ESKO, Minn. — When Phil Johnson was in college, making $3 an hour working summers at the paper mill in Cloquet, he saved enough to buy himself a bamboo fly rod.
“I bought an Orvis Battenkill,” says Johnson, of Esko, now 63. “I literally fished the death out of it.”
An avid fly fisher, Johnson worked his way through lots of other rods over the years. Bamboo fell out of favor in the 1950s. He began using fiberglass rods, and later those made from graphite. Johnson probably fished the death out of those, too.
Now he has come full circle. He’s fishing a bamboo rod again. But he didn’t buy it. Bamboo rods are prohibitively expensive for most anglers, running from $800 to $3,000 or more.
So, in his retirement, Johnson learned to make bamboo rods. He buys bamboo from the south of China. He crafts it using techniques he learned through research and the advice of fellow rod makers.
Johnson is one of a handful of fly fishers across northern Minnesota who makes these exquisite and highly functional rods of natural materials. Duluth’s Randall Hicks makes them. Scott Davis of Hibbing makes a couple every year. Johnson is on his 11th bamboo rod since retiring in 2006.
In his dad’s former workshop on a January morning, Johnson demonstrates the process of making a bamboo rod.
It’s a painstaking and unforgiving endeavor, 20 to 22 steps in all, from splitting to flaming to soaking to planing to epoxying to varnishing. The rods are built in two sections.
Each section is fashioned by fitting together six strips of bamboo, each of them planed precisely in complementary 60-degree angles. The rod’s final taper must follow a progression measured to the thousandth of an inch.
“It takes patience,” says Johnson, a retired Proctor English teacher given to understatement.
Ask those who fish a bamboo rod, and they will tell you why they love it. Then, after reflecting for 24 hours, they’ll get back to you and tell you how they really feel.
“I forgot to tell you how the rod comes alive when you actually hook a fish,” says Duluth’s Jim Pothast, who received one of Johnson’s rods as a gift. “You can feel every pulsation, all the way to the rod handle. This makes catching a 10-inch brookie more enjoyable and makes a 15-inch brown trout feel like a Brule steelhead.”
Davis, 49, has had similar experiences with his bamboo rods.
“I have landed 5-pound stream resident brown trout on 6X tippet and a size 20 midge,” Davis says. “That’s about the size of a mosquito tied to a human hair. . I left the river with a better understanding of bamboo as a superb material for fishing, specifically for landing big fish on light tackle.”
Graphite rods are the current industry standard, the choice of most anglers. Light and powerful, they can drive a fly into a brisk breeze. They’re sensitive enough to feel the lightest slurp of a feeding trout. But anglers tend not to talk about them in the same tones they reserve for bamboo rods.
“They’re aesthetically very pleasing to begin with,” Davis says of the bamboo rods. “For the type of fishing that I do and a lot of people do, for trout, a small bamboo fly rod is, in my opinion, second to none.”
“Certainly, aesthetics are part of it,” he says. “And good bamboo rods can be very accurate.”
Bamboo rods cast much differently than graphite, Davis and others say. Anglers who switch from graphite to bamboo find they must slow down their casting motion. It is the weight of the line that allows a fly fisher to deliver a nearly weightless fly to the water. The rods “load” on the backcast, and this loading is unleashed when the rod is moved forward.
“Every time I switch to bamboo, I give myself a mantra: ‘Slow and gentle, slow and gentle,”’ Pothast says. “Without you doing anything, the rod comes alive and kicks (the line) out. It just gently drops the fly on the surface so it doesn’t spook the fish. I can’t do that with graphite.”
A bamboo rod improves fly-casters, Davis says.
“They’re forgiving,” he says. “They can make an OK caster a good caster.”
When Johnson considered building bamboo rods, he checked websites and began reading. A lot of information is available.
“I was paralyzed with information,” he said. “What saved me was Randy Hicks. He spent about a full day with me. That gave me the courage to leap in and just do it.”
Now Johnson is at work on his 11th bamboo rod. He has given about half of them away to friends and has sold the others. He sells them through the Superior Fly Angler shop where he works part-time.
“Certainly, there’s a niche market,” Hicks says. “In the last 20 years, there’s been a great resurgence in bamboo rods. But very few people make a living at it doing it professionally, just because of the amount of labor that goes into it.”
Johnson sells his bamboo rods for less than $1,000.
“I’m not in it for the money,” he said. “I just want to cover the cost of fuel oil for the shop.”
In the basement shop in his home near Hibbing, Davis makes bamboo rods that emulate some of the finest rods of the post-World-War-II era. He buys original rods by makers such as Paul Young. Young, who sold tackle in Duluth in the early 1900s, went on to build bamboo rods in Detroit. He sold a number of them to baseball great Ted Williams.
Davis takes precise measurements of those classic rods so he can re-create, in his own rod-making, their exact tapers. He then sells the collector rods.
Bamboo fly rods are nothing like the whippy, slender stalks of bamboo you see in old photos or find in the corner of your great-grandparents’ garage. These rods are built from bamboo stalks, called culms, more than 2 inches across at the base. Those culms are split, then split again and again. Those pieces, up to 6 feet long, are then planed by hand until six of them fit together to make a finished rod section 3 or 4 feet long.
The best bamboo makes the strongest rods, and it’s all about the power fibers. Those are the fibers that run the length of a culm, visible as pepper-size flecks wherever the culm is seen in cross-section.
Davis happened onto a stash of pre-World-War-II bamboo in the Hibbing area several years ago. Bamboo exports were banned from China for several years, and those “pre-embargo” culms are valued for the density of their power fibers, Davis says.
Post-embargo bamboo, imported to the U.S. by a couple of companies, is not expensive. A single culm, from which a rod can be built, might cost $25 to $45, Johnson says. Shop equipment for the specialized process adds more cost.
Hand-planing each strip of bamboo to tolerances of a thousandth of an inch is perhaps the most time-consuming — and strenuous — part of the process.
“In the beginning, my hands were aching so much I couldn’t sleep,” Johnson says.
In his shop on this January morning, he demonstrates the planing procedure. Slender wisps off bamboo come curling up through his plane. He pauses frequently, using a special tool to check the angle of the bamboo strip.
A raw culm of bamboo can appear blond to a soft green. The flaming process turns it a soft caramel, and when the rod is finally fished, that caramel gleams through coats of varnish
It is the tradition of bamboo rod makers to sign each of the rods, and possibly to name them, in black script just ahead of the rod’s cork handle.
Nearly all bamboo rods are beautiful. But that is not the final measure of a rod.
“You know when you put a line on it whether it’s something special,” Davis says.