A song of the soul of the bamboo rod, the maker, and aesthetics… or perhaps, I drank too much Scotch again and let my mind wander far.
Author’s note: Thanks to Bamboo Fly Rod maker Joe Balestrieri for inspiring this piece. It is intended as an experience, not an essay. Nor is this a history of the Bamboo Fly-Rod. I will let that to other experts that are more knowledgeable. This is a piece like a strange brew. Something cooked up on the stove and never edited. I showed it several colleagues and suggested it needed a lot of editing and was surprised by the unanimous reply of “Leave it alone!” So here it is, all stirred together and served over ice.
It began with a visit by myself and a prospective client to bamboo fly rod builder and eclectic artist Joe Balestrieri. It was a night filled with art, scotch, bamboo, fly-fishing lore, history, and classical music.
After we examined, wiggled, and discussed multiple rods the rare single-malt Scotch flowed and the conversation became oiled on the tongue much like the rich caramel finish on Joe’s rods. Balestrieri kept popping up to extract little notebooks from a large trunk that served as a cocktail table, and reading his thoughts about tapers and miscellaneous notes, quotes, and musings from the many years he has been crafting fine cane rods. There seemed to be no end of these little notebooks, each leading the conversations on little diversions as topics intermingled, and trains of thought were lost and re-discovered.
Somewhere in there, after a few glasses of single-malt, what Joe was trying to say started to emerge from the Scotch fumes. His thoughts and stories were bordering on the philosophical and metaphysical entangled with casting physics, art and aesthetics, Zen and poetry; all inextricably wound around the bamboo fly rod. It was one of those moments when one wishes he had a tape recorder, because those thoughts could never emerge the same way again. It was not unlike being present when a composer gets an idea, and scrambling to the piano, belts out some piece of genius, but never writes it down. Silences and pauses in his thought-conversation-musings were tense with anticipation and reflection of the meaning of his words, opinions and lore.
When I got home, I began to take notes of the evening, and in those notes some themes emerged, with each analogy or metaphor leading back to bamboo as a material, tapers, artistry, casting grace, personalities both of artists and art, and a natural comparison of a fine bamboo rod to a great musical instrument both in the sound, construction, and aesthetics. I began to see the rich glow in the lightly flamed cane and the color of the scotch as intricately related and fell asleep on the couch.
Then, in the next several months I took notes and began collecting ideas, some while fishing, some while walking, and others while reading the volumes of books piled everywhere in my home. Finally, those notes littered the cocktail table, flowed through the better part of ten pages in my writing notebook of ideas, and were found behind the couch while cleaning. I found ideas written on the back of shopping lists, on a receipt for gas, and finally put them all in one place and tried to make sense out of them. I wanted to write an essay, but this collection of inspirations, meditations, ideas, and outright nonsensical notations was too tangled up to be able to sort out properly. I decided to just write a piece like jazz would be written: with themes interlocking and exploring without any hindrance. Hope you enjoy it.
The sun peeked through the clouds late in the afternoon in May along the hills of Wisconsin and caught me sitting on the banks of a spring creek taking a wee rest and doing what comes naturally to me: thinking and reflecting. I was looking at a 6’ 3” modified Young midge taper built by Joe Balestrieri. I was captivated by how the sun, as it increased in brightness, revealed the endless glowing layers in the wood burl reel seat. I began to feel the warmth of the sun as a glow in the warmth of the bamboo…the depth, the richness of colors and their variations. Silk wrappings that were almost translucent. The soul of the rod showing through, whispering, “Cast me…”
Why was I sitting there staring at this rod when I should be catching fish? Because the rod and equipment are to me and to many of us an intricate and important part of how we approach the stream. For me, angling with a fly-rod has always been related to art. The beautiful loops of flyline, the graceful bits of fur and feathers, the beauty of nature as art itself… for man’s attempts at art will always be flawed compared to natures, the water itself always flowing and never asleep, always being born and dying at the same time in perpetual movement from rushing noise to the stillness of silence. When I sit and reflect on the little 10” wild brown trout that took a nicely presented cast on an olive fly hand tied by me in darker evenings encumbered by snow, I want the rod that presented the fly to be a part of the whole, and if we might see the whole process of fly-fishing as some kind of personal musical experience, then the leading violin – the rod – should be beautiful in itself. Oh, and the rod should be made out of nature herself as well: natural materials rich in character and potential… at lest on this small trout stream, where they best exemplify and personify grace.
And whether you fish with a cane rod from time to time, are an avid aficionado, a collector, or just fly-fish and saw a bamboo rod once, I doubt anybody could argue that this combination of fine wood, rich cane, nickel-silver and silk, hand-designed, hand made and loved is a beautiful tool, an aesthetic instrument worthy of a meditation streamside worthy of Marcus Aurelius.
Graphite rods may be beautiful too and great casting tools, but they lack the love and creation of an artist. They are like prints instead of paintings. There is something about the handcrafted object or tool like a fine shotgun or string instrument; it is unique. It has soul.
I never carefully polish and rub my graphite rods with a special cloth. They are like beer; a commodity. Sometimes I like to just sip a single-malt scotch. Not all the time though, or these little reflections might move from the mystic to the existential…
My Bamboo fly-rod was born on a hill in China with a unique type of grass that grows tall and straight commonly called Tonkin Cane. The legend is that as the cane grows taller the wind catches it and tunes it, strengthens it, gives it its unique character. Back and forth, the wind blows tuning the cane until it reflects it in sound, resilience, and motion. Tuned, like a piano or violin.
After harvesting and aging, it is selected by the craftsman or artist and split into strips. Many makers of bamboo rods believe almost mystically that the only way to build the finest rod is to use only a single culm or one plant to create the finished rod of six strips.
One culm: A family of 6 sides from the same plant… living together, used to each other, they grew up together, they know each other’s moves, nuances, and strengths. Each strip selected by the master’s hand bolstering the other’s weaknesses and augmenting the other’s strengths.
One culm, from the top of the hill where the wind blew them…. A harmony of six pieces. A Sextet of tuned wood, strings or fibers tight in harmony.
The pieces mean nothing individually, the rod comes together from the symbiosis of the six pieces guided by the craftsman…. Or the…
The maker is involved with his or her art in personality, in intent, in mood: an abstract coming together. The sculpture emerges from the clay and is dictated by the medium as much as the intent of the artist. The cane directs and influences the outcome of the rod as much as the artist maker’s intent. As much media as the maker’s art and intent, personality and moods, all come together in an entanglement, an elegant symbiosis of the physical and the artistic. My mother once remarked when I asked her what she was painting: an abstract, “I don’t know yet, I am waiting for it to come out.” What came out was unique, and beautiful.
Combine that intent on the part of the maker with chance and the gift of the media itself and the artist’s ability to sense the cane’s personality and adapt to it, then add a special something… a touch if you will, something unexplainable that true artist’s have that allows them to create a true work of art. The Stradivarius effect. The gift of the artist. Garrison had it. All great artists and craftsmen do. Without that touch, without the ability to sense what the media or material wants to do, and work with it, not against it, and bring out the inherent properties as well as intent of the artist, the rod becomes just one painting among all the others: a collection of colors laid on the canvas a thousand, a million different ways…. Yet one is precious. One captivates the eye. One casts like an extension of your intent, kissing the fly where you only have to imagine it going.
You know one of these rods when you touch it. You can tell. It has soul. It has a personality all its own. All the others are just fly-rods.
Or just properties? ‘Properties’ sounds so un-romantic, so mathematical, so clinical. No! Personality it is! Let’s go forward with an anthropomorphism or two.
Each rod has a unique personality of its own. Regardless of the taper, it is an individual. It is one aesthetically. Each thousands of an inch carefully and lovingly shaved off in curls never the same twice. The personality of the craftsman is in the rod. His beliefs and theories… a portrait of the maker you may envision while you are fishing it. Subtle differences we grow to recognize, look for and appreciate. Character. Pick up a rod and cast it. Each time it is like a first date, or a first date remembered with faint recollection. The first cast is tentative… getting the feel, the second with more knowledge, the third with epiphanies and understandings. The rod has quirks like a personality too. You learn how it will react, what it likes, what it dislikes, what sets it off, how hard and in what direction you can push it. Pick up a second rod and give it a wiggle and a cast. This one is a brunette. A feisty Italian. It wants something different. More acceleration? Is she a sports car? Is it a da Vinci? A Caravaggio? Does it need and crave power like a Medici? Pick up a third rod and give it a play. This one is very different too. At first you fight it, trying to play a jig instead of smoothly stroking its strings. This one wants to play Mendelssohn. Feel it? Pianissimo. Close your eyes and get in harmony. Smooth, not staccato. What was going through the head of the maker while he shaved the strips, gently flamed the cane and polished it out? What music was playing in the background? Was it Verdi or Mozart? I cast my rods sometimes in the local park: Tuning up, playing notes on a violin, getting to know their personality and quirks so that when I am fishing I can make music with the trout.
Personality – character, originality. I like rods like this. They make the game more fun, the casting a fine art and not mere repetition. Some may say that all the great tapers in fly-rods have already been created. That is like saying that all the notes in jazz have already been written. Yes, they have, but not arranged, composed and played. There is where the artist and the caster come into play. Listen to Miles Davis. He is unique. Jazz improvisation drives the art. Tapers are the same way. Lengthening one taper or modifying the action here and there and we may get a rod that fails or one which is truly unique and may never be created again. Creativity and experimentation drive innovation. Without it, the notes would all be the same. Balestrieri has a rod that he still can’t recreate. It was an experiment, and is possibly the finest casting rod he has ever made. Born of Jazz Fusion, of improv, of moving off the path to uncomfortable new territory; the Mona Lisa rod, for that subtle smile will never be quite copied no matter how we try.
I have a friend who plays the trumpet professionally. We used to sit for hours listening to the characters inherent in the different horns from powerful and sharp, to soft and mellow. One for Jazz, one for Bach, one for Salsa, and everywhere in between. This adds some interesting twists to my fishing. If I have several tools in my rod bag and each does something differently, I can approach the water in a different way depending on my mood, the fishing conditions, the character of the stream, the bugs hatching or not hatching, and get a different piece of music or experience each time.
Without originality, art is dead and exists as a mutant called production.
Like my CD collection, I like my fishing eclectic. I may feel like listening to Steeleye Span or possibly Bach or John Coltrane. Sometimes it might be time for a little bourbon and turning the lights down low with Thelonious Monk. Without variety, life would be boring. Each rod has to played with in a different setting in order to satisfy curiosity.
Oh, and the rods are beautiful too. Did I say they were beautiful yet?
I look at fly rods on the shelf at the local flyshop. They all look more or less the same. Why do all the rods rated from 1-6 wt have the same half-wells grip? Why do all the 7-10 weight rods have a full-wells. What happened to the Ritz grip… the cigar, the swelled cigar? Why do my cane rods each have a different grip? Because the maker put thought into it. This rod sings at 30 feet with a DT 4 wt. Lets shave the grip down a bit at the end of the palm and provide a surface at the front for the thumb to push on. Thought and intent contribute to the originality in a bamboo rod. One has invisible silk wraps, the other deep red ones. One a maple burl seat, and the other a fine French walnut taken from a gunstock from the 1800s. Character as diverse as wine, once we educate our palette, the world opens before us. A fine cane rod is not just a tool, it becomes a work of art embodied with the love of the maker and a piece of his or her life in the time to hand make each piece. Garrison melded raw material, not just assembled. Wood spacer, color of cane, wraps of silk, contrasting colors, cork grip, not out of a box. Deeply flamed or roasted, baked and sanded. Light and dark or variations. Where are the nodes spaced. Why? Look at the signature on the rod. That is unique too. The last thing the artist does is put his name on it. He may have made hundreds of rods before he felt that the product was up to his standards and signature, the rest of them given away or turned to scrap. Block printing or cursive? Pen or brush?
Art is original, not a print. Prints might sometimes be worth more, depending on the artist, but an original is one-off. Balestrieri believes that each rod is unique, and the maker is too. The finest cane rods ever built have been made by some local artist working in his basement at midnight listening to Bjorling sing Italian arias, or in his garage eating twinkies wearing his old pajamas. A Young rod is not a Garrison or a Leonard or a Dickerson or a Payne. Each of those artists and dozens more were leaders not followers on taper design. Each had a different method that today people argue about on internet chat rooms and often forget that each of these artists was making it up as they went along for the most part. Painting by numbers would be dull at best.
Each of these makers also fished. They each fished differently and fished different waters. They had different theories about casting that show as traits in their tapers and rods. I like that. I want to get to know a bit about who made my rod and why they made it. Was it planned or an experimental accident? I listened to the stories that night at Balestrieri’s home. How does he fish? How does he cast? I looked around his home. Modern art. Abstract. Aesthete. Classical music and Jazz. A touch of the oriental. Woods of different hues. Angles. Clean, uncluttered. Eclectic furniture. Fishes the trout streams of the East. New York.
I look around me as I write this at home. Antique carpets and furniture. A statue of David, clutter everywhere. Dust. Art on the walls from floor to ceiling. More clutter. Books strewn everywhere. Neglected plants. Jazz. I fish differently too. Different waters in different ways. The roll-cast king. The clown who falls in the water. Man who stares at rods.
This human element adds so much more in the rod and the fishing.
Then there is the fishing….
For many of those that fish with bamboo, the rod is like a fine wine that makes everything taste a tiny bit richer and more alive; the fish become bigger and more treasured, turning the mundane into the exquisite. The trees more vibrant and the water more wet. A smaller slice of life seems to make us more content. We slow down in their rhythm. We appreciate things more. We feel. We feel our pulse quivering into the rod, waiting for the bend, the cast, the release of tension.
Bamboo fly rods are meant to be fished after all, not just looked at. That may be the defining break between mere craft and art, the art is achieved with the bend of the rod when the intent of the maker comes together with the rhythms of the caster and the river. The beauty of a fine instrument is in its being played. Beauty meets practice and utility. As the music on the water progresses, we can feel the movements of a symphony from the first notes of the grass bending in the wind, establishing the tune, to the development under the plane where the long curls make the harmonies, and the ferrules are fitted, to the finishing processes and finally the conclusion where it all comes together on the river with a delicate and elegant loop of line and the touch of a fly on the water.
When playing a fine instrument or casting a great bamboo fly rod one can struggle from time to time. This comes from not being in tune with it, of fighting it. When we are in tune it should feel like an harmonic chord. You have to feel the touch on the strings or rod and press it just right to make it sing. You feel the resonance when you hit it right and the visual grace of a beautiful loop is the reward. Each rod has its own resonance. You have to know how to play it. Smooth casting. Feel. The rod does the work. Feel its soul or personality, from parabolic to progressive. Each caster’s stroke is different and the rod needs to respond to the angler’s touch and intent. The rod is alive and lives in the hand of someone in symbiosis with it.
Fishing with bamboo can be like an experiment in a jazz riff too. Each rod will perform differently given the situation on the river: roll cast, long cast, tiny cast, reach mend, etc. Jazz is always different each time it is experienced. It is a constant change in progress within a framework. Pop music is like mass-production rods. The message is obvious, not intricate as in bamboo. “Oh Baby Baby, Wanga wanga boom boom”… we get the message. How can anybody not get it? It is delivered almost as an insult to intelligence like marketing.
Bamboo has an intricacy that makes us slow down and listen: to be aware… to cast and think. Fly-fishing is a thinking game. Sometimes we are not in tune with the rod and we have to change ourselves. In that ability, that will and effective change in approach and getting in tune with the river, the rod, the fish, and the moment we become more mindful. It makes us better anglers. Pop breeds thoughtlessness, which can be good too, but cane seems to breed reflection.
In that reflection, both of our thoughts and approaches, and the reflections of the water itself lies our souls as anglers. If we take the cane rod in hand, pause on the side of the river for a moment and squint our eyes, we might get a glimpse of it once in a great while. If you do, listen closely and you might hear the birth of the whole process. It will just be a whisper of potential in the wind as the branches and grasses bend in harmony. That moment and a wild trout might make the finest wine in the world. Sip it while you listen to Parker or Monk. The conversation is not complete. The tapers never the same twice. The loops of line wizened and aged in the past and reaching out to touch the future...
Thank cane for that!