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About Bamboo

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Bamboo – particularly Tonkin cane – is included here in a special section because of its classic beauty and phenomenal performance in flyrods.


Bamboo Flyrods: Some Background

Botanically, bamboo is a grass and among the fastest growing plants in the world — anyone who has had experience with bamboo in their yard is painfully aware how tenacious this plant is! But certain species, in particular "Tonkin cane," are well-adapted for use as flyrods.

Before the mid-1830s most flyrods were made of wood.   They were usually 11 feet long and were fairly easy to produce; however, they were, as you can imagine, heavy and cumbersome. The ultimate downfall of wooden rods was their susceptibility to breakage in the tip sections. Several attempts were made at improving over the original all-wood design by incorporating bamboo.

The first all-bamboo tips originated in England and were made from a species of bamboo that was imported from India ("Calcutta cane"). Since bamboo is lighter and also more flexible, rod-makers began making the entire rod entirely of bamboo. It's uncertain who actually made the first "all-bamboo" rod, but it's generally accepted that Samuel Philippe of Easton, Pennsylvania was the first person to assemble what is the traditional hexagonal (6-sided) fly rod. Charles Murphy of New York is credited with coming up with the all-bamboo hexagonal design rod which remains popular today, long after its original debut in the 1870s.

"Tonkin" bamboo was named by Dr. Floyd McClure, who was the first to describe the plant and recognize it as a previously unreported species. By 1925 this bamboo was already being used for building fly rods. The scientific Latin name was changed to Arundinaria amabilis ("The Lovely Bamboo") in   McClure's honor. "Tonkin" bamboo is grown in a rather limited geographic area along the Sui River in southern China, north and west of Hong Kong. This region receives a great deal of rain and has a warm, temperate climate; the land is characterized by very steep slopes that promote rapid drainage. This last aspect is very important, for while bamboo needs a large volume of water to sustain rapid growth, standing water will rot the rhizomes (runners) by which the plant reproduces.

So why is Tonkin cane great for fly rods? It is partly tradition, but is also because this species of bamboo has exceptional characteristics in terms of overall flexibility, wall thickness, density of the fibers, and the distance between the "nodes" on the culm (stalk) of the bamboo. By comparison, "Calcutta cane" has very thin "power fibers" in the outermost layer of the culm and a soft inner core. On top of that, it was often damaged by the practice of scorching the stalks to rid them of boring insects.

Another factor that seems to have affected the popularity of Tonkin cane is its relative scarcity which resulted from an embargo that was placed on Chinese goods  from 1950 to 1971. During this period, cane could not be imported into the United States.

Finally, other species of cane are also good for making fly rods, but their color or "hardness" makes the rods look and "feel" different.

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