Once overshadowed by modern rod materials, the essence of bamboo is being rediscovered by contemporary anglers.
[by Tom Keer]
An ad on page 37 of my March 1974 issue of Field & Stream promotes the new Fenwick HMG fly rod. This rod was 25 percent lighter than fiberglass and 40 percent lighter than cane. The blank was constructed from a new material called graphite that was invented in 1965 by William Watt of the Royal Aircraft Establishment. Rod blanks rolled from this cutting-edge material set forth a standard that would change the face of fly rod construction for decades to come, and the material was universally accepted because it decreased vibration, added greater hoop strength, and increased energy transfer.
“We expect imitators,” the visionary advertising copy stated. “Many graphite rods will appear in the years ahead, but there will be only one HMG, then as now.”
In what seemed like a blink of an eye, many cane rods were hung by the loops in their cloth sacks in a first-floor closet, the preferred way to keep wooden tips from getting a curve caused from leaning against a wall (known as a set). It was the end of an era, and marquee names like Ed and Jim Payne, Pinky Gillum, Everett Garrison, Gene Edwards, Hiram Leonard, Paul Young, and Wes Jordan were replaced by new names.
But recently, cane experienced somewhat of a resurrection, giving credence to the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Boutique versus Production Construction
Back in the day, some companies mass-produced bamboo rods in an assembly-line fashion. Theirs was a smart move. Before fiberglass, the expanding recreational fishing industry needed cane rods, and lots of ’em. Some were used for surf casting with squidding line and level-winding reels, others were used offshore, and still others found themselves in a rod holder in the stern of a boat for trolling. As fly fishing gained traction throughout the 1900s, more and more rods were built to meet the expanding demand, one that was filled by manufacturing companies.
But cane fly rods also spurred a cottage industry, one that was boutique in nature, and one that is growing today. The old-school boutique rods attracted the most attention, mostly because each was produced by either one or a few craftsmen on a small scale. Retailers like Clapp & Treat, the original Abercrombie & Fitch, among others, carried a full inventory of exquisite rods commanding such a presence that when we see one today, we are in awe. Some blanks offered a darker color made from flaming bamboo while classically dried and finished rods yielded a luxurious light tan coloration. The ferrules were made from German nickel silver, and snake guides and agate stripping guides were wound with silk wraps and color schemes unique enough to identify a particular manufacturer without the need for a decal.
Grips were custom, too, ground from extra-flora-grade cork in a variety of unique designs. Each had a purpose, and the standards, gordons, half wells, fishtails, uniform Europeans, full wells, and cigars, among others, contributed functionality to their aesthetics. A side note is that hotelier and hall of fame rod designer Charles Ritz (of Ritz-Carlton fame) pioneered his own revolutionary grip. These cane rods were housed in cotton sacks and stored in machined or saddle-stitched leather tubes. It’s a style of presentation that makes traditional fly fishermen weak in the knees.
The time for cane somewhat stopped when the legendary Jim Payne died in 1968. His passing marked the ending of an era, one that also saw life’s pace quicken. Several years later, graphite burst onto the scene, and the life span of cane was all but over.
The past is thankfully not forgotten, for cane rods are part of fly fishing’s roots. A resurgence of sorts has been building, some of it in accordance with large-company manufacturing but most coming from the boutique side. The market for used cane classics is bullish, and more than that, a number of craftsmen are making new bamboo rods to support current demand. Many fly rodders are experiencing cane for the first time, and they know what many of us have known for quite a while: cane rods feel even better than they look, and boy do they look good.
Crazy for Cane
According to bamboo fly rod legacy Ben Carmichael, “Cane rod makers answer to a calling of legacy, craftsmanship, and skill. Perhaps the greatest compliment a cane rod maker can receive comes from knowing a rod he made is an angler’s first choice when he goes fishing. My father Hoagy made such a rod for me and he presented it to me as my high school graduation present. Decades later that rod carries meaning far deeper than just about any rod I own. It’s a 7-foot, 9-inch, 4-weight classic dry fly rod made from his own taper. When I fish that rod, I can smell the varnish and wood shavings from my dad’s workshop, which was Everett Garrison’s before his.
“Cane rods are different. They reveal every little casting deficiency, and they call for a precision that comes from a slower, relaxed movement. They offer a delicate presentation; they mend line smoothly and progressively. They fight fish in an unparalleled way: you feel truly connected, as they transmit every head shake, roll, and jump. With bamboo, catching even a small fish is fantastic. They enhance our fishing experiences because they connect us to the roots of a tradition, which run incredibly deep. It’s a feeling, and a connection, that can’t be duplicated.”
Bill Elliott, a recent inductee to the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum’s Fly Fishing Hall of Fame, couldn’t agree more. “I wouldn’t even think about fishing the Beaverkill without a cane rod,” said the fly fishing illustrator of 38 books and hundreds of articles. “I fish a lot of small- to medium-sized water, so short casts are essential. Nothing loads better than cane for a distance under 30 feet, which incidentally, is the range inside of which most trout are caught.