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All about bamboo fly rods, with Shawn Brillon

Description: Want to know how a bamboo fly rod is made? How long it takes to make one? How many different hands touch an Orvis bamboo fly rod before you (and your children and grandchildren) become its lucky owner. And finally, what's so great about bamboo fly rods? How are they different from fiberglass and graphite, and what will they do for you on the water? This week I interview Orvis bamboo fly rod craftsman Shawn Brillon [45:09], who loves to talk bamboo rods as much as he enjoys making and fishing them.
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi and welcome to "The Orvis Fly-Fishing Podcast." This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer. And this week, my guest week is Orvis bamboo rod builder, Sean Brillon. And we're going to talk about bamboo rods. You probably have some curiosity about bamboo rods. A lot of you have probably never tried one and we're going to talk about how they're built, how Sean puts one together, how long does it take, how many hands touch the rod before it goes to a lucky new owner. And also, what's so great about 'em? What do people love about bamboo rods, other than the fact that they're beautiful, what is it about the casting characteristics of a bamboo rod that are different from fiberglass and especially from graphite? So hope you enjoy it. Sean is obviously someone who loves his work and I think you'll learn quite a few new things about bamboo rods.
But before we get to the interview, we're going to do The Flybox. And thank you very much to all of you for the recent telephone voice files. I've gotten lots of good voice files recently and I had asked a couple weeks ago to have some and I got 'em and thank you very much. If you don't hear your question, your voice file question this week, don't despair because I've still got some backed up, which is good because then I'll go through periods when I don't get many voice files. And I like to have at least three of them in each of The Flybox segments. So we've got some good ones. I think we're gonna play five of them this week.
But let's start first with an email. This one's from Michael from Germany. I found your podcast two weeks ago and I'm really enjoying it. I'm fly fishing for one month now and I'm really obsessed with it. On my first morning, I caught over 10 brown trout, which I couldn't believe. Since then, I've been on the water almost daily. I have a question. Today I've been to a new river after work. I found a slow section where a lot of trout were rising. After I figured out the right fly, I caught a bunch of them. The biggest was about 8 inches, so I moved a little upstream to find bigger trout. About 50 meters upstream, I saw again an unbelievable number of trout rising, but none of them took my fly, which worked just great before. I tried four different flies after that, each for about 15 to 20 minutes, none of them worked. When I was about to go home, I accidentally dropped my fly in the water and one small trout took it just a rod length from me. I just can't wrap my head around about why I couldn't catch more. I caught seven or eight trout in one hour just a few meters downstream. Do you have any idea what happened here? The fish were rising literally everywhere. One thing I noticed is that some of them jumped a lot as they were trying to catch flies in the air. Others rose normal. I'll try again but I would love to hear your thoughts on that. I was using a brand new 9-foot leader, 0.12-millimeter tippet...whatever that is, I can't remember what that is in inches. My fly did float just perfect. Thanks for everything you do and sorry for my non-perfect English. I attached a few pictures of my latest catches, which obviously you can't see. And by the way, Michael, your English is perfect, so no need to apologize. I understood every word.
So without being there on the water with you, be difficult for me to try to analyze what was going on there. The only thing, if this happens to you again, the only thing that I can suggest is that if you're watching a fish rising steadily and then you make a cast over it, and it stops for a minute or so and then it starts up again after your cast, it's possible that you might have been scaring or spooking those trout with your cast. I don't know if you were in faster or slower waters. You move upstream, probably it was faster water. And you'll notice that sometimes a trout will just be scared by the leader landing on top of them. And they will sink down a little bit or move to one side and not rise for a couple minutes. And then, when they're not scared anymore, they'll start to rise again. And then you make a cast, and they get scared again. So you never really have a chance for them to inhale your fly because every time your fly goes over them, they have moved off a little bit. That's one thing.
You said you tried a bunch of different flies. The fact that that fish took your fly not attached to a tippet tells me even though you think your flies were floating perfectly, you may also have been getting drag. When you move from one section of the stream to another, it can do different things. The currents are different in every little part of the river and you may have been getting some very subtle drag that you couldn't see, but it was apparent to the fish from under the water. So sometimes, when you have problems with fish like that, when no matter what fly you use, you can't seem to get them to take the fly, sometimes it pays to change your positions. Move off to one side or if you're fishing upstream to the fish, try to wade down to the bank, get out of the river, get in the river well above the fish and then try a downstream presentation. Or if you're fishing downstream, again, carefully get out of the river, walk the bank and get into the river downstream of the fish and then fish upstream to them. So I suspect the fish were either scared or it was drag because sounds like you tried a bunch of different flies and they didn't work. So without seeing the situation, that is what I would suspect and I hope that the next time you go out you'll have better luck with those bigger trout.
John: Hi, Tom. This is John from Toronto, Ontario. I have two questions for you today and hopefully ones that you haven't received before. First I wanted to ask about your physical fitness as it relates to fly fishing. I've heard in past episodes of the podcast, you discussing hiking with your family through the mountains of Vermont. And I also was watching a video of you fight a cutthroat in a t-shirt the other day and couldn't help but to think, "Geez, look at the pipes on this guy." Is there any particular physical fitness regime that you follow to help with fly fishing? I'd imagine weight training doesn't necessarily translate into, you know, a longer cast or, you know, more accurate casting. But I'd be more interested to hear about stretching, mobility, balance, any sort of recovery work or exercises like stretches you do following a day of wading. I'm just curious to know if you've implemented any sort of physical fitness into your fly fishing lifestyle.
Second, as sort of a more question about popular destination where I'm from, being from Southern Ontario, a rite of passage for every outdoorsy person is a canoe trip to Algonquin Park, which I'm hoping to plan in the next little while. I've also [inaudible 00:07:49] to some of the great brook trout fishing in southern Ontario and it's fairly accessible as well, aside from the long portages and long canoes paddling days. I'm wondering if you've ever had an opportunity to fish Algonquin Park and what you thought about that experience. And if you haven't, maybe, you know, why or why not you would ever go there. I'd be curious to know if you have fished Algonquin Park, what your approach was to fishing the many lakes, ponds and streams at whatever time of year you were there, and any strategies that you implied. Again, thank you for all you do for fly fishing and take care, Tom.
Tom: So John, I am not a fitness nut. In fact, I don't care very much for indoor exercise. But I have some friends that are, you know, 75 or 80 years old that still wade trout streams, still trailer boats and back 'em onto the boat ramp and hop around in boats and in and out of boats. So I want to be that person. I want to be fishing 'til I'm at least 80, if not 90, if I make it that far. So I want to do everything I can to stay in physical shape and I like to eat too. So, you know, the more you exercise, the more you can justify eating more and eating different things. So, you know, I don't do anything special. I do weight training three days a week, and then aerobic training usually three to four days a week. And my aerobic training is often just hiking up and down hills with my family or, you know, on the elliptical if it's the wintertime or if it's raining or something and I don't feel like hiking. So that's basically what I do. Again, it's nothing special.
The one thing that I would advise for people for physical fitness for fly fishing is don't neglect your core and your lower body, because actually it doesn' casting actually doesn't require much arm strength or shoulder strength or chest strength. You know, the rods weigh a couple ounces and you can wave 'em around all day long and you really shouldn't be tired. If you're tired, you're probably doing something wrong with your casting. But your lower body is so important because, you know, when you're wading or hopping from rock to rock, you need that leg strength. If you're wading in heavy water and you need to get upstream, maybe you need to cross a river and you're trying to go upstream, that can put a lot of stress on your leg muscles. So make sure that you spend a lot of time, as much time with your lower body as your upper body. The other thing is if you're playing a big fish like a tarpon or something, you should be using your lower body as much or more than your upper body. You should be using your core and your legs to fight that fish. You're a lot stronger in those muscles. So lower body's really important.
And then, the only other thing that I try to do is yoga at least once a week. And by yoga, I don't mean doing a couple vinyasas. I mean doing a pretty extreme yoga routine to the point where when you get done you're saying, "Oh, God, I don't want to finish this." You know, I use Yoga X from the P90X program. I really like that. I don't know. I think it's about an hour long. It seems like an hour anyways and it's kinda brutal, but it's helped so much with your flexibility and strength and balance. You know, balance is really, really important if you're gonna be doing a lot of wading, or just getting in and out of boats, your flexibility is important. So that's what I do. Nothing special. Nothing that your doctor wouldn't tell you to do or any personal trainer. So nothing, again, nothing special.
I have not fished in Algonquin Park. I just have never had the opportunity. I've fished quite a bit in Ontario, but not in Algonquin Park. And why haven't I fished there? Well, there are thousands of places in North America that I want to fish and I just haven't gotten there. So can't help you with that part of it.
This one is from Eric. I'm new to fly fishing this year and I'm having a blast learning the sport. I live in West Michigan and I have spent the last three months learning to cast and trying to catch my first trout. Finally got three of them on the lovely Pere Marquette River last weekend. My question is on choosing the right size leaders and tippet. I read that you should take your leader size and multiply it by about three or four and that's the size fly you should be casting. All I have are the 5X leaders I bought to start and indeed, I find them much easier to cast my size 16 flies than bigger ones. But what about if I want to cast something like a hopper-dropper or maybe a two or three-nymph rig? How do I determine the correct size leader? If I were gonna add one or two more size leaders to my arsenal, what would you recommend?
Well, Eric, first of all, I think it's a little bit backwards to think of picking a leader and then picking the size fly to match to it. What you want to do is decide what size flies you're gonna fish first and how many of 'em, and then pick your leader. But you can get away most of the time with a 9-foot leader in rivers like the Pere Marquette, if the water's very, very low and clear, you should probably have a 12-foot leader. But when you're switching back and forth flies, if you're putting on a new leader every time you switch, say you go from a size 16 fly to a, you know, size 8 streamer or something like that, or even a 6. You're going to be spending a lot of money on leaders and you're going to be spending a lot of money switching leaders back and forth on your line.
The better thing to do is to learn how to tie a knot to connect pieces of tippet and modify your leader using sections of tippet material. It's not something easy to discuss here on the podcast. But I do have a number of videos on the Orvis Learning Center that talk about modifying your leader. And I can't remember exactly which program it's on, but if you look through there, there is a section on modifying your leader. And you can work back and forth. You can cut your leader back to make it thicker because the leader is tapered. And then, if you go back to smaller flies, you're gonna have to add a couple of small intermediate sections to your leader to get back to that smaller tippet. But I think it's much easier and it's gonna save you a lot of money rather than switching leaders back and forth. Perfectly all right to switch leaders back and forth, but I think that you're better off learning how to tie a knot, either a blood knot or a triple surgeon's knot to connect pieces of tippet. Learn that well. Either one will work. And then, build your leaders based on that. Build your leaders back and forth.
Some people use the same, start with one leader in the beginning of the season and use that same leader, use the same, at least the butt section down to where it gets to be about 1X, they'll use that same leader for the whole season and just keep adding and subtracting pieces to it. So try that out. And, you know, regarding if you're going to something bigger on that 5X with a hopper-dropper or two or three-nymph rig, yeah, you're gonna have to go to a heavier leader. The bigger and the more air resistant your fly or your arrangement of flies, if you have two or three flies, the heavier that tippet needs to be, at least to the first fly. So you're gonna have to go to a heavier leader. You're gonna have to cut that 5X back or, you know, if you really want to spend a lot of money, you're gonna have to take the leader off and go to a 9-foot 3x.
Drew: Hey, Tom. This is Drew from the Pacific Northwest Seattle area. Hey, this week my wife and I went out with our second guide ever. It was an Orvis-endorsed guide, Tod, from the Ellensburg Angler up in the well-known Yakima River here in Washington. Had a wonderful day. And my question to you is what does it take to be an Orvis-endorsed guide? Todd could not have been better as a coach and a rower and we caught lots of fish and just had a wonderful day and learned a lot. So that was my first question.
Second question is I've had this before myself, but we started with a dry-dropper and used a big Chubby Chernobyl with a nymph underneath. What are the advantages of using a big dry like that versus a bobber? I know obviously everyone says, "Well, they always might eat your dry fly," but, you know, hard to say. Chubby Chernobyl's pretty huge if they're eating nymphs. So any time you would use a dry-drop or dry fly versus maybe a bobber and a nymph below? Any advantages or disadvantages, times you would, times you wouldn't? Anyway, thanks for the information. Great podcast. Have a wonderful day.
Tom: Well, Drew, I'm glad you had a great time with an Orvis-endorsed guide. What does it take to be one? Well, you need to be a real professional guide. You need to know the water really well. You need to have some first aid training. You need to make a decent lunch and you need to have a good personality, a personality that can deal with all kinds of people. And you need to know your tackle. You need to obviously know your flies and your knots and all that stuff. A good angler is not necessarily going to be a good guide or an Orvis-endorsed guide because some people just don't like being with people or don't have the patience to be with people. Being a good guide almost requires you being a therapist sometimes.
So each one of the Orvis-endorsed guides are evaluated. We have a team of three people who go out and actually fish with one of these guides. And then, we monitor and we get customer feedback from some of our customers and we keep track of the guides and how they're doing. And of course, we have a Guide of the Year and a Lodge of the Year and an Outfitter of the Year awards for the ones that get the most five-star ratings or really high reviews. So we do spend quite a bit of time vetting these guides because, you know, we care about our brand and our brand is valuable. And so, basically that's how it is. You gotta be a good guide first and you gotta be a people person and safety is, of course, essential. We need to make sure that guides that we send people out with take care of all the safety requirements ahead of time.
I've said this many times before, your second question, using a big dry over a bobber. Bobbers land on the water really hard and although they're easy to use and they'll suspend a big, heavy nymph, they clunk on the water. One fish is spooky, they make a lot of commotion and probably spook fish. And, you know, the advantage, as you stated, the fish may occasionally take that big dry fly. Not always, and I think it's easier to cast a dry-dropper rig than it is to cast an indicator rig. And the times I will personally use indicators, really early season, the water's dirty, I know there's no way a fish is gonna come up for that dry fly, and maybe I'm using a really heavy nymph or two heavy nymphs and I want to try to suspend them, I will use an indicator. But I think most times, you're gonna be better off, particularly this time of year, later in the season when the water is lower and clearer, you're gonna be a lot better off with a more subtle presentation with a big dry fly.
Okay. Another email. This one's from Ben from Australia. Thank you for all the tips and content you share with your listeners. One in particular has helped me a lot. I was constantly having troubles with fly line tangling during casting, apparently having form memory on the reel between uses. I finally became so annoyed with the line I ended up replacing it and using another. After hearing your tip of always stretching the fly line before use, I'm pleased to say I've reinstated the former fly line and am much happier using it and now stretch all of my fly lines before use and have much less trouble with tangles during casting. Such a simple and what should be obvious tip has saved a lot of frustration on the water, so thank you.
Now a quick question. What are your thoughts on integrating weed guards into flies? I find them almost mandatory on some of the warm water species I fish, Australian bass and barramundi, as they generally live in the gnarliest sticks and fallen trees. However, I feel like I'm missing a lot of hookups due to the mono weed guard obstructing the hook point. What are your thoughts? Risk losing flies with no weed guard or risk losing fish with them?
That's the million dollar question. And you'll get both answers from anglers and guides. Some believe that you always should have a weed guard when you're fishing in cover, and others say that a weed guard is a fish guard, because you will miss some strikes on a weed guard. So I personally try to carry both types of flies and try them both. You know, if I fly with a weed guard and I keep missing fish, then I'll go to a fly without a weed guard and risk getting hung up in the weeds or the branches or whatever. But there's no easy answer to that. The only thing I [inaudible 00:22:57] is if you're buying your flies, make sure that that weed guard is not too far from the hook point. You know, if you're buying flies in a shop, when you look at the mono weed guard, make sure that there's just a little bit of a distance between the weed guard and the point of the hook. Sometimes those weed guards are really, really big and they're really far away from the hook point. And that doesn't do you any good. That's just gonna be a fish guard.
If you tie your own flies, again, make sure that the weed guards that you tie in are gonna just cover the hook point, just a little bit of a distance between the mono and the weed guard and that'll help you slip over those logs and things, yet the fish won't have to push that weed guard very far to get impaled on the hook. And the other thing is, again, if you tie your own flies and you put in the kind of weed guard where you tie in a V of monofilament and the V goes back toward the point of the hook, make those a little longer and crimp the ends right above the hook point so that they're parallel to the shank of the hook. And this will still protect the point, but it'll be a very short distance between that weed guard and the point of the hook so you can hook fish better. But there's really no good answer to your question. It's one of those trade-offs that we often deal with in fly fishing.
Chris: Hi, Tom. My name is Chris from Northwest Ohio. My question today relates to beads. When it comes to bead size, manufacturers and also fly tires recommend certain size of beads for certain size of hook. Doesn't matter if it's weighted or unweighted, but there does seem to be a size recommendation. Do you find that it really does matter as far as what size is presented to a trout, and whether it helps with the attractiveness and also the catchability of those fish? Or is the size, I guess when I talk to Tungsten, is it more of a weight issue in getting it down, is that why size matters from that perspective? Also, last part of my question would be to relate to color. Does color kinda relate more to seasonality? So do certain colors work better certain times of year? Or is it a simply a matter of certain colors may be a little bit flashier or more attractive to fish because they haven't seen it before? It's something new to them. So I want to get your perspective on color as well. Well, thanks for answering my questions. I really appreciate it. Take care.
Tom: So Chris, the bead size is all about the weight, the sink rate of the fly. You know, sometimes you want a really light bead if you're fishing a dry-dropper with a smaller dry fly or you're fishing shallow water, you don't want to keep hanging up on every cast. So you use a brass bead or a really, really tiny Tungsten bead just to break the surface film and get the fly down a little bit. There's other times when you want that fly to really clunk. You want it to really, you know, you're fishing heavy, deep water you want a bigger bead. And you can put a big oversized bead on a hook as long as the bead doesn't slip over the eye or block the eye when you put it on the hook. You can put a really big bead and some people do that. I forgot what they call it, but they put an oversized bead on some of their flies, just for those specific deep water areas. So, you know, it's really a sink rate thing and not an appearance thing. Why fish take flies with beads in front of them, nobody knows anyway. I mean, none of the insects that we imitate have a big flashy bead at their head or big flashy anything at their head. So it does seem to add some attractiveness, but definitely helps with the sink rate.
I don't honestly think color of the bead has much, I mean, some days when I've noticed that a copper bead might work better or a white bead might work better or a pink bead might work better. But I haven't seen any consistent rules that I would follow. If you have a favorite fly, like the Hare's Ear or Pheasant Tail or whatever, I would tie that fly with a bunch of different beads. I'd tie it with big ones, with little ones. I'd tie it with black ones that are non-flashy. I'd tie it with really bright ones. I don't think there's any seasonality of beads as you asked, other than later in the season when the water's really clear, you might consider black beads, a matte black bead, because they're more subtle. Sometimes in really clear water, that flash of those brighter color beads, silver or gold or copper, may spook the fish or may put 'em off. So you might want to try something more subtle, black or white, you know, something that's more matte colored rather than flashy. But I don't think there's any specific seasonality. And people are gonna tell you that you gotta have this color bead in this river or on this fly pattern, and I think there's a lot of experimentation to be done and I think that they may even change from day-to-day as far as its appeal to the fish. So can't give you any rules for that, other than to experiment.
Here's an email from Alex from Washington State. I have a tip and two questions for the podcast. First the tip. A few podcasts ago, someone called in asking about how they could increase their hookups while swinging flies for trout. And you suggested they not set the hook after they mentioned they were setting the hook. I was hoping I could add onto this. Swinging flies is my absolute favorite way to fish for both salmon and trout. What I found to really help me improve my hookup rates is by using either a clicker reel or setting the drag very low on the disc reel. Don't pitch the line in your rod hand, but let it go directly to the reel. When you feel fish hitting your fly, you have to completely ignore them no matter how hard they tug at your rod. Sometimes a fish will hit a fly half a dozen times before taking it. Only once you hear your reel clicking should you lower your rod tip and start fighting the fish. Hope this helps. That's a great tip, Alex, by the way.
Now for the questions. I was out fishing this evening and managed a first in my fly fishing. I was trying to retrieve my dry-dropper rig to dry off my dry fly and while it was blowing around in the wind in front of me, a very large dragonfly swooped in and grabbed my Elk Hair Caddis and tried to fly off with it. After the initial disbelief of seeing it hover above me with my nymph suspended below, I gave it a few gentle tugs and it let go of my flies and flew off. Have you or any of your listeners had this happen before? Can I call myself the first angler to angle a fly with a fly or would that be too on the nose?
For my second question, shortly after this encounter, I managed to land a beautiful coastal cutthroat, probably within my top five fish caught on this river. A little over 15 inches and strong and fat. My fly had hooked him in the corner of his mouth. When I went to retrieve it, I had trouble getting a grip on it and used my forceps to pop out the fly. Once I got the fly out however, I noticed it was soaked in bright frothy blood and the trout had blood running out of its mouth where the fly was. Knowing this fish likely wouldn't survive, I would normally take the trout home for dinner in the situation, but this river is catch and release only. So I held the trout, point it upstream until he lethargically swam off, likely dying not long after. I feel terrible having killed this beautiful trout despite my best efforts at proper fish handling. I checked that the barb on the fly was indeed completely crimped. I realized fly fishing is still a blood sport at the end of the day and there is mortality even with 100% perfect fish handling, but I feel particularly bad about this fish. I'm not overly attached to my flies and am usually quick to snip off a fly if a fish has taken the fly too deep or otherwise in a manner that would make it hard for me to retrieve without hurting the fish. Is there any way I could have better foreseen the damage I would do by removing the hook instead of snipping it off and letting it fall out? What is your criteria for cutting the fly loose and letting the fish shake it loose instead of trying to remove it yourself? Thanks again for all you and Orvis do for your sport.
Tom: Well, first of all, Alex, I think as far as I know, in my view, you're the first one to catch a fly on a fly. But I don't know. There may be people that will challenge your record, but congratulations. I've never caught a dragonfly on a fly. I've caught lots of bats, way too many bats, and swallows and cedar waxwings, which I hate doing and I try not to do. But occasionally, the birds make a mistake. But a fly on a fly? No, I think that's a first, at least where the podcast is concerned.
Regarding that fish, I don't think there's anything you could have done. You know, sometimes a hook is gonna pierce an artery or a vein, even out toward the front of the mouth. And whether you remove the fly or not, I think that fish was probably a goner. And you're right. It is a blood sport and there is some mortality, despite our best efforts at fish handling, there's always some mortality when we catch and release. And we have to live with that. We have to live with that and know that you're probably not hurting the fish population by killing an occasional fish like that. And the fish won't go to waste. A raccoon or a mink or a heron or something will get it pretty quickly. And they need to eat too. So I wouldn't beat yourself up over that. It's gonna happen occasionally.
My kinda rule for whether I cut a fly off and leave it in the fish or try to get it out with my fingers and my forceps, is that if I can't get it out within, you know, I don't know, 5 seconds or so, 10 seconds, and it's deep, especially if it's deep, if it's deep, I'll almost always leave the fly in the fish. But you know, if I can't get it out in 5 or 10 seconds, then I'm gonna just clip off the fly and barbless hook, the fish is gonna get rid of it fairly quickly. But if it struck a vein or an artery, again, there's not much you can do. So nothing you coulda done to save that trout, I don't think.
Nick: Hey, Tom. Nick from PA. Just moved here about a year ago and recently I started fishing the West Branch of the Susquehanna. I've been doing really well on, like, just little crayfish buggers because they're everywhere. And I hooked and landed a, it must have been a 15-pound catfish. This is crazy. So it felt like a rock and it pulled some line. I didn't do it on purpose. I don't know that I ever would. But I also thought it would never happen again, so I went out today and I caught three more. So it's just super bizarre to me. I've never heard of anyone doing that. So I guess my question is, if that's a thing, do people do this on purpose or is it just considered a bycatch? Thank God I had a net because I don't wanna get jabbed by one or something.
Tom: Well, Nick, I actually think that's pretty cool. I've caught channel cats and bullheads on a fly and I think they're kinda fun and interesting. So congratulations. I think that's a really cool thing. And I found that sometimes catfish in rivers can be quite spooky, so they can be a challenge. When the water's a little dirty, they're a little bit easier to catch or when they're concentrating on, you know sometimes catfish will actually come up and take insects off the surface. But that's a really cool thing. And whether it's a thing or a bycatch is gonna be up to you really. Were you happy with it? If you were, then it's a thing. If you weren't happy catching a catfish, then it's bycatch. But I know I have a river that I fish for carp that has a lot of catfish in it and when I take someone over there that's never fished there before, they're really interested in catching a catfish, at least one. After one, you know, they kind slime up your leader and your fly and they're difficult to unhook. So, you know, after one, they generally say, "Oh, okay. I'm gonna try to stay away from the catfish." But you know, it's definitely a thing for some people and I think you should be proud of yourself for catching catfish on a fly. Not many people can say that.
All right. Another email. This one's from Georgie. Hi, Tom. Your podcast and videos have helped me immensely as I learned to fly fish. I am now retired and fly fishing has become my passion and obsession. I live on the west coast and fish both fresh and saltwater. I have a 9-foot-8 weight rod with shooting head system for surf fishing and have caught striped bass, perch, halibut, bat ray and guitar fish. I would like to target corvina and I've read that they need a delicate presentation. Do you think I could use my current rod and get a new reel and lighter line? Is it ever a good idea to underweight a fly rod? This is just one of the thousands of questions I have for you, but I gotta start somewhere. Thanks for being our go-to guy on the water.
Well, you're welcome, Georgie. Thank you. And I think that you could use that 9-foot-8 weight rod for corvina. I've never caught corvina, but I've seen videos and I've talked to people and read articles on corvina. And yeah, you need to be more delicate, but don't forget you're using a shooting head system right now. And shooting heads are not delicate. They clunk. I mean, they're designed for distance and casting in the wind and throwing big flies. So if you just go to a standard 8-weight line with a longer leader, a 9 or even a 12-foot leader, you should be able to get enough delicacy for corvina with that 9-weight rod. So it's maybe a matter of, probably a floating line, because corvina feed shallow. You know, 9-weight floating line, it's gonna land a lot more delicately than your shooting heads and a little bit longer leader, I think you'll be able to keep that fly line far enough away from the fish to fool them.
Man 1: Hi, Tom. Thank you for the fantastic podcast. I really have enjoyed it over the years, especially the ones about conservation and invasive species control, which is something I know is of great concern to most your audience, hopefully all. Had a great trip up to Alberta a couple weeks ago to the Lake Louise Banff area. And while talking to the national parks service folks there and trying to figure out how to get to fishing spots, I was informed about their invasive species control issues and the really far reaches they've done to control that, which includes that all fishing tackle, not just boots and waders, but lines, flies, rods, everything, need to be at least 45 days from having fished in any other waters outside of the park as well as cleaned and treated to make sure there's absolutely no invasive species. Luckily my son's rod that was with me, we had not used it for a couple months and I always clean the line. But I had to put away my waders, my wading boots and my favorite 5-weight in order to fish. Good news is we were able to catch a number of great cutties and a nice bull trout over 25 inches on the trip. So it was a great success, but it was really interesting to me the length to which they are going up in Canada to really limit and restrict any fly gear that has touched infected areas. I'm just curious what your thoughts are about is that a standard we should be adopting in the U.S.? In the most of the waters I fish, we do focus on cleaning your boots and waders. But it never occurred to me to be cleaning the fly lines, flies, leaders, all that material as well. I'm just curious if you've heard about that and also want to protect our waters, but do it in a way that also is reasonable. So thanks again for everything and I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Tom: So Nick, that's very interesting and a good heads-up for anybody that's heading to Banff, that you need to not have your gear used for 45 days and then everything should be cleaned and treated. Personally, I think it's excessive to have to clean fly lines, leaders and flies. I don't think there's not much that can stick to them. I mean, unless your fly was, well, all full of weed or something. But usually, you rinse them off before you put 'em away. I don't think that you should need to clean your fly lines, leaders and flies. However, I wouldn't argue with the rules and the rules are rules. So you need to do what they say. But as far as, you know, your own individual fishing where it's not required by law, I think if you make sure that you clean your waders and your boots, which are the things most likely to trap invasive species, and you clean 'em well and you inspect them and you dry 'em, I think you're gonna be fine on your own. But where the regulations require it, then I guess you gotta clean everything.
And finally, an email from Jarrod from Calgary. I love nerding out on my hobbies and that being said, I love your podcast. I have just recently moved to Calgary, and while my favorite fishing is small mountain streams, I live within a short walk of the Bow River. I've been exploring it before and after work during the week. I have managed to net a few small trout, but have a hard time adapting to a river with such high angling pressure. I have found a few spots with regular rising fish close to home, but have had no luck hooking up with some of the larger noses I see sipping on top. I've tried many different combinations, including hopper-dropper, hopper dry dropper, double dries, streamers with nymphs tailed behind, indicator with multiple deaf nymphs in both match the hatch and attractor style flies. I'm just wondering if you have any tips or advice on fishing in pressured and popular rivers. I'm sure fishing less pressured sections of the river would make things easier, but it would be nice to figure out some tactics that would help me be more successful within walking distance of home, as they are clearly feeding trout, just not feeding on my flies. Ha-ha.
So Jarrod, I think I got a good piece of advice for you. Everything you mentioned were double fly rigs. And you know what? It's perfectly all right to fish a single fly. And I think when you encounter big fish with their noses coming out of the water, one of the worst things you can do is try to fish two flies to that fish. You need to be dead accurate because a big fish like that isn't gonna move very far for a fly. And you can be a lot more accurate with a single fly and you're gonna make a lot less disturbance on the water with a single fly. And you're gonna have a lot less chance of the fly dragging with a single fly. So personally, if I see a big fish rising and I'm fishing two flies, I'm gonna immediately clip off one of my flies and just tie on a single fly. I think you're gonna be much better off.
Other than that, you know, fishing emergers, just a small tiny emergers instead of a dry fly will often fool those big pressured fish. Going to a little bit lighter tippet. If, you know if the water's not too warm and you can play the fish a little longer, going to a little bit lighter tippet will sometimes help. The other thing is to change your approach. If everybody fishes downstream to those fish, that's the presentation they always use. Then sneak up behind them and fish upstream. If everybody fishes upstream, then sneak up around 'em and fish downstream to 'em. But generally, small emergers, small nymph, maybe small dry, lighter tippet and a single fly, you're probably gonna be doing better. I think you'll do better on those bigger fish. Give it a try and see how it works for you.
All right. That is the voicemail-heavy Flybox this week. Hope you enjoyed it. Let's go talk to Sean Brillon about what's so great about bamboo rods. Well, my guest today is Sean Brillon. And Sean has had a long career in the fly fishing industry. Sean started at the Manchester flagship retail store as a fishing manager, how many years ago, Sean?
Sean: Geez. My total run was 10 and a half years.
Tom: Ten and a half.
Sean: I think I started in '96.
Tom: '96. And then you came in as a product developer and you worked on flies and gadgets and accessories.
Sean: Fly materials.
Tom: Fly materials, yeah. And then you worked for Montana Fly Company for awhile and then you worked for Hareline for awhile.
Sean: Correct.
Tom: And then you came back to Orvis. And now you're in a unique position now. You are the bamboo rod maker at Orvis.
Sean: That's right, Tom.
Tom: And it's a long line of very distinguished people. Wes Jordan, Ron White or Whitey, John Rosencrantz, Charlie, what was Charlie's last name?
Sean: Hisey.
Tom: Charlie Hisey, yeah. Charlie Hisey. And now you.
Sean: It's pretty interesting because Charlie and I worked in the retail store together and I can kinda blame Charlie for my bamboo addiction.
Tom: And it can be an addiction. Sean just had me out in the backyard. We were casting a top secret new bamboo prototype, which his boss doesn't even know about.
Sean: It's top secret.
Tom: So hopefully he won't listen to this. Anyway, I'm not gonna tell you anymore because it'll probably be awhile before it's available and it's something that I personally have been asking for for a number of years. So I got somebody that will listen to me now because we're old buddies.
Sean: That's right.
Tom: And Sean is actually here in the podcast studio with me. Podcast studio, I use that loosely, but it is sort of a studio. But Sean's obviously local, so we figured we'd actually get together and do this with two microphones and do it like a real show. So Sean, you know, first let's talk about how a bamboo rod is made. Give someone a broad overview of what's involved in constructing a bamboo rod.
Sean: Sure. That would be great. Well, you know, we start with a raw bamboo column. And typically they're about 6-feet long. I take those, I split 'em in half. Then I take and I do an arrangement on the table to stagger my nodes. That just makes sure I have all of my nodes in the right places for strength.
Tom: Will you explain to people what nodes are?
Sean: Sure. What a node is, the best way to think of it is the growth joint. It's the joint where two pieces of bamboo come together and that's where the growth is. Above the node or at the node will be a leaf that pops out. So it's basically if you envision taking a stove pipe and shoving the smaller pipe into the larger pipe, that's kinda how bamboo grows from the bottom up. So the nodes, if it was a perfect world, the material wouldn't have a node and then we wouldn't have to worry about where we put 'em in the rod for strength and aesthetics. It'd be real simple. All the rods would be very clear in color and you wouldn't have any darker spots where the node actually is.
But once I get those guys split in half and it's time for me to bring 'em to the oven, I bring 'em into my oven. I cook 'em for a specific time and at a certain temperature. What that does for me is that'll remove the moisture. That'll bring my moisture content of the bamboo down and it'll give me tempering, which, you know, kinda hardens the material and it gives me color. So today, our rods are more blonde than they are dark of yesteryear. Used a little bit different process back then than we do today.
So once I get 'em through the oven, it's pretty much time to get 'em into smaller segments. Many builders hand split. We forgo the hand splitting and I use a basic table saw. I run 'em through the table saw twice to establish a rough triangle. I'm shooting for 60-degrees on each side, which you can only imagine the human eye is only so accurate, so it doesn't hit that point every time or maybe not at all. And that's okay because the next step after I get those babies cut into those rough triangles, I run 'em through a 1942 milling machine, of which looks like a Sherman tank, very big, noisy. It sure gets the attention of the other employees once I fire that baby up. It howls pretty good. It's got basically two cutters. It's got a first cutter and a second. First cutter takes off the most material and then the second cutter basically cleans that mess up. Mess is basically little splinters. We call 'em feathers. They're very, very thin and extremely sharp, so that's basically when the rod builder starts to bleed a lot. Once you get 'em through there, we'll do an inspection to make sure the piece is ran correctly. At this machine, I have the ability to put a slight taper in the material. With the two cutters, I can adjust which cutter is higher and which cutter is lower and I can put a slight taper in at that point.
But the real magic happens in one of two places, and that would either be my 1945 milling machine, which is another, we call it the finish mill. Basically that one's a flat bed. I can only run one stick at a time through there, a little bit slower. And that is where I set my taper. So that'll put the taper into the bamboo. What I mean by the taper is the front of that might measure, oh, 125 and then the back might be somewhere around 280, if it was a butt section. So it goes from thin to fat, tip to butt. So once we get through that, if I decided to use the finish miller, oftentimes I'll skip the finish mill and then I bring everything into my other workshop and I run it on a Morgan handmill, which what I like about the handmill is it's extremely accurate. It's cutting my sticks at 61.5 degrees, so it gives me a little higher peak than my older machines can do, of which just allows me to be more accurate when I'm running those parts.
Once we get 'em off of that guy, which is all hand work, I could be pushing a plane anywhere from a week to three weeks, depending on how big the run is, take 'em from there and it's time to do our final inspection. I'm gonna be looking for any kind of chips in the edges, any kind of imperfections, discolorations, anything that would be ugly to the eye. So we get through that process and it's time to basically, we take tape, we mix-match lefts and rights. So basically, I'll pull three sections from my left pile and three sections from my right pile. These are node staggers. So I have, you know, one kind of node on the left and another distanced node spacing on the right. Pair those up into the finished section shape, which looks like a stop sign. I bind them with tape just three pieces, one at the back end, one in the middle, one at the front. And at that point, I'm ready to take 'em out to my binder.
Out there, the binder is basically just a belt-driven hand-cranked device that allows me to put some cotton thread or string around the bundle. Prior to doing all that bundling and stuff, we have to mix the glue, wait for the proper temperature and timing. And once everything's set, I scrub down all the sections, all six strips, then we get to the binder, we scrub 'em down with the glue. Get to the binder, bind 'em up. At that point, we tie off the string. I got a small little oven that'll accommodate, oh, roughly about 100 segments. I'll put 'em in there overnight, I like to get 24 hours on a glue cure. I'll come back 24 hours later and we'll pull 'em out of the oven and take a look. You know, we do a few things before they go into the oven. We'll roll them with a little roller to make sure all segments are nice and flat. We'll take and look down the segment to make sure it hasn't twisted in the binder. Just a, you know, few checks before it goes into the oven.
But when we get her out of the oven, it's probably one of the scarier points of rod building, because it's either successful or it's not. So what that means is either you had a great glue-up, meaning that all of your seams are nice and tight, the glue cured properly, nice and clear, strong. I'll tap 'em on the floor a couple of times. They'll look for a certain sound. It's kind of a dead thump. And that'll tell me that that glue is pretty cured. I can also tell by feeling the sticks. They feel tacky at all, we have a bad glue-up. That glue is not cured. Does it happen? Absolutely. There's probably no rod builder on the planet that's never experienced a glue failure. The only difference is, you know, good rod builders like to break their own rods in their shop before they get out to the customer. So I do take some time and I do put the blanks out on our flex board. If I think anything looks suspicious, they get thrown in the corner and I'll cut 'em up at a later date when I'm not crying that it failed. It's not a common thing that you see a lot of failure. Typically if you had a day that the humidity was low, that can create some problems, or the opposite, a high humidity day can give you some problems with gluing. So I try to pick days that it's smoking hot outside and nice and dry in the shop. So I want to see at least 75 to 80 degrees on days I do the glue-ups.
So once we get them all inspected and everything looks good, we'll tear off the string. It's X-wrapped because I run the sticks through that binder twice. I run through to the left and I flip 'em over and I run 'em again and that puts an X-wrap on the blank, which just basically provides a little bit of tension to squeeze that blank to make sure that nothing moves in the oven. Once we tear the string off, we'll scrape down just the top layer of glue. There will be some glue residue. Once you clear that off, you can see the color of the cane. You can see any marks, any gaps. Usually the worst thing or the biggest thing that you're looking for is open seams. So we'll do a final inspection before we even decide we get to work on that blank. Typically I try to run enough material to make five rods. Sometimes I'll end up with 8, sometimes it'll be 10. But I'm shooting for five. So you can imagine the scrap rate that you get when you're going through such stringent QAD processes. So I would say that our scrap rate of sticks that I toss to the side and don't use is probably around 40%. So we'll toss out about 40% of the material and it never becomes a rod ever.
Tom: Yeah, and people, don't ask for seconds rods because we don't make 'em.
Sean: No, they really don't exist.
Tom: We don't finish a rod that Sean's not totally happy with, so.
Sean: Yeah, there's really no sense to, you know, one little blemish or a chip in one segment ruins the whole stick. So we try to cull those outta there before we even get to the binding process. But, you know, there will be things that do sneak through that you don't see that may be overlooked, that you said to yourself, "Well, you know, it's just a surface imperfection and that'll come out in the scraping process," which a lot of the times it will. A lot of the surface imperfections are caused when the bamboo's actually harvested. So you might see a little tool mark. It gets scrubbed with sand to get off the green. It's basically an outer skin on the bamboo. So when it gets harvested, they scrub it so you might get some scarring, you know, from a rock or a big piece of sand that's scraped into the bamboo. And that's the kind of stuff that I try to look for that right from the start when you actually pull the sections that you'll want to turn into a rod. Anything that's ugly in the rack is gonna turn into an ugly rod. So we don't bother. We just throw it to the side and move along.
Tom: Yeah, bamboo is such a thing of beauty and there's so much handwork in it. You don't want anything, any flaw in it, any visible flaw in the rod.
Sean: Once we get to the section stage, everything's been, you know, proven that that stick is good to use. That point, I start to do my measurements and we use a 5-inch increment on our measurements. I have all the tapers from the beginning of when we started building rods in 1856 to the most current. So with that magic book, I can reproduce any of the rods that we made today or yesteryear. So that's one important thing for me because we still do repairs on all of the rods that we've ever built. So I need to know, you know, what the tapers are. Of course, I could just put a micrometer on the customer's rod, but I always start with the book. And from the book, the rod might have been modified over time, the customer might have requested a stronger tip to be made over time. And those are the kinds of things that I have to, you know, look into and see how I can reproduce that to make that rod as beautiful as the day it left the shop.
Tom: And one thing people should know is we only do repairs on Orvis bamboo rods. In past years, we would do all kinds of repairs on different rods, but we just don't do it anymore. So if you have an old rod that you bought at a tag sale or something, you're gonna have to send it somewhere else to get it fixed.
Sean: I mean, the great thing about that, Tom, today, there's more bamboo builders and craftsmen in their garage that's doing small time stuff that...
Tom: Oh, there's some great ones out there.
Sean: can find somebody to work on a rod very easily today, which is very nice. So once we decide what rod we're building, let's just say it's Penn's Creek, I'll look that up in the book, find out what my final dimensions are. And typically, I run 10,000 to 15,000 [inaudible 01:01:17] all my machinery and handmill for finish work. So the finish work typically is hand scraped. That is basically a cabinet scraper. Chunk of steel that's got a razor edge that I file on it. I scrape down the bamboo to about within 2,000 to 3,000ths. I'll leave that on there for my final sanding, which I like to go with 400 and then I'll hit a few spots with 600 and then I'll finish everything off with triple ought steel wool. That'll give me a nice, clean, shiny, smooth finish on the rod until I get to the process of doing the polishing and waxing and that type of work.
But basically, now we got our sizing ready. We scrape it down. We sand it. We get the nice sheen. We check it for straightness. A lot of times, I've already straightened 'em prior to doing all the scraping. Straightening is basically a process of applying heat to the blank in strategic places. Essentially if you have a hook to the right, you're gonna heat that up and you're gonna bend it to the left. Pretty elementary. It sounds super simple, but it's probable one of the things that'll make your hair fall out, because you take one bend out and then another one comes in, and another and another. So basically you start at the back of the blank and work all of those kinks out to the front. It could take as quick as 10, 15 minutes or it could be several episodes of straightening. A lot of times with severe, where we call a set in the rod, that's just essentially a bend where it's not supposed to be, severe sets tend to take a lot of time because you have to do it slow and methodical and not damage the rod. So those are the most difficult ones to take out.
But once we get everything straight, we start looking at the ferruling process. I use a lathe. I cut my ferrule stations in, whack 'em on with a hammer and a little tool that is a driver. And I'll use a, basically it's a material that you use to set gun barrels. It's a gun bedding is what it's called. It's how I like to put the ferrules on. It gives you a real solid fit, if you had cut that ferrule station slightly larger, like say 1,000th, this material binds to the blank and takes up that 1,000th. So you never will have a ferrule little rock or teeter or come loose. I also pin them in the shoulder and file the pin out so you can't see it. Once you get your ferrules on, it's time to work on the butt section. We put the grip on. The grip goes on from the front of the rod. So a lot of my rods are swell butts, so that causes a little bit of a challenge when you go to put your grip on because you'll have two different port sizes. You'll have a large port in the back and a smaller port in the front. So once you establish your sizes, it really doesn't change much unless you made a change in your blank dimension.
So you drill those babies out nice and slow, even and straight, mount it by just ramming it home down the blank. You just push it to the back. I tend to put my reel seats on first. You just port those guys out. I cut the blank down with the lathe to get a small change in dimension so when I put my reel seat on, you get real good contact between the wood and the bamboo. Same thing with a grip. You want a nice tight-fitting grip, that way when the rod fully flexes, which bamboo does, you want to be able to feel that blank inside your hand, inside the handle. So that's kind of a slow process and I have to say sometimes, you know, you port one bad and you throw it out and start a new one.
Sometimes, you know, cork has a variable feel to it. Some cork's nice and smooth, some's a little rough feeling. So we take a lot of time with shaping the grip. So I'll shape that grip with, you know, various files, sandpaper. And I got a nice, smooth, you know, a grip that you really want to grab onto. Once the grip's on and the reel seat's on, we just let all that basically dry. It's all epoxied on. I'll slide a winding check down against the front of the cork and pretty much my job, other than putting a tip top on the tip, is pretty much compete because we have some real pros out in our winding department that are my partners and make me look like a hero, because they can wind like nobody else. If I had to wind a rod, we're looking at two, three hours. These gals, they can do my five rods in an afternoon. They're absolutely perfect. And then it goes out into our clean room, which it's where we do all of our epoxy and varnish work. It's got these great big drums that rotate the rods to make sure that all the epoxy or in my case, varnish, will cure properly with no bubbles or sags or anything like that. That process, they do four coats on the labeling and six coats of varnish on all of the silk wraps.
Tom: Wow, six coats?
Sean: Yes. So that gives us a nice, shiny, clear, you know, look. It makes those wraps really jump off the rod and they're very durable, protects it from the elements really well. Once the girls get done with their part, they send 'em on back to me for final inspection. That's where I'll go over the rod extremely detailed, looking for any kind of drips or drools of varnish, any guy that's not straight, I'll do a final straightening on the blank itself. One thing that I skipped over, and I sometimes do it if I'm in a rush or if I have plenty of time during the run, I'll do it before I send 'em on out, and that's fitting the ferrules. We fit our ferrules by hand. We use basically they're jeweler files, a #6 and #8 file. I'll take those ferrules down about 1,000th to 2,000ths to get a nice sound fit. I look for that classic nice pop, suction pop that tells me that that's a nice fit. Once the ferrules are fit, I'll shine the rod up, polish 'em on the polisher, give 'em a nice coat of wax just to give it a little more shine and protection from the water, sack 'em up, get that guarantee card in there, give it a kiss and I send it on down to the warehouse.
Tom: And it will be registered when...
Sean: Correct.
Tom: We have records back a long way, every bamboo rod that's ever left the shop is registered to the owner. I think didn't we lose a few in a fire or something?
Sean: Yeah, we lost, I think it was 10 to 15 years' worth of data we lost in a shop fire, correct.
Tom: How far back do those records go for the bamboo rods?
Sean: Oh, I think the earliest one might be 1940, around there. I recently looked up a fella's, it was a spinning rod, it was 1942. We refurbished it. Unfortunately, it sat in a basement and got covered in mold. And the fella sent it in, he had gotten the rod as a gift for, I believe it was his high school graduation. And now he's giving it to his great grandson. So we refurbished the entire rod, new grip, new scripting, put his grandson's name on there and sent her off. So we do see a good amount of rods from the '40s, '50s, '60s are pretty common.
Tom: So Sean, before the rod goes into the winding room, how many hands touch that bamboo rod?
Sean: Just me.
Tom: Just you.
Sean: Yes.
Tom: Just you, all that whole process, the whole thing. And of course, the question everybody always wants to know, start to finish, how long does it take to make a bamboo rod?
Sean: You know, I've never actually just built one, honestly. I tend to do 'em in batches of 5 and 10. I produce five rods every two weeks. So, you know, you can look at it as, probably roughly 80 hours, you know, you can produce five rods. And that's if I have my blanks completely unbound, meaning that I've already gone through production, done all the hard work, the sweating and bleeding, and then I have my blank. Once I get my blank there, I can get five out every two weeks. So if I added in production time, I would say it's a solid month for five.
Tom: When you include winding and the final inspection and polishing and all that stuff. Wow. Well, I think the bamboo rods are definitely the most expensive Orvis rod you can buy and I think people can appreciate why they are so expensive, because it's a total hand process from start to finish. And it's so interesting going in the rod shop and there's lots of G-Whiz machines and hydraulics going and all this stuff, and then you walk into your little cubby and it's quiet and you're just working on a rod by hand. And, you know, it's going from the 21st century to almost the 19th century in the rod shop.
Sean: That's a good way to think of it.
Tom: So what everybody wants to know is what's a bamboo rod like? What's so great about 'em? Why would somebody want one of these things that are so expensive?
Sean: I mean, doesn't everybody want something to hang on the wall?
Tom: I wouldn't hang mine on the wall.
Sean: I was being funny. No. You know, a lot of people think, you know, bamboo technology, you know, isn't that old stuff? Like, there's better tools out there. Well, yes and no. You know, if you look at the design of a bamboo rod, it never was meant to cast 90 feet. It was never designed to throw, you know, pointed loops. It wasn't designed to throw, you know, sex dungeons and double Ds and those types of things. The fishing that these rods were designed for, you know, is kinda, you know, performance driven. They were looking for a rod that would cast very delicately, accurately and kind of be easy to cast. And that's really what a bamboo rod can do for you. It's very flexible, so therefore it's gonna protect tippets. So you can fish, you know, a light tippet and not really worry so much about, you know, hauling that fish so hard that you're gonna break the tippet. Accuracy, I think, you know, a lot of people become better anglers that fish bamboo rods for one simple fact. You become a stalker. You look at the water. You look at the fish. You decide where you can stand. You choose your angle and you make the presentation. A lot of times, I'm kind of a lazy angler when I take my graphite rods out. I know I can fire a cast out to hit 50, 60 feet. I know I can hit those fish at a distance. But I never wade that close to 'em. So I think the bamboo also gives you a little bit of an intimate experience when fighting the fish, because he's close, you see what he's doing. You can see 'em, you know, rolling around and running around under water, and it's the closest thing that you're gonna get to close quarter combat with a trout.
Tom: Although you and I will get people that will say, "Hey, wait a minute. I got a bamboo rod that'll throw 90 feet." And you can make...
Sean: Absolutely.
Tom: can make a bamboo rod that'll throw big heavily weighted streamers and it'll throw 90 feet. That's possible. I mean, they used to make salmon rods...
Sean: Absolutely.
Tom: ...used to make salmon rods out of bamboo. And Joe Brooks used 'em in saltwater for bonefishing I think even small tarpon.
Sean: Yup. You know, Tom, what's changed, I think, today versus yesteryear, is guys have the desire to throw farther, have the desire to have lighter rods. So new techniques have come about, and not so much new as in design, but new being implemented is hollow building. So you can make a very powerful rod and lighten that rod up pretty good by actually scalloping the inside of the blank to make it hollow, versus solid. You can keep the tip solid or you can hollow the bottom. You know, it really depends on personal preference. But sure, there's some anchors out there that do design rods that'll throw that 90 feet or catch a tarpon. Mostly I was referring to, you know, the traditional Orvis action that we've always had. Today, our rods are much quicker than our rods were in the '30s, '40s and '50s, just based on our current design. The Penn's Creek and the Adirondack are both pretty quick rods for their design.
Tom: For bamboo, certainly. They're quite quick.
Sean: You get a mix of modern action with, you know, a traditional look and feel. That's kind of how I think of those two rods. Then our 1856 is an 8-foot 5-weight, a pretty powerful rod. It's a western dry fly action. It is hollow built, the mid-section and butt section are hollow and the tip is solid. That allows that rod to be a little bit lighter, mostly, you know, to feel a little less swing weight for longer days of fishing and, you know, drift boats or western situations.
Tom: It's powerful rod. I have one and honestly, I don't use it that much because it's too powerful for a lot of the trout fishing I do.
Sean: I would agree with you here. It's a pretty fast rod.
Tom: Yeah. I mean, my Penn's Creek is my go-to rod during the summer for small trout streams. I just love it. There is something different about bamboo. I mean, you know, graphite, fiberglass, bamboo, each one of those has its own feel. And I honestly think that I can make a more delicate cast with a bamboo rod because of the slower line speed and that leader just lands so lightly, the line and leader land so lightly on the water with bamboo. And I don't think I can do that as well with graphite or even with fiberglass.
Sean: I think in modern technology, we've been able to duplicate the flex of bamboo in respect to modern fiberglass. I don't think we're able to mimic the bamboo's action, you know, on par because of the swing weight. I think that the swing weight of a bamboo tip is almost casting for you in a way. You can cast just a leader with a bamboo rod. Even my softest glass rod or my softest old Superfine from the late '80s, both of those rods still just can't throw a leader, you know? And I think it's just that weight that's in a bamboo tip actually, you know, creates some of that kinetic energy that tosses that loop for us. That's why it seems to be a more relaxed casting cadence. And I've been told by a few beginner fishermen that I've let cast a few bamboo rods that they always say, "Wow, that rod casts easy. But it's really whippy." You know, and that's always the second...
Tom: Whippy. Whippy.
Sean: ...comment is, "It casts easy, but it's really whippy." So you know, that is part of the thing with bamboo is it is very flexible. A lot of the rods are very soft up front, and as you get toward the back, that's where the reserved energy is. So the fight in a bamboo rod is a little different.
Tom: Yeah, it is. I love playing small fish on a bamboo rod.
Sean: [inaudible 01:19:16] right to the handle. It makes a little fish feel like a monster.
Tom: It does. it does.
Sean: That's kind of the fun part about bamboo, is you can chase trophy trout or you can go up in the mountains and catch little brook trout. And, you know, at the end of the day, I bet two guys that did just that would come back and say they had the best fights of their life. And it was two different size fish but they were still fishing their bamboo rods. So it's interesting to see why people fish bamboo.
Tom: Yeah. And just holding a bamboo rod, knowing the hand work that went into it and looking at the beauty of that thing, I mean, you know, sometime I'll just sit down on a bank and just look at my rod because it's so beautiful. I mean, it really is a beautiful tool.
Sean: And, you know, it slows you down, you know? You go to the stream and you're not out there casting constantly for four hours like you could with an H3, where it's super light. It's no resistance. You'll wear yourself out casting a big bamboo rod all day. And, you know, something that you can do to fight the weight of a rod is simply get the proper balance with your reel. Bamboo rods do feel real heavy in hand until you put a reel in there. And then once you get that balance point, it's almost like, "Wow, you know, this thing just became very light." And nothing changed. It actually became heavier. You put a reel on it. So the swing weight is, you know, very noticeable to modern anglers that have only known graphite. The guys that have fished glass and grew up through older graphite rods or maybe had some of the clunker bamboo rods that used to be out there, you know, they feel modern rods and they're like, "Wow, those bamboo rods changed. What's different?" And it's just modern builders figured out that that was the sticking point for a lot of anglers, was the weight. So if you can make it weigh less and get it to properly balance, that's a win-win and lots of times the customer forgets all about the weight.
Tom: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You know, I never think much about reel balance, but I probably should think more about it when I take out my bamboo. You got me thinking. I'm gonna have to try a couple different reels and...
Sean: There's a few tricks. if your reel isn't heavy enough, you know, I use a grain scale. So I'll figure out, like, okay, this reel...I'm just gonna throw some fictitious numbers out there. Let's say it weighs 200 grains and I know that it's not properly balancing. I'll take some sink tip material, like T-14 or T-17, and I'll cut a length and I just put it on the scale to see what it weighs. Okay, I got the weight. And I just kinda balance the reel and rod and I keep putting little loops of T-14 on the back of that handle until I feel it balance. And then I say, "Okay, I'm gonna wrap that T-14 onto my spool instead of backing."
Tom: Oh.
Sean: And then I'll put on a little backing and then my fly line. Usually you don't need much. You can use lead tape. You can use lead core line.
Tom: Interesting tip.
Sean: And you just took a reel that was designed for, let's say it was a modern one of the large arbor style reels that are super light...
Tom: Or like a CFO.
Sean: Or a CFO that might be a little light. And a CFO, I'd probably go the lead tape route, because you can put it nice and tight against the arbor. But that's an easy way to balance your rod without having to play with messing with the rods. You can balance rods by having a rod builder put a little weight in the back where your reel seat is under the end cap. Sometimes I've torn apart a couple non-Orvis rods, and there was a little tiny plug of lead was put in the back where the end cap was for the reel seat. So that must have been done by the customer because I'd never read any commercial companies doing that. They usually adjusted it with the size off their reel seats, the weight of the reel seat. But I have seen some funky stuff like that where somebody's figured out, "Okay, I can balance this."
Tom: That's fascinating. All right. So one of the things that, before I let you go, one of the things we should probably talk about is care of bamboo rods because, you know, I'm always telling people, "You can leave your graphite rod out in the snowbank and you can leave it in a hot car and you can have it leaning against stuff, and you're not gonna ruin it at all." How should you store a bamboo rod? How should you clean the ferrules? And, you know, what do you have to be careful about the bamboo rod?
Sean: Well, first and foremost, you want to always, always, always dry that rod after a fishing trip. Never put that rod away wet. And the reason for that is, it's a natural material. Bamboo will want to adjust to the relative humidity of where it's stored. So if you can keep it inside the tube dry with the cap nice and tight, that'll keep that current humidity level pretty static. You want to store 'em vertically. Don't put 'em horizontally. If you do, you want to support it, I would say, every 5 inches at least, because bamboo can sag. I had a customer's rod come in recently, he wrote a letter that said that it sat at his camp in Maine for over a year. And it was over near the wood stove. Both tips and butt had an identical sag and they were both severe. And when I looked at the rod when I fought to get it out of its tube, once I got it out, I looked at it and said, "Oh yeah, this thing sat against a wall. Look at that. Perfect bend. Same arc." So when I talked to the customer, he admitted, "Yeah, I misproperly stowed 'em." So that took a lot of straightening, but we got 'em back in action. So definitely keep them in the tube vertical. Ferrules, I don't recommend wax unless your ferrules don't fit properly. And a good way to test your ferrule is to engage them fully, your rod should touch. That means tip and butt should go all the way together with no gap in that ferrule. And if you can twist left or right on that tip, that's ferrule wear, and you're gonna want to put a little wax on that situation. But typically, you want to keep the ferrules clean.
Tom: Well, how do you clean ferrules because I know that they will oxidize.
Sean: Exactly. I was just about to talk to that. A matter of fact, when I fit my ferrules to go out to winding, and by the time they come back in about two weeks, they're tight. And that's basically they've been exposed to a lot of different climates in the shop over those two weeks. So they'll have a bit of oxidation, which you're not gonna see at all. You can actually feel it a little bit. You'll feel your ferrule and it'll feel either tacky or a little roughness. Just take some triple ought steel wool and don't twist the ferrule, go north, south on that ferrule, up and down maybe two strokes, and then test it. And you can do the same thing inside the female. Female tends to be the place where stuff gets stuck. A lot of times I'll clean a customer's ferrules, I'll find feathers, pieces of thread. You know, I've found everything and typically I always say to myself, "Okay, this guy was having a ferrule problem. He fixed his own problem. He wrapped a little thread on his ferrule and shoved it in there and fished the rest of the day." But the weird stuff like feathers and, you know, pieces of sticks and things like that, you'll find in there. So I take a, first I go with a Q-Tip, just drop it in there, twist it around, pull 'em on out, take a look at what you found. Often you'll find dog hair and things like that. Test the ferrule before you really get going with any kind of abrasive, like the steel wool. Usually just a quick swab with a Q-Tip. Some guys will use Vaseline. I tend to not put anything in the ferrule. They're designed to go metal on metal. Our ferrules are a combination of nickel silver. So, you know, they have a good wear factor. They're strong and there shouldn't be any reason to really put anything on there.
The care of the blank and handle is something that comes up often. I think handle is as simple as just taking a cotton cloth and rub on that cork 'til you feel a little heat. And that'll take off usually a god chunk of the goo and grime that gets in everyday fishing. If it's stained and an old patina type grip, you do run the risk of what we call ridging. And that's where there's growth lines inside cork and there's glue lines as well. So the growth lines and glue lines are a little harder and density than the cork itself. So if you clean cork, oftentimes when you clean it with abrasives, these ridges start to pop out. And, you know, there's a few ways to address that and none of them are pretty, none are fun. Usually it entails a lathe and a file and you're gonna have to work on each ridge individually without touching the softer cork to bring everybody down to size. You can try sandpaper. Typically it's a difficult one, once the cork starts to establish that ridging. So I tend not to clean a lot of the cork that comes in unless the customer asks for it. The patina, I can rub a little bit of that out where the cork still feels fresh, but it's not gonna be, you know, tan in color. It's still gonna be the color that you sent it in as, but it's gonna feel a little nicer.
Tom: And this could be on any rod, right?
Sean: Correct.
Tom: Could be graphite rod or fiberglass.
Sean: Yeah, it happens, cork being a natural material, it can happen.
Tom: So you don't recommend using like fine emery cloth or something.
Sean: You know, I like denatured alcohol and I just put it on a cotton cloth. I wait for the alcohol to kinda evaporate a bit and then I just rub it on there and you'll take off most of the stuff that way. You know, Goo Gone can work, but it'll leave a residue and it leaves that orange scent. It's not appalling, it's just, you know, it'll be there for awhile. Definitely don't steel wool it. Don't use any kind of kitchen household cleaners, any of that stuff.
Tom: And you don't want to get that alcohol on the blank itself, right, because that would probably damage the...
Sean: The only thing that you would risk, actually I clean a lot of the blanks with denatured alcohol.
Tom: Oh, really?
Sean: ...because it has such a fast flash point. Remember denatured, not isopropyl. Isopropyl will take a lot longer to wick off and yes, you can have some problems with finish. Varnish is pretty resistant. I tend to clean the rods, actually at the same time I wax them. A lot of the microcrystalline waxes on the market actually work really well as a light, abrasive cleaner. So as you're waxing, it's taking off a lot of that nastiness that you might have on the blank. I like to wax it quick. I wipe it on, wait a few minutes, wipe it right back off with a super soft cloth, and at that point you're really done for maintenance. He's ready to go into storage for the winter.
Tom: Okay. What about hot car? You know, I tell people with graphite and fiberglass rods and fly lines and reels that you can leave it in a hot car. You're not gonna hurt it at all. Will it hurt a bamboo rod if the car gets like to, I don't know, 120?
Sean: You know, Tom, my experience with heat runs pretty deep. We did a test back when I was in development on fly boxes in cars. And we had a customer who melted a bunch of fly boxes when he was in Arizona. So we did a test. So we had our manager in Arizona take our old, what was it, 1099 fly box, that clear one that was adjustable.
Tom: Oh, love 'em.
Sean: So yeah, the best dry fly box going. So we had her put one of those on her dash and put a thermometer in her car. And she went out at noon and took a reading and sure enough, the box was warped and it was 250 degrees in her car.
Tom: Oh, my God.
Sean: And that was, you know, summer in Arizona in Scottsdale so that's, you know, prime example of it can melt a fly box, I think we can have some problems with fly rods as well.
Tom: Not a graphite rod.
Sean: Not so much a graphite, no. They take an extreme amount of heat. For example, my bamboo rods never see over, geez, I cook 'em at 200 degrees and they're only in there about two hours. And that dries a bamboo column in that short amount of time. So I would say a bamboo rod, you know, down in those fine diameters of tips, you can experience some problems. The glue temperature rating is 275 to 300 degrees. Varnish, I'm not positive, but I've seen varnish get sticky when it's extremely hot out. Out on the stream, I had a rod in a boat one time and I touched the varnish and it left a fingerprint.
Tom: Wow.
Sean: So, you know, the heat definitely can cause some problems.
Tom: So if you live in Arizona, don't leave your bamboo rod in your car.
Sean: I was gonna say, I don't think the heat's good for the rod at all.
Tom: Okay. Okay. Good to know.
Sean: Just knowing that, you know, how much heat I need to put the rod to get it to straighten is very minimal. I doubt that I'm exceeding 125, maybe 150. So I'd keep 'em out of the car.
Tom: Okay. Good to know. Good to know. I don't plan on it. I mean, it's too valuable a thing to leave in a car, where you're not there anyways. But you never know. Well, Sean, that is a great education on bamboo fly rods and I'd urge everyone, I mean, not everyone can afford one certainly, but it's a lifetime investment. They're very special. They're beautiful. They cast wonderfully. And if you can't afford one, if you can at least go to an Orvis store or go to a fly shop and cast one or go to one of the fly fishing shows and cast one. It is a beautiful feeling and it's a different feeling. And everyone should at least try one once.
Sean: You know, Tom, one thing I'd like to leave our listeners with. You know, modern day rods are expensive and that's based on, you know, current labor costs and material costs. Our rods that were built in the '50s, '60s and '70s are some of the best kept secrets today in cost. Prior to coming to see you today, I took a look at eBay just to see what I could see, you know, what's available if I was to recommend to somebody to buy one. I saw a 6.5-foot 4-weight Flea, great shape, two tips and it was $600. So, you know, there are some good deals out there. Orvis, being a company that we made a lot of rods.
Tom: Yeah, that's the problem. Orvis was...
Sean: Two thousand plus a year in the old days.
Tom: Yeah. Orvis rods were never collectible because we made too many of them.
Sean: No, they were fishing tools, you know. That was the material of the era and we produced rods.
Tom: Yeah, a lot of them.
Sean: You know, that's mainly the reasons for the two milling machines that I currently use is the design criteria was how do we build machines to get more sticks down to size so we can build rods? So those milling machines are pretty special and I'm blessed that they still work. Some days they don't work so well and they give me a hard time I'll tell you, but I've got her tuned in pretty good and it's been treating me well. I did read something prior to coming to see you, Tom, that I thought was pretty interesting. And I shoulda wrote down who wrote it and I neglected to, so I apologize if there's a listener that's gonna claim this as their slogan or quote. Kudos to you because I think it's pretty special. And what I read was this. And it's based on passing a rod down. And this guy, I quote him as saying, "You are only the current keeper of the rod. It's to be passed down to those whom come after you." And what I find fascinating about that is, you know, glass rods came out in, like, 1946, graphite rods were, like, '73. What's really cool about that is I don't know a single person that I angle with or go fishing with or hang out with that's ever told me, "Hey, look at this really cool fiberglass rod my great-grandfather gave me." But I got a list a mile long of guys that say, "Hey, I got this really cool wooden rod from my grandfather. What is it?"
Tom: Now, Cam Mortensen would disagree with you on that.
Sean: You know, I don't have a lot of friends and I'm not of the feeling that glass is bad. I think glass is awesome and I think it's pretty cool because, you know, if you put yourself back in time where bamboo was the thing, you probably asked yourself a lot of questions and were real apprehensive about going to a new technology when fiberglass came out. And then, how did you feel all of a sudden you got that fiberglass and now all of a sudden the graphites are out.
Tom: Oh, I remember, you know, I remember when graphite first came out and I was reluctant. I mean, it was like all of a sudden, casting a Ferrari. But I was real reluctant to switch over to graphite.
Sean: And, you know, I asked one of the young guys in the rod shop that he's always in my work space looking at what I'm doing and he's really interested in bamboo. And I said to him, I said, "You know, I'm gonna do a podcast with Tom Rosenbauer. And the big question is why fish bamboo?" And he just looked at me and he was like, "Wow, why not? I really would love to fish bamboo rod. I've always thought about it and I just want to know how they fight. How does a fish fight on there? It's so, you know, limber." And, you know, I think a lot of people interested in it and they just gotta make that jump and go test one. And, you know, find a friend that might have one or, like you said, a fly shop, or one of the conclaves that are out there where guys will bring rods, or some of the collectible guys, and just try it. You know? You might like it, you might not, you know. It's another tool in the quiver. I'm a very passionate steelhead angler. I'd love to have a Spey rod that's bamboo and I might be working on one for myself, but I probably won't finish it any time soon. And my only goal there is just I used to have a pain [SP] Spey rod that I bought in the state. Never casted it. No idea why I never casted it, just never did and I sold it. And ever since then, I've always wondered what did that thing cast like. So, you know, it's one of those things where I'll build a rod, I'll go out, I'll fish, I'll maybe get lucky, catch a fish, but I don't think I'll become a dedicated steelhead angler with my bamboo. I still like my fast rods where I can throw lots of line and not have to wade up to my elbows. And bamboo has got its place. I love it for my mountain streams, small, delicate work, Trico fishing is amazing on a bamboo rod. But it's a special rod for special purposes.
Tom: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Absolutely. All right, Sean. Well, I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your busy work day to some over here and record this podcast. I've had a lot of people ask about bamboo, so I hope that I've answered some of the questions that have come up.
Sean: It's been my pleasure, Tom. And if you do get a bunch of questions, I would be more than happy to come back up and we can do another episode, or I can answer by email. Whatever you'd like.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. If anyone has a question about a bamboo rod, don't ask us for appraisals. We don't do appraisals.
Sean: No, we don't.
Tom: If you got an old bamboo rod, we're not gonna appraise it for you. There are people out there who do that. But if you have questions about bamboo rods in general, you can send 'em to the podcast mailbox at And I will either forward them on to Sean to answer you or I will get an answer from Sean and we'll read it on the air sometime. So thank you for that, Sean. That's very generous of you.
Sean: You're welcome.
Tom: All right, Sean.
Sean: All right, Tom.
Tom: We've been talking to Sean Brillon, Orvis bamboo rod craftsman.
Sean: Thanks, Tom.
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