Fly Fishing with Grass

Bamboo (or cane), a grass, was the material of choice used in the construction of fishing rods from the third quarter of the 19th Century to the middle of the 20th Century until the introduction of fiberglass.

Cane rods are individually constructed over months. However, the use of fiberglass in rod making led to mass production and thus lower prices for fishing rods, and many from the “old school” could not adapt to this new process.

The golden age of bamboo fly rods

The golden age of U.S. bamboo fly rods was from the late 20s to the late 50s. The construction of a quality bamboo rod was and is a time consuming process and highly labor intensive, and a true art form when done to perfection.

There were many choices of bamboo, but one variety is the paramount choice for fly rod builders and that is Tonkin cane, which comes from a very specific region in China.

Soon after the Communists came to power, around 1950, the U.S. placed an embargo on importing from China and this coupled with the mass production of fiberglass fishing rods and the fact that many from the old school could not or would not adapt to this new process, lead to the end of numerous cane builders’ businesses.

The benefits of Tonkin cane

Tonkin cane is the cane of choice for many reasons*1 It is straight, with a narrow taper, which keeps it uniform. The nodes (joint segments) aren’t that rough and are more evenly spaced. It is a strong, resilient, and tuff material which lends itself beautifully to the construction of a uniform casting instrument. The rods from the golden age are every bit as coveted to their collectors and to their admirers as a fine violin.

Since the lifting of the embargo in the early 70’s bamboo fly rod building began to gain popularity again. For many bamboo aficionados, it is almost a cult and they would never think of fishing with plastic, a term a friend calls non-cane fly rods.

Tips on collecting bamboo fly rods

Here are a few helpful pieces of information and tips if you decide that you have an interest in collecting U.S. bamboo fly rods:

• Fly rods made in the U.S. will have more value than most foreign fly rods. Most foreign rods don’t offer the same actions that users here in the states are looking for and that includes all those rods made in Japan after WWII.

Rods that came in wooden boxes purchased by our GIs who served in the Pacific or went to Korea. I am not degrading them, as some were quite attractive, but they don’t have the action or the length that cane users are looking for today and are cheaply made.

• Just because it is rare, it doesn’t mean it is expensive or valuable. For the most part, it has to be usable and that drives this market.

• The shorter the fly rod the more usable it is and thus the more it is worth. Why shorter? Well, that is what most collectors want and use today. They like lighter rods in lighter line weights.

It is interesting that value is also determined by usage, which is different than most other valuable collectibles. The user always takes the risk of breaking the item, and thus ruining the investment. I guess that’s living dangerously in a collectable world.

• Not all rods were made equally. Most were dime store rods that have little value today. The heart of bamboo fly rod collecting today are those small independent craft men whose production was quite limited as well as larger scale manufactures that made higher end fly rods. Quality rules.

• As bamboo goes, fly rods are at the pinnacle. None of the other forms of fishing rods do not have the same value even though they are collectable. A good fly rod is more valuable than a good casting rod or conventional rod, or even spinning bamboo (though a number of better shops did make some excellent and valuable spinning rods). Comparing apples to apples, a fly rod beats them all.

• Condition and quality are everything. There was a tremendous amount of bamboo rods produced over the last 150 years. Most haven’t survived and most of what survived aren’t in good enough shape or don’t have the quality to be much of a collectable.

There is a thriving market place today in bamboo both in older rods and contemporary rods. The devotees in this niche market exchange information and support all facets of construction of bamboo fly rods.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to e-mail me.

*1 Charles H. Demarest, Inc. & Wikipedia: