Bamboo: In Resurgence?
Fly Fishing with Doug Macnair I wonder if it’s true … Is bamboo in resurgence? More than one fly fisher has expressed to me his or her desire to fish bamboo … Some time ago I wrote an article focused on the magic and mystique of fly fishing – specifically, I attempted to address the beauty and artistry of bamboo fly rods. In my opinion, bamboo fly rods are not only beautiful but the soul of fly fishing. Whether better suited for display as a lovely piece of art or in the hands of a fly fisher actively pursuing Friend Fish is a matter for debate. However, there seems to be little debate that the mystique of these lovely tools casts a spell over most with whom they come into contact.
The problem has been cost … simply stated, most of us cannot justify or afford the price given fickle economics, taxes, medical care and four bucks a gallon gasoline. Go online to http://www.codella.com and you will find mint condition fly rods that are classic examples of their makers’ art. Expect to find great names such as Eden Cane, Leonard, Winston, Thramer, Ed Payne, Orvis as well as others. Prices? Depending on the maker, figure somewhere between $1,500 and $5,000. Below this level, you can expect to find others, used but still highly fishable. At an even lesser level - $150.00 to $300.00 - Len usually has a few “handyman specials” that can be restored to near mint condition, if you have the skills… By the way, you will find Lens Codella’s descriptions of each rod extraordinarily accurate.
One thing the prospective Bamboo buyer might well consider is the growing cost of graphite rods as each model system comes and goes. Whoever would have guessed that a graphite rod could cost close to a thousand dollars? I didn’t; I also never expected them to depreciate as a “close out” item given the advent of a new model number.
History might suggest that bamboo is a better value…
Suppose I told you that a better value is at hand through the auspices of Anglers Roost Enterprises (ARE). Its owner, John Kuehn is a true entrepreneur who happens to love the gentle art of fly fishing … and more than that, bringing to the American fly fisher quality products at an affordable price. In only two short years, John has achieved his objective by becoming one of the most successful sites on eBay. John is the one who brought you the 100 Series fly reels I reported on earlier. Now, I have the privilege of introducing you to his new line of split bamboo rods. Whichever line you choose, understand that these rods are either machine made or made by hand. All are made of Tonkin Cane, and, consequently, imported from China, the home of Tonkin Cane.
Whether we like it or not, it seems that most everything we buy can be sourced to China. In the case of Tonkin Cane rods the problem has always been in quality control, not the bamboo itself … poor ferrules, crooked limbs, and poor fitting reel seats are the problem of the so-called manufacturer, or importer, typically interested only in the “bottom line.”
Over the time I’ve known him, I’ve come to think of John as one of my favorite characters -- The Horse of a Different Color. Surely you remember him … the horse that Dorothy saw when she first reached the Emerald City (The Wizard of Oz,1939.) And why not? Unlike so many others in today’s business world, John holds close values such as honor, truth, trust and the veracity of his word. I cannot think of better words to offer in tribute.
John’s standard blanks (machine made) come in both two and three piece models that include an extra tip and cloth bag and are hand finished with a couple of coats of varnish. Lengths range from 6 to 9-feet in six inch increments. The rod blank tapers are drawn from Gould’s book, Tips and Tapers. At a starting price of $75.00, these blanks represent one helluva value to the fly fisher who wants to build his own bamboo rod. As you would expect, John has all the rod making accoutrements available at competitive prices.
John’s second line of blanks is the “Presidential Series.” However, I prefer to call them the Great Pretenders because they emulate the classic bamboos of the world’s great rod makers. It’s hard to beat the Masters. These blanks are hand made – hand split, hand planed, hand glued, hand wrapped, and hand finished. Finally, they are hardened and straightened by being heat treated in a specially constructed annealing oven. I think that’s part of the reason that these rods differ from the multitude of imports that are found lacking. Using Tonkin Cane is one thing, but what you do with it is quite another. Call it engineering skill know how, and quality control – that’s what turns Tonkin Cane into a beautiful crafted fly rod.
The North American Fly Fishing Forum
Click for Picture of Payne 98 2-piece, 2-tip blank.
The Great Pretender blanks currently range between $125.00 and $175.00 with spey blanks running a bit higher. Not bad for a rod blank that it a reproduction of a Hardy Marvel, a Leonard Catskill, or an Orvis Shooting Star, to name but a few…
If you happen to be clumsy like I am, forget the blanks and purchase a finished rod. One built on the standard blank will cost between $199.95 and $299.95, depending on the model. The Great Pretenders built on the Presidential Series obviously cost more ranging from $399.95 and $599.95. But, for a reproduction of a used rod that can now costs $3,000.00, that’s not bad ... and it’s way below the cost of the high-end graphites in today’s market. These rods are built right here in the good ‘ole USA by Jim Mills of Cherokee, North Carolina. If you don’t think that these prices represent a great buy I know a couple of Shrinks who would be happy to handle your case. Remember, these are all two tip rods…
The North American Fly Fishing Forum
Click for picture of Hardy Marvel 3-piece, 2-tip blank.
In preparing this review, I examined a couple of blanks that John sent me. I was impressed with their clarity, grain, and, most of all, how straight they were. In my subsequent discussion with Jim Mills – who knows more about bamboo than I will ever hope to know – I learned that he, too, is impressed with the blanks. I am convinced that with Jim’s help, John can and will maintain quality control.
How do these rods handle? They are extraordinary! I am pleased to report that I have thrown 2 finished models of the Hardy Marvel known and “Ike’s Favorite,” one in 3-weight, the other in 5-weight. I liked both! I know you will, too … just like the General. These are lovely rods put together with care and skill by a master craftsman. Given rod building excellence, splendid cane, and quality components, what more could be asked for? Delightfully, these rods cast as well as they look. Accuracy, line control, and delicate presentations are at your finger tips. You will appreciate the thrill of fishing bamboo the first time Mr. Fish hits!
During their visit, I tried several lines on Ike’s Favorite including Scientific Anglers (SA’s) new Sharkskin Ultimate Trout, Cortland’s 444 Classic Sylk, Cortland’s 555 High Floating Dyna-Tip, SA’s Ultra 4, Airflo’s 6th Sense, and SA’s Mastery Trout. All handled well whether for accuracy, presentation or distance. Forced to select a favorite from this group of high-end lines, it would a tie between the Ultimate Trout and the Sylk with the 6th Sense close behind.
At the time of this review, the following models from the Great Pretender series were available:
Ken Preston is another fan of the Great Pretender series. A seasoned rod builder trained and equipped to build these wondrous tools from scratch, paused for a minute and then replied, “I can’t build one any better. These are outstanding rods!” I couldn’t help but think what a tribute these words paid to John Kuehn, having achieved his dreams. Ken is now using John’s sticks for most of his building blocks.
You might think that John would rest on his laurels. Not so! Given his success, more goodies are in the works. For example, two smaller versions of his Vom Hofe reel reproduction perfectly suited for bamboo should be available NLT June. Very shortly he will begin producing German silver ferrules in all sizes from 8 to 24/64th. Finally, for 2008 he hopes to have a new drift reel available by Christmas.
Let me share with you some of my thoughts: Earlier, I asked the question, “Is Bamboo in resurgence?” The answer, I think the answer is to be found in the word, possibly. If men like John Kuehn continue to come to the forefront making quality bamboo available to the general public, and at affordable prices, my answer would be yes. But, if the others cannot put making a fortune aside, shaving quality control, I think not.
On this issue, some folks might call me a romantic. To me, a fine bamboo rod is a piece of art that carries with it the craftsmanship of its maker. It is not just a fishing rod to be casually tossed into the rear of a pick up and when broken, replaced at the nearest Wal-Mart for $19.95. Rather, it is an object to be cherished and loved like a fine piece of crystal or a fine painting. It is and remains a matter of value systems… To me, a fine bamboo rod casts like no other; that doesn’t mean it casts better than fiberglass or graphite; to the contrary, it simply means the way it casts is different … sometimes like magic. I also believe that the Ancient Fish Gods respect the fly fisher so equipped. Even today, in my minds eye I can see Lee Wulff throwing 80-feet to his favorite adversary, the Atlantic salmon. His weapon of choice? A slender 6½-foot bamboo rod! My friends, this is the stuff that Legends are made of.
Please keep in mind that Anglers Roost is not stocking hundreds of these blanks. In truth, John receives about one shipment a month; consequently, he sells them on a first come first served basis. Depending on your needs, I would suggest contacting John Kuehn directly and/or Jim Mills or Ken Preston.
On eBay, John Kuehn’s seller ID is bobo00700. His eBay store, Anglers Roost, also sells directly at what John calls a “sell now” retail price. Email John at email@example.com or call (716) 565-9838. His address is A.R.E., 5820 Main Street, Suite 502, Williamsville, NY 14221. Jim Mills can be reached at (828) 497-5576 in Cherokee, NC 28719 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ken Preston at (410) 360-1730 in Pasadena, MD 21122 or visit him on the Internet at http://www.kensfishingrods.com or by email at email@example.com.
- Payne 98 Series 7-ft. 2-piece 4-weight
- Payne 97 Series 6½ ft. 2-piece 4-weight
- Orvis Battenkill 7-ft. 4-in. 3-piece 3-weight
- Leonard 804 Marvel 8-ft. 2-piece 4-weight
- Leonard Baby Catskill 7-ft. 2-piece 2/3-weight
- Heddon Number 17 9-ft. 3-piece 5/6-weight
© Copyright: Douglas G. Macnair, 2008