A Love for Old School Rods, Bows

By Dennis Smith

A few years ago I interviewed a Colorado bowhunter for our city newspaper. He was being honored for winning just about every state and national title an archer could possibly win during his career. He took more than 14 different species of big game animals over the years, 10 of which are listed in the Pope and Young Club’s Bowhunting Big Game Records of North America. All of this is amazing enough, but the intriguing thing is that he did it all shooting handmade wooden recurve and long bows.

He makes his own arrows and weaves custom Flemish bow strings as well. He uses no sights or other mechanical devices on his equipment — just a straight-up stick and string. Cool.

When I asked him why he chose to hunt with a handmade stick bow, as they are often called, instead of a modern, more efficient high-tech compound bow, he said, “I don’t know. Maybe for the same reason some guys prefer to fly-fish with handcrafted bamboo rods. I just like them. They’re simple, elegant and a pure a joy to use.”

He had a point. Modern compound bows are a metallurgical collision of aluminum alloys, steel cables and elliptical cams, manufactured on computer-controlled machines and festooned with all kinds of after-market technological gimmickry: fiber optic sights shock-absorbing torque stabilizers, spring-loaded arrow rests, and so on. They shoot extremely well, but they’re uglier than homemade sin — in my opinion, anyway.

A handcrafted longbow by comparison is a sleek, slender, graceful work of functional art. So is a handmade split cane fly rod. Both ooze understated elegance, historical romance and the kind of ageless beauty that only organic materials and exemplary artistic talent can create.

The fly fishermen I know who fish bamboo will tell you there’s nothing like it. Not that it’s any better functionally than graphite or fiberglass, but it just feels good in the hand — a quality that is admittedly hard to define. It has the distinct heft of real wood and an organic, tactile feel that almost makes it seem alive, which, of course, it once was.

Some will get downright spiritual about it and tell you how fishing with bamboo rods can connect us to our angling predecessors and lead us to a deeper understanding and respect for the origin of the sport. Others will tell you that fishing with a rod they know was lovingly and meticulously crafted by a dedicated artisan takes on a kind of mystical quality that has to be experienced to be appreciated. I know that sounds more than a little syrupy, but having fished with bamboo rods for quite a few years now, I have to say they’re right.