Achieving excellence: A fly rod perfectionist

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2013 - 7:05 AM

In our continuing series about everyday people mastering their craft, perfectionist Larry Donahe gets down to the last detail in crafting fly rods.


Larry Donahe, owner of Split Cane Rods in Victoria, makes high-end bamboo fly-fishing rods. Here he wraps parts of the rod in silk thread. A rod can take 50 hours to make and cost $1,500 and up.


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Even though he’s making something quite personal, Larry Donahe doesn’t delve into the psyche of his customers.

He’s already there.

An avid fly fisherman, Donahe clearly envisions himself at a specific trout stream during the painstaking process of splitting, stripping, sanding and varnishing one of the $1,500-plus bamboo fly rods he makes. His nature is simpatico with that of most of his clients, including one in California who sent him the required width for every quarter-inch of a 6-inch handle.

“It’s a very task-oriented deal,” Donahe said of his craft. “There’s tons of tiny little details. When people buy a bamboo rod, they’re buying the person that made the rod.”

Donahe, who builds 20 or so bamboo rods a year at his Victoria home, is a meticulous perfectionist creating something for others of that ilk. “I’ve been called anal many times,” he said, laughing, “and that doesn’t bother me, because I am very detail-oriented.”

That’s why Mike Fischer, owner of Mend Provisions in south Minneapolis, is selling Donahe’s rods.

“Just the detail work, you can tell that he’s a very precise type of person,” Fischer said. “That’s the kind of guy you want making something like this. ”

Scrupulousness is essential when turning a bamboo comb (two, actually, so that the nodes align) into a piece of art that happens to catch fish.

Among the steps that this rod steward undertakes over the three to six months needed to make his particular type of fishing pole: selecting, cutting, splitting, stripping, hand-planing, sanding (five times), varnishing, flaming, dipping, tipping (again, five times), silk-wrapping and on and on.

“There’s a lot of drying time and a lot of downtime,” Donahe said. “I’ll varnish for 20 minutes, then it will need all day to dry.”

The worst part? “Well, I’ve spent a lot of hours in the dipping room with that respirator on,” he said.

But most of the work he loves, especially the woodworking, making sure the silk bands are just right and offering up his wares at three to five shows a year.

His customers return the love.

John Stewart of Jersey City, N.J., owns six Donahe creations. “When you’re talking about that kind of craftsmanship, it’s artwork,” said Stewart. “Any imperfection is going to show very clearly. His rods do not have imperfections.”

They’re also distinctive. “The wraps, they’re unique. The tone is unique,” Stewart said, adding that he can immediately recognize a Donahe rod when he sees or handles one.

Not bad for a guy who made his first rod six years ago.

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