Monday, January 9, 2012

Splitting Cane.

Friday, January 6th, 2012 - 9:00 a.m.

Walking into Frank Drummond’s workshop, five bamboo culms hang off the workbench, and more from the rafters. I peek around the corner. Frank turns and smiles. A good, hearty smile. And after short introductions, we get right to it, picking out a taper from the scientific looking graphs and measurements hung above the planing forms. After much questioning, I narrow it down to a Young or Garrison (Frank’s two favorite tapers he fishes, he says), and I turn around to look at the cane. So does Frank.  

Looking at nodes soaks up time for my indecision. Examining the leaf sheath scars and bug damage -- birthmarks that make the cane what it is. All of these defects dictate what it will be, what it can be. Perhaps it could be a 8 1/2 ft 5 wt; but it shouldn't be, it wouldn't be happy. I could have been a plastic surgeon, but I’d have hated it.  

"The cane tells you what it wants to be," Frank says, "Don’t choose a taper and then look for the cane, look at the cane and then for its taper."

It’s a free spirit.

Its length, space between nodes and bug damage, speaks a natural inclination. Just like people, I think. Its soul, evident not in its perfection, but in its imperfections. Its character, shaped by scars.

Running my hands over the culms one by one, they linger on the farthest. I look at Frank. Yes, that’s a good one. No bug damage, no leaf sheath scarring, no nicks in the enamel. I look back to the taper descriptions hanging above the workbench, then back to the cane. Garrison. Yes, the Garrison 202-E taper.

“Good choice,” Frank says, “Garrison’s favorite, and that piece you picked will be perfect for it.”

My mind warms with confidence, remembering reading how Ed Engle always picked out the rodmaker’s favorite taper and rod to test and fish for “Splitting Cane,” figuring it would be the best representation of their work.

I figure he’s on to something...and I move on to splitting.

Frank demonstrates on the first. Holding the knife in his left hand, rubber hammer in right...the knife blade must be exactly 90 degree angles from the cane to get a straight split. Whack! Now my turn. Bracing the end of the culm against the workbench, aligning the knife to the cane, I take a deep breath, blink, and make my first split -- sliding the knife down the entire length, alternating side-twists, it takes some muscle to get through the nodes. But I do. And it feels good. I must be smiling because Frank says, “Fun, isn’t it? My favorite part too...”

Now it’s time to fire the four halved sections with a propane torch. Frank lays them over a grill and shows me how to run the torch steadily down the strip, two passes down, then flipping the strip over so the firing is always in the same direction. The flame blackens, a slow moving shadow over the blond enamel -- look at it, Frank says -- the shadow instead of the flame will tell you what you need to know. The shadow instead of the flame. The heat pushes moisture through the pores and evaporates with a sizzle of white. 

It smells like popping corn.

As much as I’m falling for the textures of making a rod -- as much as the feel of the knife, torch and file handles, and the bamboo itself, its smooth enamel, power fibers and fuzzy pith -- I’m falling for its smells and sounds.  
The cane is now ready to be split again -- this time into thirds, and then those into halves which will be halved again. For this last split, I use a screwdriver to start, finishing by pushing the section through a knife held in a vise. As the sections get smaller their pitch gets higher, sounding like a pizzicato glissando on a guitar. I love it. Each split is a few seconds of music and I listen to the intonation change with the diameter of the split and where the knife is in its length.

I leave two neat bundles behind when I leave at the end of the day -- one of tips, one of buts.

See you in the morning...

Saturday, January 7th, 2012 - 9:00 a.m.

A bald eagle swoops into a naked cottonwood, just as I'm driving out of the canyon’s mouth. I’ve only seen a bald eagle around the canyon once before, when there was elk roadkill. I’m not usually a superstitious person, but I do believe (and have found to be true) that unusual animal sightings are always harbingers of good. On my birthday the year I moved into the canyon, I saw a bobcat in my backyard while I was eating dinner alone on my deck. That following year was one of the best of my life. It was a good sign.

My cane splits lie waiting, bundled with masking tape into two groups, just as I’d left them. A hot air gun sits tipped up next to the vise. 

I watch Frank heat one of the nodes, starting with the butt-end splits, until it’s lightly charred and smoking, like a good marshmallow. That’s the only way they’re edible, marshmallows -- slightly burnt. Then he pinches the node hard, front to back in the vise, and then gently (so as to not crack the enamel) side to side to cool while the next node is heating.        

“Think you’re ready now?”

I nod and take my hands out of my pockets....yes.

Taking my time, I turn the cane, feeling the fibers between my fingers, paying attention that I heat just enough, but not too much to catch fire. The hot air guns are loud. Lost in thought, and occasional stories and fly pattern talk, I jump when a “Hey Frank!” rises above it all. I’m introduced to Mark, a friend who had trickled back before Larry Jurgen’s fly tying demo begins at the Laughing Grizzly Fly Shop, to say hi. Frank is working on heating and pressing some extras as I do mine, and Mark watches us for awhile. “It’s amazing you can straighten the cane that way, but man it takes awhile, huh? Kinda’d be more fun to throw paint at the wall and watch it dry.” He laughs, thinking he’s made a good point.

“No...not really...we’re thinking -- you know, we don’t get much time to do that nowadays, everything, everything, is constantly overstimulated...loud --  but we’re thinking about where we’re going to fish these rods, and what their first fish will be....” Frank rebuts, slightly smiling my way.

With a “Huh...well talk to ya to get to the demo...” Mark leaves, knowing he doesn't get it and probably never will.

And for the next almost 5 hours, I heat and press nodes, one by one...thinking about where my rod and I will fish for the first time....getting it...not bored, even in the slightest.  


  1. I feel a communion with a couple of my favorite fly rods, but nothing like the deep connection that you are forging with this one. Wonderful piece, Erin.

  2. Very nice. You're well on your way. I can hardly wait to see the end product, but I want to see the full process and follow along too.
    As an animal biologist I would have to agree that "unusual animal sightings are always harbingers of good."

  3. Thanks for brining us along Erin! Best of luck with the build.

  4. Extraordinarily jazzed for your project and for the writing that I'm sure will flow from it. Well done Lass.

    Ken Campbell

  5. "..a good sign.." I think so. Your creativity has been piqued. It's cool to see your eyes,mind and heart taking it all in..Have fun! We eagerly await updates.

  6. Mike - certainly feels like building a relationship, and not only a rod.

    Jay - Many thanks for following along and wanting to see the process. And I'm glad you agree about the animal sightings...I feel my belief is substantiated now. :)

    John - Thanks for reading!

    Ken Campbell - Jazzed...yeah! Me too! :) Thanks for stopping by to read, and for the encouraging words!

    Herringbone - It's so rare that as an adult one gets to learn something completely's renewing to the eyes. Thanks as always, and I'll be sure to keep the posts coming!

  7. Absolutely bad-assed, Erin.

    Looking forward to seeing this progress, and to eventually see the finished product in action.

  8. Colorado Angler - Nice! Your comment makes me feel edgy. ;) Thanks for stopping by, and you can be sure I'll be posting on my progress.

    Marc - ha! I like! Definitely has it...

  9. Enjoy the experience to the full. I won't miss one of these posts.

  10. Here's one guy that has assigned you the title of my hero. I'm definitely looking forward in anticipation.

  11. Phillip - I'm glad you'll be along for the journey!

    Howard - Ah, I don't feel anywhere near worthy of that...but thanks for the kind words as always! :)

  12. Now you are on the road to building your first rod Erin you must come up with a name for the rod.

  13. The gestation is under way. The anticipation of a rod filled with such a personality...palpable. Sounds like you've a kindred spirit as a guide too. Very nice.

  14. I'm looking forward to following your progress! A fly rod can be a very personal thing. My favorite is still the first rod I ever owned. Though it's not pretty to look at and can feel like a 2x4 plank at times, there are a lot of memories embedded in its cork and graphite.

  15. Cooking cane and liking're hooked deep.... keep it coming...

  16. Tom - I always thought that were I to have a child I would have to wait until it was born to name it...I think I'll have to "get to know" my rod first as well. But you can be sure, it will end up named. :)

    Rhythm Rider - It is. Very nice. In all regards. Thanks for reading during the 'gestation.'

    Angela - Thanks! And you're right, they become infused with soul and stories and memories...hard to replace that!

  17. Doug - Yes I am. :) And I will keep it coming for sure!

  18. Some people go into build a rod and are focused on the beautiful outcome that will eventually come. I think for those that go into the process to enjoy the process and envision how this rod will effect them and others after them, the rod turns out better in many ways. I love to spend time out in the shop on a cold winter night splitting straightening and planing. It is very difficult to send a rod out the door knowing you may never see it again when this much attention goes into its making!

  19. This will be fun to follow. When I built my little wooden boat, my intention was entirely practical. But now I've found that I love fishing from it, and in fact it's the surest way I can still call a fishless day a good one. Unlike more enlightened folks, I still get pissed when the fish don't bite. Unless I'm in my boat. Then it's OK.

  20. This is going to be fun. I think I get it. And I'm with you for the ride. Can't wait to see what's next.

  21. Parker - Indeed, I am very glad I shall see my rod again...Friday morning. :) Along the same lines, I've always wanted to help out starting a service dog, but never have because I knew I'd have a heck of a time giving it up. Thanks for stopping by to read!

    T.J. - Funny, that. Along the same lines, I very much enjoy taking Banjo along on fishing outings because that way, even if I didn't catch anything the day "wasn't a waste" because Banjo had fun. ;)

    Jim - I'm positive that you get it. No question in my mind. Thanks for reading along with the journey.

  22. Nice...i've built one cane rod, and it was just a fantastic experience. I went with a Paul Young Perfectionist taper...sweet little 4 wt that loves the MN spring creeks whenever i get back there to fish with Wendy Berrell.

    good luck with the project.

  23. ha. you're like harry potter. the rod is choosing you. awesome.

  24. Abandon hope, embrace lifting joy. You're trippin' now.

    Whoa, culm split and flamed, hope you're planing as I write. Pilgrim, you fascinate.

    Occurs to me your cane rod making process may the first blogging thereof by a female flyfisher, first-time maker and finely-tuned writer since Pangea drifted.

  25. John - Awesome. :) My experience has definitely fantastic too, thus far. Thanks for the luck....I'll need it!

    d.nash - I hadn't thought of it that way....but cool!

  26. DarrellKuni - Oh I'm totally trippin'! Planing will start on Friday. And you know, I was told that exact same thing earlier today about the female-rodmaker-writer thing. Kind of feel pressure now. :)

  27. Relax. Tho there was an earlier female rodmaker, Helen Flexus of Pangea Rod Co., yr safe.

    Supercontinent split, then damned asteroid took out dinos and all records of her work and rods. You're first in this century.

  28. DarrellKuni - Phew! Just wiped some sweat off my brow. ;-)

  29. You're living a dream! How many fly fishers can wake up in the Rocky Mountains, drive down the road and make a bamboo fly rod with a Garrison taper? More than AWESOME!!!

  30. This is too cool. I've often thought it would be fun to make a cane rod, and learn all about it like you are doing!

  31. Clif G. - ha! ;-) Maybe someday.

    finsandfeathers - I definitely feel privileged to be able to learn from someone like Frank...he's a wonderful teacher and craftsman. Thanks for reading!

    The Nothing - If you ever have the it! Nothing else like it.

  32. Smells like popcorn. Well that's an added bonus.

    I've never had a desire to build a rod. Maybe someday. But if I did it would have to be bamboo. Building something organic is a much different thing than piecing together bits of plastic. That melding of the organic you and the organic thing can only yield something unique and special regardless of the pattern.

  33. I made my first bamboo flyrod last March, your narrative reminds me very much of how I was feeling. Just wait till you get into planing and the first time you bind the sections together, the feeling is indescribable! Needless to say I love my flyrod, it feels like an extension of my limbs.

    Have fun on your journey!

  34. WOW... I am impressed! I can't wait to hear about your first outing together.

  35. This is terrible!

    It's worse than watching a TV programme thinking it is a complete story only to find an hour later that it is a series and I have got to wait until the next episode to learn what happens... (I gave up on 24 thinking "Who cares what happens? It's only a story anyway!")

    No only joking! The story of your built cane rod is not a fiction. Good things are worth waiting for and I look forward to the rest of the series with keen anticipation.

    It is probably a story without ending as we will also need to be kept informed of your fishing with your self-built cane rod...

    Regular Rod

  36. Nicely done! Great use of all the senses that come into play. Scorched bamboo smells much better than epoxy, etc. And the sounds! You can hear the tension and power of the fibers as they split. She's going to be a beauty!

    I'd like to place my order now for emb#2.

  37. Insanely jealous! I've been building rods for years now but havn't had the opportunity to work with bamboo (yet!). Wonderful read...I'm pretty sure you could write about watching paint dry and make it entertaining! Looking forward to seeing the finished product.

  38. Steve – It is, and makes me hungry. ;) And “That melding of the organic you and the organic thing can only yield something unique” is right to my thinking…

    Wayne – I will begin planing on Friday...and can’t wait!

    Brian – Thanks, and I can’t wait either...although, I’m very much enjoying the making...

    Regular Rod – Ha! My apologies for leading you on. ;) Although I think you’re truly is the neverending story.

    Quill – I have been warned that this rod-making thing is a slippery slope. ;-) We’ll see about that #2...

    HighPlains – Cool! I hope you do get to work with bamboo’s pretty awesome! And many thanks for the encouraging words!

  39. Good luck with the building of your first bamboo flyrod.
    I'm sure it's going to be a wonderful experience.

  40. Dearest Erin,
    We, your faithful followers, go on a journey with you every time you post an essay or composition. Personally, I normally get a beep on my Blackberry around 1am and read your latest musings through bleary eyes.
    I then follow you in my dreams in the clear and fresh mountain air as an escape from urban Manchester (still the centre of the universe, of course).
    This time, when I read your post, I could almost smell that workshop - the dust, the shavings, the glue. And not a little sweat, no doubt.
    Can't wait for the further adventures of Erin. What a life!

  41. Wow, Erin... When I read this, I feel like I'm building this along with you. I can almost smell the torching of the cane and hear the different pitches of splitting thick and thin strips. The next thing you'll probably learn is it's a plane rod, but far from a plain rod.
    Remember the Bald Eagle we spotted on the way to Rainbow Falls and then I got my Payne 100 out for you to try? Was it the flex in the rod when I caught that small trout that clicked something in that voracious information seeking brain of yours. I hope I'm not to blame in starting this yearning in you, or maybe it's a good thing! :-)

  42. Jan - Many thanks for reading and already, it's been wonderful!

    Alan - Your words, my faithful reader, were read through blurry eyes. And I shall always do my best to make the telling of my corner of the universe as good as I be read in the center of it all, Manchester! What a delightful thought that is. Cheers, my further adventures, eh? :)

    Fly Fishing Crazy - You know, I did think about the eagle we saw that day, and thought it even more fitting that I should be on my way to bamboo. And fear not, you're not (at least wholly! ha!) to blame...I would have ended up exploring cane eventually. :)

  43. Ask your instructor if your rod will sing to you. It's an interesting phenomema.


  44. Erin,
    It seems the "siren call of the lovely reed" has captured your heart and you have now started down a path from which there is no turning back. I look forward to reading more about your journey in future posts. And please tell Frank I said Hi.

  45. As a rookie bamboo rodmaker myself, I completely understand. But be very careful, it IS addictive.

  46. Wayne - Sing!? Interesting indeed! I must remember to ask about that...thanks for the info!

    Grizzly Wulff - Yes, I believe my heart is a goner. And I couldn't be more happy about it. :) I'll make sure to tell Frank hi for you!

    Marv - Yes...yes, I'm starting to get that drift. ;)

  47. what an incredible connection, there is something special about shaping something with your own two hands.

  48. Already I'm impatient for the big day when you christen it : )

  49. Sanders - That there is...

    Dave - I'm just impatient to go back Friday and start planing! :)

  50. Wow, very cool. Someday maybe, but that looks really hard!

  51. Mags - Near as I can tell though, worth every hour of the work. :)

  52. FlyFishingCrazy wrote -- '...I got my Payne 100 out for you to try? Was it the flex in the rod...'. That be one fine flexin' rod, the 7 1/2' Payne 100, for a four line (I sometimes underline mine with a three, a DT3, mine is a gentle, old rod, and early one, the lighter line feels right). Others prefer the four line, and bamboo being what it is not all rods, even same models from same makers feel the same.

    That 100 is an oft-copied taper by today's makers. Good reason, it's very sweet and very trouty. Not a big fish, heavy water stick. Gentle and feely. Good rod to be infected by.

    You run in a good crowd.

  53. DarrellKuni - You say, "bamboo being what it is not all rods, even same models from same makers feel the same." I love that. And yes, run in a good crowd, I do. Very thankful, I am.

  54. "And yes, run in a good crowd, I do. Very thankful, I am."

    Thank you Yoda : )

  55. Dave - Yay! I'm in a Yoda mood today. :) "Do or do not. There is no try."

  56. Hmmm, much fiber in this one.

  57. Doug Borer in Westminster built a rod with the bamboo swelled to grip size, and then fitted a slide ring and a nickel reel seat butt cap. No cork or winding check, all bamboo from butt to tip. He strings the line and has you hold the rod and close your eyes while he flexes the rod by pulling down on the leader. Then he asks, do you feel anything? You feel a definite vibration in the bamboo grip and you open you eyes to see him softly rubbing the end of the leader with his finger like a pianissimo draw of a violin bow. Talk about sensitivity. It is amazing.

  58. Way cool Erin!

    If you make that rod the way you seem to live your life it will be a sweet one. Dave Whitlock was given a cheap cane rod as a kid and caught bluegill and bass with rudimentary fly fishing knowledge in long ago Oklahoma. I'll never forget him writing that a 4lb. carp put a permanent warp in it, an event he never forgave that fish for. Just an anecdote I enjoy.

    Have fun with the finished project! Gregg

    1. Gregg - I enjoyed the anecdote as well. Thanks! And I've been told the soul of the rodmaker goes into the rod....that's why bamboo is heavier! I hope my rod reflects mine.