Knee Deep

June 1, 2009

I am, at the current time, knee deep in fishing rods in the workshop.
   Yes. This is a fly-fishing column. The TV guides run today on Page 2.
   Most of you don’t give a plug nickel about fishing rods, of course. Bypass this. I wholeheartedly suggest the crossword puzzle.
   But it all started when I sold off five fly rods a couple months ago to purchase one really good new rod. Of the five, three were bamboo rods that I had no real affection for anymore. I had, at the time, I think 18 rods in the rack…bamboo, fiberglass and graphite. Some are pre-WWII.
   One of the guys who bought one of the bamboo rods told me he had an old South Bend, a nine-footer that needed a rebuild. I quoted him a price, and he said he’d be glad to pay it, or he’d trade me a first-generation fiberglass Fenwick.
   I always wanted a Fenwick, so I agreed. He sent both on down, and I fell in love with that old ‘glass rod at once. The South Bend he sent me was cool too, as the original owner had printed his name and date on the rod: “CE Smith, 1933.”
   See, fly fishing began with wooden rods that were problematic at best. Eventually someone discovered that Calcutta cane would make a stronger, more flexible rod, and later still, a species of bamboo that only grows in the Tonkin Bay of China made the best rods of all. Like Cuban cigar tobacco, this species of cane only grows in that region, nowhere else, and cannot be adapted to any other location.
   You may be thinking of those bamboo poles they used to sell in hardware stores, which were just a stalk of bamboo cut to length, varnished and a piece of fishing line on it. Nothing of the sort. A fine bamboo fly rod begins with a stalk of cane at least two inches in diameter. This is then slit into quarter-inch strips, which are straightened and flattened. To create the rod, six of these strips are hand-planed into a 60 degree equilateral triangle in a taper from the thick section at the butt to the fine tip. These six strips are then glued together to create a six-sided rod that’s as lovely a piece of craftsmanship as you’ll ever see.
   Bamboo rods were the standard of fly rods from the turn of the twentieth century until about the late 50s, early 60s, when fiberglass became a product that was cheap to manufacture, strong as the dickens and lighter. Thousands of bamboo rods were thrown away as Americans adopted the “latest and greatest” in fly fishing technology. Later, graphite became the material of choice.
   Some of us, though, still adore those old bamboo rods. They are still being made, by craftsmen who rank right up there with master furniture builders, glass blowers and sculptors.
   Meanwhile, I acquired two more for myself: Another South Bend, made in 1942, and a Phillipson, made in 1953, both eight and a half feet long.
   About that time, a buddy asked me to replace the tip guide on his Shimano baitcaster, which I agreed to gladly.
   Looking around the shop one day I reminded myself suddenly of my father. He was the same way with guitars. You couldn’t walk through our house without tripping over a guitar. They sat in the crook of a sofa, leaned in corners, peeked out from under beds, tumbled out of closets if you opened the door too quickly. They were also in a constant state of flux. He bought, sold and traded all the time.
   Once he got ahold of a Les Paul Black Beauty, a much sought-after electric that had, I think, a six-digit serial number and the first four numbers were zeros. He traded it for a Fender of some kind and I cried.
   “Dang ol’ rock and roll guitar,” he said of the Les Paul. “This is a country music guitar,” he said of the Fender.
   Thought I didn’t get it at the time, I do now. The right tool for the right job is not only ergonomic, but harmonic. Bamboo is organic; it fishes differently from fiberglass or graphite in the same way that a wooden salad spoon feels different from a metal one, like a cotton shirt feels different from a nylon one. With a graphite rod, a good fish feels like a tug and a weight to be retrieved; with bamboo, I swear I can feel the flex of its long muscles, the beat of its heart, the rush of water through its gills. Like wooden boats, it is an instrument, more than a tool.
   So I am stripping rods of varnish and old, dry wrapping thread, installing new guides and new finish. It’s immensely satisfying, to me, to take a battered old prince of a rod, which most people would pitch in the nearest trash can, and rub off the old shellac with a rag moistened with denatured alcohol. The beautiful cane is still down there, and with bright thread and chrome guides, a little polishing and perhaps new cork grip, they are reborn.
   Of all the rods I’ve done, some have been extraordinary fishing rods. Some have been broomsticks. In all, though, I relish the memory of the anglers who held and fished it before, some many generations ago. One bamboo rod I own belonged to a man born poor in Virginia and rose to become a vice president of Scripps-Howard in charge of their newspaper division. I can feel the rainbow and brook trout in its flex.
   I enjoy them so much. As I do so many old things, I guess. They speak of a simpler time, a less complicated world. Though my new graphite rod can cast a line into the next zip code, my bamboo fly rods carry me someplace measured not in yards but in satisfaction, peacefulness and solitude.
   “I fish better with a lit cigar,” Nick Lyons wrote. “Other people fish better with talent.” I’ll take the cigar, and raise you a bamboo fly rod. Talent might help, but it certainly pales in the glow of a bamboo fly rod, all golden and varnished and flexing deep into itself in the cast, on the hook-up, under the weight of a respectable fish.
   Like canned vegetables, like factory-run eggs, homogenized and pasteurized milk, “cheese products,” beer in aluminum cans, we sometimes don’t notice how detached the things in our lives bring us. My favorite author describes how he saw his old uncle, Albert, hold the first composite material fly rod he ever saw in a store.
   He wiggled it in Bate’s store a few times, a frown on his face, his motions stiff, forced…again he wiggled it, then cast the line through the entire length of the store into the street beyond. He set it down. “I just don’t feel it,” he said. “Don’t feel anything, really, except a kind of cold, clammy feeling.”
   “What don’t you feel?” Harry asked.
   “Trout,” said Albert abruptly. “That subtle finesse that will put a No. 18 dry fly on a quarter at forty feet. This rod is all right, I suppose. Its got power, but power alone won’t catch trout. I’ll stay with bamboo. It has grace, a soothing touch.”