King of Cane
From his home in the Kispiox Valley, Bob Clay has been making some of the world’s finest bamboo Spey rods for two decades
By Pat Hoglund
Bob Clay opens the door to his shop, a modest outbuilding on his property that overlooks the Kispiox River in British Columbia. There is a small mudroom where waders hang from pegs, wading boots lay on the floor and fly rods are tucked away in the corner. He opens the interior door and we step into Clay’s workshop, where for the past 20 years he’s built some of the world’s finest bamboo Spey rods.
Home to Riverwatch Rods, the 12 X 36 foot workshop is modest, yet efficient. It is divided into stations, each one with a specific purpose. There’s a planing table. A wrapping station. A gluing station. A drying room. The list goes on. Wood shavings are sparsely scattered on the floor and a handful of simple tools lay on the main worktable. Bamboo poles hang from an overhead rack. The room smells of varnish. Old fishing photos are pinned to the walls with thumbtacks. Classic fly reels lined up like soldiers are displayed on wooden shelves. Aside from a band saw, power tools are nonexistent. If you didn’t know better you’d think you’ve taken a step back in time into a 19th Century cobbler’s workshop.
Clay is soft-spoken, friendly and extremely passionate about making bamboo fly rods. He is giving me and my son a shop tour, demonstrating the various steps that go into making one of his Spey rods. He is forthcoming and unassuming as he goes into detail with each step of the process. Since 1996 Clay has been crafting bamboo fly rods and each one is hand-made with meticulous care. There’s a little bit of J.R.R Tolkien and Ernest Hemingway with a splash of Jerry Garcia mixed in for soul as he talks about his craft.
“Every rod I make has a little bit of me in it,” he says almost Zen-like.
A Riverwatch Spey rod sells for upwards of $2,000 and while that is a lot of money, it really is sparse when you learn what is involved in making each rod. Clay figures he spends about 60 hours on each fly rod, start to finish. “It takes me about a month to build one. It’s not a continuous 60 hours, rather it’s a month-long process. All told there’s a week and a half of work in each rod.”
With a large kitchen knife firmly secured in a vice, Clay starts by splitting a bamboo pole using a rubber mallet tapping the bamboo until it’s been ripped lengthwise. This is done repeatedly until each strip is the proper width. The split cane is then laid into a long, hand-milled bed with a precise groove that holds the split cane in place. He then runs a custom planer by hand along the strip of bamboo that shapes it into a three-sided strip. Then the bamboo is straightened and nodes are pressed in preparation of the strip being triangulated and tapered to the final dimension. He does this a number of times until he has the proper amount of strips to form one section. Depending on the rod he’s building, this can include four, five or six strips. The center of the section is then hollowed. The short demonstration illustrates just how involved the process is.
Clay is not the only person who build bamboo fly rods, however his hand mill planing jig is unique to Riverwatch Rods. It is one of several things that set his Spey rods apart. The planing jig was the brainchild of Tom Morgan, who owned Winston Rods at the time.
“We became good friends through steelhead fishing,” recalls Clay. “He called me and said ‘I have a new idea for planing bamboo rods,’ and since Tom was in the early stages of MS he needed my help to do the physical work. He was the brains and I was the brawn. So with Tom’s guidance I made the hand mill bed.”
Morgan also enlisted the help of Tom Wandishin, a master machinist, to build the first hand mill. “We planned the first strip at the machine shop and it worked,” says Clay, who took the bed and the hand mill home and started working on it.
“The hand mill has revolutionized how bamboo rods are now being built,” says Clay.
Prior to that bamboo rod builders used either a grooved planning form and a wood plane or were mass produced using a power milling or beveling machine.
“This was taking the milling machine concept and putting it in the hand mill. Tom and I spent a lot of time on the phone as he tutored me on making the first rod on the hand mill. The hand mill gives you a lot of latitude in building rods, and that’s important when making Spey rods.”
Clay first moved to the Kispiox Valley in 1977 where he and his wife Kathy built their home. He moved there to guide steelhead fishermen on the Kispiox. About that time he began building graphite fly rods. It wasn’t until later he started building single hand bamboo fly rods.
“One of the things about bamboo, it’s heavier than fiberglass and graphite,” he explains. “But through the tournament casting scene, they developed hollow built rods, and that changed the game. But then other lighter materials came on and for a while bamboo was forgotten. Most of us were raised on fishing with graphite and fiberglass, because that was what was available to us. But the beauty of bamboo, and its sensitivity, is not easily duplicated in modern materials so it was never completely forgotten.”
With input from tournament casters and a small fraternity of bamboo rod builders, Clay fully emerged himself into the two-handed fly rod scene.
“We’re in the modern era of bamboo Spey rods,” he says. “With today’s modern lines, and with the hollow built bamboo rods, you have a new era of bamboo Spey rods. They’re lighter and quicker, and they cast beautifully.”
Looking out from the back deck of his home you stare into one of the Kispiox River’s most famous steelhead runs, the Upper Upper Potato Patch. It is a wonderful steelhead hole that has proven to be the ideal testing ground for the better part of three decades. While Bob is the sole rod builder in the family, Kathy is also involved in the business sewing all the rod socks along with labeling each rod. They have three daughters and a son, and all but their daughter Jessica has been involved in the fishing industry at some level. His son Jed and Kateri both worked as steelhead guides, and Kalie works for Patagonia as a designer.
He no longer guides, and he’s in the twilight of his rod-making career. During the peak he was making about 45 rods a year. As Clay nears his self-induced retirement he’s producing between 30 and 35 rods each year. Before long, a Clay-built Riverwatch Spey rod will be more of a collector item than it already is. Which is to say, get in line now if you want him to build you a rod.
Some of Clay’s first Spey rods were six-sided, a process that involves hollowing and gluing six equally measured strips of bamboo together. Today, thanks in part to the planing jig, most all of Riverwatch rods are five-sided. He learned to make five-sided rods from Dean Jones, who in turn learned from Frank Wire. “I find that five-sided rods are lighter and quicker,” says Clay, who’s also recently begun experimenting with tri-hex penta design, which involves three large cane strips married together with three smaller strips.
Some of the early rods he built eventually broke because he used nickel silver ferrules to join the rod pieces together. That’s when he started building rods that are spliced together with industrial clear tape, another trademark of his rods. The pieces are cut to a 20:1 slope and spliced together with tightly wound tape.
“The splice was mainly popularized by Sharpes, but they were longer solid rods. They were meant to lift a large amount of line of the water, whereas our more modern rods, which are shorter and lighter, tend to shoot line.”
He still makes Spey rods with composite ferrules but he prefers the spliced ferrule. “It makes it as one piece so the stress is transferred smoothly to a stronger portion of the rod. Many rods have been broken above or below the ferrule because when the rod is stressed during the cast it fails to deliver the stress throughout the rod.”
To date his most popular Spey rod remains a spliced, five-sided, 11-foot 6/7 weight. It delivers a deep casting profile through the casting plane and it is an ideal rod dry line rod. It was that very rod that Clay strung up and fished in the Upper Upper Potato Patch while I was visiting. Despite the river being in great shape, it was still early for steelhead to have arrived in the Kispiox (most of the steelhead were still in the lower Skeena). Clay lined the rod with a 425 grain Scandi head and a 12-foot leader and handed it to me. It was my first time casting a bamboo Spey rod. Initially I thought it would be heavy and unforgiving. It was anything but. The rod was light and responsive, recovered quickly allowing me to throw the line with ease. It was a rod with soul and a distinct personality. I laid out casts of 60 and 70 feet long, each one with tight loops. It was a pleasure to cast and as I looked downriver watching Clay cast another rod I couldn’t help but appreciate the rod I held was an extension of the rod builder himself.
“I think the rod making sort of shapes you after a while. It makes you more patient, because you have to be patient,” he says laughing. “It really teaches you a lot about yourself. If you cannot deal with going back to square one at times you’re not going to become a rod maker. Glen Brackett once told me when I was complaining about a failure of mine, that failure was an opportunity to learn.”
Clay admits that he threw out a lot of fly rods early in his career and were it not for his mentors like Brackett, Morgan, Marty Karstetter and Per Brandin he probably would’ve stopped building rods a long time ago. These were fellow rod builders who helped shape a Riverwatch rod.
“It’s the people you meet along the way; they mentor you. Nothing I do is original,” he says. “I believe everything I do is built on ideas from the past. I am just continuing on and adding a bit here and there. The rods we build today are different from the past and hopefully the rods of tomorrow will continue to evolve. That is how life is.”
Whether someone chooses to own a bamboo Spey rod depends entirely on fishing style, and if they have an appreciation for finely crafted fly rods. Most people prefer a graphite fly rod, and only when they’re looking for something different and perhaps a connection to the past do they seek out a bamboo rod maker.
Shawn Miller, who lives in Portland, owns close to 30 Spey rods, two of which are Clay-built Riverwatch rods.
“I have two of his rods, and absolutely love them. They are the best Spey rods I own. They’re smooth and powerful,” he says. “It’s really special when I get to tape up a Bob Clay rod and throw it. It’ll handle big fish, and it’s a lot of fun rod.”
Miller owns a 12-foot 7/8 weight, and the 11-foot, 7/8 weight. The 12-footer is ideal for fishing floating lines, while he prefers the 11-footer to fish Skagit heads with 10 foot sink tips.
“It takes you back in time and history,” he says. “But the way you fish it, it feels like a more modern-day rod. I’ve fished a lot of different bamboo Spey rods and nothing compares to them.”