“It sounds like you’re sunk. Does your wife understand that this isn’t just a bamboo rod, it’s the first bamboo rod?” The pronouncement and query came from a man who—while conceding that plenty of people had more skill with and knowledge about bamboo rods—once wrote that “no one loves them more” than he. I had been served an enlightened warning by a man who, himself, had been sunk for many years.
The first bamboo was a 7’9” hexagonal rod built to cast a 4 or 5 weight line. My friend Adam suggested that the rod was perfect for me, and, after confirming this with Dave at Sweetgrass Rods, I signed the papers and began the adoption process. As I anxiously awaited the rod’s arrival, Adam—in the dual role of fisherman friend and delivery nurse—outlined his tips for bringing the baby home.
“Hands together to put together. Hands apart to take apart. No twisting at any time. Wipe the rod off when you get home and leave it out to dry in a safe place overnight, then wipe it down again in the morning and put away. Don’t mess with the ferrules with anything if you don’t need to.
“On the stream treat the rod like a fishing rod, not a vile of nitro. It is at least as strong as any rod you have ever used. The only place bamboo gets broken is between the tube and the stream.
“Remember, however, there is no going back! Once you pull the trigger, you will fish bamboo the rest of your life. You will think, eat, sleep and poop bamboo.”
Bamboo is part of Adam’s bloodline. His grandfather once wrote that “there is no fairy wand in creation more graceful and beautiful than a good bamboo fly rod.” For me, though, bamboo was something new. I grew up fishing cheap fiberglass rods attached to even cheaper Zebco reels. And though I had fly fished for roughly half my life, all of my rods were made from graphite. Finer things like handmade rods and wicker creels were not part of my heritage. My foray into bamboo was an experiment in nature vs nurture.
“Tim, we have a rod that is all finished except for the reel seat. I can get to that early next week and have the rod out to you before the week is complete.” When I read Dave’s note it hit me. Dave wasn’t telling me that some warehouse in Topeka was about to ship some vacuum sealed package that contained some rod with a model number that matched the one I had ordered. Dave was telling me that my rod—the one Glenn and Jerry had designed, the one that he, Dana, Wade and Jason had helped build—was about to have a reel seat attached and be mailed to my home.
“Each rod has it’s own personality and will communicate how it prefers to be cast, if you listen,” Dave instructed. And just as he warned, the rod stubbornly refused to respond to the ungraceful sequence of double hauls that I regularly used to propel line with my other rods. The rod insisted that I let it do the work, and, when I complied, its response was immediate. The rod was everything I hoped it would be and everything I now believed a rod should be. Adam was right. I would fish bamboo the rest of my life.
For the first few months I mistakenly believed that one bamboo rod would be enough. For in this rod I saw and felt the beauty and grace that Adam’s grandfather had foretold. But sometime in January or February, with over 6 feet of snowfall assuring that these would be the fishless months, a startling realization overcame me. In late May and early June I’d be fishing the big river, and, for that, I’d need a bigger rod.
“I want you to meet the guy who just built a rod for me. It’s a replica of one of my grandfather’s rods. I think you could use a rod like this on the big river.” It was early March, and Adam and I were attending the Midwest Fly Fishing Expo in lower Michigan. Adam picked up a beautiful walnut case, then motioned for me to walk with him across the floor of the convention center. When we reached the exhibit booth for Alder Creek Rods, Adam introduced me to Ron Barch.
Ron Barch has the inquisitive eyes of a scholar, the caring smile of an educator, and the rugged but well-kept appearance of a craftsman. In the same way that John Gierach’s appearance exemplifies that of a fly fisherman, Ron’s appearance expemplifies that of a bamboo rod builder. Not all bamboo rod builders look like Ron, of course, but Ron sure as heck looks like a bamboo rod builder.
In 2011 Ron was chosen by his peers to receive the A.P. Bellinger Award, an award that is presented annually to a person who best demonstrates through the rodmakers craft that quality and integrity never go out of style. The respect the bamboo rod-making community has for Ron, and the respect Ron has for the bamboo rod-making community made him the natural choice when Adam wanted someone to measure and record the tapers for three of his grandfather’s rods. Ron subsequently agreed to replicate one of the rods—a distinctive 8’6″ three-piece 1928 Thomas with two tips that were restored by Paul Young—and that replica was in the walnut case in Adam’s right hand.
“The casting pool is open,” Ron said to Adam, and the three of us dashed through the main exhibit aisle to the pool. Once there, Adam assembled the rod, attached a reel, strung a line through the guides and began to cast.
“That rod casts much better than I thought it would,” Ron whispered as we watched Adam cast. “I was afraid it would be a novelty, but you could fish with that rod.”
Adam made several short casts, several long casts, and a few roll casts. Then he called me to his side and put the rod in my hand. “Give it a try.”
The rod was longer and heavier than my first bamboo rod. Apprehensive and nervous, my instincts took over and I began hauling and shooting line. “No, no. Let the rod do the work,” came a polite—but firm—suggestion from Ron. “Close your eyes if you need to, then react to the rod. It will tell you what to do.”
Back . . . halt . . . wait . . . load . . . forward . . . halt . . . wait . . . load . . . back . . . halt . . . wait . . . load . . . forward . . . halt. The line extended over the shallow pool and settled somewhere near the 60 foot marker.
“Wow. That’s a fine rod. Would it be possible for you to make another someday?”
“I think so.”
“Could you make one by May 23rd? It’s our 25th wedding anniversary, and I think my wife would like to give me a rod like this.”
“Does your wife know that she thinks she would like to give you a rod like this?”
“I think so.”
We shook hands, and Ron said he would do his best to finish the rod by the end of May.
Back in my office, 550 miles from the Fly Fishing Expo but still in the State of Michigan, I pored over Adam’s grandfather’s books searching for references to the rod.
Like many another guilty trout fisherman, I own enough split bamboo fly rods to furnish
buggy whips for most of the harness drivers of America. I posses at least one of every
well-known make and quite a raft of others by rod builders one rarely ever hears of,
possibly because many of them are dead and the rest have more work than they can handle.
And like the man with a million ties on his rack, I usually “wear” only one, a gallant and
battered old three-piece number that was old before our children, now grown, were even born.
Anatomy of a Fisherman, 1964
I still have several rods made by Paul Young himself (now prized collectors’ items)
including one real oldie Paul used himself, a weepy old Thomas that used to make
me feel like Nijinsky himself when I get waving it with a full head of line.
Trout Magic, 1974
Nearly 25 years after Trout Magic and nearly 35 years after Anatomy of a Fisherman, John Gierach wrote that “some of us consider it an act of defiance to own something made by a dedicated craftsman who may well be working as much for love as money and who’s proud enough of his work to sign it.” Now, to enable my own small act of defiance, a dedicated craftsman was performing his craft in a Hastings, Michigan workshop. But as he would emphasize repeatedly over the next few months, Ron Barch wasn’t making a rod. Ron Barch was making my rod.
Ron: “Have picked out the cane for your rod. Should get started on it next week.”
Tim: “I’ve been thinking about the rod lately (excitedly, I might add).”
Ron: “Have your rod started.”
Tim: “Have my excitement started.”
Ron: “I have the strips roughed out and will begin the hand planing next week. With luck I believe I can make the May 23rd date. Do you want 2 different tips like the original, or should I blend the tips so they are a matching set? I am planning on a walnut cap and ring reelseat a touch heavier than on the original rod so as to have better balance.”
Tim: “Unless you see a serious problem with the original tips, I’d like to go with those for the tradition.”
Ron: “Will have your rod glued up later this week. Caught my first trout of the season Friday on a dry fly.”
Tim: “Hurray about the rod. Hurray about the trout.”
Ron: “I will be varnishing your rod this week.”
Tim: “Thanks for the update. I’m looking forward to casting and fishing with this rod.”
Ron: “Do you want your name on the rod blank?”
Tim: “No, I don’t want my name on the rod. I think having something like “Voelker’s Nijinsky”, and anything else you think is appropriate (your name as builder, for instance) would be best.”
Ron: “We are down to the finish line. Rod is varnished and curing. You can have 3 choices of wrap colors: 1) Chestnut like on Adam’s rod; 2) Medium brown which is kinda classic; 3) Hunter green which is what I use on most of my rods . . . sort of a signature color; or 4) anything else you really want, but these are my suggestions.”
Tim: “Let’s go with your signature color.”
Ron: “I should have your new cane rod ready to ship by Friday. I really like the green wraps!”
Tim: “I am excited about this wonderful rod.”
Ron: “One more coat of varnish on the wraps and it’s done. Have the walnut case drying and will put the finishing touches on everything tomorrow.”
Tim: “Thanks Ron. I hope we get to fish together some day soon.”
Ron: “I have just finished test casting your rod on the lawn and am happy to report that it turned out just as I had hoped. The light tip worked well with a DT 5wt and the second heavier tip cast a DT 6wt with authority. I cannot decide which tip I liked the best. Although I am leaning towards the heavier tip because of its power, the lighter tip cast a long delicate line. Both tips worked out to 60 ft. with no problem. Just make sure to slow down and let the rod load. This is an old design and that’s the way the Judge wanted the rod to work. Will ship on Friday morning.”
Tim: “Thanks for all of the effort you have put into making this rod. I am EXCITED to see it.”
May 22 (morning):
Tim: “The rod arrived yesterday, and I was able to take it out for a few hours on a local river. It is a beautiful rod, and it casts wonderfully. I used the 5wt tip with a DT 5 line. I’ve attached a couple photos of the first two fish on the rod. Thanks again for a great rod. I’ll keep you posted about its adventures, and I’ll probably put a blog post up to tell the story of the rod and its history.”
Ron: “I am probably smiling as much as you. The photos are magnificent and I am so glad to make a rod for someone who will use it.”
May 22 (night):
Tim: “I’m glad to learn you are smiling. I went out again tonight (no fishing for about the next week, so I have to get out while I can), and got another nice fish on the rod. I’ve attached a few photos. On one hand this is a special rod that I want to protect. On the other hand, a big reason for getting the rod is to have a similar fishing experience as Voelker. So fish the rod I will. With each outing I am appreciating the wonder of this rod. It is a great wand.”
Ron: “Your photography rivals my rod making! May I share them with Mike McCoy the owner of Snake Brand guides? I used them on your rod.”
The rod stayed in its case for the next week. Then it was time for the big river.
The big river is over 100 feet wide in places, but its size alone isn’t the challenge. Its current and bottom allow for easy wading, and a good caster can reach most of the fish with a 4 or 5 weight rod, provided that the wind isn’t gusting strongly up or down the river. But the wind is nearly always gusting strongly up or down the river, and, when that happens, most 4 or 5 weight rods are overmatched. Voelker’s Nijinsky was about to meet the river for which it was built.
I knew that aficionados could recognize a bamboo rod in your hand from a farther distance than they could recognize your face. But I didn’t realize that some could smell bamboo from more than 20 feet. There is no other way to explain it. The man parked his truck next to mine, walked to the back, opened the tailgate, cocked his head backward slightly, flared his nostrils and shouted “hey, do you have a bamboo rod over there?” The rod was propped against the other side of my truck, well out of sight.
“Yes, I do.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
“No, not at all.”
“Wow. Whoever built this rod knew what they were doing. Look at those node placements. Perfect. Look at those wraps. Perfect. Do you mind if I cast it?”
The guy seemed to know what he was talking about, but he had the faint smell of alcohol on his breath. And Adam had warned that the only place a rod gets broken is between the tube and the stream. The tube was in my truck, and the stream was a hundred yards away.
“Sure.” I braced for the worst and thought about how I would explain this to Ron.
Back . . . halt . . . wait . . . load . . . forward . . . halt . . . wait . . . load . . . back . . . halt . . . wait . . . load . . . forward . . . halt.
Perfect. Far better than any cast I had every made—or likely would ever make—with this or any other rod. A few more beautiful casts and he returned the rod to my hands.
“Tell Ron Barch he made one hell of a fly rod. And tell me the story of Voelker’s Nijinsky.”
I shared the story, shook hands with the man, then headed down the foot trail to the river. An old friend was standing near the bank, looking upstream toward a spot where a small creek enters across from one of the few cabins on this stretch of river.
“There are a couple trout rising between the cabin and the creek. I’m not sure what they’re eating, but another fishermen just gave up after casting for about half an hour.”
“Go catch ’em.” I said.
“I’m waiting for my son while I finish this beer. Why don’t you see if Nijinsky is up for the task?” He had cast Nijinsky and learned its story about 10 minutes before the man with the bamboo-smelling skills pulled into the parking area.
I keyed on a fish that was rising with a regular rythym.
Sip . . . one-thousand one . . . one-thousand two . . . one-thousand three . . . one-thousand four . . . sip . . . one-thousand one . . . one-thousand two . . . one-thousand three . . . one-thousand four . . . sip . . .
The only bugs on the surface or in the film were small and nondescript. I extended my tippet, attached a size 20 Griffith’s Gnat, pulled some line from the Pflueger Medalist reel and prepared to cast. Two men walked along the bank behind me, and one saw—or smelled—the bamboo.
“Is that a bamboo rod?”
“Great. I’m fishing bamboo too. It’s the only way to go.”
The men walked on and I began to cast. Despite the miraculous lack of wind, my first offering was completely out of sync with the fish.
Sip . . . one-thousand one . . . one-thousand two . . . (my fly floats by) . . . one-thousand three . . . one-thousand four . . . sip . . .
My second cast was still poorly timed, but the third matched the fish’s rhythm.
Sip . . . one-thousand one . . . one-thousand two . . . one-thousand three . . . one-thousand four . . . (my fly floats by) sip
“That was great,” came a shout from the cabin.
The trout had just leapt and was starting its second downstream run. Voelker’s Nijinsky held a delightful arc as it flexed to protect my 6x tippet.
After a lively battle, I landed the fish just as the man from the cabin approached with a camera.
“Do you mind if I take a picture.”
“No, not at all.”
He snapped a few photos, then I released the fish and greeted my new friend.
“What fly are you using?”
“The Griffith’s Gnat. The Gnat is where it’s at.”
We chatted awhile, exchanged contact information, and the man offered to send the photos of me, Nijinsky and the fish after he returned to his home in Minnesota. Then our conversation turned to the rod.
“So that’s a bamboo rod?”
“Well, this isn’t a bamboo rod,” I began my story. “This is my second bamboo rod.”