"A cane rod is hidden inside the culm of bamboo. The rod maker's task is to bring it out."
For rod maker Pete Carboni, that is more than a saying. It's the guiding principle that governs his rod-building efforts. Spend an afternoon with the Boulder City resident and you learn that he takes those words quite literally as he applies himself to finding the fly rod hidden within each culm, or stem, of bamboo.
In a day when modern machinery can significantly reduce the time involved in building a fishing rod of any kind, Carboni prefers to mold his custom bamboo fly-fishing rods with his own hands, and it shows in his work.
"You've heard the term 'labor of love?' Well, it sure applies to this type of thing because it takes hours and hours to do. Just putting the varnish on takes a week," said Carboni as he walked me through the rod-building process.
For Carboni, it all started in 1975 while he was working at the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery, where he spent much of his 37-year career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raising rainbow trout. As Carboni tells the story, "An angler came by with an old bamboo fly rod. He didn't want it anymore and gave it to me. I liked the action. Prior, all I was using was fiberglass rods."
The bamboo rod grew on Carboni and, while searching for rod ferrules one day, he met a rod maker named Ralph Moon.
"I asked him how long it would take to build a bamboo rod like this," Carboni recalled. "The man said, 'If you can take time off and spend a week with me, we can build you a rod.' And that's how it all started."
In the years since, Carboni has built many rods and continued to study the craft. Along the way, he has passed on what he has learned to a few others. One of his proteges eventually left his teaching career and now builds rods for anglers around the world.
With all his expertise, Carboni remains a humble man and insists he still is learning.
"I've got some rods that I built back in the '70s," he said. "I look at those and wonder how I ever thought they were a finished rod. After all the years of working with them, there is still room for improvement."
Carboni begins the rod-building process with a culm of bamboo. He splits it into one-quarter-inch strips following the grain of bamboo. He then planes the strips into 60-degree triangles about 48 inches long, which are then tapered to form the length of what eventually will be a split cane rod. Each rod section is composed of six strips glued together. Once the glue is dry, Carboni uses a slow dip process to apply varnish to each section.
Varnish application is the one step where Carboni uses a piece of machinery: a small electric motor that controls the dipping speed to 1 inch per minute. That way, there are no runs in the varnish. He applies multiple coats and sands the rod sections between each coat to ensure he achieves a uniform finish.
When asked how long it takes to become a master rod maker, Carboni said: "I don't think you ever become a master. I just finished a rod and I'm still seeing mistakes. You just strive for perfection, but it never really comes. All you can do is strive and get it as good as you can. As long as the customer's happy, you're happy."
Carboni prefers to keep a low profile and makes only a handful of rods each year, each one an extension of himself. Depending upon what the customer wants, the price starts at about $1,000.
Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His "In the Outdoors" column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.