By Kyle Kirves
The shingle outside reads South Creek Limited. The gold stenciled lettering on the glass of the small, unassuming storefront on Main Street in Lyons names the store again, as well as proprietor Michael D. Clark. It also spells out his craft and trade: handmade custom bamboo fly rods.
Inside, the shop is equal parts showroom and workshop, and entering could bring tears of joy to riverfolk who didn’t think places like this existed anymore – places their grandfathers might have sought out. Up front in glass and darkwood cases are all the tools of the flyfisher’s trade: reels, lines, flies from renown flytiers and books by established fishing writers. The walls are lined with racks of bamboo rods, some South Creek’s own and some from other craftsmen who still ply the bamboo trade in the graphite era. Sticks of raw bamboo stand near the door in bundles, curing and degreening right in the shop. Artist renderings of trout and other game fish add natural color.
But the workshop in back is where the real work gets done. Here Clark handcrafts each bamboo fly rod that bears the South Creek name, a trade he’s practiced since 1979. Entirely self-taught, Clark got into the craft because, well, necessity is the mother of invention.
“I was working in the construction industry and I decided I wanted a bamboo rod,” he says in his laconic way. “I was married and had a kid. Had a house payment. And there just wasn’t the money to buy one. So, I thought I’d just build one.”
The first attempts, he admits, were flawed. They were like “broomsticks,” he said. But with time, he learned the materials, began understanding tapers and improved incrementally, until, fortuitously, fate came knocking on the door. Or rather, walking into the garage.
“Guy come walking into my garage one day where I was working and asked me how much one of my rods went for. I thought, ‘You mean I can sell these things?’” he said, chuckling. “That was the beginning of that.”
Clark describes himself as a manufacturer or a craftsman, and his shop is emblematic of that profession. On a workbench that commands the room, his steel planning form is calibrated to grade out the various sections of the bamboo to precisely the right measurements.
Pointing to the planning form with a caliper that he uses to tune it, Clark said, “You can see here that it’s set to 30 one thousandths here, 79 one thousandths here. This one should be 58 but it’s measuring 59. Need to adjust that.”
To call it precise is an understatement. Clark’s dedication to quality production is evidenced in his willingness to scrap a rod that doesn’t measure up.
“If it doesn’t test right on the water, it goes right into the garbage can,” he said.
Asked for favorite stories about custom requests, Clark tells of a father requesting two duplicate rods for his two sons from the same materials as those put into his own rod years ago, creating a trio of family heirlooms. Or the customer who sent him a block of wood from an apple tree which, for years, had stood outside his family home. The wood will be fashioned into the spacers and wood accents on a new rod.
My personal favorite is about a gent from the United Kingdom who had his accents, spacers, stripper, and ferrule covers all wrought from a block of jade.
In the winter, when there’s ice on the water and in the air itself sometimes, Front Range flyfishers can be short on fishing, but long on storytelling.
He smiles and says, “They just want to swill coffee and tell lies.”
During those chilly months of more fishy tales than fish, Clark changes his shop hours to concentrate fully on production.
Clark estimates he’s hand crafted more than a thousand rods in his career, averaging 30 to 40 per year now. At any given time, about seven rods are in the various stages of planning, gluing, polishing or refining. The demand is high, as is the wait: ask for a rod today and it will be ready in about three years.
But then fishing is often all about waiting. Waiting for the right season, the right hatch, the right cast in the right place, and the rise of a fish to the right fly. Waiting for the right fly rod made at the hands of Mike Clark just seems right, too.
Kyle Kirves is a solid dude who believes drinking beer should be a five-senses experience.