Fly Fishing Blog

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Rodmaker's Dream

A number of years ago I read a book (that I highly recommend) entitled "A Mapmaker's Dream", subtitled "The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice". The book is about a cloistered monk who lives in an island monastery. He spends many years creating a map of the known world, based on interviews and reports from others who have visited exotic places. In the confines of his room he envisions what the places are like that the explorers, pilgrims, and travelers describe and he vicariously travels to them, constantly building a virtual world in his mind that he will never see in reality. It is a fascinating read.

As a rodmaker I have experiences similar to those of Fra Mauro. I build rods that people will use in locations throughout the world that I will never visit. As they describe the fishing situation to me, I vicariously travel to Patagonia for monster brown trout, to compete in bluewater tournaments in Florida, to Ireland and Alaska to fish for salmon, to Long Island Sound to fish for stripers and bluefish, and numerous other places. As I build each rod I realize that what is in my hands, what I am creating, will actually travel to those places and catch fish. Each choice that I make -- the rod blank, the reel seat, the grip, the guides, the guide spacing, the type of thread, the thread colors, the type of winding used to secure the guides, the artwork, the color preserver and epoxy, and even the glue used -- all these help me to envision where the rod will be fished and how it will be used to catch and release trophy fish. In a real sense, a part of me goes to that environment, fly fishing with the owner.

Although I have been fortunate to have fished for many species in my lifetime, my experiences do not compare to the sum of my clients' experiences worldwide. To me, rod building is much more than creating a custom fly rod for a client; it is the opportunity to use my experience, skill, and knowledge of both the technical aspects of the rod and the use to which it will be put, all the while seeing in my mind's eye the location, the battle, and the fun. I have loved fly rods and fly fishing all my adult life and as I get older and less able to travel to my clients' destinations, I am grateful that, like Fra Mauro, I can dream.

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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.

Are you casting or fishing?

Are you casting or fishing?

Virtually every fly rod that is sold these days is described in an
advertisement, four-color catalog, or web site by its casting action. By
this I don't mean fast, medium, or slow, but how far you can cast with it
and/or the size of the line loop in the forward cast. I don't know about
you but I have caught only one fish when the line wasn't in the water: a
Florida largemouth bass jumped up and grabbed my deer hair bug as I was
trying to free it from a bush by jiggling it.

I enjoy casting as much as the next person and emphasize it at home when I
test my custom rods, but when I'm on the river it's a different story. I
want my fly to be on/in the water as much as possible, which means that I
cast as infrequently as I can. I try for one false cast and an
accurate delivery -- it doesn't always happen! -- then I try for the best
presentation possible: a drag free float for my dry fly, my nymph(s) flowing
freely at the right depth, or a life-like action to my streamer or wet fly.
That is the best way to catch trout, and by extension, other fish, fresh or

Why don't corporations and other builders mention these most productive
aspects in their ads and web sites? Because they are not glamorous. They
want you to imagine yourself throwing graceful curves in the air and having
your (one) skill noticed by others. If you buy a rod from me, you can be
assured that not only will it cast beautifully, but it will give you control
of the line and fly in the air AND on/in the water. I wouldn't make a rod
that didn't cast well, but I want my customers to primarily be excellent
fishers. Think about curve casts around obstacles, mends in a multi-current
river, high-stick drag free nymphing, making a streamer look like a wounded
bait fish trying to escape a predator, sensitivity to gentle strikes, saving
the tippet when the fly gets slammed, double hauling to reach way out there,
and having the right backbone to fight and to land a fish, large or small,
all the while having fun, and you're thinking about those things in fly
fishing that really count.

Every component in every rod that I build is geared toward that end. For
example, I once showed a potential customer, a woodworker, one of my older
bamboo rods. He was impressed by its condition, but said that he didn't
treat his rods with such care. He told me that a lot of his fishing was
done in high mountain lakes that often required long hikes or horse rides to
reach them, and that he had broken several rods on such trips. I told him
that if breaking a rod from rough treatment was a major concern of his, that
I would build him a four-piece rod from an older type of graphite, one that
could take more abuse than the newer super-high-modulus brittle materials,
yet still give him the sensitive action that he wanted for Alpine fishing. I
also suggested Recoil (tm) guides made from an alloy that can be bent over
time after time without damage or failure. To make a long story short, he
loved the rod I built for him and has fished it for several years under
rough conditions with no damage at all. His primary concern was not how he
looked while casting, but whether the rod would do the job for him and that
it would last. It did and it still does today.

Another example is the rod that I built for a guide who fished for inshore
saltwater species in San Diego Bay. He wanted a rod that could get a
sinking line "out there" and pull it up from the bottom at the end of the
cast, and that would give his clients satisfaction whether the fish were
large or small. I selected a nine foot seven weight blank that is available
only to custom builders, one that had good backbone and a sensitive tip, and
paired it with a titanium reel seat with a teak insert and a fighting butt.
The guides had titanium feet with Nanolite (tm) ceramic inserts that were
corrosion proof and had very little friction, would never wear out, and
enabled long casts. He could snake his Clouser fly through the eel grass and
feel the lightest take, but if the fish was a Pacific barracuda, a large
calico bass, or even a bonefish, the power was there to set the hook and
land the it.

Our local Trout Unlimited chapter is in the process of creating a Rio Grande
Cutthroat restoration fund to extend the range of these wild native New
Mexico trout and make catching them more available to everyone. I will be
donating a rod to the chapter for catching these wonderful fish. It will be
a seven foot three weight fiberglass rod that will have that wonderful soft
action that has been lost even in the most sensitive graphite and will make
catching these small fish a lot of fun. The rod will have a traditional
style of rod handle -- a downlocking nickel silver reel seat and a cigar-
shaped grip -- and chrome snake guides, wrapped and accented with silk
thread that has the colors of these beautiful fish. In this situation,
casting is not the most important element, since most casts are short and
don't have to be extremely accurate. The whole theme of the rod will be a
celebration of our state fish and have a wonderful action and sensitive feel
to give the maximum enjoyment while fishing for them in our mountain

You will not find unique, quality rods like these in fly fishing shops or
sporting goods stores. Modern factory production has made standardization
the norm these days. They have narrowed the market and lost the individual
characteristics that were the hallmark of all fly rods not too long ago.
Individually made fly rods have a "soul" that connects the fisher, the fish,
and the environment into an organic whole that is and always will be more
than the sum of the parts.

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