- Casting a Spell: The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfection
- Random House, 244 pp.
The Esoteric World of Bamboo Fly Rods
Some years ago, back in the days of its relative anonymity, fly fishing was considered an arcane art practiced by mildly addled, eccentric cranks. Few people even knew what fly fishing was. Guides, the few that existed, were normally cantankerous, rarely sober and usually showed up in a battered pickup truck featuring a cracked windshield and a bed filled with empty beer and oil cans, a chainsaw and a hunting dog. Equipment was not easy to find. Graphite fly rods were far off in the technological distance and garishly-colored bonefish scrubs were not around. Rivers were uncrowded and the living was good.
Now fly fishing is big business hustled by corporations that include Orvis, Loomis and Sage, not to mention travel agencies and state tourism departments. The guiding business is booming to the extent that competition for prime runs on now-famous rivers often resembles a traffic jam or war zone. Those among us who feel the absurd need to be a part of anything ahead of the curve have taken to fly-fishing like religious zealots. The once contemplative pursuit has became in most places – even out-of-the-way locations such as Tierra del Fuego, Siberia and Mongolia – a dysfunctional madhouse.
So it comes as a slight relief to read George Black’s intriguing book Casting A Spell – The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfection. Black explores one of the last untrammeled corners of the fly fishing world with wit, thoroughness and passion.
But Casting A Spell is much more than a niche effort destined to gather dust in the fly fishing section of local libraries. As Richard Manning, author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, says, “This is not just a fishing tale, it is a finely wrought investigation of the major battle of our time: efficiency’s assault on beauty.”
Thirty-five million Americans fish to some extent. Fly fishers have long considered themselves to be the aristocracy of the sport. And a few thousand of these anglers insist upon using one fashion of device in the pursuit of their passion – the handcrafted split bamboo fly rod. Meeting this demand for perfection are the inheritors of a unique art form, one that venerates tradition while bucking obvious economic sense. The crafting of this rods reaches back through time and includes Theodore Roosevelt, Thoreau and the grand statesmen Herbert Hoover.
Black did not begin fly fishing until he passed his fortieth birthday. He was born in the small Scottish mining town of Cowdenbeath and was educated at Oxford University. He’s written four other books including The Trout Pool Paradox: The American Lives of Three Rivers. A journalist and editor for more than twenty-five years, he’s written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, The National Law Journal and Fly Fisherman.
I always assumed that the making of bamboo rods originated in England, but the true originators and innovators were from the US, mainly in the northeast. This was spurred on by the growing amount of leisure time Americans were gaining in the late nineteenth century and the burgeoning interest in outdoor recreation including fly-fishing in Maine, the Rangely Lakes region in particular. The first split bamboo fly rods were developed by Pennsylvania gunsmith and violin maker Samuel Phillippe, his son Solon and craftsmen Charles Murphy and Ebenezer Green from 1845-1865. Henry David Thoreau met Hiram Leonard in Maine in 1857 and perhaps this inspired Leonard to make his first rod fourteen years later in 1871.
Leonard was at the very least an exceptional individual as Black describes in this possibly true account he uncovered during the course of his research for the book:
In the woods he always carried his flute with him and played it well. Many is the night I hear him wake the wilderness with ‘Nellie Gray,’ ‘The Irish Washerwoman,’ ‘Old Kentucky Home,’ and other tunes now seldom heard.
Mr. Leonard’s powers of endurance were beyond belief, judging from appearances. He never seemed tired and would tramp all day through the forest, returning at night seemingly fresh.
The men are scarce who could carry as heavy a load as long a distance as he could. In 1856 he carried a quarter of moose weighing 135 pounds from Little Spencer Pond to Lobster Lake, a distance of seven miles.
Like Leonard, most of the bamboo rod makers were and are men of diverse character and talents. From Ed Payne to Walton Powell to Sam Carlson to Per Brandon they were men who sought perfection in their craft, though most denied this, at the expense of making a decent living and often at the expense of relationships and their health. They were carpenters, engineers and artists, to name a few occupations. Hoagy Carmichael, Junior (yes, that one) is considered to be one of the premier craftsman and his back-orders can run as long as two years.
Black makes it clear throughout Casting A Spell that the meticulous work involved with designing a properly tapered rod, beveling the four or six strips that are glued together to form the device and even obtaining the best bamboo that grows only in a specific region in China was a labor of love and sometimes manic devotion.
The Latin name for this unique species of grass is Arundinaria amabilis – the lovely reed. In Wade-Giles Chinese, it is tsing li; in Cantonese, cha kan chuk the tea stick. But in the trade it also acquired a lay name, albeit one that is totally inaccurate – Tonkin cane. As Black wonders, “Whether someone actually thought it came from the Gulf of Tonkin, or whether the folks at Montague (Rod and Reel Company) just thought the name would have exotic appeal in the market place, who knows? But it stuck.”
I have many fly rods, most say far too many. Most of them are made of the modern fiber, graphite. The best of them are wonders to cast – powerful, accurate and easy on the arm and shoulder. But on those occasions when I turn to my cane rods for special times on special, secluded waters, working a fly line with a bamboo rod reinforces in me the intrinsic beauty and innate qualities of bamboo that return fly fishing to a delicate, sensuous, contemplative activity. There is a feel of natural strength and response that seems, and is in my eyes, alive. No high tech fiber can duplicate this.
A number of flyfishers have become collectors of bamboo rods. As a result prices for works by the old, and new, masters have gone through the roof – two thousand, three thousand, more than ten thousand dollars. Still, I keep my eyes open for good buys. I turned up a Payne in near mint condition in a second hand store in eastern Montana for fifty bucks and another in similar condition by Wes Jordan, one of the best, in northern Alberta for one-hundred dollars. These are treasures that sparkle in sunlight with an internal fire. They give me much pleasure.
Casting A Spell is much more than a book about the history and making of bamboo fly rods. It is a story about a bygone era and craft that somehow manages to survive in the present day world of corporate marketing.
John Holt and his wife, photographer Ginny Holt, are currently finishing up a pair of related books – “Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real-Time” (to be published by AK Press in February 2009) and “Searching For Native Color – Fly Fishing for Cutthroat Trout.” John’s work has appeared in publications that include “Men’s Journal,” “Fly Fisherman,” “Fly Rod and Reel,” “The Angling Report,” “American Angler,” “The Denver Post,” “Audubon,” “Briarpatch,” “counterpunch.org,” “Travel and Leisure,” “Art of Angling Journal,” “E – The Environmental Magazine,” “Field and Stream,” “Outside,” “Rolling Stone,” “Gray’s Sporting Journal” and “American Cowboy.” Chesapeake Bay Bridge