In a small region of southern China
Along the Sui River near the Gulf of Tonkin, bamboo forests grow straight and tall. The stalks are yellow with wide-spaced ridges. More than 1,000 bamboo species grow on Earth, but Tonkin bamboo is favored by fly rod builders. It is prized for its fiber count, strength and flexibility. It delivers flies with delicate precision and little strain on the casting angler.
In his Hastings workshop, Ron Barch, a retired school teacher, carefully shaves a 40- to 50-inch strip of Tonkin bamboo using a hand plane and steel planing form, a fixture that allows him to control the dimensions to within 1/1,000th of an inch. The strip is one of six that will be glued together to create half of a fly rod. Six others will be joined to form the other half. Once finished and pieced together, it will taper perfectly from its butt-end to its delicate tip. Then it will be fitted with a cork handle, reel seat and guides.
Its owner may cast tiny flies across a small stream for trout — or launch bigger and heavier flies hoping for bass. Barch’s fly rods are fished all across North America and parts of Europe. Each sells for $1,000 to $1,500. The 69-year-old founder of Alder Creek Rods (aldercreekrods.com) recently shipped a matched pair to a retired sheriff in California.
“Fly rods are like guitars,” reflects Barch, who lives with his wife, Carole, in their Hastings home. “There are classical, acoustic and electric guitars. All make music. The guy who likes bamboo is the guy who wants a classical guitar. It’s a feeling thing. Bamboo is more forgiving. You have to force graphite (rods) to flex them. Bamboo is easier on the shoulders and elbows.”
In an industry dominated by modern composite materials — rods built from graphite that are mass produced — Barch is among a growing legion of bamboo enthusiasts who keep a 171-year-old tradition alive; craftsmen who enjoy hand-building rods using a method dating back to 1845 when Samuel Phillipe, a Pennsylvania gun maker and angler, built the first split-cane bamboo fly rod.
“Ron is a great teacher and great rod maker. He’s been an enormous influence in the bamboo rod-building renaissance.”
— John Zimny
Phillippe, a balding older man with muttonchops and wire-rim glasses, also built the first hexagonal (six-sided) bamboo rod. Hiram Leonard, a Pennsylvania rod builder in the 1870s, is credited with perfecting and popularizing the design, according to English author Dr. Andrew N. Herd, who wrote “A History of Fly Fishing,” published by The Medlar Press.
“Leonard is considered the father of the split cane fly rod,” Barch explains. “Modern bamboo rods got their start with him.”
Barch started building rods in the 1980s as a hobby after acquiring a bamboo rod built by West Michigan’s Bob Hoekstra. Barch grew enamored with its aesthetics and performance. Woodworking was his hobby, and he decided to build one. It took two years and several attempts, but in 1992 he built what he proudly calls “rod No. 1.” He has built 189 signature rods since.
“My father was a fine cabinet maker for most of his career, and my brother was into antique restoration and always had a shop. I like to make things, and making a fly rod is the epitome of craftsmanship,” Barch said.
Rod building would lead to teaching others, a natural for Barch who retired from teaching high school in 2003. He created Alder Creek Publishing, a specialty house for literature about bamboo fly rods, and began publishing “The Planing Form,” a monthly technical newsletter for bamboo rod builders that grew to 600 subscribers in 15 countries before he retired from the project in 2015.
Barch was inducted to the Rod Makers Gallery at the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum in the 1990s. He was honored again in 2011 when he received the prestigious A.P. Bellinger Award for his efforts to make bamboo rod building accessible to others — and for founding a bamboo rod-building school at the Catskill museum in Livingston Manor, New York.
“That (newsletter) was the best thing that happened to bamboo rod making,” said 70-year-old John Zimny, a renowned bamboo rod builder in Wilmington, Delaware. “People used to be secretive about rod building. I’d go to a rod maker and ask them what kind of glue they use, and they wouldn’t tell me anything. Ron and (another rod maker) Wayne Cattanach started The Planing Form. They opened the whole craft up — from where to buy cane to what tapers to use.
“Ron is a great teacher and great rod maker,” Zimny said. “He’s been an enormous influence in the bamboo rod-building renaissance.”
A generous man and ardent conservationist involved with clean-water groups like Trout Unlimited and the Coldwater River Watershed Council, Barch says building rods transports him to a peaceful “Zen space.”
“I am always rushing around,” Barch says. “But when I come in here, I can’t rush. I’m in a different world when I build rods. I go into my shop, and suddenly three hours is gone.”
Howard Meyerson is an award-winning writer and managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.