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.
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.