John DeNoma Sr. Rodmaker by Joe Beelart

Originally written by me and some friends 2002-04 for the Virtual Fly Shop, Flyfisherman Magazine Online. Feel free to discuss the series and if you would like to become a member all you have to do is post something. The Cracker Barrel has been published in book form with the limited first edition hard cover sold out and a paperback version will be available early 2011.

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John DeNoma Sr. Rodmaker by Joe Beelart


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Welcome to the Cracker Barrel, last week we brought you the first installment about contemporary makers by Joe Beelart which was about rod maker Chris McDowell.
For those that remember there were 13 Cracker Barrels written by myself and several Bobs (members of the Brothers of Bamboo) on the old VFS Board.
These can be found from this link which is available on my website unfortunately the Cracker Barrel Links do not include the discussions that occurred after the initial posting which often ended up being as informative as the Cracker Barrel post since much discussion followed. The Cracker Barrel was originally formed from ideas posted on the old VFS Board in 2002 and one of those suggestions was for articles about bamboo rods, their makers, history and tapers be presented in such a manner as to be informative and educational.
It would also allow for questions about the postings content to be discussed and as I said often ended up segueing into the next segment or becoming an offshoot of the post. This segment written by Joe is from a day he spent with rod maker John DeNoma Sr. at his shop where he interviewed John about his building rods and rod restorations. As always please feel free to ask questions but in this case if they are directed toward Joe Beelart I can't answer for him directly and will try to direct them to him but cannot guarantee an answer as quickly as I could give you on a subject I can answer to since Joe's job has him traveling a lot. This will be the only real departure for these initial segments and I hope you understand. Well the coffee pot is definitely ready so while I stoke the old pot bellied stove and pour myself a cup why don't I let you enjoy the Cracker Barrel.
John DeNoma, Sr. After one of the more pleasant early morning summer drives I have ever experienced in Willamette Valley back ways, I found my self at John DeNoma, Sr.'s house. It's a nice place made from logs from the family ranch. His home is nestled against a large hill and is well situated with a view of valley fields, tree lines and the Coastal Range, but luckily, no houses or other buildings. John was ready to talk bamboo and other things wild, but first he had to turn off the water to the several birdbaths situated behind the house in the trees. Plump chipmunks scurried about, gleaning birdseed kicked out of feeders by the morning breakfast crowd. Inside the long cabin style house I saw the first bamboo rod of many that morning. On the long wooden kitchen counter was a very big, blond steelhead rod that John had recently made for himself. He said it was finished with epoxy, which is not in the norm of generally accepted bamboo rod finishes. John said he wanted what he felt is the best finish available and since John is one of the master restoration people in the United States; restorer of many, many rods, he's also an authority on finishing. The finish almost was not there. It had no real body of its own, but John assured me that it provided a fine seal to the bamboo, flexed with the rod, was easy to keep clean and would provide many years of service. We went back outside into the critter feeding area. Against a backdrop of green, John assembled the long rod and flexed it just a little while I took several pictures. John is a trim, fit man of 78. He told me his health was good except that a bad knee has kept him from wading as in the old days. Now, he has a small Hobie Craft to use in some waters. His knee must be more of an inconvenience than a problem. He told me that three years ago on the Carter River in Alaska, he caught 100 pink and silver salmon every day, with a 21 pound chum for his big fish of the trip. He gently smiled and also noted he could go out most days fishing near his home, limit and be back in about four hours. I found that John DeNoma, Sr. has lived the outdoor life that many of us dream of. He was raised on the family ranch north of Billings, Montana. Originally, his grandfather had homesteaded in South Dakota, but decided the place to be was Montana, so he moved the family in about 1906. Breaking horses was one of his grandfather's great skills and is continued as a family tradition. In his youth, when the fish were still big, strong, hungry and many, John fished the Gallatin, Madison, Firehole and other famous western rivers. He smiled handsomely thinking of those days. "Yes, I fished them all," he said. Hunting was also a big part of John's early years. He said he's shot more antelope with a 22 than most people have seen. He mentioned that he liked to eat antelope, so I figure that helped his hunting. His first big bore rifle was a Model 97 30-30 that he mail ordered for $12.95. Postage was paid and the company included a box of shells. John figured that was a good bargain even in those years. During WWII, John was in the much-decorated 10th Mountain Division, which trained in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and was battle proven in harsh mainland Italian campaigns. John made a little side trip through the house, inviting me along. He searched one of his several rod racks and presented a nice bamboo rod. John said that was the rod he took to Italy with him. He said he loaned the rod to the company cook and with vigor, encouraged the cook to safe keep it. John allowed himself a small laugh at that memory from so long ago. "In Italy, I caught some big browns with this rod," he said. "Their waters are protected and reserved for the landowners and nobility. They have some good fish over there." John told me that after the War, they had a long-time home near Sequim, Washington on the Dungeness River and not far from Puget Sound. The family lived off a bounty of clams, crabs and salmon from the river and sound. He pointed to a framed advertising picture of a Boeing 747. Below the plane was water and shore. John pointed to a light colored building. "That was our house," he said with pleasure in his voice. The white speck was on the river and near a huge spit running out into the Sound, a perfect place to harvest the waters. I could imagine a boat moored at the house dock, but not exactly what kind of boat. It really doesn't matter. John said he's always has had good luck fishing. One reason might be that he ties all his own flies. Another might be that he is genuinely enthusiastic about the sport and has spent hours, days, weeks, months and years in piscatorial pursuits. John said he is a member of "The 1,000 Sport Caught Salmon Club" in Washington, which leads one to wonder how many really big fish the man has caught in his life. He said his absolutely most astounding luck was one day on Diamond Lake in the central Oregon Cascades. He and his sons try to go there for a week of fishing every year. One day, John said he was casting two #16 black drakes in a drop leader arrangement. In 13 consecutive casts, he caught two fish. That's right reader - I had to ask him again myself - 13 consecutive casts with two 10" fish on per cast, truly a remarkable fishing experience. For the record, this spectacular incident occurred just at dusk. The fish were of the hatchery persuasion traveling in a school. They succumbed to the forces of John's favorite 7 ½' 4 weight bamboo rod.
Bamboo As John told me about some of his adventures, he showed me bamboo rods taken from small racks along a hallway in the house. Among the shafts of bamboo there were pictures of his family, small mementos and on top of the racks old fly reels. I think they weren't collected old fly reels; some still had old lines on them, lines dimmed and faded with time. I saw none of the collector vom Hofe variety. Rather, I suspect they were reels he had used, his wife or sons had used, or that were gifts from fishermen he had known. Undoubtedly each had a story, but this was not the time for that. John said he had managed to gather together about 60 old bamboo rods over the years, for none of which he paid cash money. He said he was a pretty good horse trader and that some just came to him through the course of friendships or like manner. He said he wanted a bamboo rod when he was young and finally when he was 15 or 16 years old, he bought some bamboo, made a planing form and constructed his first bamboo rod. John was born in 1924, so that made the year about 1940. He described it as a 9' steelhead special, which he used in Washington waters because he was going to school in Seattle.John said that he had a wooden 18' Old Town canoe when he was going to the University. He said that on Friday nights, he and a friend would haul the canoe, their rods and packs down to the highway near school. They'd accept a ride to anywhere there was water and on Sunday afternoon, they would make their way back to Seattle. He said that wherever they showed up with that canoe, someone would help the out. Sometime after WWII, he also received a special rod as a gift in Seattle. John knew Eddie Bauer. Shortly after John married Dagnie, Eddie gave him "a very fine, a beautiful" Phillipson Pacific model bamboo boat rod which received many days of good use. He said he was always impressed with Eddie Bauer's old shop, partially because of the huge polar bear mount near the entrance. John says there are a lot of beautiful old rods about and that simple things keep them well: carefully pull the ferrules apart, wipe off both the shaft and guides, case them and preferably lay them flat, but an upright position will also suffice if properly done. Casually, John mentioned that in her youth, his mother, Fay Talaga, worked for the Fred Devine Rod Co. He said the Devine family sent him two exceptional four piece 7 ½' rods for restoration some years ago. They were pleased with the results and offered him the second rod as a reward for his work. John said that he could not accept such a gift and the matter was finally and successfully resolved by donating the second rod to a Connecticut fly fishing museum. As a personal preference, John said he's spent time working with Leonard's tapers and considers them good. But, he said that he thinks Garrison's tapers are better. He also mentioned that he feels there's a need for a book on Leonard's tapers simply due to their popularity. He then went into his study at the rear of the house and shortly emerged with his mother's bamboo rod maker's book, Frazer's 1908 "Rodmaking for Beginners." The book showed use with the utmost of care. I sometimes work with rare books. This volume had both the feeling of both rarity and the connection of love between mother and son. There was no inscription. The small gray volume was an exceptional item to examine. Not surprisingly, at first perusal, it held no astonishingly revelatory information about bamboo rod making. The diagrams were about the same as in new books. The chapter headings were similar to the modern; yet, for a select group of men with a peculiar interest, this small volume would be the stuff of important reading. John led me out along the deck. It was a pleasant place, looking toward the bird feeding area and protected from the afternoon sun by the house. He told me it was one of his and his wife's favorite places, especially for lunch. Dagnie, his wife is Norwegian and they both enjoy eating fish. In fact, in proudly subdued wording, he described his family as "fish eaters," in the healthiest sense of those words. When the weather was right, as it was much of the time, he and Dagnie enjoy an afternoon meal of cheese, smoked salmon or trout and crackers on their deck. To this end, John told me he had already smoked 50 fish this year. We went down and around the house to the second level and John's shop. My eyes were immediately drawn to the far end of the room where there was a river rock base and backing for a "real" pot bellied stove. John said the stove was brought into the family in 1863 Ohio. (Correct date?) It was a beautiful piece of iron, a partially nickel-plated #116. John said it made the room warm and used little wood. Hanging near the stove is a rack of cowboy hats, some well used, some for dressing up. Also near the stove is John's big sturdy wooden workbench, which in turn, sits next to a large window. In front of the work bench, with plenty of operation space and again next to a large window is his wrapping machine. Tactically arranged around the room were classic chests full of the things he needed to work bamboo rods and tie flies. Suspended from the ceiling was a wide rod storage rack. Many of the exposed rods were made of fiberglass or graphite. Important ones, including most of his bamboo rods were protected in metal and plastic tubes. Restoration John is not a bamboo purist. He said he knows several people in the rod business and that over the years, they've send him graphite rod samples for "real" field-testing. He looked up at the rack, rolled a rod or two and then carefully tilted, lifted and pulled down an example. He said it was one of six original Orvis graphite blanks sent to him many years ago. After wrapping them in the manner he wished, he tested them. He said no more about graphite, and no less. Then he said something that surprised me. "One of my greatest enjoyments," he said, "is when people give me good old glass fly rods." He paused. "I fix them up, gather together some old fly reels and lines that cost me a dollar or two and give them to kids." Of course, he very much likes to restore suitable bamboo for his youth donations, but suitable rods are in short supply. They need to be close to the 7 ½' 4-weight variety sought by collectors. At the rate of about 6 a year, John sends his restored kid's rods to a Lions club in Washington. He especially likes it when they are given to handicapped children. John says he wants the kids to use the rods and he sends instructions to carefully wipe the rod after each use and to wipe the fly line before they put the rod away for the season. His eyes beamed as he told me these things. For grown ups, John does his restoration work and asks for nothing. He says that his services are negotiable and that most people are more than fair. He receives his restoration projects through word-of-mouth, with many coming from California. Then, he pointed to a variety of laid out rods. He said an unknown Kansas man sent him a pack of 10 rods and a letter wondering if he could do anything with them. Of course John could do something with all or several of them, so they reached a suitable agreement. John showed me the rods, telling me a little about each one. I found the depth of his knowledge obvious and impressive. He said a J.C. Higgins model 3034 that came in the group especially amazed him. He said when he first examined it, he knew it was a quality rod, but he had no idea it was a mass market Higgins rod because layers of crud covered the label. When he finished stripping the rod he was surprised by its "very excellent" construction. Unfortunately, who made the rod, when and under what agreement with Higgins will always remain a mystery. John said he is very careful to try and preserve whatever markings or labels are on the rods he restores. The J.C. Higgins label was an example of his careful conservation techniques. Minor age effects aside, the label was crisp to my untrained eye. John attempts to wrap according to the ways of the original manufacturer. His primary and invaluable reference is a large paperback book by Mike Sinclair, "The Bamboo Rod Restoration Handbook." We spent a little time with the book. John said it contains a wealth of information on original manufacturer's specifications and that only a love of bamboo rods could have driven Sinclair to compile such a work. One of the Kansas rods caused us to look up the digest material in Sinclair's book. There was a possibility it was made of turn of the century Calcutta cane. The book said Calcutta type cane was very susceptible to field insect damage, wormholes, and was often a light ivory color interspersed with dark patches. The book noted that Tonkin cane has a total absence of wormholes. The rod was made of Calcutta cane. John showed me the wrapping section in the Sinclair book. He said that proper silks are hard to find, especially variegated varieties. He said he manages to get a few spools here and there, for rather extraordinary prices. He said the old product is more readily available in England, but that they want to export spools by the gross and he has rarely had a need for 144 spools of any thread. John quietly laughed at his little joke.Sitting back in his chair, John talked a little about restoration. He said that not many people are interested in doing it. He teaches fly tying and fly-casting and receives students with much interest. However, he said, he's encountered little interest in restoration classes, even though there are many good quality rods that need the work. He said restoration takes time and care, especially when using stripping fluids. When he's doing restorations, John said he spends about six hours a day in his shop and that time on rods vary widely. John was very careful to impress me with one important part of restoration, the guides. He tries to recover the original guides and to that end, he has a rotating drum, like a rock hound polishing drum, to clean them in fine triangular sand. He says the sand cleans and in some instances, dissolves encrusted deposits. He is very careful to preserve all the guides he can, especially from rods that are damaged beyond restoration, or aren't worth restoration. He removed other boxes from his supply shelves and showed me nickel-silver guides from the 1880's. He also has a store of old agate-lined, folding and trumpet guides. As he was showing me the guides, he noticed I was looking at a long vicious scar above his left thumb. John sat down behind his work desk, placed the guide box back in its proper place and told me that was an original fly fisherman's scar. It was a sorry story that he told about that scar. John was fishing on the Skykomish River north of Seattle. He hooked up a nice 18# steelhead. Another angler became intensely agitated about the prospect of fishing the pool and worked his way near John, who was still fighting the fish. He cast and buried a 2 ought hook deep into John's hand. Knowing proper priorities, John broke the interloper's line and landed his fish. Then, they couldn't pull the hook out with pliers. It was impaled in the bone. The "angler" was apologetic, but to what purpose? Always one to make the best of a situation, John called his doctor and they met at the doctor's office. The doctor had to do some big cutting to get to the hook and remove it. John said that afterward, they drank a dram of good scotch and talked fly-fishing into the evening. John said he had many of the usual accidents experienced by long-time fishermen, his hat and glasses had been pulled off, hooks had been buried in his skin and on his clothes, but that was the worst incident he encountered. Then he laughed. He showed me his watch. It was a modest watch that showed the burnishing of years of good service. He and Dagnie were fishing the Cedar River in Washington. They decided to cross to a better spot just up from a little waterfall. John took the awkward stuff, the things that might make one slip and fall into the cold, rushing waters. He thought to give Dagnie his watch and he asked her to not let it get wet. That's right gentle reader; the last he saw of her and the fish basket was her hand way up in the air as she went over the falls. When the running, calling and sloshing was over, she proudly proclaimed, "It didn't get WET!" Quotes on Restoration John told me many things that morning, too many of which, I didn't or couldn't note as the information was flowing like a freshet stream. I did carefully write out three quotes to his approval, which may reveal a little about bamboo rod restoration. Here they are: "After a while, you get to know if they stepped on it with the right foot or left." "If it broke on the same side as the guides, you know damn well it was not broken by a fish." "I just enjoy doing it. That's the main thing." Rods and Flies By now, I was simply tired out from trying to pay proper attention and taking good notes. John figured that out. He suggested showing me some things interesting. First, from the overhead rack, he took down a large rod case and extracted a long rod, which assembled into what was really a long rod. It was an early Loomis fiberglass 15' spey rod that John called "The Whip." The thing was, well, long in the room. Real long. It was flexible too. John said something about taking it outside, but the plan was foiled. Outside was a nice doe down at the deer feeder in the front pasture. He didn't want to scare her. He said others would follow, but that he was surprised they were out so late in the morning. Next, he led me a few steps to a chest under the rod-binding machine. He slid open one drawer. In it were a few reel cases, not a lot of reel cases for a man of his experience, but to some people, probably enough. Reaching for two large reel cases, he said, "Most of the things I use are in this cabinet." One of the big reels was a Lamson and the other was a Loop. They were loaded with fly line and were clean, but showed use. John said these were the reels he used on his spey rods to try and catch stripers down at Coos Bay. He said he never landed one, that there was no way to stop them from winding a line around a piling. He said he was going to keep on trying, that it was an exciting fishery much overlooked. Looking up, out the window, we saw a nice forked horn buck had joined the doe in the pasture. She had moved down to the casting pond for a drink. He was munching at the feeder, cautious, but not too skittery. These animals were pets; they acted and felt like pets, just like the deer down at my parent's house, but they were still wild animals that had to care for their own safety. Opening the next drawer down, I saw a neatly arranged group of fly boxes. Intuitively, I knew the flies were carefully organized by use. They were. As John opened one box after another, he told a little story, not a long story, but a little story about each type of fly. In each box, there were many carefully arranged flies on one side. Most looked fresh. On the other side were fewer flies and some of these showed service. John explained that when he caught a fish, the fish catching fly went on the less crowded side of the box. John said he had never bought a fly in his life. I said I bought all of mine and received just a hint of a look, maybe not even a hint, maybe it was just a telepathic caution that not tying your own flies was not the way to correctly do things in a proper fly fishing world. It was a mellow message, a message that said I missed something from my time on the water if I didn't make the little extra effort to tie my own flies. Perhaps, it was a little message about understanding the insect's trout eat, when and why. It was a kind feeling, something to help me, nothing else. John opened a box of colorful steelhead flies, and then we looked at a small green English box filled with must have been a hundred tiny flies John had tied. "May I borrow them for photographs?" "Yes." What an honor. We went back outside and upstairs. John asked me if I had a few more minutes. "Of course." He went off down the hall into his study. He brought back two rod bags. In them, John said were the oldest rods he owned. One was a fantastic bamboo rod with the old style wraps, fold down guides, screw type ferrules and the circular stack handle. John said it was an English rod from about 1879. The rod was beautiful, a fine piece of work that had to have both pleased it's first owner and also inspired much desire to go to river or lake and catch many big fish. The second rod was a dark old wooden fly rod, made from greenheart with a ribbed wooden grip. It had trumpet guides firmly wrapped and an odd triangular tiptop. How old was it? Where was the rod made? What kind of fish was it to tire? Were cane rods available to the buyer? Was the wood more economical? Did it wear well? Difficult questions to answer, those were. But, I didn't ask. John DeNoma, Sr. had tired me out. While I looked again at one of the two tip sections of his steelhead rod, the blond one with the epoxy finish, Dagnie came by. We were introduced. She was very trim, with a big smile, interested in the stranger in her home and his business but she on her way to do something. Like a wisp, she was gone. It was time to go home. On my way down John's drive, I stopped by the casting pool. A great blue heron was standing in the shallows, rigid and tall. He seemed at home. With a little tolerance, he allowed me to take a few pictures, but then decided he had enough intrusion on his privacy. Serial Numbers John maintains a detailed log build of bamboo rods he has made and of those he has restored. On his own rods, John's favorite wrappings are a modest orange with black tipping. He also uses green variegated thread with red or silver tipping. Occasionally, he has tipped in gold. He uses a simple identification system for the rods he makes. On one hex, he signs his name in an easy to read, sweeping black script. Using the 9' steelhead rod as an example, he notes 9' and 10-11 weight on another hex. The serial number is on another hex. It shows the month/year of the rod (5/98) and the rod number of the year/month (3/1). Contact: John DeNoma, Sr.
39105 Military Road
Monmouth, OR 97361
Well the old coffee pot is empty, as Bob Corsetti always says at the end of his catalog, and I'm packing one of my pipes to await your questions and comments. Thanks for asking for the Cracker Barrel and I hope you'll join us next week for the final segment from Joe Beelart which profile maker Roger Fairfield. Please stay tuned because I have it on pretty good authority that one of the forums writers is braving the elements on snowshoes to visit a maker who has worked with a past master and worked with bamboo for almost 50 years….


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