Cast from the past

There’s not much in Twin Bridges save for three fly rod manufacturers who still believe in bamboo

| April 01, 2013

After the Tonkin bamboo arrives from China, it’s eyeballed for the choicest culms, split into strips, roasted in an oven, eyeballed again, re-humidified, measured and milled to exact tapers, re-eyeballed, separated into groups of four or five or six or eight, eyeballed one more time, and then dipped in glue. Now Glenn Brackett is ready to set the strips into poles using an antique-looking pedal-operated contraption. That’s the last step before things get complicated, and it’s the first point in the process at which someone who doesn’t know how to build a fly rod out of bamboo—which is pretty much everyone—might recognize what Brackett is making.

Though he would cringe at the title, Brackett is the dean of Montana bamboo fly rod builders. Since 2006, he and business partner Jerry Kustich have owned and operated Sweetgrass Rods. Today they employ four other rod makers— they call them “Boo Boys”—and the company turns out about 300 rods annually, which is an impressive number only if you consider two things: a) building rods out of bamboo is a craft that demands absolute, dream-haunting obsession from the crafter, and b) no one fishes with bamboo rods.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
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The latter wasn’t always true. Generations ago, if you knew how to cast a fly rod, you knew how to cast a bamboo fly rod. There was nothing else. Bamboo was the lightest, strongest and most tolerant fiber for the physics of a fly cast.

Then, in the mid-’50s, fiberglass became the rod material of choice. It was lighter, cheaper, and demanded less skill from the builder and less upkeep from the angler, but its preeminence wouldn’t last long.

In the late-’70s, graphite ushered in fly-fishing’s modern era. Graphite is lighter and more durable than fiberglass, but what really made graphite revolutionary was its power. It’s stiffer, and therefore transfers the energy of an angler’s cast to fly line so efficiently that it changed the way flies are cast. Remember, in A River Runs Through It, when Rev. Maclean teaches his sons to cast to the rhythm of a metronome? “It was made of split bamboo cane ... powerful but not so stiff it could not tremble.” Graphite doesn’t tremble.

Since their introduction, graphite rod makers have continued to make them stiffer and more powerful, each generation pushing bamboo further to the fringe, appreciated only by collectors and retired craftspeople with dimly lit basement workshops.

But there is a town in southwest Montana where rod builders still believe in bamboo. Twin Bridges is home to the Beaverhead, Big Hole and Jefferson rivers, and about 373 residents. Outside the Blue Anchor Bar & Cafe blinks the town’s only traffic light. Within a half-mile of that spot, there are three bamboo rod companies, putting Twin Bridges in the running for the only place in the world with more bamboo rod builders than stoplights.

After the bamboo strips are glued and wrapped together, Brackett stows them in a closet for a month of curing. Then they must be measured and cut to the specifications of whatever rod he and his employees are building. This step follows a complex set of mathematical rules, and while each rod follows a formula, each rod also produces a formula. In this way, says Boo Boy Dave Delisi, the process is always evolving: “Especially with multiple-piece rods, you have to play with your cuts and dimensions,” he says. “Everything is beta. It’s a living thing.”

After the rods are cut, they’re varnished, guides are affixed to the blanks using hand-wrapped thread, and a reel seat is carved and glued to the rod. The entire process takes months.

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Delisi came to work at Sweetgrass shortly after it opened. So far, he says, he has built about 150 rods. He says that bamboo has been unfairly shrugged off as a novelty rod material. “The truth is that bamboo will teach you how to cast. The rod will do the work for you if you let it,” he says. “That’s what I love about it. That’s what people who don’t fish bamboo are missing.”

In the mid-’70s, Brackett and his then-business partner, Tom Morgan, bought R.L. Winston, a San Francisco fly rod manufacturer. Wanting to build rods closer to where they could use them, they moved Winston to Twin Bridges in 1976.

“When we came to Twin Bridges, fiberglass rods were going gangbusters. And a few years later, graphite completely took over,” Brackett says today. “People traded in bamboo rods straight across. It was just a dying craft.”

By the early ’90s, R.L. Winston had established itself as a manufacturer of the highest-quality graphite rods, and the name Winston became synonymous with Montana fly fishing. Though the lion’s share of sales were graphite, Brackett also continued to make bamboo rods. “The bamboo thing was really secondary,” he says. “But I just felt we had to keep the tradition alive.”

In 1991, Brackett sold Winston to David Ondaajte, a California businessman who would be able to pay attention to the money-making while Brackett focused on building rods. The decision would be damaging. In the early 2000s, Ondaajte decided Winston would start manufacturing low-end graphite rods in China, leaving only the most expensive graphite and bamboo rods to be built in Twin Bridges. For Brackett, this was a “killing move” to Winston’s core principles.

In February 2006, Brackett and fellow rod builder Kustich left Winston and opened Sweetgrass. Winston still makes bamboo rods in Twin Bridges, and employs two full-time rod builders. Spokesman Adam Hutchison can’t say how many bamboo rods Winston produces a year, but if he “had to guess” it might be “around two a month.”

These days, Winston’s primary focus seems to be finding the next innovation in rod material. This year Winston released Boron III-SX and Boron IIIx series rods, which use boron and high-modulus graphite composites, “providing the caster with an even broader casting range, better line control, greater casting accuracy and the ability to pick up even more line off the water,” according to the company’s product description.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • CHAD HARDER

Brackett has little interest in what aerospace technology has to offer fly fishing. He feels bamboo is impressive enough.

“If you really, really learn how truly unique this material is—I mean, look at those dimensions,” he says, holding a strip of bamboo that tapers to the width of a fork tine. “It still doesn’t break. That’s strong. It tolerates the things we put it through. It has forgiveness graphite will never have. And still it outlives us. It has longevity built into it.”

Kustich is retiring this year, and though Brackett himself says he looks forward to handing over more of the business to the younger Boo Boys, he has no intention of quitting. “I’ll die at the bench. This is my lifeblood,” he says. “It’s a love of what you believe in, and that belief is a craft we want to see continued.”

If Brackett believes in tradition, Wayne Maca believes in experimentation. Maca owns Beaverhead Rods, which operates out of an alley-fronting garage shop equidistant from the Winston and Sweetgrass shops. He arrived in the fly rod world from the snowboard industry, where he designed high-performance racing boards for World Cup snowboarders. Glenn Brackett gave him his first rod job, sanding bamboo strips at the Winston shop. “After [Brackett and Kustich] left [Winston], I just started doing my own thing,” he says.

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Snowboards taught Maca about building with composite materials and adhesives, and the lessons inform his rod building. “My thinking is, turn each [bamboo] strip into its own little snowboard, and then put them all together,” he says. “People assume bamboo isn’t a composite material, but I don’t see anything monolithic about it. I’ve been training to do this my whole life.”

There are similarities between the way Maca and other bamboo rod builders work, but not many. He burns the culms until they have a charcoaled skin, which makes them warp and shrink and maximizes the percentage of “power fibers.” Later he zaps the bamboo with cold plasma, which burns all the natural glues in the fiber. He later replaces those natural glues with his own adhesive, which is treated with carbon nanotubes.

“I waited for three years just for somebody to put nanotubes in the adhesive,” he says. “Why should I use Elmer’s glue just like everybody else?”

To a layperson, Maca’s ideas are difficult to understand. To other bamboo rod builders, they are polarizing. Maca says he was banned from a casting competition in New York’s Catskills because his rods contained nanotubes. “Nobody understands them,” he says. “The stiffness is still all bamboo, but it’s hard to talk physics in the world of myth.”

To anyone accustomed to the fast, punchy casting action of graphite rods—or who finds bamboo rods noodly and awkward—Maca’s designs seem as science-fictional as the methods he uses to create them. They reward an increase in casting energy with an increase in cast distance, a trait that is strikingly graphite-like. His rods are tethered to science and imagination, they are both bamboo and somehow not.

Maca isn’t sure where he fits in the world of bamboo rods, and he hasn’t done any marketing in three years. “I tend to shut myself off during design periods,” he says.

For Maca, reimagining what bamboo can do is more important than selling rods. “Everyone used to think I was crazy, but I’m still doing it,” he says. “I don’t know why. It’s just like terminal curiosity. I’m waiting to see when curiosity kills the cat.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • CHAD HARDER

Brackett, Delisi, Kustich, Hutchison and Maca will all tell you the rods they produce are made for fishing, not display—though at $1,000 to $3,000 a pop, they are not for every angler.

Tonkin bamboo grows only on steep, muddy hills bounding the Sui River in southern China. Today it is cultivated in much the same way it was 100 years ago. After it’s felled, gravity is the primary agent in getting it downhill. Then it’s wheeled to town on a wooden cart, where it’s sorted and shipped downriver. Most Tonkin bamboo becomes furniture, flooring or fencing material, but a tiny percentage of the straightest, most unblemished culms are handpicked and shipped to Seattle. From there, they’re distributed to the tiny percentage of American rod builders who believe in bamboo. Which, in Twin Bridges, is just about everyone.

Bamboo basics

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • CHAD HARDER

Sweetgrass Rods

The Boo Boys have a retail store attached to their workshop at 501 N. Main Street in Twin Bridges. Swing by for a tour or to cast one of their rods. Learn more at sweetgrassrods.com

R.L. Winston

Winston operates a showroom with tours available at 500 S. Main St. in Twin Bridges. You can see their entire line of rods at winstonrods.com

Beaverhead Rods

Maca works out of a garage shop a few yards from the Beaverhead River. His website is beaverheadrods.com, and the best way to reach him is by emailing info@beaverheadrods.com

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I never knew that bamboo rods could "tremble." How appropriate then, that Sweetgrass and the Boo Boys donated a $2,400 custom-made walking stick/fly rod combo to the Spokane Tremble Clefs, a therapeutic support group that helps folks with Parkinson's (PD) improve the quality of their voices through vocal exercises and singing.

April was Parkinson's Awareness month and the Tremble Clefs raffled that beautifully crafted masterpiece and raised about $4,600 to help the group continue to improve the quality of life of those affected with PD.

A great big THANK YOU to Sweetgrass and the Boo Boys--you guys are great!

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Posted by Walter Jakubowski on 05/02/2013 at 9:20 AM
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