negotiate uninvited “offers” early in enquiries about work. As we are human, social beings, this context works on one. Sometimes to the point where you doubt spending so much time on something appearing senseless to so many, and in a prevailing context of mass production. So, you “park” the question; you just do the work. You do not share the why. It is not dissimilar, I suppose, to getting excited about fooling a large rainbow on a heavily “Perdigoned” kloof stream with a simple Snipe and Purple. Not too many will necessarily understand.
A rod maker’s early biography: Intermittent exposure to a thing of beauty, made by hand and a glowing colour similar to that of pebbles in a kloof stream
I grew up in a time of glass rods and without a family member or onstream mentor from the days when bamboo was the primary material for making rods of all kinds. It was also a time when fly fishing writing – as contained in the few available library books and overseas magazines that came into my hands – generally did its best to diminish whatever value a bamboo rod may have had functionally or otherwise. The meaningful way of life, work and tradition associated with the making of bamboo rods hardly received mention in these writings. Experts and writers declared the bamboo rod dead, merely artefacts from a somewhat nostalgic past and not of significance to the “modern” fly fisher. My fly fishing context certainly did not motivate me to work in bamboo. But I also grew up in a family of “makers”. Working with one’s hands – particularly in wood with hand tools – was actively supported as a critical, joyful experience. Furniture was made by hand or restored. My first fly rod and those that followed were budget glass, unbranded. Given my upbringing in making, it followed naturally to pursue upgrading most of what I had as a boy. This included wraps and better guides to bring my budget equipment closer to what I saw in fancy tackle catalogues – particularly those of Abu – available at the local shop.
I first saw a bamboo rod some 45 - 50 years ago, while in primary school. It was available for sale by the widow of a UK immigrant fly fisher who lived up the road from us in Somerset West. It was a 10ft Hardy Pope, a stiffish dry fly rod, with narrowly banded tying in crimson silk, a patent screw-grip, lock-fast ferrules, and reversible bank spear and button. I thought it a beautiful thing; its colour, the India ink inscription, the ferrule stoppers. It had presence. It was, to me, the most perfect thing made by hand I had ever seen. The colour reminded me of the pebbles in our local kloof streams. At 8¼ ounces, the Pope was far too powerful and heavy a rod for my boyhood home water, the Lourens, but I wanted it badly. However, my dad did not buy it for me, opting instead for a Hardy Perfect reel, which I later lost in an astonishingly poor trade following persistent and exhausting pleading by the beneficiary.
The image of the Pope persisted, although I never saw a bamboo rod again until at university. As a student, upon joining the Cape Piscatorial Society, I bought – for R5 – a 7ft bamboo rod of unknown origin which the then Society Secretary Mr A Cecil Harrison dug from a cupboard at the Society’s Westminster House offices. It had a very bad set in the tip section and opening strips in the butt. I fixed the butt with the set remaining through a few seasons fishing the Eerste in Stellenbosch. It eventually broke beyond repair. Intent on being a “modern” fly fisher, I purchased a glass Sage (Sage made glass rods for a short period of time during the early 1980s), almost translucent and with a beauty and colour which somehow approached that of the Pope.
The next bamboo rod I saw was during my first overseas visit some years later at Hardy House, 61 Pall Mall. Feeling intimidated by the attendants at Hardy – and with a price beyond my means – I did not dare wiggle a rod, although the rods on display rekindled the desire to own a bamboo rod. By now I was becoming proficient in building rods from graphite blanks. Thinking back, I realise that this became limiting over time. There is only so much you can do with a composite blank, even if as I, emulating the practice of Russ Peak, sought changed actions through mixing and matching and sanding and coating sections from different blanks.
In my 30s I attended a conference and workshop in Japan. Between events, I tracked down a fly fishing shop in Yokohama. The shop displayed rows and rows of rods: fly rods and fixed-line rods, in composite materials and bamboo, representing big commercial companies from all over the world and many smaller companies and makers I did not recognise at the time. Again, it was the colour of the handmade bamboo rods that drew me to them.
Sometime later in the 1990s I received a fellowship to study in the US. By pure chance, my host university Rutgers was close to Somerset, the venue of a major annual fly fishing show. I must have spent a full weekend at the show, viewing the work of many rod makers and other craftspeople. At the show I spoke at length to Doug Kulik of Kane Klassics Fly Rods who offered beautifully understated small-stream rods in both graphite and bamboo. I also bought Hoagy Carmichael’s well-known book on rod maker Everett Garrison’s work, and a nickel silver ferrule set or two. The commitment to start working in bamboo upon my return to South Africa was made.
In Cape Town I found a few bamboo culms at a furniture maker, which appeared to be Tonkin. Without forms, I made my first rod, a two-strip “Poor Man’s Quad”, following e-mail correspondence with Tom Smithwick and a taper he sent me. That was the start, soon to be followed by making six-strip forms and importing Tonkin from the late Andy Royer in Seattle, with the assistance of Craig Thom at StreamX. Since the late 1990s I have been making bamboo rods continuously, except for a lengthy period some three years ago when undergoing treatment for cancer.
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