John Porrier demonstrates how to cast a fly rod outside his home in Fernie. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Harvested in Asia, crafted in Fernie

A behind-the-scenes look at the bamboo fly rod

Behind every painting, there’s an artist. Behind every guitar, there’s a luthier. Behind every fishing rod, there’s a craftsman with an unfathomable love for the sport.

2017 marks the 50th year John Poirier has picked up a rod to fly fish. He doesn’t ski, he doesn’t mountain bike, he doesn’t do anything but fly fish with bamboo rods and flies he has made with his own hands.

Often times, even when Poirier isn’t catching fish, you’ll still find him down at the river, practicing his spey casting. This is a method of fly fishing which originated in Scotland in the mid-1800s. It is practiced with a large, two-handed rod.

Up until about 10 years ago, Poirier was using some very nice graphite fly rods that suited his fishing needs. After one try with a bamboo fly rod, he never went back. Now, he makes his own.

“I have since built something like 115 trout rods,” he said.

In the begining, building the rods was an extreme challenge, and that’s what drew the fisherman to it in the first place. In Poirier’s eyes, building the rods is both easy and difficult. Some steps are easy, and some are more difficult.

Poirier has over 30 different rods on the wall in his basement, three of which are bamboo rods that were made in Scotland over 50 years ago. He still uses them. He believes that this justifies the major price tag on bamboo rods, as compared to graphite. This, the durability and strength, as well as the feeling when you use them.

Many things happen in the two weeks it takes Poirier to make a rod.

A very small community off the Sioux River in southern China harvests the bamboo rods. There are 1400 species of bamboo in the world, and only one is suitable for fly fishing: Arundinaria Amabilis, a remarkably stiff cane, also used for pole vaulting. It is known for its strong power fibres.

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Poirier, referring to the power fibres.

Three people from the U.S. make the trip to China, inspect the bamboo for imperfections, and send it back to North America.

First, the raw piece of bamboo is dried, and cleaned in a bed of sand to remove any moss and lichen. Next, the rod is cut into strips. Most rods are made through the construction of six pieces of bamboo, formed into a hexagon and glued together.

To Poirier, each rod is unique.

“Every rod is individual,” he said, explaining that some rods are two-piece, three-piece, some are only six feet, where as some can be up to 12.

Another very customizable part of Poirier’s creation process is the handle; each is made of a unique combination of wood, cork and decorative material.

Now, how does one build their own fly rod? To a builder, it’s all about taper. Poirier has a book of tapers, different measurements of different rods. With enough experimentation, he has found the right length and weight that he likes.

With a raw piece of bamboo, Poirier splits it in half until he gets the required number of pieces.

“Crooked as a dogs hind leg,” said Poirier, holding the strips together before they’re bound. “How in the hell could you make anything? These fly rods look pretty nice, out of this stuff. Well there’s many many different stages. That’s why I say it’s both easy and difficult.”

Once the pieces are bound together, they are cooked in an oven at 400 degrees to remove any leftover moisture. From here, Poirier undergoes his final planing stage, to ensure every angle in each piece is perfect.

Once this is done, they are glued together. After the glue, they are wrapped, bound, and dried. Then it is sanded and straightened if needed. At least one layer of varnish is applied before the cord is put on, the reel, the eyes, farells and thread.

“Take it out, cast it, oh shoot I really like it, I’m going to hang it on the wall and build another one,” he said.

Twelve years ago, an article was written about Fernie, labeling the town as a ‘world class fishing location’.

In the past 12 years, Poirier has seen the fly fishing industry take off. He has also seen the Elk River become very populated with different activities; from tubing, to kayaking and wake-boarding. Poirier finds that this increase in river traffic has made it harder to fish. However, above this, the local fisherman has seen the popularity of fly fishing increase so much in the Elk Valley that he’s concerned it could have an impact on the fish.

“It’s grown. And it’s grown to such an extent that basically everyone practices catch and release,” said Poirier.

With so many catch and release sections on the river, Poirier is concerned that this, if done improperly, could harm the fish population. In his eyes, a fish should never be taken out of the water to either remove the hook or take a photo.

Poirier is a board member of the Elk River Alliance, a local conservation group dedicated to preserving bodies of water in the East Kootenay.

They believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to practice good water conservation, and that together, we can keep our rivers healthy and strong.

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