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Bamboo Fly Rods

Bill Oyster, of Blue Ridge, teaches 18 classes a year where students build their very own bamboo fly rod.

John N. Felsher | March 13, 2019

Anyone can buy a ready-to-fish fly rod outfit complete with a reel, line and maybe even a few flies at any sporting retail store for less than $100, but many people want something different. A good custom fly rod might cost several thousand dollars and could take months to arrive.

However, Bill Oyster, owner of Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods, can teach people how to build their own custom split bamboo fly rod in six days for less than $2,000. Bill, a master fly fisherman and engraver, builds custom rods in his workshop in Blue Ridge, about 90 miles north of Atlanta.

Kathy Luker, an attorney from Birmingham, Ala. and her husband, David, met Bill and his wife, Shannon, while at a sporting show in North Carolina several years ago where they learned about the classes. Both signed up. After the first experience, Kathy took the class 12 more times and built a different rod each time.

“I told my husband that I really wanted to do that,” Kathy recalled. “I have always enjoyed doing arts and crafts. We returned later that year and did a class together. It was one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling things I have ever done. At the end of the class, Bill asked if anyone would be willing to come back. I immediately raised my hand. From that time forward, I have been going to a class at least once a year. A couple times, I attended twice in one year. I’m very proud that I was the first person to complete 10 fly rods with Bill. Every class is very enjoyable for me.”

Bill grew up in trout-rich Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park. He guided, taught casting and fly-tying. Then, he decided to tackle another challenge—building his own split bamboo fly rod. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find anyone to help him and found little instructional material except some decades-old books. People who knew how to build rods didn’t want to share their secrets.

“I’ve always liked to make things and was always artistic,” Bill said. “When I started learning about bamboo rods, I became intrigued. The more I learned about them, the more I became fascinated by the entire process of how to build split bamboo fly rods. I met some people who only made a part of a rod before giving up. I didn’t want to be a ‘half-rod wonder.’ I decided to complete my first rod, no matter how it looked or how badly it fished. After spending six months and all of my free time, I made the worst looking and worst casting bamboo fly rod in history, but I learned a lot. I still fish with that rod sometimes. I’ll never sell it.”

As he gained skills and experience, friends started asking him to build bamboo rods for them. Others offered to pay for custom-built rods. With several orders waiting, Bill decided to go into the custom rod building business full-time. Now, his least expensive custom fly rods sell for about $2,600. Most average between $6,000 to $8,000, but Bill recently sold one for $22,000.

“After the first half-dozen rods that I built and sold, I had another dozen orders waiting for me to get to work,” Bill remembered. “Now, more than 20 years later, I still haven’t hit the bottom of my waiting list. We’ve done a number of rods for President Jimmy Carter, members of the English royal family and some other celebrities. We have the capability to customize and create almost any option imaginable.”

Throughout history, most anglers used wooden poles for fishing. In the early 19th century, anglers began experimenting with other materials like cane. By mid-1800s, split bamboo became popular. After the Civil War, American sportsmen could order rods through the U.S. Postal Service and have them delivered by railroad. Bamboo set the standard for rod construction until the 1950s when cheaper modern materials, like fiberglass and graphite, entered the market.

“Bamboo is the traditional material for American fly rods going back at least to the 1840s,” Bill explained. “The bamboo fly rod was invented right here in the United States. For more than a century, American-made split bamboo rods were the worldwide standard for fly rods. It’s how our grandfathers fished. People like the tradition, feel and craftsmanship of a bamboo rod. This is our heritage, our samurai sword.”

Kathy Luker of Birmingham, Ala., a student in Bill Oyster’s split bamboo fly rod making class works to shape the bamboo she will use to build a custom rod. In about a week, each student builds his or her own custom bamboo fly rod.

The rod-building classes evolved out of Bill’s custom-rod business. At first, Bill taught one student and then two and then three. Before long, more people signed up wanting to learn how to build bamboo rods. Today, Bill teaches 18 classes a year, each with eight students. Classes fill at least 18 months in advance. Students come from all over the United States. Some come from as far away as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Many people say they build custom fishing rods, but they usually just order manufactured blanks and tie on factory components with fancy wrapping. In Bill’s classes, everyone starts with a raw stalk of Tonkin bamboo about 2 inches in diameter. Tonkin bamboo only grows in part of southern China on the Gulf of Tonkin. The species grows very straight and up to 50 feet tall with high-density fibers that give it great strength and excellent flexibility. All of these characteristics make Tonkin bamboo excellent for making fishing rods.

“Bamboo is a little heavier but more supple than modern materials and more flexible,” Bill elaborated. “Bamboo is an extremely strong material with higher tensile strength than steel. I’ve caught some really big fish all over the world on bamboo rods. Many clients want to build saltwater rods that can handle a 150-lb. tarpon. I think a bamboo rod is more sensitive than some modern materials. It’s much more durable than a graphite rod and a lot prettier. Graphite is lightweight, but a graphite rod is very fragile and will devaluate over time.”

From 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. for six straight days, students work on their own rods under Bill’s personal observation and instruction. The students can build a rod of any size and performance they wish and add whatever cosmetics to it they want. Most use a blowtorch to scorch the bamboo to give it color variation. Students can decorate their rods any way they wish. Bill does the engraving on metal parts like butt caps. After about 60 man-hours of work, each person walks away with a complete personalized fly rod ready for fishing.

“I’ve built everything from a tiny two-weight, 6-foot, four-piece pack rod for my husband to an eight-weight, 8-foot saltwater rod,” Kathy said. “Every rod is different and fishes differently. Each one is a work of art, not just a piece of equipment. We fish with all of them. I love the craftsmanship of it and the people who we get to be around in the class. It fulfills something in me that’s hard to explain. I get a great feeling learning something new and walking away with something that I will prize and cherish forever.”

To get started, each student splits the bamboo stalk into strips about 1/4-inch wide and picks the best pieces for each rod section. Most students build two-piece rods, so they use 12 strips—six strips for the butt section and six for the rest. Students plane the strips into tapered triangular pieces and glue them together to make hexagonal rod sections. After shaping the rod blank, students add ferrules and other components. Then, they wrap on the guides with silk thread, shape the cork grip and varnish the sections.

“The whole process is quite enjoyable,” Kathy said. “For me, the hardest part was learning how to plane. Many things get easier each time I go to another class. Some things are still tedious no matter what, like wrapping the silk thread. We fuss and complain all the way through the class when we’re working on different things, but that’s part of what makes the class really special. When it’s all over, it’s well worth it. Everyone comes away with a one-of-a-kind bamboo fly rod with fantastic engraving on it that can never be exactly duplicated.”

Bill Oyster shows off a rainbow trout he caught on a bamboo fly rod while fishing Noontootla Creek near Blue Ridge. Bill specializes in making custom fly rods out of split bamboo and teaches a class where students can make their own rods.

In the same way that some sportsmen enjoy hunting with muzzleloading rifles or participating in historical re-enactments, the classes allow people to step back into a vanished era, at least in their minds. Modern materials get lighter, cheaper, stronger and better as technology progresses. Nevertheless, they can never recapture the mystique, tradition and feeling of heritage that comes with holding a unique, hand-crafted original creation made with considerable sweat—perhaps even a little blood—that the builder can pass down to future generations.

“A bamboo rod is a piece of history from when people made things they intended to pass down to their children instead of buying a new one every year,” Bill said. “Modern graphite rods are great tools, but they are just tools. A bamboo rod is a hand-made heritage piece as opposed to an inexpensive tool. A bamboo rod costs more initially, but anglers can fish with them for their entire lives and then give them to their children or grandchildren. It will last for generations. Some people take the class and build a rod, but they don’t even fish. They like to make things and enjoy making the rods because it’s a lot of fun.”

For an extra charge, many students stay at the Cast & Blast Inn above the workshop in the historic downtown section of Blue Ridge. However, people just visiting the town can also stay there when rooms are available. From the four-room inn, visitors could find many shops and restaurants within easy walking distance.

After completing their rods, many of Bill’s students stick around the Blue Ridge area to field test their creations on a “graduation trip.” Anglers can find many waters in northern Georgia that hold rainbows, browns and some brook trout, and Fannin County bills itself as the “Trout Capital of Georgia.”

The Chattahoochee National Forest covers about 750,000 acres and nearly surrounds Blue Ridge. In the forest, anglers can fish more than 1,360 miles of trout streams. In the upper elevations of the mountainous forest, anglers catch mostly brook trout, the only trout native to the eastern United States. In other waters, anglers catch rainbows and browns.

The Toccoa River flows 93 miles through the southern Appalachian Mountains and provides abundant fishing near Blue Ridge. As the river flows into Tennessee, the name changes to the Ocoee River. The river also flows through Lake Blue Ridge, a 3,300-acre reservoir full of largemouth bass, spotted bass, crappie and other fish.

“The Toccoa River has a lot of trout,” Bill recommended. “The state shocked up a 15-lb. trout in the river. Some people float the river, but it also has large stretches of public access where people can fish.”

Many people also fish Noontootla Creek, one of the best Peach State streams for catching trophy browns and rainbows. The stream begins high in the national forest and flows down into the Toccoa River near Blue Ridge. The national forest portion of the creek remains open to the public, but part of Noontootla Creek runs through private property including the section flowing through Noontootla Creek Farms (ncfga.net).

“Noontootla Creek probably has about 80 percent rainbows,” Bill said. “Most of the rest are browns and a few brook trout. Noontootla Creek has some of the largest browns I’ve ever seen. It’s a completely wild fishery that hasn’t been stocked since the 1940s. For decades, trout have been reproducing naturally.”

Bill’s workshop sits next to the Blue Ridge location of Cohutta Fishing Company (706-946-3044, www.cohuttafishingco.com), a fly-fishing store where people can buy supplies. In addition, the store conducts guided trout fishing trips in the area.

For more about Bill’s rods and classes, see www.oysterbamboo.com. 

To stay at the Cast and Blast Inn, call (706) 374-4239 or email Shannon at [email protected] 

For area information, contact the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce and Welcome Center at 1-800-899-MTNS (6867) or visit www.blueridgemountains.com.

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