Ed Engle; Still “Splitting Cane”

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Modern day fishers of bamboo fly rods, credit the writing of John Gierach with having sparked the interest in cane rods. Fueling the desire to search the internet, hide away a considerable amount of money from the wife and purchase his first cane rod. For me it happened in my local Barnes & Noble when I picked up Ed Engle’s Splitting Cane. At the time, even my religious study of all works Gierach had yet to enlighten me to the beauty of a cane fly rod. The wooden rod on the front cover drew my attention and I purchased Splitting Cane. I finished the book in three days, thirsty for more. And so began my desire for knowledge regarding bamboo rods and there makers. While it continues to this day, I have come across nothing so intimate and enjoyable to read on the subject more than Ed’s book.

When I told my wife that I’d not be eating dinner, I had to interview someone for the blog she asked who. Why in the hell would she ask? As if she would possibly know anyone whom would relate to the content of my blog. I’m learning that’s what wives do. They ask questions. Sometimes they truly need an answer, sometimes it childlike curiosity, but more often than not they know the answer. The latter is when you can get in to trouble. Tread carefully.

Despite My loving wife exhibiting genuine curiosity I shifted my eyes, grumpily not wanting to have a conversation on a topic nor man she would have no knowledge of. I cockily gave her the answer, “Ed Engle, Heather. Know him?”

“That guy’s book is always left on the dresser.” Well shit. Guess I have to be careful, she is paying attention. Point being if Heather is able to correctly ID Ed Engle I don’t think a greater compliment can be paid to Ed, as I obviously worship his book.  After reading, purchasing, and at one point even stealing literary works on bamboo fly rods, no book gives me greater pleasure to read than Ed’s. A detailed look of some of the country’s finest rod makers and there way of life.  It’s the book I pick up when I cannot be at the work bench, it takes me to the places these rods are made and fished.

Once I started this blog I knew I had to interview Ed. He is the guru on today’s rods and their makers. Only problem is, I suck at interviews. Actually I don’t blame myself totally. The two guys I have interviewed for the blog have been so down to earth and genuine that we end up just bullshitting. Hopefully you find some of it to be of interest, and if not do yourself a favor and find a copy of Splitting Cane. That recommendation should make up for my sub-par “interview.”

We started with small talk, Ed genuinely interested in the guy calling him long distance. After me gushing over his book, John Bradford came up.

“He was a good guy, really nice to me. He was a character. His big deal for a while was restoring Payne’s, and then got into making his own tapers. He gave a rod to John Gierach; it was just a sweet casting rod. You can make the exact same rod from the same culm, but sometimes there is just one that stands out which is the beauty of using a natural material.”

I loved this. As many reading will know, John Bradford passed away not too long ago. But I found myself hearing first hand stories about him. Through his rods he is alive and well, and now a guy from New Jersey shares a piece of the man’s life through a blog. I have to believe that when John Bradford began making rods, no random guy from New Jersey would be typing his name on something called the internet. But his craftsmanship and the material carries him on. I hope to be so lucky someday. Just hope random guy from Jersey is a better writer than me.

Shortly after that, I bring up the chapter on Mike Clark. Engle takes us through the entire waiting process and into the building phase of his very own custom rod from Clark. If you don’t want to order yourself a rod after reading it then you probably carry a plastic cup of worms to your favorite fishing hole, and shouldn’t be reading my blog. 

“Mike still hand planes everything. He doesn’t use any beveling machines or any of that stuff and he has the back to prove it. Thing a lot of people don’t know about Mike is that he is a great fisherman.”

That thought had never crossed my mind. Possibly one of the most well-known rod makers in the world and I had never considered or asked myself if the guy could fish? And sparks the question, do you have to be a great fisherman to be a great maker? Or at least a great caster?

Talking different makers led me into my next question, how many rods have you cast or own?

“I really don’t know, you go to these conclaves and all that stuff. But at home I’ve got about 30 bamboo rods. And I will fish graphite – if I’m travelling sometimes you’re forced to fish graphite. There was a time when all I fished was bamboo.”

You’re killing me Ed. He continued,

“But over the years I have been fortunate that people have let me cast a lot of different rods. There is actually a guy here in town that is a rod maker and is going to up and cast some of what I’ve got.”

This was just another example how cool some of the people involved with cane rods can be. Allowing strangers to come over to your home and cast your most prized possessions. Just to help someone learn more about this craft. At first acts like this were foreign to me. But the more people I meet in the bamboo rod community the more common such acts are. Few and far between will you come across the mythical curmudgeon fly fishing old man.

“I always tell people the more rods you can cast the better. That’s the beauty of it. It’s the wonderful material where guys like us can out in their garage experiment with tapers. You can’t do that with fiberglass or graphite.”

“I actually think bamboo rods make you a caster, as opposed to shooting line with graphite rods. You cast bamboo and you shoot graphite in terms of line. And I’m not a great caster either, because I fish smaller streams.”

I have read Ed say exactly that same quote somewhere before, and I love it. People are so intimidated by fly fishing due to the casting motion. Truth is you can get by catching fish on a fly while being a pretty horrendous caster. I’m living proof. However, as you get more into it, casting does take on its own art form. I’m not at the art form point yet but it’s something to shoot for, no pun intended.

An aspect of rod making that truly intimidates me is achieving my goal of developing into professional status. It seems that the guys that are able to do it are old, and have gained a reputation over time. Breaking into it and making a name for yourself seems to be quite the challenge.

“I can guarantee you that everyone one of them struggled at one point, and then just decided ok I’m going to do this.”

At this point Ed’s positive attitude was a breath of fresh air. The above statement really reassured me that all it takes is desire and hard work. As I have gotten older, I’ve come to realize that if you have passion and work towards a goal, you will eventually accomplish what you set out to do. Why can’t I become a professional rod maker? As George would say “You have to want it bad.”

Once you get over the mental hurdle, you have to buckle down and put the work into the rod. Otherwise you’re just bullshitting. So back to the rods our discussion went.

“It always comes down to how the thing fishes. If it’s a taper and I don’t have to change my style of casting, that’s the main thing for me. I’m a fisherman first. But nowadays if you’re going to review a rod or talk about it, the cosmetics always come up. But if you look at some of the older rods the cosmetics were crap compared to now. Those guys were trying to make rods that cast well. Payne had a great finish, he was the complete package.”

On that point I couldn’t agree with Ed more. They are all just fishing rods. Personally I’m drawn to rods that have a simple, classic look. The ultimate in simplicity and functionality to me is a Charlie Jenkins rod. Straight-grained cherry spacer, cigar grip, and neutral cane accenting wraps. Hearing Ed talk of Payne so highly coupled with what I have read and seen of his rods already now have me lusting for an example. After our conversation I even searched online, found a few that would be perfect. For a brief moment I contemplated what I could sell, how I could make it work financially all without Heather knowing. Then I realized that I bought my pickup truck for less than the original Payne 96 I was drooling over. I’ll just take Ed’s word for it on the Payne front.

Ed and I went on to talk about a variety of topics. From both of our weddings to writing, fishing etc. While I have read his books on fishing, I was still blown away by his knowledge on just plain fishing and how he was able to translate it to me over the phone. He must be one hell of a guide. Hearing him talk flies and techniques was one of the best learning experiences I have had to date regarding fly fishing.

When I do go to fly fishing shows and meet makers and rod dealers, I’m always fortunate enough to draw their attention and learn so much through conversation. However, some of these guys will be telling me a story or history on a maker and they will be giving me misinformation, and I’ll know it at the time due to my own research. Of course I never disagree or argue any point as I’m truly grateful for any time I can spend talking with these guys. With Ed there was none of that. This guy knows cane rods, both past and present. Not only has he had way more hands on experience with bamboo fly rods than me, but he has obviously studied and committed much more to memory than I could ever imagine. I could sense the passion for cane rods in his voice.  Speaking with him that day was truly a privilege, and I will always be thankful for his book Splitting Cane. Had I not picked it up in Barnes & Noble all those years ago my life and passions would have been completely different. I might have ended up a golfer or something ridiculous like that.

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