Art Show Highlights Wyoming Bamboo Rod Builder

Sep 26, 2014

Is a bamboo fly rod “art?” A new exhibit in Cheyenne proposes that it is. The Wyoming State Museum has assembled over 70 crafts, all related to hunting and fishing like engraved rifles, pack saddles and taxidermy that highlights Wyoming’s long history of outdoor life. But many of the artists were skeptical about having their work displayed as art since most of them build their work only to use in the field. Laramie bamboo rod builder, Jerry Johnson, who has a fly rod in the show.

“You just take it, put a knife, put whatever you’re going to split with…”

Jerry Johnson is demonstrating how to split bamboo. It’s step one of building a bamboo fly rod. He takes an ordinary hunting knife, holds the six foot long bamboo tube on end in front of him and… “Split it, turn the knife over. And this is important. Turn the knife over. Got to pull the bamboo to you. You can see I turn that split.”

Rod building has become a popular pastime these days with lots of online forums and conferences around the country. But Johnson has been doing this a long time. His shop is a well-lit workbench to one side of a clean, two-car garage. All the tools are hand-powered. He’s building the handle section of a fly rod. He painstakingly planes each of six pieces down to a 60 degree angles. Then he’ll glue them together—and then wrap them--into a tight hexagon. 

But Johnson hasn’t always appreciated bamboo. Growing up in Laramie in the fifties, it was the old man’s fishing gear.

“It was the hand-me-down rod my father gave me,” he says. “I didn’t think too much about it. After I was back from the service a little while—then I got into fly fishing on rivers. I needed something better than I had. A spinning rod wouldn’t do. Because I wanted to fly fish.”

What’s so great about bamboo? Well, it’s both incredibly flexible and incredibly strong.

“I can take a hammer…” He pounds on a short section of fly rod. “…It’s not going to break.” 

All the bamboo used for rod building comes from one small area in the Tonkin Gulf region in China

“It’s a good material to work with. You can build a lot more feel into the rods. Softness, flexibility. And aesthetically, it’s a lot more pleasing.”

But Johnson isn’t so sure he’d call his fly rods “art.”

“I don’t like rods that are really fancy that have a lot of wraps around the butt end, that sort of thing. I’m not a fan of that. The plainer and simpler I think looks a lot better. That’s what I strive for.”

“I think the amount of skill and technique that goes into creating something functional, is artistic.”

That’s Annie Hatch. She’s a folklorist who worked on “The Art of the Hunt” exhibit at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne. It includes one of Johnson’s bamboo rods. And it’s displayed, like art, behind glass.

“If you watch a person cast, it can be artistic,” she says. “It’s a beautiful performance. To see that out on the river and see the delicate way in which people can handle the materials.

It’s autumn, the cottonwoods just beginning go yellow. The Laramie River is running low, great for fishing. Johnson ties an elk hair caddis on his line and starts casting. But he doesn’t have much hope. The sun’s too high. But it’s a good chance to check his rod’s performance.

“You can plot the curve of how a rod will perform,” Johnson says. “Whether it’s fast or show, a stiff rod or a little softer rod. So if I cast a rod and I’m out fishing—I don’t particularly like real slow rods, myself—and I find that the rods a little slower than my taste, I probably won’t build that taper again.”

For Johnson, building rods isn’t about making something beautiful. It’s about making a tool. And it’s not about making a buck. He doesn’t sell his rods. He builds them for friends—and for himself. 

“I think I might have a little more satisfaction in fishing a rod that I’ve built,” he says. “It’s like fishing with a fly that you’ve tied. I think it’s more pleasing to say, listen, this day was brought to me by myself. Rather than sponsored by somebody else”

As Johnson gets older, he says he’s less worried about catching the big fish. He says he spends less time fishing and a lot more time just sitting on the river bank with his hand-built fly rod across his knees.