Made in Colorado 2016: Michael Clark
He expects to ship his 1,000th rod by year's end
bamboo fly-rod maker
South Creek Ltd., Lyons
After serving in the military, Michael Clark moved to Lyons to get away from the crowds in Denver. “Too big, too much, just too many people,” says the 68-year-old Lakewood native.
Lyons had less chaos, plus one very important lure: “It had a river in it,” Clark says.
So he moved there and started working as a construction superintendent before his career making premium fly rods took root in 1979.
“I wanted a bamboo rod and couldn’t afford one, so I made one of my own,” Clark says.
He made a few more for friends before he sold one in 1982. “One day, a guy wandered into my garage and said, ‘How much?’ It kind of baffled me: ‘I could sell these?’”
He went full-time in 1988, moved into a shop on Main Street in 1990 and expects to ship his 1,000th rod by the end of 2016. He worked solo until 1998, when Kathy Jensen joined him doing silk work and helping manage a growing backlog of orders, especially impressive considering Clark’s poles now sell for about $3,000.
As Clark earned an international reputation, the wait-time for one of his rods grew from three years to six years by 2008, and South Creek stopped taking orders for four years. When it restarted in 2012, the operation was deluged with 88 orders – about twice the annual capacity. “Back in the hole,” laughs Clark.
The ordering process starts with an interview, and the first question is, “Have you ever fished with bamboo?”
If the answer is no, Clark advises them to try a bamboo rod and get back with him. If the response is affirmative, he digs into their fishing style and locale to determine the taper of the pole, the stiffness of the tip, and other features. “I can tweak a taper to make it do what the client wants,” Clark says.
Then he makes the pole with Tonkin bamboo cane imported from China, exotic woods, and nickel silver hardware.
The Tonkin bamboo “has a tensile strength stronger than steel,” Clark says, but nonetheless only a fraction cut the mustard for his purposes. After finding suitable sticks, he meticulously crafts the tapered pole from six equilateral triangles of cane and glues them into a singular rod.
Clark has five to seven orders under construction at any time, and it usually requires 10 or more weeks after the initial interview to complete and ship one.
“I learned from books in 1979,” he says. “There was no Internet, but there was a library. Reading is great, but you don’t get that feel for it until you’re hands-on.”
But backlog be damned, work sometimes takes a back seat to throwing a line in the St. Vrain River. “Okay, it’s 4 o’clock – get your waders and we’ll go fish for a couple hours,” says Clark of his and Jensen’s approach. “You get rid of this electronic hum that’s all around us all the time.
“Fish don’t give a damn if it’s plastic or bamboo, or how much it costs,” he adds. “If you’re out there fishing and having fun and catching fish, that’s what it’s all about.”