Set in a nondescript back lot in a slowly revitalizing western Massachusetts factory town, Marc Aroner has been crafting some of the finest bamboo fly fishing rods in the world for more than 30 years.
In a sport where the vast majority of implements are now made from cheaper and faster to manufacture graphite and fiberglass, Aroner is a holdover from another time, the bearer of a legacy of unparalleled handiwork and design.
Every aspect of his rods is crafted from raw materials by his own handiwork, from reel seats to the metal ferrules that fit the multi-piece rods together, to hand-polished, mirror-finish metal cases.
As fly fishing gains in popularity, capturing the hearts and imaginations of a new generation of angler and showing unprecedented growth, it’s no wonder that, as familiarity wit the sport grows, so does interest with these most arcane and specialized implements.
Some people go there just to say they went there—the collectors and braggarts—and some are looking for that penultimate experience. A $5,000 custom bamboo rod is not for the faint of heart, or passion.
Even amongst bamboo models, there are hierarchies. Since so much of the personality of each rod is an abstract, it could be argued that there is no “best” craftsperson.
Fly fishing’s Nike, Orvis, makes a wonderful bamboo pole, and the reboot of the heritage Leonard Rod Company also has finely crafted offerings.
But if you really want to go deep, and if you’re shelling out the equivalent of the down payment on an Audi, why wouldn’t you go to one of the wizards.
A select few, who learned their craft at the hands of giants and have honed it for more years than most new fishermen have been alive, such as Jim Reams, who has been at for two decades, or Virginia’s Rick Robbins, 35 years deep and maker of ridiculously delicate trout rods.
But even among these men, Aroner is a standout. In an impossible to quantify ranking, Aroner is a rod builder’s rod builder: a wizard among wizards, with obsessive attention to detail, peerless craftsmanship, and more fish stories than your local Barnes and Noble.
Asked to describe the feel of his rods, Aroner spins into a yarn, about making an uncharacteristically short and stout model for his own use, perfecting the design over years of trial and error on his annual fishing trip to Canada in search of steelhead salmon.
His laidback demeanor quickly vanishes as he describes in intense, action-packed detail how he would land fish after fish whilst fly fishing luminaries, or at least lifers, who had possibly looked down their noses at his non-traditional pole, stood aghast and unable to get a bite.
The moral of Aroner’s story seems to be that while every rod is different, it’s more the arm behind the rod than anything. But that could just be my takeaway. One thing such a finely crafted tool does is spark the imagination. You can’t hold one of his pieces without imagining a swirling hatch and leaping fish: It’s a part of the magic
His rods themselves, multi-piece products that average between 7 and 9 feet in length when assembled, taper to impossibly fine points, especially when one considers they’re made from six separate pieces of bamboo, split from a single cane and fused back together to create a desired strength and flex.
A throwback to fly fishing’s tweed-bedecked history of the upper crust on private trout streams, each of Aroner’s custom creations will fetch nearly $5,000 new, and not much less used.
Even if you can pony up the cash, you’re looking at a long wait, as he can only make between 10 and 12 of his highly sought after implements a year.
Walking through the door of Aroner’s workspace, you’re immediately greeted by a dizzying array of machinery, from lathes to grinders to joiners, all of them hailing conspicuously from the middle of the last century, overbuilt metal monsters as meticulously designed as the items they’re made to create.
At one point Aroner nearly cackles with glee showing me how one of them, nearly 75 years old and once “so expensive only the government could afford to buy them,” would trim pieces of metal so precisely his digital micrometer wouldn’t register variations between samples.
Stuffed and stacked and leaned amongst these contraptions are pieces of bamboo, both sliced into slender plies and in great, log-like poles. Chunks of metal in assorted states of fabrication, fishing rods in various states of decay and repair, photographs, books, CDs and cassettes, notes, and more handtools than your local Home Depot has round things out, or, rather, fill them in.
It’s cluttered in a way that speaks to three decades of collection and work, but also chaotically organized. I hold no doubt that Aroner could, through sheer muscle memory and instinct, find anything he was looking for instantly.
Aroner got his start in the bamboo rod game in the early 1970s, after a fortuitous accident landed him at what would become one of the most respected rod building shops of all time. It definitely wasn’t a part of his original plan.
“I had a BFA in art education,” he explains. “They were turning out 50 people for every job opening, so I was I was working in a local machine shop and fishing a lot. I broke the tip on my fiberglass rod, and somebody said there was an older gentleman in Greenfield who could fix it. He had sold his business a couple months before to two younger gentlemen, one was named Thomas Dorsey and one was named Thomas Maxwell, and they called their company Thomas & Thomas.”
Aroner was blown away by the pair’s work.
“I was so impressed by what they were doing, which looked like a combination of art and technology-oriented, machine-tooled craftsmanship,” he says, a bit of wonder still in his voice. “I ended up asking them for a job. And much to my surprise they called me and asked me to come back in. We worked out something where I signed five-year apprenticeship papers with them.”
Aroner worked for Thomas & Thomas for almost six years, before following one of the Thomases to join the equally-esteemed Leonard Rod Company, which was the oldest in the country at the time.
“That was an interesting contrast in different techniques,” he laughs, continuing, “which, fortunately, I was able to pick what I wanted from.”
After honing his skills for another three or four years, Aroner struck out on his own, first in a partnership with Thomas Maxwell, and then flying solo. It’s at this point that luck smiled on him. Leonard Rods, his former workplace, had run afoul of the IRS, who were auctioning off everything.
Naturally, Aroner attended.
“It was pretty stunning,” he says, his face looking bemused in the retelling, even now. “Basically, I was expecting the room with the equipment to go for many thousands of dollars. And they started the bidding at $5, and were going up at $5 increments. And it went to somebody in the crowd twice at $250, and I hadn’t bid yet, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is crazy.’ So I threw my arm up in the air and yelled out ‘$350.’ The auctioneer must have thought I’d gotten carried away or something, and just went ‘Going once, going twice,’ ‘bam!’ As fast as he could. And so I bought the entire contents of the room.”
Aside from a shop’s worth of machines, tools, and bamboo, Aroner also convinced the IRS representatives to give him the contents of a warehouse across the street, which held more tools, parts, and more bamboo, all at no extra cost.
“If I went out and bought all of this new, you’re talking easily $75,000 worth of stuff at the time,” he says, his bearded face lighting up with a huge smile. “It was an extraordinary stroke of luck, and, as somebody said, ‘It’s just like the hand of God reached out and touched you in the crowd.’”
Using his newfound equipment and materials, Aroner went about making rods the way he felt they should be, drawing on his combined experience and own aesthetic tastes.
“I set out to make the best rods that I possibly could,” he says. “I’ve always pursued making everything inhouse, all the ferrules, reel seats, everything. And not only did it give me much better artistic control, but much better quality control, and I could make things the way that I wanted them.”
It’s a meticulous process, and since bamboo is a plant, every stalk is a different animal, so to speak, and perfect specimens can be hard to find. Aroner has a life’s work’s supply that he’s traded, bid, and hustled for, much of it older than he is.
“In about 1952 or ’53, when the communists took over China, we instituted an embargo on their products,” he notes as he gestures to the dusty round butts of bamboo that stick out all over his shop. “So that shut off the supply of bamboo coming into the country at the time. I think there’s a considerable quality difference between what you saw then and what you see now.”
Since each stalk is split and then re-joined on a much smaller scale, with the intention of maximizing and customizing flex and strength, a careful eye is run over each specimen.
“You want straightness, as wide a spacing in the nodes as possible,” Aroner points to the round joints in the bamboo with a gnarled finger. “You want the nodes as small as possible, you don’t want rotten spots, you don’t want a lot of water marks. You want high density, which would be a lot of weight vs. the diameter.”
Once he’s found and cut his raw materials, the actual rod is constructed using a series of mathematic equations coupled with sheer experience to control the feel of the rod, an important factor that describes both the casting speed and other, less definable characteristics known in the vernacular as a rod’s “touch.”
Because every piece of bamboo is different, every rod is as well. Though he does offer a variety of standard sizes, each individual rod will have its own personality. And Aroner has a record of each and every one that he’s made, and then some.
“I keep track of the dimensions of very single rod that goes out the door,” he says, pointing to a sheaf of papers with batches of numbers scrawled on them. “I’ve got a library of that, plus rods made at Leonard and Thomas & Thomas.”
This attention to detail is one of the things that keeps his waiting list long. Recently, there has been more and more interest in making bamboo rods, and some schools—usually just one instructor and some classes—have cropped up, but very, very few have the same experience, pedigree, and obsession with detail as Aroner does.
His rods have become the ultimate collector’s item in a sport known for its collectors, adorning the walls of well-to-do fly fishermen around the world.
“I went down South not to long ago to bid on a rod I had built that was at auction,” Aroner explains, noting that he thought he’d get it for a deal and then sell it via the used rod section of his website. “But bidding started high, and just went higher. There was no way I could afford it. Couldn’t afford it! My own rod.”
While he happily takes the wealthy fishermen’s money, Aroner has a soft spot for the people who specifically buy his rods to fish with.
“The blue-collar people who buy them who can’t afford them, who buy them to fish, they’re the best,” Aroner says. “They’re making a purchase out of pure passion.” He pauses. “Passion, after all, is what it’s all about.”