From Wood to Bamboo
Early fly fishing rods, prior to the 1830s, were made of wood and were generally in the range of eleven feet long. It took a great deal of strength and endurance to cast these mighty beasts, especially if a person were doing it repetitively for any length of time. Not only were these fly rods unwieldy and difficult to manipulate, but the tips were rather breakable and they had a tendency to warp over time.
Rod builders realized that better materials were needed–materials that would be lighter and stronger, as well as more elastic. They began experimenting with laminated strips of cane that were imported from India, via England. At first, two strips of cane, split and glued together, were used just for sections of the fly rod.
The Hexagonal Prototype
Other designs were developed–some used three or four strips of cane for a fly rod section. This eventually gave way to the six-strip design and construction of the entire rod from cane sections, rather than a combination of wood and cane. Nobody knows for sure how or why the evolution came about. Some experts theorize that it had to do with the type of cane being used at the time.
The original cane imported for building fly rods was Calcutta cane, a variety that has a pithy interior and a thin outer layer of fibers. It was susceptible to various boring insects and the standard practice was to scorch it with fire, perhaps to kill insect infestations. It was easier to obtain six thin strips of undamaged cane, than four wider strips. In addition, a four-sided rod section had more useless pith in the middle.
It is known that sometime in the mid-1800s, Charles Murphy of New York was constructing entire fly rods with a six-strip design and by the 1870s the hexagonal design had become standard.
In the late 1800s a different species of bamboo became available to fly rod builders. The Charles Demarest Company introduced Tonkin bamboo to the rod building market, where it quickly became the material of choice. The scientific name for Tonkin bamboo is Arundinaria Amabilis. It is native to a fairly small area of southeast China and the canes are smooth, clean, straight and thick-walled with non-prominent nodes.
Machining Increases Availability
The business of making cane fly rods was an exceedingly slow one. Each rod had to be handcrafted from split pieces of bamboo and meticulously glued together to fit into a balanced whole. It took a gunsmith to elevate rod building into a trade with mass distribution capabilities. Many of those who built fishing rods in the early days were gunsmiths by trade so they were skilled wood workers.
Hiram Leonard developed a machine to manufacture precisely the tapered cane pieces, reducing overall production time substantially. He was very protective of his machinery and kept it locked up from even his own employees. However, others developed their own methods and the early years of the twentieth century became the golden age of bamboo fishing rods.
Loss of the Cane Supply
Fishing rods made from synthetic materials might never have been invented but for a trade embargo imposed on Chinese goods, including Tonkin Cane, in 1950. Only a few manufacturers of bamboo fly rods survived. Those who continued did so because they bought cane from the companies that folded.
Still, between a shortage of quality bamboo and the development of synthetics, the cane craft nearly died out altogether. The embargo ended in 1971, but by then bamboo fly rods were built only by a handful of manufacturers and a few home craftsmen.
Moving into the 1980s, fishermen and craftsmen renewed their interest in bamboo fly rods. A couple of nostalgic books led people to remember their earlier fishing experiences and the craft was reborn. The classic bamboo fly rod is back and better than ever. Century-old designs coupled with modern technology for more precise measurements and fittings are an unbeatable combination.