Casting a Spell: The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfectionby George Black
Thirty-five million Americans–one in eight–like to go fishing. Fly fishers have always considered themselves the aristocracy of the sport, and a small number of those devotees, a few thousand at most, insist upon using one device in the pursuit of their obsession: a handcrafted split-bamboo fly rod. Meeting this demand for perfection are the
Thirty-five million Americans–one in eight–like to go fishing. Fly fishers have always considered themselves the aristocracy of the sport, and a small number of those devotees, a few thousand at most, insist upon using one device in the pursuit of their obsession: a handcrafted split-bamboo fly rod. Meeting this demand for perfection are the inheritors of a splendid art, one that reveres tradition while flouting obvious economic sense and reaches back through time to touch the hands of such figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau.
In Casting a Spell, George Black introduces readers to rapt artisans and the ultimate talismans of their uncompromising fascination: handmade bamboo fly rods. But this narrative is more than a story of obscure objects of desire. It opens a new vista onto a century and a half of modern American cultural history. With bold strokes and deft touches, Black explains how the ingenuity of craftsmen created a singular implement of leisure–and how geopolitics, economics, technology, and outrageous twists of fortune have all come to focus on the exquisitely crafted bamboo rod. We discover that the pastime of fly-fishing intersects with a mind-boggling variety of cultural trends, including conspicuous consumption, environmentalism, industrialization, and even cold war diplomacy.
Black takes us around the world, from the hidden trout streams of western Maine to a remote valley in Guangdong Province, China, where grows the singular species of bamboo known as tea stick–the very stuff of a superior fly rod. He introduces us to the men who created the tools and techniques for crafting exceptional rods and those who continue to carry the torch in the pursuit of the sublime. Never far from the surface are such overarching themes as the tension between mass production and individual excellence, and the evolving ways American society has defined, experienced, and expressed its relationship to the land.
Fly-fishing may seem a rarefied pursuit, and making fly rods might be a quixotic occupation, but this rich, fascinating narrative exposes the soul of an authentic part of America, and the great significance of little things. George Black’s latest expedition into a hidden corner of our culture is an utterly enchanting, illuminating, and enlightening experience.
- Random House Publishing Group
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Wilderness with all the Comforts
My wife’s hometown, Stillwater, Oklahoma—population forty thousand, home of the Oklahoma State University Cowboys and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame—is not the kind of place, at first blush, where you would expect a fly fisherman to have a lifechanging experience. The old downtown is much like the core of a lot of American towns whose original logic has been bypassed by time and Wal-Mart. There are a few bars that cater to the student clientele from OSU, a couple of banks, an upscale home-furnishing franchise, a Christian bookstore or two, an ersatz Starbucks, some boarded-up storefronts, and a multidealer antiques mall, the kind you see these days in almost every town of comparable size.
The mall is much as you’d expect. Knickknacks and collectibles of all sorts. The stuff Grandma left in her attic. Used books. Farm tools, costume jewelry, fifty-cent ties, incomplete sets of glassware.
A room full of ticking wall clocks. Barbie dolls and Star Wars action figures, as the cutoff line for the term “antique” creeps steadily forward. And then a dealer’s stand I’d never noticed before:
vintage fishing tackle.
At this point I’d been fly-fishing for three or four years, I suppose—
long enough to graduate to my first hundred-dollar graphite fly rod and make the transition (in my own mind, at least) from rank beginner to semicompetent amateur—by which I mean that once in a while I even caught a few trout. So I stopped to take a look.
In one corner of the booth was a narrow wooden box about three feet long, its hinged lid secured with two brass clasps. I popped them open. Inside, boxwood partitions divided the con-
tainer into several compartments, on much the same principle as a case of wine. Seven sections of hexagonal bamboo were nestled into the notched dividers. The handle was reversible. There was a stout butt section, two midsections, and three tips of varying thicknesses. This meant you could configure the rod a couple of different ways, as either an eight-foot fly rod or a five-and-a-halffoot bait caster—a kind of rod that is used for throwing heavier lures. This struck me as a neat arrangement.
Each segment of the rod was coated in a deep cherry red lacquer.
The ferrules—the male and female parts that connected the sections—gleamed as chrome-bright as the trim on an old Cadillac.
The snake-shaped line guides were attached to the bamboo with silk thread windings in elaborate patterns of lime green and lemon yellow. The guides themselves were of some gold-colored alloy. An inch or two above the cork grip, a lozenge-shaped acetate decal depicted a snowcapped mountain, perhaps a volcano, against a blue sky, with the initials “NFT.” You could be forgiven for calling the whole thing gaudy, but to me it was magically redolent of the 1940s, a decade for which I’ve always felt a special affinity, perhaps because I was born at its tail end.
Suffice it to say that I fell in love with this fly rod, even though it would end up jilting me. The price tag said $87.50. I paid cash.
I fished the rod a couple of times that spring. Once I took it out on a smooth-flowing chalk stream in the south of England, where it landed a handsome sixteen-inch rainbow trout. After that I used it to catch some wild brook trout in Connecticut.
Feeling quite pleased with myself, I took the rod into a local fly shop to get the reading of an expert. He took the pieces from the box, sighted along each section in turn, put them together,
squinted at them some more, made small humphing noises to himself, then gave me a long, appraising look. “Well, it’s very pretty, isn’t it?” he said. “The lacquer’s nice, very decorative.”
“But?” I said, knowing from his tone that the real verdict was still to come.
“Well, of course, as a fly rod it’s worthless, it’s a piece of junk.”
He pointed to the volcano decal. “NFT—Nippon Fishing Tackle.
That’s Mount Fuji in the picture, I guess. They churned these things out by the thousands in Japan after World War Two, for G.I.’s to take home as souvenirs, mainly. It’s not even the right kind of bamboo. . . .”
The man in the fly shop went on talking some more. I missed most of it—no doubt because embarrassment had kicked in. But I do remember the gleam in his eye, the lyricism in his voice,
and the gist of what he said. The right kind of bamboo, he told me, was something called Tonkin cane. The raw material was Chinese, but the art of transforming it into a fly rod was a peculiarly American accomplishment; and in the hands of a master craftsman . . . well, if I ever had the good fortune to experience the real thing—as opposed to the piece of junk I had just dumped on his counter—I would surely agree that it was a kind of perfection.
I resolved then and there that I would go in search of this peculiarly American vision of perfection, never suspecting that it would take me all the way back to Henry David Thoreau.
In July 1857, Thoreau set out on his third journey from Walden Pond to the Maine woods. He’d traveled there for the first time in
1846, to Bangor by railroad and steamship and thence up the West Branch of the Penobscot River to Mount Katahdin, the second highest peak in New England. His second trip, in 1853, had taken him via Moosehead to Chesuncook Lake. But it seems to have been a little anticlimactic after the ascent of Katahdin, which had inspired his celebrated meditation on raw nature as
something savage and awful, though beautiful. . . . Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn,
nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made for ever and ever.
Thoreau and his companions dined on Maine brook trout,
freshly caught. “In the night,” he wrote, “I dreamed of trout fishing;
when at length I awoke, it seemed a fabled myth this painted fish swam there, so near by couch, and rose to our hooks the last evening, and I doubted if I had not dreamed it all.”
There was something restless and improvised about Thoreau’s third trip to Maine, and he was debating his itinerary right up to the last minute. At first he considered exploring the Saint John River from its source to its mouth, but then he changed his mind,
opting instead for Moosehead, the lakes of the Saint John, and the Penobscot again. Just nine days before he left Concord, he was still casting around for a traveling companion. He wrote to his cousin George Thatcher, of Bangor, asking for suggestions. Perhaps his nephew Charles would agree to join him, since he had “some fresh, as well as salt, water experience?” But in the end, Thoreau settled on his Concord neighbor Edward Hoar, late of California.
The interesting thing about Thoreau’s account of this third journey is that Hoar—his companion for 60 miles by stagecoach,
another 265 by canoe, and twelve rough nights under canvas—is virtually invisible, never once mentioned by name. From Thoreau’s subsequent correspondence, you can infer that his neighbor was a bit of a pain. Two weeks after his return to Concord, Thoreau wrote to a friend that Hoar had “suffered considerably from being obliged to carry unusual loads over wet and rough ‘carries.’ ” Hoar came back from Bangor with a set of moose antlers, a gift from George Thatcher, which he used as a hat stand, and that’s the last we hear of him.
In contrast, another character, with whom Thoreau had only the briefest of encounters, positively leaps from the page. It was July 23, and Thoreau, Hoar, and their Penobscot Indian guide, Joe Polis, had just boarded the stage that would take them from Bangor to the remote outpost of Greenville, which lies at the foot of Moosehead Lake.
Given the number of guns on display in the coach, Thoreau wrote, “you would have thought that we were prepared to run the gauntlet of a band of robbers.” But it turned out that the occupants were the members of a hunting party who were embarking on a six-week trip to the Restigouche River and Chaleur Bay, in the remotest reaches of the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
Their leader was a handsome man about thirty years old, of good height, but not apparently robust, of gentlemanly address and faultless toilet; such a one as you might expect to meet on Broadway. In fact, in the popular sense of the word,
he was the most “gentlemanly” appearing man in the stage,
or that we saw on the road. He had a fair white complexion,
as if he had always lived in the shade, and an intellectual face, and with his quiet manners might have passed for a divinity student who had seen something of the world.
Thoreau subsequently discovered that appearances were deceptive.
Far from being a divinity student, his coach mate was in fact a celebrated gunsmith, and “probably the chief white hunter of Maine.” But he never learned the man’s name, which was Hiram Lewis Leonard.
Leonard belongs to that great American series of heroic archetypes—
the lineage that includes Johnny Appleseed and Horatio Alger, but above all Daniel Boone and Natty Bumppo. One historian described him as “a millwright, gunsmith, daguerrotypist,
flutist, trapper, moose hunter, taxidermist, and one of the very early manufacturers of split bamboo fishing rods”—which we’ll come to in a moment. You could add a string of other accomplishments to that list: Leonard was also an expert canoeist, a fur trader,
a pioneering fish culturist who was one of the first people to breed salmon in a hatchery, and a gifted self-taught civil engineer who was put in charge of the machinery department of the Pennsylvania Coal Company when he was still in his teens. On top of all that there was his physical bravery. As Thoreau’s coach to Greenville crossed the Piscataquis River, his companions told him the story of how, during the previous spring, Leonard had plunged into the frigid, swollen waters of a nearby brook to rescue a Mr. Stoddard,
the owner of the Bangor-to-Moosehead stage, from drowning.
The Leonards were one of those old New England families who could trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower, specifically to three brothers who traveled together from England and settled in Massachusetts. After a dismal spell as a sheep farmer, Hiram’s father, Lewis Leonard, became a master oar maker, leading a peripatetic life that took him from one stand of native ash trees to another—
Sebec, Maine (where Hiram was born in 1831); Ellenville,
New York; and Honesdale, Pennsylvania—moving on each time the supply of raw material for his oars was exhausted. Hiram’s younger brother Alvin joined his father in the family business, and together they became the most celebrated makers of racing oars in the country, their fame spreading even to England. A family diary records that Lewis and Alvin “made nearly all of the oars used by the professional rowers of the country and most of the noted amateurs.”
Many of the Bumppo-flavored legends about Leonard come from his obituaries and postmortem reminiscences, and I suppose such accounts should always be taken with a grain of salt. They’re evocative, nonetheless.
In the woods he always carried his flute with him and played it well. Many is the night I heard him wake the wilderness with “Nellie Gray,” “The Irish Washerwoman,” “Old Kentucky Home,” and other tunes now seldom heard.
Mr. Leonard’s powers of endurance were beyond belief,
judging from appearances. He never seemed tired and would tramp all day through the forest, returning at night seemingly fresh.The men are scarce who could carry as heavy a load as long a distance as he could. In 1856 he carried a quarter of moose weighing 135 pounds from Little Spencer Pond to Lobster Lake, a distance of seven miles.
Thoreau himself had struggled to combat ill health with bouts of intense physical activity. As he wrote to his cousin George Thatcher, his decision to undertake a third journey to the Maine woods was the result of “finding myself somewhat stronger than for 2 or 3 years past.” It’s hard, then, not to imagine that it was Leonard’s combination of physical prowess and apparent frailty
(“a fair white complexion, as if he had always lived in the shade”)
that made such a powerful impression on the naturalist.
The fact was that Leonard’s health had always been delicate.
His first problems were respiratory, and there’s some speculation that this may have been the result of exposure to coal dust during his stint with the Pennsylvania Coal Company. Then, not long after his encounter with Thoreau and his marriage to Lizzie Head,
a classically educated minor poet who knew French, Latin, and Hebrew, Leonard contracted measles—not a laughing matter in an adult. His doctor advised Leonard and Lizzie to move away from Bangor and live full-time in the woods.
That’s of some significance, I think, because traffic into the wilderness for health reasons—otherwise known as “taking the airs”—was beginning to be a fad. The doctor’s prescription was an early hint that the Maine woods, in this period leading up to the Civil War, were not quite as “unhandselled” as Thoreau (not to mention his later fans) liked to imagine. There are plenty of other clues to this in Thoreau’s own account of his travels. Paddling across the lakes of Piscataquis County, he was struck by the radical fluctuations in water level that had left miles of dead and exposed stumps along the lakeshore. To reach the raging currents of Web ster Stream—the “thunder-spout” where he and the Indian guide Joe Polis spent a cold and anxious night separated from Edward Hoar—Thoreau had first to navigate a mile-long artificial canal that had been dug at the outlet of Telos Lake. Both the Telos canal and the dead stumps were, in fact, visible symptoms of the impact of the logging industry, which had tampered extensively with Maine’s waterways in order to sluice its product efficiently from forest to market.
Maine, you might say, was fast becoming an idea as well as a place. The timber industry was responsible for most of the scars,
but it opened roads that others quickly followed. The Victorian upper-middle classes converged on the Maine woods from the three great urban centers of the East Coast—Boston, New York,
and Philadelphia. These people had both means and motive. They had plenty of disposable income; they were eager to escape from the summer heat and pollution of the cities (much of it caused, no doubt, by the industries they owned and operated); and they were enthusiastic converts to the cult of the outdoors, in part because they had absorbed Thoreau’s message that urban life had made them soft and corrupt and alienated them from the natural world.
For this WASP gentry, Maine summers were partly a matter of aesthetics, partly an opportunity for adventure, and partly a reflection of status. The leading men of the time were in thrall to social Darwinism, seeing nature both as a source of wealth and as a challenge to be overcome if civilization was to move forward. But in Maine they also found, in the words of the environmental historian Max Oelschlager, that “wild nature still offer[ed] opportunity for contemplative encounters, occasions for human beings to reflect on life and cosmos, on meaning and significance that transcends the culturally relative categories of modern existence.” And as they grew attuned to the ancient rhythms of these wild places,
they became avid recruits for the first stirrings of conservationism.
In the process, they invented something that would come to be called outdoor recreation. These people didn’t just walk, they
hiked, and the purpose of the exercise was something different from and more profound than simply getting from point A to point B. In the world they created, hunting and fishing were no longer just means of obtaining protein; they were a hobby, a sport. And men like Hiram Leonard were there to provide them with the tools they required, which would be nothing but the best, with money no object.
The “sports” also needed an infrastructure, of course. They needed to be housed and fed. Contemplative encounters with nature were all well and good, but leaky tents had limited appeal.
The rudiments of this infrastructure had been there since the mid-1840s, when the timber companies began constructing a string of sluice dams above and below Lake Wellekennebacook
(today’s Lower Richardson Lake)—Upper Dam, Middle Dam,
and Lower Dam—to facilitate their log drives. These were lonely places: as a condition of employment, the dam keeper had to be a married man, so that a second person would be on hand in case of accident or injury.
The radical man-made change in the lake level flooded out a picturesque character named Joshua Rich, who was living in deep solitude on a point of land off Metallak Island, hunting, fishing,
and trapping game, some of which he shipped out as research specimens to Louis Agassiz at his Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the flood, Rich decamped to Middle Dam, where he found some dilapidated huts that had been thrown together to house the workers who built the sluice.
Rich considered the dam, considered the huts, considered the gigantic native brook trout that teemed in the lake—Thoreau’s
“painted fish”—and a lightbulb went on. He built some cabins and called the place Angler’s Retreat.
The classic early account of Joshua Rich’s camp was written in
1864 by a physician named Elisha Lewis. He reached Middle Dam on the steamer Union, which hissed and clanked its way across Lake Umbagog at five miles per hour, steam pouring from its leaky boiler, wreathed in the smoke of burning hemlock logs. In Dr. Lewis’s description, the Union was a craft
more curious and ingenious in its conception than anything which had yet been constructed on our seaboard . . . a nondescript abortion or cross between a mud-scow and a locomotive;
it might very properly, in accordance with naval nomenclature,
have been christened a hermaphrodite locomotive.
Although Joshua Rich livened up the evenings with “his recital of wild adventures with deer, wolves, bears, caribou, panthers,
moose and elk,” Dr. Lewis made it clear that the Angler’s Retreat was not yet the Waldorf-Astoria:
Soon after our arrival we were informed that the Camp was poorly supplied with food—nothing to be had in the way of edibles save slices of strong-tasted [sic] pork fried with tough bread. I must confess I was quite startled by this announcement,
in consideration of the beautiful visions of wild-game,
corn-cakes, hot buckwheats, ham and eggs, and other like delicacies which Mr. Rich’s flaming circular had conjured up in my mind’s eye.
The help also left a lot to be desired. The doctor complained about the “sulky guides” and the “impertinence from the campboy and boorish incivility on the part of the half-tipsy maître de cuisine” (though, to be fair, camp cooks in the Maine woods probably weren’t accustomed to being thought of as maîtres de cuisine).
At the end of his stay, Dr. Lewis offered the proprietor of the Angler’s Retreat some parting advice.
Mr. Rich, if he really wishes to make his camp a resort for sportsmen and tourists, should engage the services of a cou-
ple of middle-aged, steady women, one as a cook, the other as housemaid and waiter, and not be dependent on low, foulmouthed ship scullions and saucy, dirty boys for such duties.
He should teach his gentlemanly guides to be civil, patient,
good-natured and obliging, and above all, should have them under proper control, and under no circumstances permit them or his kitchen scullions to bully and control him. . . .
When such arrangements are made, I will be glad to visit
“The Angler’s Retreat” once more.
Over time the accommodations did improve, especially after Rich sold out to new owners. By 1879, a flier was promising that
“all the sleeping rooms are nicely finished, lathed and plastered.”
It was no longer just the gentleman “sports” who came to the booming camps. Maine was now becoming an enticing vacation spot for the entire family, and the demand for comfort increased accordingly. In 1887, after the Angler’s Retreat was taken over by the Androscoggin Lakes Transportation Company, a brochure painted this picture of what the visitor could expect for $2 a night:
The house contains sleeping accommodations for forty people,
the rooms being furnished with handsome bedsteads,
woven wire springs, and 40-lb hair mattresses. The ladies’ sitting room, dining-room, office etc. are conveniently located on the first floor, and long, roomy piazzas, overlooking the lake,
offer a pleasant retreat for the idlers.
Of course, hordes of tourists don’t materialize in a place by spontaneous generation. First they have to be identified, solicited,
cultivated, flattered. The place itself, the destination, has to be packaged and sold. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, the state of Maine was the object of an aggressive marketing and branding campaign,
largely driven by the expansion of the railroads. The Bangor,
Aroostook, and Maine Central reached Moosehead Lake in 1884;
ten years later a narrow-gauge line cut the travel time from Boston to the Rangeley Lakes to ten hours. The discerning, well-heeled visitor would be whisked away to a tranquil, balsam-scented paradise—“
wilderness with all the comforts.” The Gilded Age would come to the Maine woods, which would be transformed into the
“Play Ground of the Nation.”
The person who coined this slogan was a singular character named Cornelia Thurza Crosby. Born in 1854 in the tiny western Maine town of Phillips, Crosby had succumbed to tuberculosis as a young woman. Like Hiram Leonard, she followed her doctor’s advice to trust in “the healing power of nature.” Out in the woods,
she quickly made her reputation as a sharpshooter, the first woman ever to bag a caribou and an intimate friend of Annie Oakley. But trout fishing was her consuming passion. While recuperating from her illness, Crosby caught her first brook trout with an alder pole,
and she never looked back. By 1891 she was famous as the woman who had broken all records by catching fifty-two trout in fortyfour minutes. She acquired the nickname “Fly Rod,” and it stuck.
Fly Rod Crosby cut a memorable figure in her knee-length leather boots, navy blue serge suit, red felt hat, and midlength skirt, which was furnished with an assortment of concealed hooks and eyes to keep it from trailing in the mud. “It is the easiest thing in life to describe me,” she wrote. “I am a plain woman of uncertain age, standing six feet in my stockings. I scribble a bit for various sporting journals, and I would rather fish any day than go to heaven.” (The last comment, while perfectly understandable, got her in trouble later in life when she converted to Catholicism.)
Each spring Fly Rod took her Maine exhibit to the Annual Sportsmen’s Exposition at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was quite a package. She brought live specimens of trout and salmon in specially designed, air-cooled railcars supplied by the U.S. government. She brought the finest examples of Maine taxidermy.
She brought spruce gum samples and prize potatoes and,
on one occasion, a 107-pound squash. The centerpiece of the exhibit was always a peeled-log cabin—Camp Oquossoc one year,
Camp Rangeley or Camp Penobscot the next—its walls decorated with all manner of rods, nets, and snowshoes, dead antlered animals and giant mounted trout. Owls and eagles perched on the roof. Stuffed cougars bared their teeth, looking real enough to take a bite out of your leg. Fly Rod acted out scenes of camp life, while Mrs. Etta Dill demonstrated her skills at the fly-tying bench,
Penobscot Indians in full regalia wove baskets, and fishing guides with bristling mustachios stood around holding canoe paddles and looking exotic and vaguely menacing Although the railroad was Crosby’s main backer and the principal beneficiary of her efforts, she rarely if ever mentioned it directly.
The “Play Ground of the Nation” campaign was a triumph of indirection in advertising. Fly Rod didn’t spend time describing the punctuality of the Maine Central or the luxury of its Pullman cars; instead, she concentrated on the enticements of the destination,
knowing full well that her audience had only one way to get there.
And they came by the thousands. By the end of the century there were dozens of sporting camps–cum–resort hotels in the Maine woods, most of them concentrated in the Rangeley Lakes area. Hard fried pork was a distant memory. This was an era of candlelit dinners and white linen, and the menu at the Angler’s Retreat offered all the fare that Elisha Lewis had hoped for, plus fresh oranges and bananas, lyonnaise potatoes, sirloin steak, lamb chops, tenderloin, and honeycomb tripe.
And the fishing . . . the fishing was all that Joshua Rich had promised. Six-pound, seven-pound, even eight-pound brook trout abounded in the Rangeley Lakes and in the Rapid River, which snarled its way down through five miles of whitewater from Midwilderness dle Dam to Lake Umbagog. Visitors penciled details of their catch on the cabin walls. One party from Smithville, New Jersey, reported they had landed five hundred pounds of trout. (“Smithville Hogs,” someone else scrawled underneath.) Others pinned up outline drawings of their biggest catches on panels of birch bark. And at night, when they retired, the “sports” hung their rods on pegs on the rough board walls of the Angler’s Retreat. There were
“rods of high and low degree,” one visitor reported. But the finest of them were made by Hiram Leonard.
Meet the Author
George Black did not pick up a fly rod till after his fortieth birthday–and he has seldom willingly put one down since. He was born in the small Scottish mining town of Cowdenbeath and was educated at Oxford University. Black is the author of four other books, including The Trout Pool Paradox: The American Lives of Three Rivers. A journalist and editor for more than twenty-five years, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Statesman, Mother Jones, The National Law Journal, Fly Fisherman, and many other publications. He lives in New York City with his wife, the author and playwright Anne Nelson, and their two children.
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