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This story originally aired in the July 2, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
When Lee Orr goes fly fishing, he doesn’t haul his rod in one of those racks on the front bumper of his pickup. He doesn’t wedge it into the back seat. He doesn’t throw it in the bed to rattle around with his tackle box and cooler.
Orr keeps his fishing rods in a hard plastic case. Inside of that case, the pole is shrouded in a hand-sewn linen pouch. You understand why when he takes it out.
The two sections are made of honey-colored wood — bamboo, actually — and come together inside a delicate brass fitting. Both sections are accented with bands of red silk thread. Besides looking good, the thread holds down the rod’s hand-bent line guides. The bottom of the rod, where the reel attaches, is made from dark walnut. The handle is crafted from cork.
This isn’t just a fishing pole. It’s a work of art. It even has the artist’s signature right there on the shaft, written in black ink. Orr put it there himself.
He made this rod and 133 others like it. All it took was some hand tools and a whole lot of time.
Orr discovered fly fishing as a kid. He grew up in West Virginia but spent each August in Montana, where his dad grew up.
“A couple guys came up this little creek, up near the Wyoming border. And they were just catching fish one after the other,” Orr said. “So I told my dad I want to learn how to fly fish.”
Bamboo rods were a tougher sell for him. He had tried a few but found them heavy and unwieldy. His opinion changed at a workshop he attended.
“Somebody had a little seven-foot Orvis bamboo rod. And I cast that, and I really liked it,” Orr said. “I did some research and was shocked to find you can build these things in your basement.”
Twenty years ago, that’s exactly what he started doing. The process starts halfway around the world, in the Gulf of Tonkin. This region on the border of Vietnam and China is home to a variety of bamboo that is coveted by fishing rod makers. The walls of Tonkin cane are thick, and its fibers are both strong and flexible.
These culms of bamboo are cut down and loaded into shipping containers headed for the United States. They eventually find their way to basement workshops like the one Orr keeps in his Charleston, West Virginia home.
The process of turning bamboo into bamboo fly rods begins with a dull knife.
“You actually take a knife, and twist and break it apart,” Orr said. “And then you break it down into six individual strips. And then you have to work it and straighten it, get the little bumps and hooves out of it.”
Once he breaks the bamboo into strips, they go into his planing form. This is a four-foot-long hunk of steel with a groove running down the middle, which holds the strips at a precise 60-degree angle.
Orr places a strip in that groove and goes to work with a wood plane. He makes pass after pass, using smaller and smaller wood planes, to shave off thin ribbons of bamboo. He keeps going until the top of the strip is flush with the top of the form.
He then repeats the process five more times: making three strips for the tip section of the rod and three for the butt section.
Orr also makes metal loops for the rod’s line guides, which he ties on with silk thread. He makes the rod’s reel seat by turning wood on a lathe. He stains and finishes the wood, and shapes the handle from cork.
“There’s still a couple pieces I don’t make, but eventually I’d like to get to the point where I make it, stem to stern, every bit of it myself,” he said. “I probably have to retire before I do that. And get a little more equipment.”
At present, it takes Orr somewhere between 60 to 80 hours to complete a rod. He’s working on rod number 135, which means he’s spent the equivalent of a year of his life, sitting at his work bench planing, wrapping, gluing and shaping. That’s probably a conservative estimate. Some rods take longer than others — and the whole process took a lot longer when he was first starting out in the early 2000s.
There weren’t a lot of books on the subject and certainly no YouTube tutorials. Orr got his introduction to the craft on an email listserv. For those who weren’t on the internet back then, a listserv was like an email version of a group chat. Anytime Orr would have a question, he’d shoot out a message and someone would write back.
“Just a bunch of cranky old guys. That’s the community, but they’re really helpful about passing down information,” Orr said.
But the community wasn’t just generous with its knowledge. The planing forms Orr uses to whittle his bamboo strips were given to him by another rod maker — who filed down the steel by hand. The job probably took hundreds of hours.
When Orr was making the tool he uses to twist wire into line guides, another maker stepped in to help.
“There were plans online and I didn’t have the stuff for it,” he said. “And someone sent me the stuff — and just said ‘Hey, the next time somebody else needs something, you just pay it forward.’”
Orr has paid it forward. As the community migrated off that listserv and onto forums and Facebook groups, he’s become one of the old guys of the group — though not quite as cranky as the ones who took him under their wing.
“I found an old chunk of American chestnut in an old house that had fallen down, and got on that forum and said, ‘Hey does anybody want some American chestnut to make some reel seats?’” he said. “I wound up sending that stuff all over. ‘Give me the shipping and I’ll give you the wood.’”
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Orr contends it’s self-preservation. As long as there are bamboo rod makers, folks will continue to import Tonkin cane from the other side of the planet.
But talking to Orr, you get the sense that isn’t his only reason for passing down his knowledge. For one thing, he’s just a natural-born teacher.
When I tagged along as he fished the Elk River last fall, I told him I just wanted to observe. Orr couldn’t help himself. Although I didn’t even have a rod, I still got a beginner’s class in fly casting. Don’t throw it over your head, he hollered at me over the sound of the water, throw your line out to the side.
“You wouldn’t throw a baseball like that,” he said. “The motion is just exactly the same as throwing a baseball.”
Orr also shares his knowledge because he wants to preserve what his old-school rods represent: a link to a time when you put your catch in a wicker creel instead of a Yeti cooler. A time before sportsmen traded in their fedoras for baseball caps and canvas canoes for fiberglass bass boats.
“If I just wanted to go catch fish, I would fish a carbon rod and I’d fish live bait. And I’d catch more fish,” he admits.
All that stuff is readily available at any well-stocked Walmart. It’s fairly cheap. Orr says it would work “just fine.”
“But there’s a lot of things that are ‘just fine’ that lack a little bit of soul,” he said.
To see Lee’s rods, or place an order for one, visit 304rodcompany.com.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.