An interview with bamboo fly rod master Bill Oyster

Fly fishermen come to Blue Ridge, a small town in the mountains of North Georgia called the state’s trout capital, from all over the world to fish year round. They also come looking for Bill Oyster, a craftsman specializing in prized bamboo fly rods.

With his silver beard and mustache, Oyster looks like the quintessential mountain man. (In fact, his father was an early model of Wrangler.) He was a promising competitive cyclist when an accident in 1996 between Olympic trials ended his career. He was riding a cyclocross bike when he hit a log and flipped over, breaking bones on the left side of his body.

“It kept me out most of the season, and that’s when I realized maybe it was time to move on,” Oyster has told me since. the front of the Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods store, a comfortable space with a sofa and a fireplace.

He had always loved fishing, so he devoted his energy to what until then was just a hobby.

“Fly fishing was my break from [the] competitive, physically demanding [and] painful. It was only good, “he said.” It was just relaxing, and the cold water was good for my aching legs, all that. ”

Oyster guided and gave fly tying lessons, but it was not enough: “I had never played with manual rods before. I always thought they were cool… I just thought the only thing cooler than buying one was being able to make one myself. That would be tying your own flies to steroids.

Graphite and fiberglass models are modern and cheaper alternatives, but Oyster wanted to make their fly fishing rods out of bamboo; the tradition dates back to the 1800s and is now the gold standard in sport. Despite a long-standing legacy, Oyster ran into a problem: a lack of information. After all, it was long before the DIY scene flourished on YouTube and apps like TikTok. But Oyster scoured the lists at the end of the magazines, finally finding the right one.

“I realized I didn’t really know anything about it, so I started reading books. I found a book called A master’s guide to building a bamboo fly rod, and it just fascinated me with the process of making things, ”he said. “I haven’t found anyone who has done it successfully, [and] anyone who knew how to do it wouldn’t tell me.

The “old guard” of the industry, the companies that made these bamboo stems for generations, closely protected their processes. He has received nasty letters from some saying that sharing this kind of information will bankrupt them. But Oyster persevered.

“I had nothing to gain other than experience, so I just spent six months and all of my free time and energy building the worst fly rod ever. But I finished it, which was my goal.

The Oyster Bamboo building in Blue Ridge, GA is a welcoming sight.

Photo: Oyster bamboo fly rods

The Early Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods

Over time it got better. A friend wrote about his work for an Atlanta-based newspaper, which led to his first orders for custom rods. After a set of rods was made, there would be another request.

“In a relatively short period of time, at the rate I could make them, I had a four-year stems backlog. And to this day, I still never hit the bottom of my waitlist on custom rods.

In 1998, Oyster turned his hobby into a full-fledged business. Its stems take at least 50 hours to make, with equal parts science and art. He and his team can make 40 custom rods in a year, depending on each person’s workforce. They don’t come cheap either, each starting at around $ 2,500 and peaking at $ 13,000; as such, they are often treated as investments or family heirlooms to be passed on from one fisherman to another.

Oyster also adds personality with personalized engraving. You will usually find him sitting in front of a contraption that looks like a science microscope, carefully cutting the metal pieces that decorate the ends of the rods. He was even commissioned to build a personalized rod for President Jimmy Carter, which was engraved on the end of the presidential seal.

The end of a personalized fly fishing rod by Bill Oyster engraved with a fish

Custom engraving makes Oyster fly rods worthy of a legacy.

Photo: Corey Woolsey / Courtesy: Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods

Bill Oyster School opens

In 2000, a customer asked if Oyster would teach him how to make his own bamboo fly rod. He hadn’t considered taking on the role of teacher, but when he got enough interest, he organized his first class.

“I just started collecting names, and when I had a handful of names, I would call them, and our little group would come,” he explained. “They told people and the band got bigger and bigger, and now we’ve been full for almost two years.”

Some students have saved up for years to attend while others have reserved a spot on a whim. You could find yourself in a classroom with a British lord as easily as a worker, all proud to see their craftsmanship come to fruition. Classes cost $ 2,360 and include six days of instruction that ends with a completed bamboo fly rod.

“I can make you the best cane you’ve ever seen – it won’t compete [with] whatever you do yourself here this week, ”Oyster said of his classes.

While most of the participants are older men, women and teens have also studied with Oyster. Some former students have obtained a coveted place in the “club of 10 classes”. The class I stopped for the week consisted of three returning students.

Not everyone is prepared for what happens in these classes. No prior knowledge is required, which creates a level playing field. You might be a longtime carpenter, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be a natural at making fly rods.

“This is perhaps the most technical woodworking project,” Oyster said. “We are planning these [strips of wood] with block plans down to 1 / 1000th of an inch, which is just plain insane. It’s like a fraction of the width of a human hair. The tiny pieces of bamboo are carefully glued together and tied with silk thread.

Bamboo fly rod craftsman Bill Oyster fishing in a river with knee-deep water

All these years later, Oyster is still so attached to the fly fishing lifestyle.

Photo: Corey Woolsey / Courtesy: Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods

Fishing during a pandemic and beyond

Despite two months off at the height of the pandemic, classes have remained relatively unchanged and are booked until August 2022. There are eight students at one point working at stations now divided by plexiglass. Instructors walk between stations wearing masks.

Since the start of the pandemic over a year ago, there has been growing interest in fly fishing across the country.

“I think on the outside, in general, I see a resurgence, and that was the right thing after all of that. If your thing was going to the gym, you were in big trouble, ”Oyster said. “But being alone in the middle of a river, in the middle of the woods, is the safest thing you can do.”

People interested in fly fishing are also evolving, largely thanks to the Internet.

“I think fly fishing has really found a good niche in the new generation because it’s outside. It’s nice. It’s artistic… It has an ethic of capture and release, ”he said. “It’s all about beauty and style. Lots of cool and fun gear. So, he also has things that appeal to a younger, more thoughtful crowd. “

And it’s not just a hobby behind a screen. Oyster has created a real community for fly fishing novices and experts in Georgia. It is this enthusiasm that allows the sport, which has traditionally been focused on the older segment of the population, to be enjoyed by future generations.

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