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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.
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.
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.”