Fly-fishing and a craft that endures
The history of the bamboo fly rod appeals to a wide audience, not just armchair anglers.
Fly-fishing on a remote stream, observing insect hatches, reading the water, knotting a fly to tippet, and placing a perfect cast are pursuits that can be truly understood only by those who practice them. To feel the tug of a trout on the end of the line – usually after many hours of casting and changing flies – is to feel a deep sense of connection to nature and tradition.
It can also prompt quests for equipment, fly patterns, and obscure tools – pursuits that can consume a great deal of energy, time, and money, and that sometimes border on obsession.
I was a firsthand observer and participant when, in a different time and place in my life, I worked at a fly-fishing outfitter. This store sold, arguably, the finest fly rods made on a mass scale.
While most were made of graphite, there were also two models of bamboo fly rods. I regarded them with fascination. Gleaming with dark-honey colored varnish, they bore the signature of their maker on the shaft.
Priced at more than $1,000 each, not many were purchased. But they served as an ideal, a metaphor for fly-fishing itself: the appropriation of nature, the application of practice, the devotion of time that, coupled with much patience, might eventually yield satisfaction.
The bamboo rods are pieces of art – a tradition that endures, like bookbinding or violinmaking.
For George Black, a longtime journalist, magazine editor, and one of many enthusiasts who have been drawn to the sport in recent years, his awakening began at an antique shop where he found himself captivated by a bamboo rod.
He later learned that that particular rod was a cheap import from the post-World War II era, but it led him to investigate the true examples of the form – bamboo rods made from Tonkin cane, also known as tea stick. This raw material was farmed in one province in China, but superior specimens of bamboo rods were a "truly American accomplishment."
Thus was born the impetus for his book Casting a Spell. Black began seeking out the great rod builders such as the 19th-century legends Hiram Leonard of Maine, Eustis Edwards (who trained under Leonard), and their protégés, descendants, and devotees who continue to build rods in this tradition.
Bamboo rodmaking is an enormously meticulous and time-consuming process. Generally four or five, sometimes even six sections of this particular species of bamboo are carefully milled over many hours, tapered according to their particular mathematical formula, splice sectioned, and the line guides wrapped. Then the rod has to be carefully varnished and cured.
"Casting A Spell" is a very readable and interesting example of the singular-subject nonfiction genre. Black has the tenacity of an investigative reporter, coupled with a narrative that follows a few distinct paths: fly-fishing in America, the rod builders and their legacy, and his own autobiographical account.
While "Casting a Spell" probably qualifies as the foremost book ever on the history of the bamboo rod and an eloquent history of fly-fishing in America, that's not all it offers.
Equally interesting are Black's accounts of the American sportsman's desire to connect to, protect, and eventually market a lifestyle inspired by the American wilderness, as well as the curiously eccentric but genius personalities that have perpetuated the sport.
It is also a fascinating case study of industrial history, as well as an examination of globalization and its effects. Indeed, the US-imposed trade embargo with China from 1950-1971, along with the development of fiberglass technology led to the demise of bamboo rod production on a mass scale.
However (and here's the happy ending), interest in the bamboo rod has been revived by concerned stewards of the sport, along with the twin engines of the Internet and the 1992 film "A River Runs Through It" starring Brad Pitt.
Black takes us on through to the builders of today, who are, variously, an environmental studies professor and former Buddhist monk, not a few failed machinists, and others who toil away "in small rooms ... in small places."
These artisans are united in their passion for the craft and continue to turn out superior rods, despite the time it takes and the lack of profitability.
But as Black notes, their passion is no longer a lonely one. Interest in this subject has blossomed online, with craftsmen sharing tips and arguing about technique, tool suggestions, and tapering formulas via e-mail and Web logs.
"Casting A Spell" offers an engaging glimpse into the world of those who share such a passion. It will appeal to a wide range of readers, and not just the armchair angler.
It just might even inspire the next Hiram Leonard.
• Leigh Montgomery is the Monitor's librarian.