Fly Fishing Blog

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Graphite? Not if you value a gentle fishing experience.

There is a large body of literature about fly fishing, some of which are about the pleasures of using fly rods. Almost all of them are written about bamboo rods. Why aren't there any books about the "soul" of graphite rods? I propose that graphite has lost the inherent qualities that make bamboo (or its cheaper alternative, fiberglass) a prized fishing companion and an heirloom too.

Graphite rods are made by the hundreds of thousands in factories; bamboo rods are made by skilled craftspersons one at a time. Fiberglass falls closer to bamboo than graphite in this regard. They are made in small batches in factories, or one at a time by skilled people. Graphite" blanks" -- the core of every fly rod to which components are added-- are actually made from carbon fiber, a very high tech material whose main characteristics are its ratio of strength to weight and its quickness to straighten once it has been bent, a.k.a. its modulus of elasticity. No other material can match these characteristics of graphite, and "therein lies the rub".

Both bamboo and fiberglass have a much lower modulus of elasticity, which translates into a slower recovery time from being bent. Fishing with either material is a very different experience than fishing with graphite. The rod feels more alive in the hand, almost as though it could fish on its own. The whole casting tempo is slowed down and becomes a gentle, graceful activity. Last year, a very experienced guide who had never used a bamboo rod expressed his feelings with "it almost casts itself" and "I never felt a trout shaking its head like that" and wanted to use my bamboo rod as much as I would let him.

Bamboo is a natural material -- it's actually a form of grass -- and, when made into a rod, has a warm beauty to it that is remarkable. It also requires a lot of care and is very expensive. Most quality bamboo rods sell in 2008 between $1,000 and $4,000 each. They are very resistant to breakage but can twist over time, especially if they are not stored properly. They used to be damaged by exposure to water and were varnished to protect them. I and some other bamboo rod makers have converted to protecting their rods with wax, since the newer glues used to join the blank sections are, unlike the older hide glues, are totally impervious to water.

Fiberglass rods are beginning to appear more frequently on streams than in the past few decades. They, like bamboo, have a soft action, very different than graphite. Fiberglass rods are slightly heavier and more durable than traditional graphite rods but break more easily than bamboo. Quality fiberglass rods -- not the chain store variety -- sell between $200 and $500 each in 2008. The latter, made by custom makers such as myself, have as much attention to detail and construction as the finest fly rods made. They are considerably cheaper than comparable graphite rods and much cheaper than bamboo. Like graphite, fiberglass rods cannot be damaged by water and are usable for decades using only common sense care. They are a wonderful rod to use on small-to-medium size streams if you want to cast gently and really feel the fish.

I rarely use my bamboo rods any more because I am afraid of damaging a very expensive rod (including the one that I made for myself) by doing something stupid and destroying a valuable heirloom. Although I use graphite on larger streams and salt water, when I fish the beautiful mountain streams near my home, my first choice is now fiberglass.

If you want to experience the kind of gentle fly fishing that existed before the development of technical tools that have lost their "soul", I highly recommend that you give fiberglass a try.

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