Bamboo fly rods are a little like herpes. Both are achieved out of lust which, in the light of day, provokes a certain retrospective guilt. Both, once acquired, invoke the sort of awe that elicits careful handling, and—be it split-cane rod or irritated genitalia—the newfound host might find himself wondering "Damn… should I even touch that thing?" Perhaps most importantly, both can prove terrifically hard to get rid of. That said, a bamboo fly rod is also often quite beautiful, and valuable, and typically created at the hands of someone who cares deeply for the craft and its requisite tools—and the gesture of quiet loveliness that throws a feather-wrapped hook at a fish.
I got into bamboo the same way and for the same reason most of my contemporaries did: It was John Gierach's fault. As my introduction to flyfishing took place in the early '80s, I can't claim that my first rod was made of cane, or even that the guys who taught me the ropes were proponents of bamboo. Rather, I thrashed around with noodley glass rods and then tent-pole graphite numbers until, as a teen, I stumbled upon Gierach's work.
I was captivated immediately, and still believe most of what the man puts down in print. But as a kid it was pure gospel. After reading Fishing Bamboo, I made two solemn vows: to move West when I finished school, and to never, ever sully my hands with another graphite rod. The descent was rapid.
In the end, my failure to keep the vows was only partial. I eventually returned to my native Massachusetts to take a job and raise a family. The inland trout fishing is not spectacular, though native brookies do still spawn in forgotten, sub-developed trickles. But to my second pledge I have remained largely faithful, and over the years I've worked diligently to fill a quiver with bamboo rods far finer than a man of my age and stature should be allowed.
So here, in the first blush of middle age, I find myself at an impasse. Money, once earned greedily in hourly jobs that split my hands but rewarded me with a decent rod, cheap beer, and time on the river, has become something different. It puts shoes on children's feet and insurance on cars and pitiful dents into credit card bills. Meanwhile, the rods in the corner get somehow more valuable. I wonder why the hell I can't sell even one. But then I tell myself that those rods may be the start of a college fund, of retirement, of a salvation I've not yet needed. Therefore, they must be handled gingerly, maybe even squirreled away in a locked closet. Where lies the value in something that grows increasingly more precious, but scares you all the more just to hold in your hands?
I fish the rods I've got, though not the way I used to. The whimsy of a tiny trout on a thousand-dollar rod no longer makes me feel like I've got it all figured out. Maybe that's just what growing up is, sad though it may be.
Reid Bryant does not have herpes. But he does have a stack of bamboo rods that he fishes cautiously in the wilds of central Massachusetts.