March 04, 2022
This article was originally titled "The Kids are Alright" in the April/May 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman.
My wife knows the drill: if the house catches on fire, the only thing she is to save on her way out the door is my bamboo fly rod. The graphite rods can burn.
A similar devotion to vintage tackle is finding a new appreciation from younger anglers. Jason Scott, 35, who worked at the Urban Angler in NYC for a few years after college and now serves as co-chair of The Anglers’ Circle at The American Museum of Fly Fishing (AMFF), said, “Working in the shop, the question always was, ‘How do I get my hands on the newest sh*t available?’ At the time, that meant the fastest.” Now, he’s moving in the opposite direction.
“I’ve cast so many rods, it’s nice to step back and see what they were doing 50 or 60 years ago,” he said. “Now, the effort for me is to simplify.” He’s working with AMFF to implement a vintage tackle category into some of the major fly tournaments, with the goal of introducing that tackle to a major audience. “This idea of connecting to the past through vintage tackle is really appealing,” he said.
After 50 years of pushing graphite to its technical extreme, most manufacturers are beginning to feel considerable pushback. “We get a lot of feedback about how today’s rods are too fast and too stiff,” said John Carpenter at Thomas & Thomas. “Increasingly, people are asking us to bring back a softer action.”
Matt Barber, 43, co-owner of Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, said, “For all these companies, the pendulum swung out too far toward super-fast-action rods, and they heard criticisms that they lost touch and feel. Everyone is seeking out a slower approach to rod building and that action.”
Carpenter and Barber aren’t alone, and it’s not because both companies have storied histories in bamboo rods: Every single rod maker and manufacturer I spoke with said a nearly identical version of the same thing. This is what Shawn Combs, director of product development/design at Orvis, framed as the “evolutionary overreach” of graphite. Like the bend of a rod on a backcast, it’s snapping back. The question is, to where?
“A growing percentage of younger people are getting into our slower-action rods, the deeper bend,” Barber said. “That might be their gateway to vintage.” Combs shared that Orvis’s younger customer base is growing, and that the preference for slower rods has been growing with it. Through my conversations, it became clear that this slowing down is both literal and metaphorical. People are burnt out from always chasing the latest and greatest. They want to slow their lives down. They want life to be simpler, and many said they wanted to return to a connection with the natural world. So too with the rods they described: They want them to be slower, simpler, and to feel more connected to the people who make them. In other words, they want them to feel more like rods used to. The rods of tomorrow will model the rods of yesterday.
In some cases, those rods might actually be the rods of yesteryear. My local fly shop, Concord Outfitters reports that more people than ever before are coming in with dusty vintage tackle items, asking what they are, if they can use them, and if they’re worth anything. It’s as if shop owner Andy Bonzagni might provide their very own Antiques Roadshow windfall right there next to a pile of dubbing. Often, the items they are holding are inherited, or purchased decades ago, and long since forgotten.
Spinoza Rod Company, which recently acquired Vintage Fly Tackle, reported a COVID-timed bump in their consignment business; Lang’s Auction reported an increase this year as well. People have time, and they are discovering or rediscovering their possessions. Brian Schubmehl, 36, an avid fly tier on Boston’s North Shore, recently sent me a photo of some old reels. When I asked him why, he said, “I pulled these out because I finally have time to see what’s up. I’ve spent more time with them because I now have the time to spend.”
Over the past year, Morgan Rodsmiths has seen a notable increase in high school and college-age students taking their bamboo rod making classes. Similarly, AMFF has made a concerted effort to reach out to a younger audience, including through a new ambassador program, partnering with the lifestyle brand Pig Farm Ink on events.
I spoke with Matt Benham, 37, who now works at the Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum in Livingston Manor and who, after a lifetime of owning only one graphite rod, is building a bamboo rod. When asked why, he said, “I’m right up the road from where LaBranche allegedly threw the first dry fly. With a bamboo rod, you can feel the hard work and time that goes into them. I feel very connected to that history now.”
This is the result of strategic efforts of some, and also may be the only good fortune to come from COVID, during which people have been seeking time outside, including fly fishing. Fly shops and online retailers have been sold out of tying materials. John Carpenter at T&T said that orders for them had been way up, and they could have possibly doubled production to meet demand. Combs said COVID “turbocharged” sales at Orvis. Anecdotally, my local rivers have been busier than I recall seeing before, and I’ve heard similar reports from friends. Morgan Rodsmiths also shared something surprising: that during COVID, they have sold more Morgan handplanes—the tool used by Orvis and others to make bamboo fly rods—than ever before. Learning to tie a Woolly Bugger is one thing, but a bamboo rod can take even an experienced hand more than 80 hours.
In a conversation with Adam Aarson, 30, an avid fly fisher from Boston, he shared his enthusiasm for vintage. “It’s not about the latest and greatest, you’re not talking about the latest brands, the hottest brands, you’re talking about someone with hands and hand tools and passing it person to person. It’s not a throwaway item. It’s got nicks and scars, which only adds to its value.” Value is the word owners use to describe the cost—and this, in my conversations with people, is where the needle skips across the vinyl: cash.
I asked Aarson if his interest had converted into purchasing vintage tackle. While a few fellow members at his fishing club let him cast their bamboo rods, he says he’s unlikely to buy any. “For sure it is the price, 100%,” he said. “It’s tough—I get it. When you pick up a bamboo rod that was produced by one person—not production—you pay for the work that went into it, and the history, etc.” He paused. “But right now, the price?”
This was a common refrain: Young anglers were alarmed by the cost, and the potential risk of breaking or damaging an item. But when pressed, the ranges they cited on the cost of these items were wide—from a few hundred dollars to thousands. They all wanted to fish it, but didn’t think they could. When asked why he didn’t try vintage tackle, Schubmehl put it best: “It’s the perceived cost—because I literally don’t know.”
When asked about this, Jonas Clark, the millennial half of the father-son Spinoza / Vintage Fly Tackle team, said, “There’s more value in the vintage market than people realize. You don’t have to pay $4k for a great rod. If you want a truly great rod from a great maker, that’s one thing. But if you want something entry-level, we just sold a rod for $700 that was a pretty darn nice rod. We sell a lot of rods for around $1,000, which is what the top-of-the-line Sage costs these days.” He pointed to the amortized cost of bamboo versus graphite: “If you buy a good bamboo rod it will last you damn near forever, if not be handed down. It’s not that crazy for you to fish it for 20-plus years and still love it. How many people have fished a graphite rod for the same number of years and had the same feeling?”
Anton Chiono, 36, a friend in the Pacific Northwest who bought his first bamboo rod when he was 24, said something similar. “I have a little F.E. Thomas [bamboo rod] from the 1920s, I think about all the other people who fished that, and where they fished, and all the special memories,” he said. “It’s a connection to something really special, something much larger, something I’ll only have an inkling of. I hope I’m only a custodian of that rod, and that I will pass that on.”
He bought the rod from a college professor of his, and he took it to the same river in New Zealand where his mentor had fished it 35 years earlier. Chiono said, with a dry chuckle, “Now I think that’s pretty neat.” Isak Kulalic, a 24-year-old graduate student in Boston, told me he has a few bamboo rods, and added “We are seeing the fly-fishing world start coming full circle, as we see more people and more young people turn toward classic rods and reels, and develop an interest in transitional materials.”
Fly Fishing Counterculture
Fly fishing is a sport that not only has considerable history, but one whose history is always shaping its present. Today’s fly patterns—from Royal Wulffs to Grey Ghosts—are yesterday’s creations, and trending techniques like tenkara and long-belly Spey lines are all a return to the past. In 1993 Nick Lyons, the famous writer and publisher, gave a speech at the 25th anniversary of AMFF. He summarized the vast collection, and said,
“We fish more deeply and more meaningfully in the present if we understand and have protected the past. And if we know the past and love it, and the traditions that grow from it, we inevitably want to protect not only them, but also the waters that make them possible.”
This is what April Vokey, 38, calls “the story.” In speaking of the origins of her love of bamboo, she said, “It’s not that I was bored. It wasn’t that I wanted to catch more fish, or harder fish, but I wanted to catch fish with a story. What I love about cane rods is not only are you casting a work of art, really, but you also have a story. I’d be on a river and where you know that 60 years ago Roderick Haig-Brown was standing and doing the same thing. It added another dimension to my fishing and helped me to become more fulfilled.”
I asked Vokey whether she thought that the fears of the old guard were justified. “I think probably in all aspects of life, whether it’s primitive skills, or fly fishing, we tend to lose a lot of things in modern life,” she said. “Once upon a time, it was important to listen to your elders—it was vital, you were kicked out if you didn’t. Now, everyone is so fixated on building your own story. Everyone has their blinders on, and it’s hard to see everyone’s stories, and you can miss something. It’s inevitable, and it’s become harder. And I do think that’s dangerous.” This concern is what has led her to start many of her projects. “That’s why I started the Shorelines series, and why I started the podcast. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised, there is a large number of young people who are super-interested in the history.”
Shawn Combs at Orvis had a different take. He doesn’t think the move to slower-action rods is about a historical revival of vintage. “Fiberglass is totally different, and bamboo is totally different,” he said. “There’s another part of fly fishing, which I equate to single speed and telemark skiing. There’s a part of the world where people can be counterculture and their friends don’t know about it yet.” But he readily offered there’s something romantic about the history of fly fishing. “No one’s collecting leather and wooden skis, right? But you can point to the date dry-fly fishing started in the Catskills. That’s pretty cool.”
As someone who fishes bamboo and old Hardy reels, but who long ago sold his single-speed bike, I take his point: Vintage tackle is a niche of a niche of a niche. But it’s my preferred approach. Many of the young people I spoke with said they would fish vintage or bamboo all the time, if they could. Barber at Morgan Rodsmiths described the arc of fly-fishing life in these terms: “When you start fishing, you try to catch one. Then you try to catch as many. And then the biggest. And then there’s a plateau, where you just try to catch a fish on your own terms. That is where our customer lies.”
Will Bush, 40, a guide on the Bulkley River and a talented classic salmon fly tier, said that the trend in Northern B.C. has been going in the opposite direction of graphite. He prefers to fish 17-foot Spey rods with lines with bellies exceeding 80 feet. And he is not alone, either. He says he’s joined by a growing group of people who are into this approach. Why? He points to all the same things—a connection to history, character, and to something else: the rewards of difficulty. “It’s far more rewarding when you get a steelhead, as it’s much harder. You’re really working on your technique, and your presentation.”
At one point in our conversation, while talking about declining steelhead stocks and the rise in interest in his part of B.C. of the history of the sport, he unknowingly echoed Lyons, saying, “The way history is going right now, it is really important to know what we had, because if we don’t have people who are passionate about it, then we’re going to lose it.” Vokey, who knows Bush well, shared his view on the importance of our sport’s history. “You could argue that looking forward is all that matters, but it’s really hard to move forward without building on that past. I think that we underestimate young people sometimes. They are interested in keeping these stories alive, but they just do it on their own time.”
As Bush and I wrapped up our conversation, he added one last thought. “The older techniques? Beautiful rods, beautiful reels, beautiful fish—that’s a total package, right?” I couldn’t agree more.
Ben Carmichael is a writer, editor, and photographer. His work is regularly featured in magazines, and used by conservation organizations and fly-fishing brands. He manages a site called New England on the Fly. As the son of bamboo rod maker and author Hoagy Carmichael, he grew up with slow rods, vintage reels, and the smell of fresh metal shavings and varnish.