Chet Croco, owner of Bellinger Fly rods in Albany, OR has a passion for taking gnarled burl wood and lengths of bamboo and turning those materials into works of art. And he wants you to learn to do it too.
Croco started making fly rods for Bellinger in 2002, and bought the business from the original owner Al Bellinger in 2004. The company started out in the custom reel seat business, making reel seats from rare and unusual woods you would find in high end firearms and knife handles.
“When Al started in this business, there wasn’t a lot of choice of what you could put on the reel seat, Bakelite, aluminum, straight grain wood,” Croco said. With a custom reel seat, rod makers could incorporate different kinds of wood that would complement the colors of the wraps on the rod and make it one of a kind.
A good example is the Dan Callaghan tribute rod Croco built for Jim Van Loan for a North Umpqua Foundation fundraiser. It was called the Green Butt Skunk rod: 8 ½ foot rod with a fighting butt, nickel silver hardware, wrapped in black with white tipping. The burl wood reel seat had just enough green and red in it to bring it all together to look like a Green Butt Skunk. Croco said that single, colorful piece of wood drove the entire design of that rod.
Bellinger uses dozens of kinds of wood for reel seats: box elder, redwood, myrtlewood, circasian walnut, black ash and more.
“We have walnut that came from a burl in a guy’s pasture, an old orchard. This guy burned and cut and drove over it, and tried to get rid of it. The burl was so big. It must have been the size of a Volkswagen,” Croco said. “Somewhere in the process of the burning and the cutting, he showed up at Al and Hugh’s shop up in Salem saying, ‘I understand you guys like burl wood. What would you do with this? Should I burn it or can you use it?’ That was several years ago — we still have enough walnut burl wood to last a while.”
Bellinger makes two kinds of reel seats — a hand rubbed, varnish finish on high quality wood, and stabilized wood for the funky burls that give the reel seats the wild grains and colors.
“Stabilizing enables you to bring in wood that wouldn’t have the integrity that you would need to create a reel seat,” Croco said. “It’s punky and falls apart. But once you stabilize it — filling the pores with acrylic resin — it’s 100% moisture proof. In the decaying process, lines called spalt, like mineral deposit lines, form in the wood. From a design standpoint it’s beautiful if you can incorporate that into a reel seat.”
Early on, a rep from Orvis noticed what Al Bellinger was doing with the reel seats and soon after, he started selling tons of wood to Orvis, which allowed Al to hire more people and grow the business.
“The Orvis relationship became the horsepower within the company that enabled him to pursue his other passions — which was to make bamboo fly rods, bamboo fly rod making equipment and fly reels,” Croco said.
Bellinger also made reel seats for Winston Rods for a while, but the large rod companies started looking for reel seats at less cost, and wound up going overseas. Today Bellinger does a small amount of business for bigger companies, but its niche is taking care of the guy that makes 12 rods a year.
From reel seats to bamboo rodmaking equipment innovator
From reel seats, the company then expanded into manufacturing rodmaking equipment. Bellinger benefitted from a friendship and proximity of Daryll Whitehead, maker of the D.L. Whitehead bamboo rods, one of the most sought after fly rods in the world. One of the first tools Al made for bamboo fly rod manufacturing was a glue binder. Whitehead used it in one of his rod making classes. Pretty soon Paul French, Russ Gooding and other rodmakers were all buying a Bellinger glue binder.
Next Bellinger started making planing forms. “This is the most rudimentary tool that a hobbyist rodmaker would want to own. It’s in essence two pieces of steel put together with a 60-degree groove machined between the two bars, so when you open it up, the groove gets larger,” Croco explained. “At each position (at five inch centers). Using a depth gage you can set the depth of the groove to your desired taper. You can copy tapers and this would serve as your platform to hand plane strips on this form. You can make an infinite number of tapers if you have a form.”
In the early days people used to make bamboo rods with files and pocket knives. Now, according to Croco, the greenest rookie within a few tries is making really nice rods with the right equipment.
Bellinger offers a tool to saw bamboo strips into thin rectangles. “Splitting them by hand is possible, but you’ll spend a lot of time over a burner, straightening out strips, because they won’t split as straight as you can saw them. They’ll have kinks in them at the nodes,” Croco said.
Bellinger also created a machine rough those rectangular strips into 60 degree triangles. “The benefit of these tools is that they can make this possible for people that are strapped for time. They can also save wear and tear on the body.”
“Every one of these pieces of machinery is for sale,” Croco said, swinging his arm to include all of the machines in his small machine shop in Albany. “Part of our business is promoting the craft. Creating more bamboo rodmakers is a good thing for bamboo rodmaking. So we teach people how to make blanks as efficiently as possible, just like Daryll taught me all those years ago.”
According to Croco, the most intimidating part of building a bamboo fly rod is the front end — acquiring all the equipment and stuff you need. For starters, you need a place to work, a woodshop with basic woodshop tools. You have to be able to cut, split and temper bamboo. You have to be able plane it into a rudimentary shape to fit into a planing form. You’ll need a dial indicator, a depth gage.
You will also need to heat bamboo — driving out moisture. Tempering the bamboo allows it to flex 200,000 times and return to its proper position. If there was moisture in the rod, after a few uses, it would develop a set. “You’ll see it in old rods left leaning up against a wall in a garage. Normally the set can be taken out with a little heat, but a well-made rod should be heat tempered so it’s resilient and flexible,” Croco said. “We happen to use a pretty rudimentary torch that creates enough temperature to get the moisture out of the lignin inside and create a stiffer product.”
Putting on ferrules and reel seats is very difficult without a lathe. “Having a small shop lathe is a great idea,” Croco said. “You can get one for $500 on eBay. We use it to turn cork, cut reel seat stations, put on ferrules.”
Bamboo rodmaking classes
Bellinger hosts between 8-10 individuals a year to learn to make bamboo fly rods. The class starts on a Thursday morning and the students leave on Sunday. Croco teaches students that want to make one bamboo fly rod, and he gets people who want to go into the bamboo blank making business that plan to make 100-200 rods a year.
“It’s really neat to see a guy going from never having made a rod, come in here and within a year he’s selling them on the internet and has his own customer base and a taper of his own design, using our components and equipment to make the rod. It’s very rewarding from that standpoint,” Croco said.
“The more people are out there, the greater the likelihood that the craft will continue on,” Croco said. “We’re teaching people a method that isn’t covered in a book, or people who just can’t read a book and get it. They can come here and learn to do it, and can get the equipment to take home and continue on the process, so we really shorten the learning curve. It’s not just showing them how to make a bamboo rod, but how they can make several bamboo rods. Not just the one they want, but one for their brother or neighbor or cousin.”
The making of the Bellinger Fly Rod
Every rodmaker has a file set up with tapers in it. A taper is an expression of a rod’s action. The old school bamboo rodmakers typically developed their own taper that identifies their rod: Payne tapers, Dickerson tapers, Montague tapers. Even in the modern age, there are rodmakers that make their own taper — their set of numbers.
When Bellinger started making high end rods, it didn’t have a following behind a Bellinger taper. Croco decided to create one. After talking to bamboo gurus like Al Bellinger, Daryll Whitehead, Tom Morgan, AJ Thramer — their advice to Croco was universal: If you’re going to make a rod for your program, make a rod that you like to cast.
“I like a medium action dry fly rod, so over a couple of years, Daryll Whitehead and I developed a taper,” Croco said. “I say Daryll and I because he has a very extensive catalog of tapers. You could look at rods are similar to ones you like to cast, but make it slightly different, based certain reasons. And through trial and error, pretty soon you come up with a set of numbers you like.”
The seven foot Bellinger rod you buy today will be the same rod you buy a few years. “If we were to change the taper, people would be upset with us. They’re buying the feel,” Croco said.
Bellinger is currently making 50 rods a year, wrapped in brown or olive with gold or yellow tipping, and custom nickel silver hardware, made on turret lathes right in the shop.
Fishing bamboo fly rods
So it comes down to this: You won’t make 100-foot casts with bamboo.
“They make nine and a half-foot, seven-weight graphite rods that can blast line forever. There are guys on two-handed spey rods that will outdistance me, and maybe outfish me. But I’ve caught a lot of steelhead on an 8-foot, six-weight bamboo rod — and I didn’t have to cast very far to get them.”
Croco says it’s not hard to get a 60-foot cast with a solid six-weight bamboo rod. If you can put some accuracy and line control at 45 feet, you’re going to catch fish. “They say it’s all about presentation. Read Schweibert or Bergman. It’s all about line control, not casting distance.”
What you will get fishing bamboo is feedback from the rod — a feeling you don’t get with graphite. The rod tells you when it’s loaded, it slows down the process. You can feel the rod load in the grip.
“It’s about tempo, letting the rod do what it’s supposed to do and not getting in its way,” Croco said. “There’s something about catching a wild steelhead on a rod you’ve made with a fly some friend of yours tied, knowing that cocktails are an hour away.”