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Casting a Line

Rick Robbins is a custom fly rod maker and fly fisherman


There are ordinary fly rods and then there are the ones Rick Robbins makes. (Photo By: Harrison R. Steeves III)

by Margaret Buranen, Contributing Writer

BARC Electric Cooperative member Rick Robbins of Lexington, Va., can’t remember a time when he failed to enjoy fishing. “There’s a photo of me fishing when I was four. I’m 76 now, so that’s 72 years of fishing,” he says.

Robbins grew up in Texas, fishing with his dad along the bays near Houston. He tied his first flies for a Boy Scout merit badge when he was about 12.

After graduating from law school at the University of Texas, he became a lawyer for the U.S. Department of the Interior and, later, for the National Park Service.

Some 48 years ago, he turned his passion into a craft. Robbins began making bamboo fishing rods, first for himself and later for friends. As his skill grew at making rods that were truly responsive, he developed a reputation as a master craftsman. Now he has a two-to-three-year backlog of orders for his handmade bamboo rods.

Why make rods of bamboo, instead of graphite or fiberglass, which are much less expensive? Robbins says the best way to explain is to relate a comment that a man made at his booth at a fishing show. When the man picked up a bamboo rod for the first time and cast with it, he exclaimed, “It’s alive!’”

Bamboo “has a feel like no other type of rod,” explains Robbins. He concurs that bamboo rods are heavier than rods made of other materials, though quickly adding that a properly balanced bamboo rod feels almost weightless.

Robbins is particular in his choice of bamboo. (Photo By: Harrison Steeves III)

Robbins uses only one type of bamboo, called Tonkin Cane. It grows only in a 10 square-mile area near the Sui River in China.

There are many varieties of bamboo, many of them harvested much closer to Virginia. So why rely solely on Tonkin Cane for fly rods? “It is the strength and density of the fibers [of the bamboo] that make them rod-worthy,” Robbins says.

Robbins takes 60 to 100 hours to make a bamboo fly rod that meets his standards. He makes every part of each rod, except the guides.

The process begins when Robbins orders Tonkin Cane from a wholesaler on the West Coast. A truck delivers the bamboo culms in lengths of 12 feet.

Robbins cuts the bamboo using a machine built in 1925 and designed for milling fly rods. It can mill the bamboo as precisely as one-thousandth of an inch. Robbins is the fourth fly maker to own it. The machine, which weighs a ton, is bolted to the floor of his workshop.

The artisan process begins as Robbins cuts the bamboo into appropriate lengths for either two-piece or three-piece rods. Next, he cuts each section precisely into six sides so the rod is hexagonal. Robbins lines up the naturally occurring nodes along with the bamboo so that none of them will be directly opposite other nodes.

Some of Robbins’ artistry. (Photo By: Harrison Steeves III)

Then he glues the six sides together with a high-end furniture glue made of urea formaldehyde. “The British used it during World War I and World War II to glue airplane parts together,” he notes. The finished rods, with fitted sections, measure 7 to 8 feet in length.

Of his craft, Robbins observes “As my mentor, Tom Maxwell, used to say, ‘It’s not rocket science, but it takes a certain amount of attention to detail.’ There are about 80 different steps along the way, so there are plenty of ways to mess up.”

By the time Robbins finishes making a fly rod, he has conducted numerous checks on each part to ensure it is the best he can make it. He says that his customers “should be able to hand my rods down at least one generation.”

Robbins enjoys practicing the craft that has taken him years to perfect and making the custom fly rods that become family heirlooms. But he also makes sure to save time for his own fly fishing.

For more, visit rickrobbinsbambooflyrods.com.