Custom bamboo rod craftsman shares his expertise
With painstaking precision, Scott Nilsson of High Desert Bamboo Rods planes a minuscule sliver from a length of bamboo. “It’s got to be precise to 1/1,000th of an inch,” says Nilsson of a section of a soon-to-be bamboo fly rod.
A self-described perfectionist, Nilsson crafts customized bamboo rods for trout and steelhead as well as bluegill and good-sized bass.
“Once I start a rod, it’s all I can think about,” says the 68-year-old retired business owner, estimating it takes him two to three weeks to make a rod in his shop in Moscow, Idaho.
“I want to get it done and in a person’s hands as soon as possible,” he says. “The feeling when you cast a well-made handcrafted bamboo rod is indescribable with its accuracy, lightness, responsiveness, and strength. You can’t believe it until you fish with one that’s been made right.”
He attributes his short turn-around time to not embellishing the rod with cosmetic accouterments.
“I don’t do time-consuming engravings, inlays and the like. My rods are attractive but are made to be used -- not to be a museum piece.”
After Nilsson hand-planes bamboo strips to one-thousandths of an inch, he heat treats those strips and glues them together to form a hexagon. He then fits the ferrules, forms the hardwood reel seats on a lathe, and wraps on all of the guides using silk thread.
The rod is a finished product after varnishing.
“There are no short cuts, and I use only the finest bamboo, nickel silver fittings, and silk wraps,” he says. “The lengths, tapers, and cosmetic details vary, depending on a customer’s needs.”
An avid fly fisherman since 1972, Nilsson always used a graphite rod until a friend dared him to make a bamboo rod.
“I was making a graphite rod when a friend stopped by and told me I should try making a bamboo rod,” he recalls.
He thought of the many criticisms of bamboo rods.
“You think of the ones your grandfather used and how they cast like a pool stick. They were usually mass produced and weren’t heat-treated properly.”
He researched how to make one and sought advice from other bamboo rod craftsmen. After completing his first bamboo rod in 2005, he was stunned at how well it handled.
Friends who tried the rod were so impressed they asked him to build one for them. Eventually, he started High Desert Bamboo Fly Rods from his home and now sells nationwide.
To share his expertise, he offers one-on-one classes on how to build a rod, wrote a book, “Crafting a Bamboo Fly Rod.”
Nilsson says he is motivated by pleasure and not profit when crafting a customized rod.
He charges $1,000 to $1,200 for a trout rod, depending on cosmetic extras. Steelhead and other large rods start at $1,100.
“When you consider I put a minimum of 60 hours into one rod and the materials cost about $150, my hourly wage is quite low,” he says. “I’m obviously doing this for the enjoyment rather than profit.”
Nilsson says feedback is priceless to him.
“I want to leave a legacy of making affordable, visually appealing rods that are a pleasure to cast. One man said his rod casts like a laser for trout as well as small bluegill and good-sized bass.”
After making a rod, he advises the angler to use it often.
“It’s a fishing tool to put some fun into your life,” he says. “I remind people all the time to live well.”
- written by Dianna Troyer