Care and Feeding of Bamboo Fly Rods

Bamboo enjoys a renaissance among American anglers.  But, many of the new devotees embrace the tradition without knowledge of bamboo rod care.

 Bamboo is a natural material and requires some attention plastic does not demand.  It does not, however, have to be babied.  It is made to be fished.  If you follow the suggestions here, you can reasonably expect to use your rod for a lifetime.

First, it does not serve well as a door stop.  Car and screen doors are notoriously hostile to bamboo flyrods.  Likewise, leaving the rod on the roof of your car will not prolong its life.

Moisture is another enemy.  Never put the rod away wet.  Dry it before placing it in its tube.  Also, periodically check the rod for hook nicks—particularly the top twelve inches of the tips.  It is not unusual for a fly to nick the varnish, especially when casting in windy conditions.  These hook nicks can permit moisture to reach the cane and cause the section to swell and fail.  If you find a hook nick, put a dab of varnish over the nick to seal the coat.

Bamboo can take a set if mistreated.  Three abuses account for most sets.  One is improperly putting the rod together or improperly taking it apart.  The second is using the rod to pull a fly loose from a snag.  The third can occur when landing a fish.

The rule for assembling and disassembling a rod is:  “Put together—close together.  Take apart—far apart.”  This means that in assembling the rod, your hands should be close to the ferrules and thereby close together.  In taking apart, your hands should be some distance from the ferrules—thereby far apart.  The key here is in keeping the rod straight while assembling and disassembling.  There is an unfortunate tendency to place a sideward pressure on the joints while putting the rod together and when taking it apart.  Over time, this will cause the rod to set on either side of the ferrule.  Also, do not twist the rod when seating or disassembling the ferrule.

For three-piece rods, always assemble the tip to the mid first.  Thereafter, join the mid and tip to the butt section.  Reverse this order when disassembling.  Also, always put the reel on last when assembling and take it off first when disassembling.  These steps prevent the weight of the rod and the reel from bending the rod unnaturally.

If the ferrule should be difficult to disassemble, have a friend “cross over” with you.  One of you stand on one side of the rod and one on the other.  Each grasp each section and pull the rod in a straight line. Cross over is key.  The parties should not be grasping different sections.  Each should have a hand on both sections.  This results in a very straight pull and almost never fails to disassemble the rod. 

Bamboo rods are made to cast flies and to land fish.  They are not designed to dislodge flies from trees and other obstructions.  If you snag a fly, do not, under any circumstances, try to pull the fly loose with the rod.  Relax the pressure on the rod and pull some additional line off the reel.  Grasp the flyline in front of the rod and pull directly on the line.  The math here is simple.  Flies cost about $2.  A fine bamboo rod near $2000.  Nuff said.

Many flyrod tips are severely damaged by carelessly fighting and landing fish.  Keep the fighting angle low while still having the rod engaged in the battle.  Always keep the butt pointed away from the fish.  Sometimes, even experienced anglers let down their guard when it comes time to lead the fish to the net.  Here again, it is important to make sure the butt is not pointed toward the fish.  In this configuration, the tip almost folds over on itself.  Folding up a tip is not a good long-term care strategy.  Also, under no circumstances should you use the rod to lift a fish out of the water.

While not as dramatic a danger as the three prior pitfalls, another common setter of bamboo flyrods is the failure to break the surface tension prior to lifting the flyline from the water.  Repeated direct lifting of the flyline will cause a forward curve to set in the tip.  This is easily avoided.  First, break the water tension.  A roll cast pickup will work.  Another tactic is to wiggle the line from side to side while executing the pickup.  These two techniques will avoid unnecessary stress on the rod and will keep it straighter.  It also tends to foster delicacy in your presentation.

Another danger period is when reeling in your line and leader.  When the leader nears the rod tip, it is best to stop reeling and to pull the leader back through the guides by hand.  Many fine rod tips have been broken by inattentive anglers who continue reeling after a leader knot has snagged on a guide. 

You also need to be mindful of the size and weight of the flies you employ with your rod.  Most fine bamboo rods come equipped with delicate dry fly tips.  Using weighted flies, large flies, or sinking tip lines can place unreasonable stress on number 4.5 and smaller tips.  Make sure you discuss the performance range of your rod with the maker or other knowledgeable rodbuilder.

Be careful of your rod around friends.  If a friend should test your rod’s strength by touching the tip to the butt, run what remains of the rod through his or her heart.  It is justifiable homicide in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

A word about ferrules is in order.  Keep them dry and clean.  I recommend keeping some 0000 steel wool, a partial bar of Ivory soap, and a couple of Q-tips in your vest.  Periodically run the Q-tip down the female ferrule and clean the male ferrule with a dry cloth.  If oxidation should occur, very lightly clean the male with the 0000 steel wool. Do not use steel wool every time you use the rod.  Each time before assembling the rod, rub a small amount of dry Ivory soap on the male ferrule.  After each use, wipe the ferrule with a clean cloth.  By following this regimen, the ferrules should slide together nicely and come apart readily.  The ferrules will also last longer and you should be able to avoid the horror of a lock-up.

Most good bamboo rods come with two tips.  I recommend using them both.  By alternating the tips, you uniformly wear the ferrules and the cane.  One way to remember which tip you used last, is to always store the fresh tip in the last sleeve of the rod bag.  When you put the rod away, put the tip you did not use that day into the last sleeve.  Then, always use the tip in the last sleeve when you next use the rod.

It is best to store the rod in its bag in its tube when not in use.  When placing the rod in the rod bag, you should place the butt section in ferrule down.  The tips and mid should have the tip ends up.  This way, the grip tends to fill the rod tube adjacent to the tip ends and thereby keep the most delicate portion of the tips immobile and provide the tips with support.  It is also a good practice when putting the rod and rod bag back into the rod tube to form a ring with one hand at the mouth of the tube.  This keeps guides from catching on the tube lip and becoming undone.

Bamboo is thermoplastic and can be bent under heat.  This is a real boon in building a rod.  However, heat can damage a finished piece.  It is best to store the rod in a cool dry place.  Be careful about leaving the rod in a closed car.  A rod in a black tube, left on the package dash of a closed car, can reach extremely high temperatures.  When carried in a vehicle, or otherwise, keep it where it will not heat up.

Enjoy your cane rods.  Properly cared for they will last a lifetime.

Rick Robbins