Angling Arts

Sweetgrass Arts & Crafts

After Casting into Mystery was release in the winter of 2020 Jerry Kustich, cofounder of Sweetgrass Rods, asked me to write an essay for the bamboo rod-building company’s monthly newsletter. The following is adapted from a chapter of the same title in the fly angling memoir.

Retirement is a significant signpost along the road of life. In the spring of 2015, I marked half a century in the workforce. I thought a Sweetgrass bamboo fly rod would provide the ideal way of celebrating the milestone.

A Sweetgrass rod appealed because I believed the shop carried forward the aesthetic and philosophy that defined Arts & Crafts artisans whom I had long admired, both in England where the movement originated through the writings of William Morris and John Ruskin, and in America, where it flourished among New England craftsmen. It surprises me that angling historians have not made the connection between such Arts & Crafts practitioners as furniture maker Gustav Stickley and pioneer bamboo rod maker Hiram Leonard.

I have never visited the Sweetgrass shop in Twin Bridges, MT. However, Jerry Kustich paints an affectionate portrait of his fellow Booboys in his quartet of angling memoirs. His portrait, coupled with the philosophy and pledge of social responsibility espoused on the shop’s website corroborate my intuitive impression.

The Arts & Crafts movement prospered between 1880 and 1920, which coincided with the golden age of fly fishing in America. I have always interpreted this not as historical happenstance, but as creative synchronicity.

I view the Sweetgrass shop as a guild of artisans who share common values through mutual beliefs and communal, co-operative labour that are not only principles of vocation but avocation. Work is not separate from life, but integral to life. As such, the cycle of manual labour includes periods of rest and play–especially fishing

The belief in hand craftsmanship as practiced by the Glenn Brackett and the Booboys stresses the inherent beauty of materials (including Tonkin bamboo) and the importance of work as a meaningful and purposeful process of inherent value. They celebrate the joy of work through work.

The importance of nature that underlies and informs every aspect of the making of a Sweetgrass rod cannot be overstressed. Nature is not only a design principle, but a principle of living which is more essential than a lifestyle choice. A Sweetgrass rod reciprocates its debt and obligation to nature through the ethos of simplicity and integrity, utility and beauty.

Acquiring a Sweetgrass rod would be an extravagance beyond what I had ever spent on any single item, with the exception of cars, houses and orthodontics for my sons. But I knew the rod would be worth every penny—and more. It would be something to cherish, an heirloom.

When my dream of owning a Sweetgrass first took shape, I had no immediate prospects of retirement. I was expecting to work for at least three years beyond ‘normal’ retirement at age sixty-five.

But fate had other plans. A couple of months after giving voice to my dream, the newspaper for which I worked for three decades offered a buyout too good to refuse. As well, my sons Dylan and Robertson had just graduated from university and college.

Sweetgrass Logo

Unbeknownst to me, the stars drifted into alignment when I visited a fly shop located on the tailwater of the Grand River, in southwestern Ontario. I wanted some Cortland 444 double-taper fly line for my Orvis CFO reel to use with my worse-for-wear Granger and Montague bamboo rods.

Before loading the reel, shop owner Ken Collins went into an adjacent room, saying he had something he wanted to show me. I recognized the Sweetgrass insignia on the cap of the cream-coloured tube before he opened it. My mouth opened in surprise. ‘So you know Sweetgrass?’ he asked with a grin. I nodded— idiotically I’m sure.

He released the rod from the sleeve, revealing a blonde, seven-foot, nine-inch, three-piece, five-weight. He assembled it and passed it over. I was gobsmacked. Imagine, I was holding a sweetly singing Sweetgrass. Light, yet supple, it was like an extension of my right arm.

Before leaving I confessed that I could not ignore the synchronicity of the rod finding its way into my hands. Although Ken had been given the rod to sell on his website, he handed me a business card and told me to talk to its owner.

I called a few days later. A devoted outdoorsman, he knew a lot about Sweetgrass. He met Jerry at a Grand River bamboo rod builders’ gathering. He even visited the Sweetgrass shop. He confirmed that Glenn had built the blank—a signature, hollow-fluted, hexagonal classic from a modern master.

I refused to haggle. He quoted an amount, I accepted, recognizing a fair price for a priceless objet d’art. He said he was pleased the rod was going to someone who would appreciate it as ‘a superb fishing instrument’. The agreement was struck ten days after my sixty-fourth birthday and a month after I had waded into the serene waters of retirement. I put a cheque in the mail; however, he insisted I pick up the rod as soon as I was able, confirming there are still agreements between gentlemen within the fellowship of fly anglers.

To see the actual essay check out the April 2020 Sweetgrass Newsletter.

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