Updated: Mar 2
This is the first, in what I hope to be several, guest posts. Images, unless otherwise noted, are from the author, Perry Palin.
Perry Palin grew up in NE Minnesota and now lives in Wisconsin's Trout Free Zone (TFZ) "up north" - maybe one day we will get a post on the TFZ which is not quite as troutless as the name may suggest. He has published in magazines, journals, and websites as well as having two books - collections of fishing stories - published. His most recent book review of Carl Haensel's book, Fly Fishing Minnesota, is on page 8 of the Winter Minnesota Trout Unlimited newsletter. His books Katz Creek and Other Stories and Fishing Lessons: Stories and Essays from Midwestern Streams are available at The Whitefish Press.
WOOD TROUT RODS – A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
On a warm afternoon in the mid-80s, I was knee-deep in the tail of a small pool in a western Wisconsin trout stream. A riser on the edge of a weed bed about twenty feet upstream had turned down a soft hackle and an EHC, and I knotted on a small burnt-wing thorax dun, a fly that many suspicious trout have taken with confidence. Two fishermen appeared on the bank above me. Why they would stop to fish in this little creek when my car was already in the pullout was a mystery. They carried long dark rods and wore new waders and vests with the creases still showing from the packaging. I don’t mind people using new equipment, but these two were laughing at my patched waders and homemade vest and old dirty hat. They asked how the fishing was, and I said I was catching a few. I threw the little thorax dun up to the fish to match the timing of the next rise, and the fish took the fly.
I brought the fish to the net, a foot long brown. One of the guys said, “That’s a pretty nice fish.” Then they looked at my rod, which was shorter than theirs, and blond. The fisherman asked, “Is that one of those expensive bamboo fly rods?”
I looked down at the rod in my hands and said, “Nooo. I carved this one out of a piece of house siding.” Their faces fell, and they walked off downstream.
In his 1865 book Superior Fishing, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, businessman, political figure, uncle of Teddy Roosevelt, and accomplished sportsman declared his preference for a cedar fly rod:
A cedar rod never warps; it springs to the hand as quick as thought to the brain; it is never slow or heavy; it cannot be kept down by the wind or the current; it is never aught but quick, lively and vigorous; it will cast three feet further than any other rod of the same weight and strike a fish with twice the certainty. The wood is extremely light but the grain is short; it never loses its life, but will snap under a sudden strain.
Bamboo was just arriving on the scene in 1865, and Roosevelt’s experience with the new material was limited. Flyrods were made of various woods, usually hardwoods. A salmon rod might weigh upwards of a pound, and the lighter rods for trout fishing maybe half of that. Roosevelt was a champion fly caster, and his opinions on rods were based on extensive fishing and competitive casting experience.
I began fly fishing with fiberglass rods. I was happy with those. When I got my first graphite rods in the 1970s, the glass rods went to the back of the closet. I bought my first bamboo rod in 1981. It was and still is an outstanding trout rod. I bought and sold more bamboo rods, and now I have a handful of them that serve my Midwestern stream trout fishing well.
As I moved from one rod material to another, I wanted to become a better caster, and to do that I wanted to learn more about rod actions. I couldn’t afford to buy a pile of rods to cover every trout rod action. But two things gave me an idea. One was the description of the cedar rod in Roosevelt’s book. The other was the beautiful white ash rods made by a friend and mentor in the Twin Cities.
My friend spent a lot of time looking through a lumberyard pile of ash to find even a part of a board with a straight grain. He gave me the sticks to make one strong rod. Mine was an easier search. I had a small pile of three quarter inch cedar car siding left over from a home improvement project. Some of the cedar pieces had a straight grain, easily split by driving a knife into one end and twisting the board. I figured if I carved a blank by following the grain, I would have a chance for a rod that would cast straight and catch a fish.
I pulled a board out of the pile, split a couple of sticks about four feet long, and tapered them into a butt and a tip. I have neither tools nor skills in woodworking. My tools are a utility knife and a five dollar trimming plane. For that first rod I spent about a day carving the blank for a two piece, seven foot rod. I added a cork grip, a cheap metal reel seat, and a brass ferrule. I wrapped guides on the blank in a number and spacing suggested by one of my bamboo rods. The tip of the blank was too big to take the barrel of any tip-top, and I finished the tip with a one foot guide. I varnished the rod and took it out into the yard. It cast beautifully with a five weight line for about ten minutes. Then it broke just below the ferrule. I shortened the butt section and reset the ferrule, and with another ten minutes of lawn casting it broke just above the ferrule. So much for the first cedar rod.
I try to learn from my mistakes. I’ve had plenty of chances to learn. My second cedar rod was a six and one half foot one-piece rod, stained and varnished. I was out of cork rings, so I glued short pieces of cedar in the grip area and carved a wood grip. The reel seat was an extension of the butt section, inlet to take the reel foot, with rings of ¾” copper tubing to hold the reel. I took the rod to a stream in western Wisconsin. The first trout, an eleven inch brown, made me smile. I caught two more. Within an hour the rod began to groan and creak, and then it broke a foot above the grip. I learned that a wood rod cannot survive any length of straight blank without a taper. I also learned that a stain interferes with the penetration of the finish into the wood. Before the hour was up the varnish was flaking off the rod.
I carved more cedar wood rods. I fashioned forgiving ferrules of a bit of fiberglass fishing rod, glued to the tip section, to fit over the top of the butt. When the straight-grained cedar was used up, I looked elsewhere. I’ve made rods from hardwood dowels and from sticks of birch and maple, split and dried from trees on our land. A friend offered me some sticks of Douglas fir. This is a wonderful rod material, balancing modest weight with strength. But Douglas fir is splintery and difficult to work with hand tools. I kept the Band-Aids close. I found that clear Devcon 2-Ton, a two-part epoxy glue, is a terrific, self-leveling rod covering which penetrates the wood and strengthens and stiffens the blank.
Some early wood rods. Top to bottom: 3 piece white ash; 3 piece stained cedar; 2 piece cedar; 2 piece hardwood dowel rod with pine grip and reel seat; 2 piece dowel rod with cedar grip; 1 piece cedar rod with pine grip.
Every piece of wood is different in grain and density. I couldn’t come up with a formula for rod dimensions. I worked with each piece of wood, following its grain, flexing it in my hands until it felt right. A fast wood rod with the flex in the tip will break first in the tip. A slower rod that bends into the butt section will break below the ferrule. I tried for a moderate taper, balancing the strengths and weaknesses on the length of the rod. Most of my wood rods have worked best with a five-weight line. I’ve made rods that wanted a four or a three. My wood rods varied from six feet to eight feet in length. I found a narrow, deep, alder-lined stretch of stream that called for a big, weighted fly that would sink to the bottom where the big browns lived, and I carved a seven foot, seven-weight rod of maple. It was a heavy rod, but it worked to throw a beadhead wooly bugger.
Two later wood rods. Top: Hardwood dowel rod with pine grip and reel seat. Bottom: Douglas fir rod with pine grip.
The wood rods did what I wanted them to do. I learned about rod actions, and I learned to cast at normal Midwestern stream distances. I’ve never fished a lot with any one of them. I would use a rod for a while, then set it aside for another one.
I've made about fifty wood rods. I can make a rod in about six hours time over two days, with time for drying coats of epoxy. Materials for a rod are around $12. Some of my rods were failures, and I cut them up and reused the guides on later models. Some I broke while fishing, though only one or two while playing a fish. Some I gave away or bartered for other fishing equipment. I gave two to a landowner who let me cross his posted pasture to fish a fine stretch of trout stream. I kept records for the early rods, and I know I caught 154 trout with one of my cedar rods until I put it away in favor of another one.
The wood rods did what I asked of them. They taught me what rod actions suit me best for stream fishing, they taught me to be more deliberate in my casting, which made my casts more accurate and less likely to spook the fish; they taught me the wisdom of sharpened hooks and the slip strike, and careful playing of a fish. They made me a better fly fisherman.
Today I fish most days with bamboo. A well made bamboo rod is much superior to anything I can make out of a piece of wood. But I still take the wood rods out a few times every year, just because.
Interested in writing a post for the Scientific Fly Angler blog? Shoot me a message. And a huge thanks to Perry for contributing.