SOUTH PORTLAND — Bamboo fly rods run upward of $1,500 and $2,000. That’s not the kind of cottage industry that would make it in a poor economy. Unless you’re in Maine.

A week ago, four of Maine’s most prolific bamboo fly rod makers gathered to teach, talk and maybe preach bamboo fly rod making at Maine’s first Fly Fishing Show. And convert after convert stopped at their display tables to ask about the naturally grown material that forms the rods, the silk thread that colors the guides, the process that takes up to 40 hours to produce a beautiful and effective fishing tool.

“His waiting list extends beyond his life span,” said Kathy Scott, wife of bamboo fly rod maker David Van Burgel.

It’s a hobby for these craftsmen who are dentists, engineers, teachers and yes, fishermen.

But it’s a calling more than a pastime. Their work is both part of the thread of history and a celebration of their sport.

“It’s like a disease,” said Joel Anderson of Auburn, who made his first bamboo fly rod in 2006.

Van Burgel estimates there are upwards of maybe 40 bamboo fly rod makers in Maine, but less than a dozen who build rods for clients, as do he and fellow artisans Anderson, Tom Whittle and Scott Chase.

“Often clients buy a rod and want another to fish for something else,” said Scott, a fishing author. “But they’re all in demand, which lends itself to them working as a community. Word travels fast about who makes them. We don’t have a website. We don’t do any marketing.”

The history of their craft runs back into the 1880s, back to the 1900s when Percival P. Baxter cast a bamboo fly rod into Kidney Pond, and to the 1930s when nationally known fly rod makers lived throughout Maine.

Today the disciples are historians who own original rods and admire the original masters.

“A lot of them started as gunsmiths around 1865,” Whittle says with a smile.

“But the bottom fell out of that market. They knew they had to find something and they met these guys fishing in Maine. There is a long history of fly rod making, and it’s still here.”

They also appreciate that today’s bamboo fly rods cast, handle and perform better. Rod makers can control the taper and adjust it for rods that target different fish, be it small brookies or King salmon.

They also can be geared toward certain flies: wet flies, streamers or dry flies.

It’s art that’s engineered.

“We use space-age epoxy, is one difference,” Van Burgel said. “The old rods were slow and sluggish and would be used for trolling. These are precise. When you cast, you can feel the transmission of the line. You don’t get the whip of the old rods.”

Chase, of Scarborough, a fly rod maker for 12 years, made a name for himself nine years ago after building a rod for President George H.W. Bush.

“He never wanted another. So I’m not sure he used it,” Chase said.

Chase still donates a rod a year to The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, the classic gesture among bamboo fly rod makers.

Tom Whittle, an engineer, moved to Boothbay Harbor from Pennsylvania but often calls home the New York Catskills, where he is something of an artist in residence at the Catskills Fly Fishing Museum and Center. He’s made as many as 15 bamboo fly rods a year, but usually makes about half that many.

Van Burgel usually makes about four to five a year.

“I don’t like to rush it,” he says.

None of Maine’s four avid fly rod makers feel the need to explain the time, devotion and, at times, even money that goes into this craft. It gives them pleasure, even defines their spirit.

“It’s been said if fly fishermen are a fringe group, bamboo fly rod makers are the lunatic fringe,” Van Burgel said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: [email protected]

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