Bam-Beautiful

by Tom Kuglin, Independent Record
photos by Thom Bridge, Independent Record

On the banks of the Missouri River, the stacks of bamboo piled high in Ron Bone’s workshop almost seem out of place surrounded by pine-dominated cliffs.

Bone reached for one of the stalks of hollow grass that traveled thousands of miles from Asia to Montana. With the butt end on the floor, he positioned a hida splitting tool, loosely resembling an apple slicer, and slammed the ensemble down against the concrete, splintering the bamboo into even sections.

Ron Bone, sands down the cork on a fly rod handle, recently in his home workshop on the banks of the Missouri River.

Ron Bone, sands down the cork on a fly rod handle, recently in his home workshop on the banks of the Missouri River.

Illuminated as they hang neatly against the wall is what the bamboo will become — a line of hand-crafted fly rods beckoning the roots of a sport now dominated by graphite and mass production.

“These are a lot different than Grandpa’s rod hanging on the wall,” Bone said.

Bone, 72, spent more than four decades as a barber in Helena while also splitting time teaching rod building and guiding anglers. He began building rods from prefabricated blanks in the late 1970s,
customizing them with wraps and components to make each production unique.

“It became whether I should own a fly shop or cut hair,” he said. “One day I decided I didn’t want to turn the thing I loved into a job.”

Now retired to his home on the Missouri, it was six years ago that Bone began building bamboo rods from
scratch, learning the craft from renowned Belgrade rodsmith Tom Morgan.

“This is making rods,” Bone said.

Fly rods were once all made from bamboo. As the industry advanced, materials such as fiberglass, steel and now graphite became the manufacturers’ choice. But a few companies and builders have started offering bamboo once again as a natural alternative and reminder of history.

There are more than 1,000 types of bamboo, but it is Arundinaria amabilis that rodsmiths covet for
building rods, Bone said.

Using a hida splitting tool, Bone splits the bamboo shoot into smaller, even size pieces.

Using a hida splitting tool, Bone splits the bamboo shoot into smaller, even size pieces.

A corner of the shop is dedicated to building, a labor-intensive and meticulous process that takes about a year to produce a single rod, although Bone builds about a half dozen every year. Rods in various stages of construction are scattered above the workbench.

Bone uses a mix of hand and power tools with a few customized attachments, some of which Bone built himself, to sand and plane each piece into its desired triangular shape and size. Triangles allow each strip to combine into a full circle as they begin to resemble a rod for the first time. Soaked in water for two days and bound with string, the section is then tempered in an oven.

The rods must meet precise measurements and moisture levels at each step in the process. It takes a day for gluing and Bone hollows the rod before he begins to apply the varnish that adds the telltale shine and protection. Each rod is adorned with its namesake “Barber Creek Rodsmiths” along with a single jungle cock feather.But even varnishing is not as simple as painting it on. Bone devised a machine to dip each section in a varnish-filled pipe, extracting it over 45 minutes to maintain a consistent finish. Each butt section is dipped four times and the tips receive three dips.

As the rod nears completion, Bone sands expensive cork into a comfortable rod grip along with a reel seat marbled in grained wood. He hand-wraps each line guide which then receive its own coat of varnish.

“It all takes time,” he said. “You have to have a knack for building something like that because it’s a
different kind of animal. You have to be interested and you have to be meticulous.”

Completed rods built by Ron Bone, in his home workshop.

Completed rods built by Ron Bone, in his home workshop.

Bone sells a few rods but says he is not interested in making the craft into a business. He likes to donate a rod to Montana Trout Unlimited to be auctioned off for the annual Pat Barnes Chapter Banquet.

Fishing with bamboo is a unique experience compared to more forgiving graphite.

“You have to know how to cast, and if you don’t, bamboo will teach you how to cast,” Bone said. “And you’d look at them and think they’re fragile but they’re actually stronger than graphite.”

Bone says he has not had a graphite rod in his boat for years and he frequently gets inquiries from other anglers about fishing bamboo and also the custom drift boat he and a friend built from the ground up. He was one of the first to have a drift boat on the Missouri decades ago, enjoying it as his place of solitude, and still frequently floats and fishes.

As the river has become increasingly crowded each year, Bone has changed his view.

“My shop has become my place of solitude,” he said.