FOR THE LOVE OF GRASS
Yes I love grass, but not the kind that you cut with a lawn mower or smoke so that one can take a trip without leaving the farm. The grass that I have had a love affair with for nearly 60 years is Pseudosasa amabilis, [formerly known as Arundinaria amabilis], Tonkin Cane, the bamboo that is used to construct the finest fly rods in the world.
I have always found it interesting that bamboo is a member of the grass family. Bamboo is a plant that grows very quickly under the proper conditions, and certain species can grow 35 inches in 24 hours. That sounds like my lawn in the spring of the year.
My love of bamboo goes back nearly 60 years. When I started fly fishing bamboo fly rods were the crème de la crème, the best of the best, the pinnacle, and a thing to be aspired too. They were the tools used by the most talented craftsmen and I was merely a lowly apprentice so I was assigned to use the lesser tools of the common craftsman. Fiberglass rods, including fly rods, were the tools of the common craftsman. They were plentiful and cheap. They were tough and absorbed much abuse and would continue to perform. However, one can dream and my dream was that someday I would be worthy of owing a real bamboo fly rod. Mostly I hoped that someday I could justify the cost of a bamboo rod.
I lived in Lower Michigan in those days, 20 miles or so from downtown Detroit. Just down the road from where I lived on Eight Mile Road was Paul Young's shop and I spent many hours there buying fly tying material and ogling the bamboo rods. Mr. Young died before I started to visit the shop but his wife; Martha, was still waiting on customers. I came to know her fairly well and she assisted me when I came into the store looking for fly tying material. How I wish now that I had purchased one of the remaining original Paul Young bamboo rods that were for sale in the shop. I could have purchased for just a little over one hundred dollars!
A few years later I purchased my first bamboo rod, an Orvis® 8 foot for an 8 weight line which set me back ninety-eight dollars and fifty cents. It was an impregnated Battenkill rod with two tips, a rod sack and an aluminum case. It was considered the all-around fly rod in those days and I fished it for years. Later I purchased an Orvis® Madison seven and one half foot five weight with one tip for one hundred and thirty five dollars. When Orvis® stopped making their six foot one piece bamboo rod I bought one of the last blanks and finished it myself.
I had always wanted a Leonard® bamboo rod and my nephew Tom, when he was in Viet Nam in 1971, saved his combat pay and sent me the money so that I could purchase a model 38H Baby Catskill, 7 foot 2 piece for a four weight line. It cost two hundred and fifty dollars, seventy-four cents for shipping and forty cents for insurance. I still have the original order blank which they sent back to me with the rod, No. 575. I remember the excitement of opening the rod case for the first time and smelling that unique smell of lacquer which emanated from the case. Even today, when I uncase that rod I can still smell it.
Michigan's Au Sable River – Keystone Landing
Time moved on and today my working rods are graphite sticks and my bamboo rods have been relegated to special occasions. However, on those special occasions I am once again transported back to those halcyon days on Michigan's Au Sable River when all that I knew of fly fishing was the joy of one man and a rising trout.
Today I still own all those bamboo rods plus a couple of Ron Kusse Quads and a few antique bamboo rods. Each one has a story, each one is unique and I love them all. To me they still represent the finest rods that were ever produced for fly fishing. May the craftsmanship and skill that it takes to produce them never disappear so that future generations can still have the thrill of falling in love with the beautiful grass.