With a handcrafted, heirloom-quality bamboo fly rod in hand, Bill Oyster casts into a circle of dreams.
by Susan Frampton
Photography: Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods
The morning is crisp and cool as the fisherman steps into the stream, his flyrod at the ready. Once again, the siren song of clear water flowing over the ancient rocks in the mountain stream has drawn him from the warmth of the hearth. He draws back the rod with a graceful arch and, in one smooth motion, unspools a ribbon of line into the morning air. As lightly as a feather, the line settles on the water’s shimmering surface, and he smiles. It is a scene that undoubtedly plays out on any given day across the globe. The first known reference to fly fishing, a 200 AD illustration in a publication by the Roman author Aelian, speaks to its rich history, traced to ancient Macedonians. Through the centuries, the tools have evolved, becoming refined and modernized. What has never changed is the love and loyalty of those who cast them.
Any story involving fly fishing is a love story of sorts, for those drawn to the sport share a passion for its symmetry, for the perfect balance of skill and artistry it demands from those who venture waist-deep into the cold, clear water. At first glance, the successful angler’s reward is the shimmer of scales in the basket at the end of the day. In reality, the reward is far less tangible and far more valuable. Few have more understanding and reverence for the endeavor than bamboo rod maker Bill Oyster.
Oddly enough, Oyster’s journey to the pinnacle of American rod makers began on two wheels at the University of Georgia in Athens. The son of a Marine, the art and engineering major enlisted in ROTC. His athletic prowess amidst the other mid-shipmen drew the attention of the school’s cycling team. Two weeks after joining the team, he won second place in his first race. It was a photo finish. A natural to the sport, he led the university’s cycling team to an SEC Championship. Oyster had the world by the handlebars. In the sleepy college town, he met Shannen, a journalism student who would become his wife and biggest fan. In his downtime, the cyclist turned to his longtime love of fly fishing, guiding, and teaching fly fishing lessons. By the time he established himself as a professional cyclist, he was on track for the Olympic trials. A cycling accident unexpectedly shattered the promising career path.
He returned once more to fly fishing. The cold water was a balm to his injured body, and the quiet outdoors brought peace to his spirit. Oyster became fascinated by split bamboo fly rods. First built in America by Pennsylvania gunsmith and violin maker Samuel Phillipe in 1846, Phillipe’s design using Calcutta bamboo elevated the flyrod from utilitarian tool to heirloom quality art. Considering the supple, elegant split bamboo fly rods as the gold standard, the young angler knew that a hand-built rod was far out of his price range. “I had always loved to make things, and with my art background, the idea of building one of my own really appealed to me. I went from wanting to own one to wanting to make one.”
To his frustration, he found the “old guard” of successful rod builders so protective of their process that they were unwilling to share any information with a newcomer. “This was before YouTube,” he remembers. “And the internet itself was pretty new. I started looking for books to read. I found A Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod and put all of my time and energy into learning all I could. The first sixty pages were nothing but engineering formulas and calculus. It was pretty dry stuff.” He was still undeterred. “That first rod took six months to make and was the ugliest fly rod ever made.”
Fennel Hudson, the famous angler whose journals chronicled his love of the sport, wrote: “With a fly rod, anglers are not casting to a fish; rather to a circle of dreams, ripples that spread into every aspect of their lives.” When he decided to try his hand at building a bamboo fly rod of his own, little did Oyster know that he had cast into a circle of dreams, and its ripples would carry his family into a future they could not imagine possible. “I didn’t set out to make the best bamboo fly rod ever. I just wanted to make the best one I could make for myself.” Fate, however, had different plans.
One year later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured an article about his work. A custom rod was ordered by a reader and then another. Word spread quickly. Soon, orders were backing up, and a full-time rod-making business was born. Determined to share the lessons he often learned through trial and error, offering classes was a priority. Rather than seeing students as future competitors, Oyster sees teaching the art of rod building as building the future of fly fishing’s timeless legacy.
Shannen Oyster, a woman with no quit in her, threw herself into managing the business. She laughs at the image of herself she remembers from the early years. “I’d have a child on either hip and a phone in my hand.” She channeled her journalism skills into marketing Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods to an audience thirsty for quality fly fishing equipment and experiences. The blog she writes on oysterbamboo.com reflects her quick mind and wit. The blog chronicles the company’s 25-year journey to where it is today and the family’s own personal journey. Much like Shannen herself, it is unvarnished and frank, entertaining, enlightening, inspiring, and often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s worth a read.
Bill Oyster strikes one as the epitome of zen. His thoughtful, mild-mannered demeanor and physical appearance could be straight out of Hollywood’s central casting for A River Runs Through It, the film version of Norman Maclean’s classic novel.
But much like Maclean himself, Oyster is the real deal. Behind the white beard and flannel shirt lies a deep thinker, an artist dedicated to paying homage to the pastime and the unique tackle that unexpectedly brought him to the dance. His dedication to the quality led him to learn hand engraving when the State Department came calling. They requested a split bamboo rod for President Jimmy Carter, engraved with the Presidential Seal. “No one just learns hand engraving,” he was told by those proficient in the art. But they didn’t know this man. He enrolled in engraving school, and when the President’s rod was delivered, it carried a perfect, meticulously engraved seal produced by the hand of Bill Oyster.
From behind picture windows in the warm and welcoming showroom on Blue Ridge, GA’s Main Street, visitors have a front-row seat to watch students build their own rods in classes booked up for a year in advance. Students come from across the country and around the globe, and their attention to their work is rapt. Nestled like jewels into racks built against the showroom walls, the finished rods glow in the light of a brick fireplace. Shannen and the staff greet most of those who drop in by name.
George Black, author of Casting a Spell – The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfection, sums it up best: “At their best, bamboo fly rods should be things of beauty as well as efficient tools for catching fish. Oyster’s sense of aesthetics is nothing short of perfection.”
Though they’re at the top of their game, Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods is not a company that rests on its laurels. “This is not a hobby for us,” says Shannen. “It’s our livelihood and our life.” That sentiment is reflected in every aspect of the Oyster Brand. “We’re a twenty-five-year overnight success,” laughs Oyster. “We’re always evolving. What else can we offer? What can we do to make the rods better, the classes better, the experience better?” Wherever their next cast lands, we can’t wait to see what they reel in.
For more information on Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods, visit oysterbamboo.com.