James Beasley is acquiring a national reputation for his wonderful bamboo fly rods built from the heart of Tennessee. (Originally written for the apparently defunct Art of Angling Magazine [who didn’t return my slides], this is Part One in a two-part series)

Bamboo Fly Rod Builder James Beasley
Bamboo fly rod builder James Beasley in his Crossville, TN workshop.

I first spoke to James Beasley more than 11 years ago, and his slow southern drawl and obvious love for bamboo fly rods compelled me order a bamboo fly rod from him at the end of the call. I’d heard glowing reports from Southeastern fly fishers about his interpretation of Paul Young’s highly regarded Perfectionist taper, and as I discovered when the rod was delivered only months later, the rave reviews were well founded.

By tinkering with the famous Young taper, Beasley created a rod that was slightly lighter and quicker than the original — one that was ideal for the small flies and delicate presentations which have recently come into vogue.

Despite its delicacy, the rod still had enough authority to throw long casts.

If the taper was wonderful, the rod itself was sublime. Darkly flamed and cleanly wrapped with a fiery brown, “golden butterscotch” thread, it impressed even at a distance. Up close, the cane work was clean and elegant. In all respects, it was a quality rod and an exceptional fishing tool.

Ten years later, Beasley has become widely known as a builder with a unique feel for Paul Young’s widely loved tapers, and orders for his Young interpretations now pour in. For many builders, this is the rodbuilder’s dream scenario; demand beyond the ability to meet it.

So why does Beasley see this success as both a blessing and a curse?

Beasley’s Background

A retired Methodist Minister who lives in the small town of Crossville, TN (near Nashville), James Beasley’s introduction to rod building came courtesy of cabin fever; in 1974, a long, cold winter drove him to the house of a friend where he learned to hand-plane bamboo rods.

By his own admission, his first rods were heavy and crude, but he learned from his mistakes.

“There aren’t a lot of builders around here to talk to, so I had to make all the beginner’s mistakes. I’ve got disasters hanging all around my shop,” he adds, revealing a dry, understated sense of humor that doesn’t emerge until you know him a little better.

The fact that largely trout-less rural Tennessee is far from bamboo rod building’s spiritual home in New England might have slowed Beasley’s progress, but by the early 90’s, he had become an established regional builder and developed a reputation for crafting quality rods.

The Walt Carpenter Connection

It was then Beasley met Walt Carpenter, a famous New England craftsman whose roots are deeply sunk into the history and tradition of bamboo rod building. Beasley spent a week in Carpenter’s shop, learning to build rods in the classic tradition, something that heavily influences his work today.

An 8.5 5wt Beasley bamboo rod — one of the best 8.5′ rods I’ve cast.

“I learned a lot from Walt,” he said. “What he taught me made a big difference in my rods.”

His ongoing friendship with Carpenter would prove useful when he built his first Perfectionist in the mid-90’s. “It was a very strong rod, a broomstick. You could cast 90 feet with the thing, but it was unpleasant to fish.” He experimented with the taper and consulted Walt Carpenter, whose feedback proved invaluable.

The resulting rod transmits every sensation to the hand, it’s quick without being overbearing, and lays out five feet of line with as much aplomb as 40. In short, it’s the seminal bamboo 7.5′ four weight, and it has fueled Beasley’s reputation as a wizard with Paul Young’s tapers.

Beasley has built dozens of Perfectionists over the last decade, and now has standing orders from a pair of top dealers for as many of the rods as he can produce. In addition, he’s being flooded with orders for his wonderfully refined Paul Young Midge taper and now the Driggs River model, and this popularity has become both a blessing and a curse.

To hand-craft a bamboo fly rod requires 30-50 hours of the builder’s time, so meeting orders for dozens of rods leaves little time for other projects. He’ll build a dozen Perfectionists this year, and when you add demand for the other PHY tapers – and the ongoing demand for his version of the 8′ 5wt Leonard 50DF – not a lot of experimenting gets done.

“I’m happy people like the rods as much as they do,” he says, “but it gets very tedious making the same rod over and over.”

“I would rather experiment with different tapers and techniques, and as demand grows, it gets harder to experiment. I like a challenge – I like to try something different.”

End of Part I. Stay Tuned for Part II