A glimpse into the “Dark Side” – I have over the course of my life been connected with bamboo on 3 separate occasions. It could be said that I have moved in and out of the “dark side’, some of it pleasurable, some that brings back memories of anxiety and the discovery of right from wrong. But, more about that later.
My first association with bamboo was as a whippersnapper at the tender age of 8 years. I’d already been introduced to trout fishing a couple years earlier by my father and a close family friend Mr. Lake who became my mentor and who managed with minimum effort and stimulating the obsession on my part, to get me hooked on flyfishing. My interest in trout fishing developed as only it can with the urgency and enthusiasm of young boys – infatuation matured into longing, deep and abiding. With it came the yearning and desire – I ached to own my own fly rod to follow the dream, the need to stand in the stream, feel the tug of the cold water and cast a line. In those days of bamboo and fiberglass, I don’t recall being too fussy which type or make as long as it managed to get a fly onto the water with a little help from myself and depending of course on the generosity of the seniors to take me fishing. The show of enthusiasm did its trick and I was eventually presented with a 3 piece bamboo rod of unknown origins that cast like a noodle of cooked spaghetti. It came neatly laid out in a plywood box, two tip sections and 3 factory tied flies, dyed feathers in gaudy colours, red, yellow and blue and if I recall correctly, tied on # 6’s with barbs like grappling hooks. If you were lucky enough not to scare the fish into the river in the next valley and by chance happened to hook an unfortunate trout there was simply no prospect of escape for the hapless creature unless the 20lb monofilament tippet broke or the knot of the inexperienced hand came apart. Even if it did manage to escape in this way it was certain of a multi-coloured appendage hanging from its lip for its remaining years, probably destined to a life of rejection by its own kind as that ‘punk’ from the pool downstream. Fortunately for the trout, Mr. Lake kept me supplied with popular flies of the day, Invictas, March Browns, Teal and Greens and a few others. However, in fairness I was as proud as punch of the little stick and while it remained intact it did catch its share of trout. I even made my own wooden fly box with cork insert to complete my needs – not what one could call craftsman standards and of debatable family heirloom status, but I was in the zone. I was happy and so were those around me who relished the change from the yearning kid to one with a grin from ear to ear. But, as young boys will, poking around in streams, the intended longevity of the rod was relatively short. After a few years of use and quite a number of enjoyable moments, with tips glued, wired and bound with bright green electrical insulation tape, it was eventually put out to pasture, backbone broken and never to be used again. My father saw this coming and the day the plywood box was closed for the last time I was presented with a brand new fiberglass fly rod and small Hardy Gem reel. It went on to serve me well and although it has been in retirement now for many years, the greatest result for my parents was that its introduction managed to maintain the grin. And, so I’d moved in and out of the “dark side” for the first time, an enjoyable and memorable experience and one that solidified my obsession for flyfishing.
The second association with bamboo was somewhat less enjoyable, no, far less pleasant with memories that are probably best erased. I suppose though it was with intentions of teaching right from wrong after all other methods had failed. The bamboo in this instance came in lengths of around 3’ 6” and a few weights, heavy, medium and light – they were known to produce a sting that brought the odd tear to the eye. All 3 stood in the corner of the Headmasters office in an old 2nd World War polished brass cannon shell – implements for metering out punishment to young school boys, a practice now outlawed. I don’t think I’m any the worse off for having been on the receiving end occasionally mostly for unfinished homework – my problem was that there always seemed far more interesting and important things to do, like sneaking off for an afternoons fishing. In fairness, the “darkness” this time related not so much to the bamboo, but the fact that in the midst of the connections between the stick and my gluteus maximus, my head was buried somewhere down around my knees and my eyes squeezed tightly shut as I waited in tense anticipation.
I have recently moved again across the divide and am now firmly entrenched on the “dark side” – a little older and hopefully wiser. This time though there is a grin that threatens to wrap around the back of my head. This is the real deal and in retrospect probably what I have been searching for throughout my fishing life. To accomplish this move, I was aided by one of South Africa’s gifted craftsmen, Stephen Boshoff, who recently presented me with an exquisite hand made bamboo fly rod and a magnificent small stream net, both incorporating indigenous Besembos inserts in the rod’s reel seat filler and in the net handle. Apart for the fact that they are items of beauty, they are practical fishing implements that exude heirloom quality. When the rod was ready Stephen wrote to me stirring the same elating emotion as I experienced when sliding the rod out of its tube for the first time. This is an extract of what he said – “It is based on a Paul Young midge taper, a classic small stream taper, 6’3” for a 3 or 4 weight line, I suggest a 3 as in action it is quite authoritative, but not fast. In style, I tried to interpret what you would like, classic and no frills, something that doesn’t look and feel modern or even new. It’s an “easy” rod …. I thought of making something which you can use during those easy, uncomplicated and “stolen” escapes: where size and number of casts or even nature of the stream doesn’t matter, but just the fact that you can get away and be content and at peace, Forgive me, but it was contemplated as a grand father’s small stream rod, in a positive sense.”
Not only a craftsman, but a judge of character who was able to seamlessly connect the two and make me one happy and grateful fly fisherman – privileged indeed, for me the perfect rod. I’m reminded of the words of Vincent C Marinaro in his book ‘In the Ring of the Rise”, “….. bamboo, being a natural product, like flesh and blood, can establish a greater affinity with its owner than any other material. There can be a powerful bond between them, an identification, that lets the caster feel that the rod is an extension of his own personality.”
To match the beauty of the rod, I chose one of my older reels a JHL Hardy Ultra Light. It’s not the lightest or modern, but it too is quality and I like the traditional look and feel – there is almost a symbiotic relationship. I don’t have a genuine silk line although I thought long and hard about it and I may still go in that direction eventually, but cost and maintenance practicalities convinced me otherwise. I just know that I won’t be lonely on that proverbial cloud nine because there is a growing band of bamboo devotees. As Harry Middleton put it in his delightful book, “The Earth is Enough – growing up in a world of Flyfishing, Trout & Old Men”, “… such a fish demanded, of course, special attention, certain considerations, a method of pursuit as finicky and fastidious as their own behavior. A curious fish insists on a curious form of angling, one heavy with respect, tradition, skill and a challenge. If there was only one fish in our lives, so was there only one way to fish for it – with the fly rod. And not just any fly rod, but A subtle, willowy, handmade bamboo fly rod, a good line, a trust-worthy reel, tippets as delicate as gossamer, and the smallest dry flies possible.” In the eyes of HM I think I’ve just about got it right.
As I move along this road with ever an increasing fascination, I have been introduced to people like Leonard, Payne, Garrison, Young and others, slowly piecing the puzzle of bamboo speak together, discovering where things like Tonkin cane, culms, nodes, filing, stripping, flaming, staggering, impregnation, finding the spline and spliced joints, fit in. It’s absorbing, addictive; it all rests so easy with the rhythms of the natural world, trout, clear streams, and the kind of things that touch my soul.
I’m now satisfied that unlike my occasional connections in the past with the short bamboo sticks during my school years, the term “dark side”, is simply a metaphor for having returned to fishing with a rod made of natural material, I’m now in a state of euphoria and bliss which I’m probably not going to emerge from in a while, if ever: see you there ………fly fishing through life.