In 2019, I decided to treat myself to a bamboo fly rod to mark my 65th birth year. I’ve inherited three bamboo rods from my grandfather and father. Now I contemplated having a rod of my own as I approached this milestone in life.
My first call was to Jerry Kustich at Sweetgrass Rods. I knew Jerry as one of the renowned “boo boys” and a dedicated conservationist. When it came time to buy a handcrafted, custom made rod, the choice was obvious.
On the phone, Jerry walked me through the process, and we talked about what kind of rod he could build. My home waters are the spring creeks and mountain streams in and around the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. While I knew I might be hoping for the impossible, having a rod suitable for both was my dream. The more I talked with Jerry, the more hopeful I became. We met up at the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival in January of this year, where I had a chance to cast some different rods.
After casting a few rods, I began to zero in on a model that appealed to me. Like a bespoke suit, the fit and feel were subjective. I wanted a rod that worked with me and fit my casting style. As I tried the rods, I began to understand why people speak of bamboo rods as if they are alive. It’s uncanny. The feel is like nothing else I’ve experienced.
Over the years, my preference for slower rods has increased. Much of that comes from fishing longer, more flexible tenkara rods for the last 10 years. My casting style reflects it as well. Because I wanted a rod for our spring creeks, where the fish are bigger, I needed a rod with some muscle but still soft enough to load quickly for short cast in mountain streams.
With Jerry’s excellent guidance, we settled on a Sweetgrass 7’9″ Pent (five strip) for a four or five weight line. As Jerry noted, “a 4-weight with a bit of backbone.” Jerry would build the rod, and Glenn would add the finishing touches, including an inscription with my name and my 65th birthday date.
In late June, when the word came from Butte that the rod was headed my way, I could barely contain my excitement. When it arrived, I was struck by the beauty of the craftsmanship, the cane’s warm colors, the richness of the cocobolo reel seat, and the sparkle of the nickel silver Bellinger components. This was an elegant tool; I couldn’t wait to fish with it.
As the Fourth of July holiday approached, I checked with Colby at Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, where I guide. As luck would have it, a beat on our spring creek water was open the morning of July 4. After more than 90 days without a chance to fish, this would genuinely be an Independence Day celebration. As a bonus, my stepson Matt was free that morning and joined me. We arrived at Mossy and rigged up. As I cast the rod, I re-experienced that magical feel of a bamboo rod. I felt the rod load not only in my arm; it felt alive in my hand. Words don’t do justice to the experience.
Because of my foray into the tenkara world, how well a rod tracks has become a touchstone. Tenkara rods track exceptionally well because the lines are so light. I have become very accustomed to that accuracy. With this rod, “laser-like” doesn’t overstate it. I noticed it right off the bat and was surprised how spot on it was. Because of my tenkara adapted casting stroke, the smoothly loading rod made me feel right at home, even with my sometimes rusty casting skills.
There were a few rises, so I started out fishing a parachute BWO with a midge dropper. After finding no takers on the midge, I switched to a bead-head pheasant tail and quickly connected.
With success on the dry-dropper rig established, I switched to a streamer. I was casting into overhanging cover, and the rod delivered the fly smoothly to the target. Two casts and a rainbow came to hand. I continued to put the rod to work. As the morning wore on, I switched to a beetle. We were now sight fishing, and the fish were getting increasingly spooky as the sun moved higher.
As my familiarity with it improved, my confidence increased, and I settled into a very satisfying working relationship. The reward came late in the morning as good-sized brown lazily sipped in a well-placed black beetle in his feeding lane.
When it comes to lines, it pays to talk to the guy who built the rod.
Because I was anxious to get on the water with my new rod, I grabbed the reel and line I had been using with my graphite rods. For the first outing, I used a Rio Technical Trout WF 5 and it worked very well. When I had a chance, I called Jerry and talked with him about lines. He explained that this rod would cast very well with a double taper line. He recommended the Cortland 444 SLYK DT.
After some back and forth about the line tapers and weights, I settled on the Cortland DT5F and the Rio Light Line DT4F.
Jerry helped me understand that while it might be counterintuitive, the five-weight line would work better for making short casts like when I was fishing for brook trout. The four weight would be better for making a longer cast, like when I fish our spring creeks.
I put both of the lines to the test, and all I can say is it pays to talk to the guy who built the rod. The results were remarkable and let me get the most out of this already impressive rod.
More adventures lie ahead, and this rod is now my first choice for my home waters.
Note: this article originally appeared in the August edition of Sweetgrass Rods monthly newsletter.