Handcrafted casting

Wyoming man builds bamboo fly-fishing rods with ‘finesse’

Jerry Johnson splits a bamboo rod with a knife inside his home woodshop. Johnson has made 25 bamboo fly-fishing rods in his lifetime. Enlarge photo

ANDY CARPENEAN, Laramie Boomerang/Associated Press

Jerry Johnson splits a bamboo rod with a knife inside his home woodshop. Johnson has made 25 bamboo fly-fishing rods in his lifetime.

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP)

Jerry Johnson remembers the day he got hooked on fly fishing, 44 years ago.

A co-worker at the University of Wyoming – Johnson worked in preventive maintenance – suggested that he fish a hatch on the Laramie River.

“I went out there with a fly rod and did that and never looked back. It was just that much fun,” he said.

He also remembers the first time he caught a fish with a fly he tied himself.

“It’s a real joy the first time you catch a fish on a fly you tied,” he said. “That’s the real experience. You really tricked the fish.”

Johnson takes the experience one step further, though, by making the bamboo fly rods he uses to cast the flies he ties himself.

“It’s all me, except for the line and the leader,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Johnson’s wife bought him a book about how to make bamboo fly rods, and since then, he’s made a couple dozen.

“That was her mistake,” he joked.

Not many people go to the trouble of attempting a delicate process that takes him about 60 hours – he knows of a handful of other Wyoming residents who have the expertise. It requires some specialized equipment and raw materials from faraway places, but mainly it requires precise attention to detail and an appreciation for the tradition. The result is a work of art.

“You can’t compare bamboo rods with graphite rods or fiberglass rods. One’s a natural product, and the rest are synthetic,” Johnson said. “I think you can build more finesse into a bamboo rod.”

The process starts with raw Tonkin bamboo, which is shipped from China in bundles. Johnson splits the circular shafts into straight, narrow pieces, cuts them to the correct length and smooths off the growth ridges.

When making a two-section rod, he’ll make one butt piece and two tip pieces. Each piece is made from six bamboo segments, meaning Johnson works with 18 pieces altogether.

He planes each strip into an equilateral triangle of a certain thickness and taper, measured to a thousandth of an inch. The pieces eventually will be glued together into a hexagonal shape.

As he planes the pieces ever thinner using a specialized form that holds them in place, Johnson measures and remeasures with calipers. With each pass of the blade, imperceptibly thin shavings of bamboo curl off and fall to the floor of his garage workshop.

As he works, he takes into account bamboo’s natural enamel coating, which he’ll sand off later, because that adds about three thousandths of an inch to the thickness.

“There’s no point in building a rod if you don’t build it to the dimensions,” Johnson said.

Partway through the shaping process, he binds the strips together and heats them in an oven to drive out excess moisture and stiffen the rod.

When the pieces are the right thickness, he glues them together, hangs them to dry and then sands off the enamel and the glue.

“When you’re done, you can see the fibers in the bamboo,” he said.

Johnson puts the guides on next, then varnishes the rod. He seals off a room for the varnishing step and removes the rod very slowly, about a foot a minute, to give the varnish time to run off.

To make the handle, he uses cork pieces from Portugal that he glues together and trims to shape. Lastly, he adds ferrules, which allow the final product to be fitted together.

The resulting rod is light, smooth, strong and timeless.

Jerry Johnson rough planes a bamboo reed as part of the process he uses to make a bamboo fly-fishing rod. Enlarge photo

ANDY CARPENEAN, Laramie Boomerang/Associated Press

Jerry Johnson rough planes a bamboo reed as part of the process he uses to make a bamboo fly-fishing rod.