With more than 20 years experience making split-bamboo fly rods, Steve Pennington can turn out the finished product in 10 hours. Photo by Kent Darr
With more than 20 years experience making split-bamboo fly rods, Steve Pennington can turn out the finished product in 10 hours. Photo by Kent Darr

Steve Pennington read a book 30 years ago that he hasn’t stopped talking about since. It is the basis of a mail-order business he runs out of the basement of his Ankeny home.

The book is “A Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod,”which was first published in 1976. Its authors are Hoagy Carmichael – son of the composer, pianist, singer, actor and band leader of the same name – and Everett Garrison.

Tonkin bamboo, a member of the grass family that grows as a 40-foot-tall bush in China, has had special appeal to fly fishermen since the 19th century. Carmichael and Garrison shared a love for trout fishing with bamboo fly rods.

First, they made a documentary about what they considered the proper method for constructing the rods, then, following Garrison’s death, Carmichael completed the book, around which a fly rod building cult has grown.

Count Pennington as a member.

He is a retired forester who has operated his own consulting firm and worked for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Pennington has developed a following among people who have bought his hand-planed rods at fishing exhibitions or after reading comments on electronic bulletin boards. Devotees of fly fishing appear to be a gabby lot who spread the word about products they like through a variety of Web-based forums.

What they say they like about Pennington’s fly rods is the price – the rods sell for $375, or $535 if a customer prefers nickel-silver hardware – and quality.

It is not uncommon to pay more than $2,000 for a custom bamboo fly rod.

With the exception of a lathe to turn reel seats from woods such as pecan and maple, Pennington does not use machines to make his rods.

He buys the bamboo cane, or culm, in bulk from a supplier in New Jersey. He uses a large knife to split the culm along its vertical axis; the material’s strength comes from dense horizontal fibers that grow on the outside of the stalk.

“They are the strongest fibers in the world,” Pennington said. “That’s why bamboo rods can last for 100 years or more.” At that remark, Pennington pulled out an antique fly rod that dates to the early 20th century.

“It brings a lot of interest to the table when I set up at (fly fishing) shows,” he said.

After splitting the cane, Pennington is left with narrow sticks that he planes to a triangle with tolerances of 0.001 inch. Each piece of the rod – a tip and a butt, where a reel is attached – consists of six planed sections.

With his thumb and forefinger, Pennington can roll the sections into a circle, which is glued, bound with monofilament fishing line and allowed to cure until its final sanding and finishing.

Pennington loops what are called snake guides from stainless steel wire and flattens each end of the guide – the ends are called feet – on an ax buried in a wood block. The guides are attached to the rod with fine thread after he fashions a grip from cork and a reel seat from wood.

A polyurethane finish is applied as the final step in the process. During the finishing process, Pennington attaches the rod to a piece of string that is lowered into a tube, then raised a few inches every five minutes into another tube where the finish can dry in a dust-free environment.

Pennington uses a fly reel to crank up the rod through the finishing tubes.

As any old-school fly fisherman will attest, the finished rod seems to flex as a natural extension of the arm. It has the look of pale honey.

The rods have a special appeal to traditionalists who dislike both the material – mostly graphite, boron and titanium – and the fencepost stiffness of many contemporary fly rods.

Pennington can build a rod in about 10 hours. He builds and sells between 75 and 100 a year. His only marketing is from a website operated by a collector of fishing paraphernalia in Michigan.

He keeps the business simple in order to control costs. There is little overhead. Orders are placed by email – the Penningtons recently hooked up to the Internet – or telephone. Payment is by check or money order, then the rods are delivered by priority mail.

“Our whole business is built on the promise that we will have the best prices in the nation on split bamboo fly rods,” Pennington said.