My son brought the box in and its long triangular shape immediately gave it away. It was, of course, “the rod”. As I opened the box I thought about what this fly rod symbolized: a payback to my brother-in-law.
Packaged neatly inside the box was a long clear sleeve with four glossy deep green sticks, a bag of rod guides in pewter grey, and a third bag that contained a cork grip and a rosewood reel seat. I was immediately smitten with the materials at hand.
My mind raced back in time to my first fly fishing experience. My brother-in-law, Jeff, took me fly fishing at my wife’s urging. I did not – could not have – realized the enormity of the event. That early morning the river was entombed in thick fog, the result of the warm early summer air over the very cold water of the tailwater. Jeff set me up with his new, expensive, Winston 3 weight, in nymphing mode – an indicator, 2 nymphs, and some weight, and instructed me how to fish the rig through a nice piece of riffle water. Then he headed downriver and vanished in the river fog.
You can probably guess what comes next – beginner angler’s luck – as if destined from the fly fishing gods. After a number of repeated lob casts, my indicator rocketed to the bottom and all it took was a lift of the rod and that wonderful butter brown flash. I landed the fish, much to the applaud of a couple of veteran anglers – a fat 18″ brown. But it was I who was truly hooked that day. So there it began, on the fabled West Branch of the Delaware River…
Fast forward many years, miles of wading, and a lot of fly fishing. Jeff returned to the West Coast for work, and though our distance made fishing together a once a year thing at best, we have remained close fly fishing brothers. We’ve done a few trips together – the San Juan River, the Bighorn. We’ve fished local Southern Tier rivers on occasion as well. Jeff is an excellent fly fisher, especially skilled with the dry fly. And since that epic day fishing with him, I have benefited from his advice and guidance and have improved my game from that first “angler’s luck” experience.
And then came along the start of our local FFI chapter – the BC Flyfishers. Joe Swam, featured in posts here before, is a very experienced bamboo rod maker who volunteered to teach a rod building class for the chapter. I signed up as a way to expand my fly fishing experience, learn more about how fly rods are made, and build a fly rod of my own.
The class was a success for the BCFF chapter and a great experience for me. I learned first hand from a master rod maker and completed the class with a really nice 8 weight fly rod I could use on local warmwater rivers as well as the salt.
Late in 2016, Jeff set up a guided trip to the Bighorn river in southeastern Montana. He typically spends a week on that river every year: I’ve only gone with him once but it was an incredible fishing experience and well worth a do-over. This would be a very special trip – one celebrating his 60th birthday – so unlike past years, I jumped at the chance to go.
With the birthday Bighorn trip in mind and the BC Flyfisher’s second annual rodbuilding clinic looming in 2017, I began to search for a fly rod I could build for Jeff as a 60th birthday present. I already had one rod under my belt – I could only get better with this rod, especially under the tutelage of Joe Swam.
And so the process began – first with searching for the right rod blank / kit. Jeff’s preference in a fly rod is for moderate action – what used to be referred to as a “dry fly” action. I chose the TFO Finesse rod – an 8 foot 9″ blank of moderate action with a sweet zone made for casting at “presentation” distances. Next came choosing the thread wrap color. I wanted a wrap color that matched the rich rosewood reel seat, and a pewter gray metallic thread for accent wraps. The red wrap color I chose came out perfectly – but note to neophyte rod builders out there – even color preservative will always alter the original color of the thread. In my case, my prediction that the brighter red thread would darken to a red wine color was spot on. Finding a metallic thread that would match the pewter guides and reel seat hardware was another matter. My initial choice of a pewter color was off, and the good folks at flyrodbuildingkits.com suggested I used a gunmetal grey thread which ended up an exact match. I’ll note that they sent the replacement thread free of charge: great customer service. And finally, I had to decide on the finish I’d use for the wraps. On my first rod, I used McCloskey’s marine spar varnish, provided by Joe Swam. I was very pleased with how my wraps came out. For this build, I decided to try Epifanes marine spar varnish. Originating in Holland, a nation with a strong maritime tradition, the name Epifanes, a Greek variation of EPIPHANY, denotes an appearance, a manifestation, a resplendence, or a moment of insight. I was very impressed with the result, and felt a company headquartered in Holland can’t be all wrong when it comes to maritime weather-proof varnish.
Then came the building. The winter snow hit the Southern Tier hard this year – we narrowly beat out Syracuse as the snowiest NY city with over 135″.
That made rod building a perfect winter activity, better in my opinion than working at the vise, though that too is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon with the white stuff flying cloaked in bitter cold…
I took my time with the build – the goal to ship the rod in time for Jeff’s July birthday. Every weekend, the winter through, I added to what started as graphite, cork, and a forms of metal. Measure twice, cut once, was the theme. Along the way a Lamson Waterworks fly reel was ordered, backing, a Scientific Angler’s Mastery Trout fly line, rod sock and a powder coated aluminum tube.
The wraps looked good, secured with color preservative, but it was the varnish that gave the rod that final touch. Every building coat deepened the luster…
And then came the finishing touch – that last coat of Epifanes over the measuring wraps on either side of a rainbow trout decal…
Of course, glossy green graphite sticks, a rosewood reel seat, snake guides, wrapping thread, and the rich scent of spar varnish will never come close to the gift Jeff gave me – the gift of fly fishing. Even the feeling of satisfaction when a rod made with your own hands, carefully joined, and given that fly shop wiggle will never approach it. But perhaps building a fly rod is one of those things that continues the cycle of giving. Maybe that same rod will fall into the hands of another – a grandchild, a neighbor, or even a disabled veteran or cancer survivor. Lee Wulff once said, “The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish that you just caught isn’t someone else’s gift to you?” While Lee Wulff is credited for having started the catch and release initiative and greatly improved conservation efforts as a result, I’d argue that before the fish comes the creation of the fisherman and what better way to pay back or forward, than by building a fly rod and passing it on.
Deep bends, Jeff…