Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Don Robb, Pennsylvania's Cantankerous Old Rod Maker

I'm sick so I'm putting up some stuff I've been meaning to run for a few months. Here's an article about Don Robb, a rodmaker from Pennsylvania who was making split cane rods in Ligonier, Pennsylvania before World War II and was still at it in 1981 when this short article came out. I love how grizzled he seems in this interview. And, I'd not heard much about how the Japanese invasion affected the Tonkin cane crop. Anyone with any info on that? The article was an unattributed wire report from the A.P. dated May 31, 1981.


LIGONIER. Pa. (AP) — World War II messed up the fly rod business for Don Robb, who was making magnificent fishing gear before the Japanese overran China.

"I haven't made a bamboo rod for a long time. They're not worth messing with," said Robb. "The best bamboo came from pre-war China. Kwangsi and Kwangtung provinces. The Japanese ruined things when they overran the place in 1936."

But Robb, who gives his age as "75 plus," has learned to bend with the times. His tackle shop is crowded with meticulously crafted fly rods and home-spun philosophy.

In a recent interview, he talked while he worked. Spring and the opening of Pennsylvania's trout season had brought a flood of orders. "I'm always three or four months behind, which keeps me busy during the winter. But at a time like this, my! Everyone has the fever. Some of them, why you'd swear they weren't going to survive." he said.

He took a new rod outside and talked as he cast with different reels to find the best weight line for the rod. "Fly fishing is different than bait casting or spin casting in that there, all the weight is on the end of your tine. Here, you depend on the weight of the line itself"

He handed over the twitching, black graphite rod. It seemed to have a life of its own. The price? "One hundred and five bucks. That's rod, reel, line, reel bag and rod case."

Is that a bargain?


Are the high-priced rods worth it?


What type rods are the best?

"Just whatever suits you."

Back inside, he worked surrounded by racks of lures, line and hooks, stacks of material for making flies — among them marabou, english grouse, emu and ostrich plumes. Bundles of graphite rod blanks stood in racks on the floor like sheaths of dry grass.

A hand-lettered sign warned those who entered: "No lookers. There is no time to spare for just lookers."

His spare time is very limited; not so his reputation.

"I've had rods (ordered) in 40 states, four provinces in Canada, two each in England. Ireland. Scotland and Wales and two countries in South America." Robb said. "You see my rods get a little more traveling than I do."

His clientele, however, is not large. For some families. Robb is making and repairing rods for the third generation of anglers. Would-be customers are routinely turned away.

"I don't want any publicity," he said. "I got more work than I can do already."

Robb works mostly with graphite, sometimes with fiberglass, but not with bamboo. The reason, he said, is a lack of good bamboo. Among the areas conquered by the Japanese in the 1930s was a 25-square-mile patch in China believed to be the world's only source of Tonkin cane. Of more than 1,000 species of bamboo, it is coveted above all others for making fly rods. Rod makers have scoured the world in vain trying to find another source.

Modern China resumed exporting Tonkin cane, but the quality of the crop hasn't been the same.

-- Dr. Todd

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