In this day and age, things keep getting faster, lighter, and stronger. In some ways that makes what we do a whole lot of fun. At the same time, though, it's important to understand the roots of our sport. The history of fly fishing is filled with fun characters, epic locations, and some downright phenomenal gear. San Franciso alone has had its share of historic fly fishing stories. From the early days of west coast salmon fishing and pioneering steelheaders to rod companies like R. L. Winston and Scott, the streets of San Franciso have plenty of big fish stories to tell. Today, we have a great local fly shop (Lost Coast Outfitters), one of the states leading conservation agencies (California Trout), and the historic Golden Gate Casting Club still attracts people from across the country.
If you look deeper into the surrounding fabric of the Bay Area, you'll find a few other interesting personalities. A few months ago I met a rod builder named Tony Bellaver out of Oakland. I'd seen his bamboo rods at Lost Coast Outfitters but always thought they'd be way out of my price range or just for the local lawyers and finance guys from down town.
So...when I bumped into Tony again at Spey-O-Rama this year I made sure to give a few of his cane rods a shot. After a little introduction to the bamboo scene, he mentioned I should stop by his workshop and pick up a few rods to take on my summer trip to Montana. To say I was interested, would be an understatement! When else would I get to use bamboo rods and test them out while fighting fish?
When I showed up at his house in Oakland, we walked out back to his workshop and he gave me a tour. Tony is clearly a student of the sport and knows every name and historical point of significance in rod building. Although he had a stash of older graphite rods tucked away in the rafters, he's fully dedicated himself to fishing cane rods. Each year he spins up 10-15 rods to his personal specifications and sells them at trade shows, through his website, and at a few local fly shops. He's a craftsman through and through. During the day he's a full-time maker and artist and when he has free time he's either on the river swinging wet flies for trout and steelhead or crafting his next bamboo rod. In addition to rods, Tony makes some beautiful nets, rod cases, and he's even dipping his toe into the reel making game. It's all remarkably beautiful gear.
As we spoke, it became pretty clear that Tony loves his craft. From selecting the bamboo to cutting, sanding, and gluing, he takes pride in every step of the process. He even has a little fly tying desk tucked in the back of his workshop. As an avid fly tier myself, we spent a good deal of time talking about feathers, old-school wet flies, and the upcoming steelhead season. After a few hours of talking shop and watching him make some progress on a rod he's building, Tony handed me two aluminum tubes for my summer trip. At the time I was pretty nervous to take these works of art out on the river. I've been known to destroy fly fishing equipment pretty quickly! Just under the nerves, however, was an eager little kid ready to try out a new toy.
Once in Montana, I had the chance to take the rods for a real-deal test drive. I spent a few evenings tossing green drakes to eager Westslope Cutthroat in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I was more than impressed with how the rods felt in hand. The slow action made for easy, beautiful loops. The rod was accurate, supple, and poetic. It was hard not to smile when casting! When fighting fish the rod bent to the cork and made every fish feel as though it was a trophy. I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting from a bamboo rod, but my expectations were more than exceeded.
I never thought I'd have a bamboo rod on my list of "need to buy" equipment, but it's on the list now. It's a completely different experience, one I hope to have again soon. This Fall, I may be knocking on Tony's door to get a shot at using one again.
If you'd like to learn more about the work Tony's doing with Alpenglow, be sure to check out his website, give him a follow on Instagram (@alpenglow_tonybellaver), or take a closer look at one of his rods down at Lost Coast Outfitters. You won't be disappointed!