Saturday, January 3, 2015

Bamboo Fly Rods and The Don

It's January 3rd 2015 and I am standing in the inner sanctum....the workshop of one of the world's premier makers of bamboo fly rods.

Part 1.
It started one evening back in 1997 or 1998.  I was fishing the hex hatch after dark on one of our local spring creeks.  The run I was posted out on had either dried up with hatching mayflies or the hatch never came off, (1997 is much too far back for me to recall which was the case).   In the pitch darkness, I stepped into a new run hoping to find splashing and slurping browns.  I squinted my ears listening for a target and immediately heard fly line slicing through the air.  The owner of this fly line, politely gave notice that I had stepped into his run.  A little startled, I quickly apologized and climbed back onto the bank.  The voice said, "It's OK the hatch is over", and waded across to join me for the hike back to our waiting cars.  In the glow of the streetlight, I finally got a glimpse of the owner of the fly line.  I couldn't help but notice that this guy, about my age, was fishing a bamboo rod.  Two extraordinary things happened that night.  First, the guy with the rod has become one of my finest friends and fishing partners...around here we call him McSteel.  Second, McSteel introduced me to the craftsmanship, mystery, voo doo, and history of bamboo fly rods.

My first fish on a bamboo rod...a sweet little Charlie Jenkins on loan for a few casts from McSteel.  (Circa 1997?)

Although I am not a strict proponent of bamboo fly rods, they are an important part of my fly fishing story.  Starting that evening, I began paying attention to this segment of the fly fishing world, a sub-culture I previously thought was only for old guys, eccentrics and author John Gierach.

McSteel releases a nice brown. (Circa 1999)

Eventually, after I had scrounged and saved for months, I had enough to buy my first bamboo rod.  My friend, RS, was at that time a fairly well known national dealer of bamboo rods, so I drove to his place to check out my options.  I had planned to spend $300 on a "banty" (a modified, typically cut down and refinished version of a longer bamboo rod).  After looking through his wares he handed me a 7'6" 2 piece, 2 tip Orvis Manchester.  It was exactly what I was looking for except it was a couple of hundred dollars more than I had intended to spend.  Nervous and unsure, I called McSteel from RS's and told him what I was doing, what I was looking at and how much I would have to spend.  He asked me a few questions about the rod and then said, "Buy it, it's a good rod."  Still nervous and thinking about the peanut butter sandwiches I was going to have to live on for the next 4 months, I said, "Are you sure?"  Without pausing he said, "Yes I am sure...that rod used to be my Dad's." 

So I bought it.
The Orvis Manchester (middle rod - Circa 1998)

Side note:  It wasn't long after I proudly introduced my new Orvis Manchester bamboo rod to my then girlfriend of 7 years that she told me we were "over".  She apparently wasn't thrilled that I had forced her to "go dutch" on all of our dates but had found the means to blow that kind of cash on a fishing rod.  In contrast, my wife of 13 years bought me a bamboo rod at a garage sale when we were dating.  I was off fishing in Montana when she made the purchase.  When I saw her a week later, she handed it to me and said, "I thought you might like this...".    
 "Yes, Ma'am, I like it very much."

The garage sale rod from my wife hangs in a case above my tying desk

Today I'd have to go downstairs to count the bamboo rods I own.  It's not a vast collection but there are more than 3.  From the generosity of my good friend RS and others, I have been lucky enough to cast or fish, rods built by Payne, Dickerson, Leonard, Thomas & Thomas,  Orvis, Heddon, South Bend, Granger, Phillipson, Simroe, Jenkins, Thramer, Reams, Cunningham, Duck, and Schroeder....and these are just the names I can remember.

One name omitted from the list above deserves it's own story.
I got a call from RS one day back in the late 90's.  He asked if I had a 5 or 6wt line and reel with me. (I was at work).  As was usually the case in those days when I fished every day after work, I did.
Around noon that day he burst through my office door with a perfectly used aluminum rod tube, deposited it on my desk and said, "Fish this tonight."
When I got to the river that evening I uncapped the tube and pulled out an 8' Garrison.
I'm pretty sure I said out loud, "A #%^*ing GARRISON....he wants me to FISH a Garrison?"
I wasn't sure what it was going to cost me if I broke it but I strung it up and waded carefully.
I eventually loosened up and enjoyed the opportunity, caught a few fish and just plain enjoyed the hell out of that rod.
When I called him that evening to say thanks, he said, "...if you broke it? Well, I payed $6000 for it."

Sometimes it's perfectly easy to tell who your friends are.

The #%^*ing Garrison (Circa 2000?)

Truck full of cane (circa 2001)

In late 2000 I decided to order my first new bamboo rod.  I gave it a little thought but I already new what I wanted....7'6", 3 piece, 2 tip with a crisp snappy mod/fast action.  All roads led to Don Schroeder and the D.G. Schroeder Rod Company.  I placed the order and waited for Don to work his magic.

I've now owned that rod for 13 years and have never regretted my decision for a minute.
It's still as beautiful as the day I first pulled it out of the tube, it's taken some nice trout and gives me a great deal of satisfaction even when it's just sitting in my rod rack...waiting.

The maker of the that rod, Don Schroeder, is a guy who I have met on a handful of occasions, mostly at local fly fishing meetings.  Every time I talk to him he speaks with the kind of vibrancy that indicates that his heart is still into building rods, even after 30+ years.  (Make no mistake, his rods speak for themselves and all you need to do is hold one to get the same impression).  I've suggested off and on for the past 10 years (or so) that I'd like to stop in and check out his operation and he has always said, "Come by anytime."

Part 2.
I don't do New Year's resolutions, but I do bucket list items.
On my short list one thing stood out
1. Visit Don Schroeder and the D.G. Schroeder Rod Co.

When McSteel and I made plans to have our families spend New Year's Eve together, I told him that that there was something I wanted to do.  Earlier that week Don Schroeder had answered my email and said, "How about the afternoon of Saturday the 3rd?"  At 12:58 PM on the 3rd, McSteel and I pulled into his driveway.   He met us at the door and invited us in.

And, by "in", I mean "Inner Sanctum" in.

I wasn't sure what to expect over the years when I suggested a visit, or when I sent him the email, or when I was driving down to his place.  I can tell you what I wasn't expecting...full disclosure.

I suspected that guys like Don, who have spent a good chunk of their lives perfecting a process that is not only their passion but their livelihood, would be a very tight-lipped and secretive bunch.  I still think that is true, I just don't think that of Don....anymore.  Perhaps it's because McSteel and I are interested in the craft from a non-builder perspective or maybe Don is justifiably confident in his ability and doesn't see interest as a threat.  Maybe it's a little of both mixed with a big helping of Don is just a nice guy. Whatever the reason, he gave us the full apprentices tour.

He split cane, fired up his milling machine (that he built) and ran some cane strips through, showed us his new binding machine (that he built), the lathe (that he refurbished), a new tool that he made the week before (of which I will not describe), we discussed cork and turning handles, repairing cork, he gave us a demo on building two different versions of hollow built rods, talked about his signature reel seats and the process for building quads (4 sided bamboo rods) etc, etc...and on and on.

At the two hour mark I shook his hand and said, "Thank you for this. This is pretty special".

He said, "I don't want to keep you, but do you want to see the varnishing room?"
McSteel and I said, "Yes, Don, we do..."

From there we moved to his rod wrapping bench and then sat and shot the bull at his fireplace among his collection of paintings and the bamboo rods that he was building and /or repairing.

It was almost another two hours before we left.

With my mind blown from overload and appreciation, I drove home feeling that I had just been formally introduced to the soul in my D.G. Schroeder rod.

The bamboo rod business has special name for the guys that really make the rods they sell...they call them makers.  Don splits his cane, mills it, planes it, straightens, flames, glues, binds, builds the reel seats and reel seat hardware, glues and turns his own cork and wraps each guide...the only thing he doesn't make are the guides and ferrules.  His rods are exemplary works of craftsmanship and formidable fishing tools.

If you've never had the pleasure of casting a well made bamboo rod, consider this your prompt.
Add it to your bucket list.  And, if you are ever in the market for one of the finest bamboo rods made in the world Don Schroeder.  You will get what you pay for and the soul is included in the price of the rod.
During the tour of his shop I asked Don if I could snap a few photos, (not wanting to impose, I left my camera in the car and just carried my phone).  Don said, "... shoot away".  
I have more shots than these....but you can't see them.
The inner sanctum
Don Schroeder, talking cork.
My D.G. Schroeder Rod
Blued and milled at his shop

Works of art...

Almost as much fun to look at as they are to fish.

My sincerest thanks to Don Schroeder for the time, the tour and the beautiful fly rod.