Bamboo rods cast a spell for fly fishermen looking to reconnect with natural world

Midway through winter, a chilly fog surrounded Theaux Le Gardeur's shop. Hardly anyone would be out on the Gunpowder River that day, he said.

But he didn't need the river or sunlight. He stood behind his fly-fishing store clutching three rods: graphite, glass and bamboo. One by one, he tossed them back with his forearm and flicked them forward, eliciting the characteristic swish of fly line cutting through air.

Each rod carried the line, bounced back quickly and delivered the fly far ahead of Le Gardeur, depositing the insect imitations onto the slick grass next to Backwater Angler. To the drivers in the passing cars on York Road in Monkton, the rods were likely indistinguishable. For Le Gardeur, though, the differences were many. And every time he picked up and swung the bamboo rod, he'd sigh softly and smile: "Listen to that sound. Just perfect."

In the sport and this state, he's part of a revival of interest in the natural, sometimes strange world of creating, selling and fishing with bamboo rods.

Fly fishermen want to feel in tune with the natural world around them, Le Gardeur said, even to the point of feeling the trout's heartbeat through vibrations in the rod.

"It's very tactile," he said, explaining the differences between minimalistic bamboo and the more mainstream options of glass and graphite rods. "When folks are buying a bamboo rod, they're really buying into a mindset."

Fly fishermen are excessively specific about their gear, said Michael Watriss, owner of the Great Feathers fly shop in Sparks, just down the road from Le Gardeur. Some swear by glass or graphite, which has seen remarkable advancements in recent years because of technologies developed by the aeronautics industry. Those trends run counter to the mentality of connecting with nature, Watriss said.

"Graphite has spoiled the modern fisherman," he said. "They all work the same. … It's not about banging as many fish as you possibly can in one day."

While bamboo has a certain romance, Watriss said it appeals to a demographic with plenty of disposable income and free time.

"Bamboo is the single-malt scotch of fly-fishing," he said.

Local ties

Whether from Monkton, Baltimore, northern Virginia, Pennsylvania or farther afield, many fly fishermen with bamboo rods end up in this state, along the Gunpowder River's cold waters and its abundant trout populations.

"This area is one of the strongholds of brook trout in the Mid-Atlantic," Le Gardeur said. In his retail and environmental advocacy efforts, he focuses on the Hereford area of the state park.

"The stream is wild. That's a really important distinction."

Le Gardeur described the process of fly-fishing as a battle of wits against the trout. Trout "park" behind rocks in rivers and wait for food, such as larval insects or small fish, to drift past in the current. Sometimes fly fishermen will look at what nearby spider webs have caught to decide which fly to use that day.

"Trout eat insects like we'd eat popcorn at a movie," he said. "They're snacking all day."

Le Gardeur grew up fly-fishing in Louisiana, and often drove 12 hours to fish for trout outside a cabin in western North Carolina. While working for Montana-based R.L. Winston Rod Co. years ago, he covered every state and company fly shop east of the Mississippi River.

The Gunpowder provides excellent fishing waters, he said, but fly-fishing is about much more than catching fish. Nowadays, it's also about a "renaissance of bamboo."

Stalking passion

Bamboo widely is considered to be the material responsible for the genesis of modern American fly-fishing. It is not easy to procure or manipulate. Some travel to China's Tonkin region for a specific kind of bamboo. Some wait years and pay thousands of dollars for a maker to craft their rod.

Some change their lives because of it. Bamboo rod craftsman Jerry Kustich started working for R.L. Winston Rod Co. in 1984. After "philosophical differences," the Buffalo, N.Y., native and a small crew of fellow bamboo manipulators left the company to form Sweetgrass Rods across the street. Watriss and Le Gardeur's shops stock Sweetgrass bamboo rods.

"When I first started fishing bamboo, it was for the aesthetics, it was for the connection to nature. Now I've found that it has a more practical function than I ever dreamt it would," Kustich said in a telephone interview. "People who've been fishing for a while now can understand and make that distinction."

From the endeavor's humble roots in 2006 have sprouted up to 300 bamboo rods a year, making Sweetgrass Rods, by Kustich's estimation, "the most prolific bamboo rod production company in the whole world."

"It represents a high-quality, mystical, magical romance type of thing that connects you to the past," Kustich said. "I think people express their passion, and their degree of passion and their depth of passion, by the equipment they buy for what they're passionate for."

Watriss and Le Gardeur regard Kustich, who now lives in Glen Burnie, as a sort of local bamboo legend.

But Kustich, who at 67 describes himself as "semiretired," just appreciates looking back on a life of the solitude, historical connections and spiritual growth possible through bamboo fly-fishing.

"I don't want to diminish going to church," he said. "But I have found more spirituality in this pursuit than I ever did in organized religion. And I think that would be the case for a lot of people."

The catching and the caught

Bamboo rod makers such as Kustich split a bamboo stalk into six parts usually, then carefully bind them together through various methods before putting on a cork handle and rigging mechanisms. The completed rod catches the light just so.

To build a bamboo rod, start to finish, can take about 150 hours of work, Watriss said. Manufacturing on the scale of glass and graphite rods just doesn't happen.

While Watriss said the number of bamboo rod users has stayed mostly the same over the years since the material's heyday, from the mid-1870s to 1935, he called the 1992 Robert Redford movie "A River Runs Through It" "the single-greatest influence on this sport."

The film portrays the wild rivers of Montana against a backdrop of familial strife.

"Fly-fishing was a thread of sanity through a somewhat dysfunctional family," Kustich said. "After that, there seemed to be a resurgence of interest in bamboo rods again."

While they acknowledged that the film's influence has waned over the years, Watriss, Kustich and Le Gardeur all said The Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, N.J., in late January remained a global hub for exchanging geeky tidbits about bamboo.

"It's like antiques," Watriss said of the pedigree and lineage of rod-makers in the country. Some decades-old bamboo rods can demand $25,000. "The secondary market for a lot of this antique stuff is just crazy."

Kustich, after his years crafting bamboo into rods, still enjoys the simple pleasure of holding one.

"Even talking about it, it kind of makes my blood pressure go lower," he said. "Most people start fly-fishing to catch fish. But as they go on, fly-fishing catches them. And they become a different person."

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