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.

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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.

Photo: RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII • rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com,

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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.

Q: How did you come to do this?

A: I kind of merged a woodworking passion and a fly-fishing passion. I found a three-day class in 2007. [Instructor] Daryll Whitehead asked me upfront, “Do you want to build one rod, or do you want to build a lot of rods?” And I said, “I don’t know. Let me do one first.” Once I got into it and started to make my own rod, I was hooked.

Q: Did you have mentors?

A: Daryll and Chet Croco, who taught the course with him. A lot of my attention to detail comes from those guys, because they demanded it. When I’d go up to Daryll with a rod and I’d show it and I’d think, “I’m proud of this,” and he’d sit there smoking his pipe. And he’d look at it and finally he looks at me and says, “Do you want to cut it off or do you want me to cut it off?” Even today, I can still hear him saying that to me.

Q: What kind of special skills does this take?

A: I think the main skill is the ability to use tools — hand tools. Even though bamboo is technically a grass, it looks and works like wood. So if you have woodworking skills, carpenter skills, that will translate over.

And being detail-oriented. If someone is paying $1,500 or $2,000 on a rod, they want it to look nice. They want it to fish well, but they also want it to look good. If you have gaps, if your varnish isn’t perfect, if you have runs or bubbles, cat hair, dog hair, whatever, they’re going to walk right past your booth.

Q: How has being a master builder affected your life?

A: When you become proficient at any skill, you can take the self-confidence to other parts of your life. And the patience. When you make a bamboo rod, it’s not start Monday, give it to you Friday. It’s start Monday, give it to you in three months. And I think that does help you become a better father, and in any area of life where you need patience.

Q: Are there sacrifices?

A: Yeah. The easiest one is sacrificing my time to fish. I used to fish a lot more before I started doing this. I’ve also sacrificed income. And maybe just freedom, because it takes a lot of time to make a bamboo rod. I spend a lot of time in my basement or dipping room when I could be doing something else. But because I enjoy it so much, it’s not as much of a sacrifice.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643



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