Fly fishers are blessed with opportunity and not only with all the fly fishing that’s available throughout our great country. This wonderful sport offers participants so many other ways to be involved beyond wetting a line, and these niches, in and of themselves, can become full time fly fishing activities. One look at the fly tying greats and it’s readily apparent that some spend more time fly tying than actually using their flies to fool fish.
Beyond fly tying, fly fishermen can learn how to tie custom leaders and how to make nets, wading staffs, and other wading accessories. They can pursue the art of fly casting or focus on the conservation side of the sport. Entomology is yet another area that can be mastered for those anglers with a scientific bent. And finally, there is the craft of fly rod building.
My own foray into rod building started when my local fly fishing club, the BC Flyfishers chapter of IFFF, offered a class on the subject. For $125, the class offered participants a fly rod kit. Most kits were 9 foot, 6 weight, 2 piece kits, but a participant could substitute another rod kit of their choosing, as I did. I purchased a 2 piece, 8 weight, medium fast action PacBay blank in a rich forest green finish. The kit was reasonably priced and with the right components could serve duty as a heavy warmwater river rod, lake rod, and light saltwater rod with saltwater grade components. Rod building materials such as epoxy and varnish, tools such as a basic wrapping station, files, and other items, and free instruction given by a master rod maker over three, 4 hour classes, were also included in the price of the class. The class ended up being one of the best “investments” of money I’ve ever made in the realm of fly fishing, much of it attributed to the outstanding instruction of Joe Swam, BCFF member and professional rod maker.
I’ve documented the details of the class with slideshows on my Examiner.com site where I write as the Binghamton Fly Fishing Examiner, but as an overview, I’ll list the basic rod building process:
- Finding the spline – a critical step used to determine guide orientation.
- Installing the grips – this step consists of prep work to allow the cork to seat into position on the rod and then the application of 2 part epoxy to secure the grip in place. Additionally, the reel seat is shimmed for gluing later in the process.
- Ferrule wrapping – this was just the beginning of a lot of rod wrapping. The ferrules (where rod sections are joined) are a stress point and would break eventually if they are not reinforced by wrapping.
- Prepping the guides – filing and sanding the guide feet is critical for secure guide placement on the rod blank.
- Wrapping the winding check and the hook keeper.
- Spacing, aligning and wrapping the guides. Lining guides up true can be challenging.
- Prepping and epoxying the reel seat in place and gluing the cap.
- Setting and expoxying the tip-top guide in place.
- Wrapping the tip-top guide.
- Treating the wraps with color preservative (optional) and then finishing the wraps with varnish or epoxy.
- Adding cosmetic touches such as a decal, measuring wraps, etc.
While the steps don’t look difficult on paper, the “hands-on” of fly rod building takes a bit of doing. It’s easy to say, for example, “ream the cork grip, glue the rod blank, and slide into place”, but a seasoned rod maker like Joe Swam made all the difference by providing the nuances of the process, like the proper fit of the cork grip, how to mix the 2 part epoxy, and how to ream out a little extra flare at the butt end of the cork grip to give the excess glue a place to collect. I cannot imagine doing this the first few times on my own, and I’d highly recommend that anyone interested in building a fly rod take a class in the art of rod making – even a very basic one – before trying it on one’s own.
Building a graphite or glass fly rod is a matter of assembly. The blank is already fabricated and finished, unlike bamboo where a rod maker truly builds the entire fly rod, blank included. And while a master rod maker can build a bamboo fly rod in 40 hours, beginning graphite or fiberglass rod makers will require this amount of time and quite possibly more.
I found that the building process literally “built” upon itself, excuse the pun. Tying that first wrap and doing it well was motivation to repeat the step with the same or better quality.
Certain components, like the cork grip, and stripper guides, spur one on to complete the project as a blank starts to look more like a fly rod.
Raw materials slowly add character. One can feel the rod evolving. And then at last, the beautiful wraps cry out for varnish or epoxy – the rod blank asks for adornment.
I followed the advice of Joe Swam who recommended the use of McCloskey’s marine spar varnish for coating of the wraps. The other option was the use of a two part epoxy, which is common in the industry, but Joe prefers varnish for his bamboo rods and feels it is easier and more forgiving for a beginner, yet still makes a great finish for even an expert rod maker such as himself.
With each coat of varnish, the wraps filled and smoothed with glossy goodness. After the final and fifth coat was applied, all that was left to do was to add a custom decal. I kept my inscription pretty simple: my name, “rod maker”, and the length, weight, and action of the rod. After securing the decal, a very simple process, I applied two coats of varnish over the decal and let the rod dry adequately over a few more days.
The finished rod impressed me after a lawn casting session. Naturally, I have some bias, for what father isn’t proud of their “child”, real or otherwise. The rod handled a floating WF line just fine, but it was the way it threw an intermediate sink-tip line and a sinking tip fly line with relative ease that really caught my attention. I noted that my addition of two stripper guides (for a total of four) in place of snake guides may have given it a bit more backbone. After casting, thoughts of fishing big flies on the Susquehanna and even casting for blues and stripers in New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay, swirled in my head.
On May 24th I took my rod to the water for its baptism. Nicknamed “The Golden Bear” for its Vestal school colors of green and gold, I strung it up with an 8 weight intermediate sink tip line and waded downriver. The rod balanced perfectly in my hand.
I cast a #6 streamer across a shallow bay and loved how well I could bomb out long casts. Later I set it p with the sink tip line and worked some deeper water. I caught a number of very nice 18″+ bass that evening and returned a few days later to land a best-of-the-year fish.
Rod building has bitten me hard. While I truly cherish my production fly rods, in particular my Scott, TFO, and JP Ross fly rods, among others, the feeling of building and customizing the rod as you truly want, adding touches that identify the rod as wholly your own, and then casting it, fishing it, and finally, feeling the head shake of a good fish – well no fly rod company can sell that…