By Fred Kretchman
An 8-foot Gillum bamboo fly rod brought to the author for his appraisal. Photo courtesy of Fred Kretchman.
The phone call began with a familiar theme: “Hello, Fred. My name is John. I was referred to you by Bill at North Country Anglers. He said you could help me out. I have my dad’s old bamboo fly rod, and I’m wondering what it’s worth and how I might go about selling it. Can you help me?”
I hear this type of question frequently, often at shows or presentations where I talk about crafting bamboo rods. It seems as though almost everyone knows someone with an old rod (or a bunch of them) in the closet, but few have any clue as to what they have. The value of vintage bamboo rods can be measured in different ways, financially and sentimentally, so my first questions relate to the history of the rod: Has it been in the family? If so, how long? Is there a maker’s name on the rod? What do you intend to do with it: fish it, display it, or stow it away in the closet?
On the phone, John explained that his father lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and knew a man named Gillum who made this fly rod for him in 1962. My ears perked up with that information, since Harold “Pinky” Gillum had a reputation for making high-quality bamboo rods. John said his father rarely fished this rod, so he considered the condition to be excellent. Toward the end of our conversation, I recommended that John bring the Gillum to my shop on his way to York, Maine. I advised him that he not take any offers on the rod, even if someone offered him $1,000, because this rod was worth a lot more money than that.
A few weeks later, John and his wife stopped by my shop, 8-foot Gillum rod in hand. It was just as he described: barely any soiling on the cork handle, the original bag and tube with the original paper label intact. What a find! They both peppered me with questions about Mr. Gillum, as well as what I thought of the rod itself. At one point, his wife asked me what it was worth. “Well, I could pick up the phone and make one call right now and sell it for $4,000.” You should have seen the surprised look on her face . . . it was far more than she figured it would bring. I gave her a few moments to catch her breath, then I said: “But I won’t do that to you. This rod is worth twice that amount.” You could have knocked her over with a feather. She was speechless. Because neither of them fly fished, they had no clue as to the monetary value of something that had been hidden in their closet for fifty-plus years. Fewer than forty-eight hours later, I had secured a full-price buyer for their Gillum rod—at $8,500.
There is no single source of accurate information about the monetary value of vintage fly rods these days: no book, dealer price list, not even eBay can tell you what your vintage rod is worth. That’s because the “market” value is a bouillabaisse of mixed inputs. For example: How scarce is the rod? Was it a higher-quality rod, compared with the competition when it was made? Does it have the original bag, tag, and tube with label? How long is the rod, and what line weight does it cast? Who made it? Was it made by a famous person or shop or someone rather obscure? Are there stories or myths surrounding the maker that would affect how his workmanship is perceived by the public? Has there been a history of astronomically high prices paid in the past for similar rods? How desirable is the rod for fishing? How many other potential buyers are there, and how will it be marketed? What is the condition, and how much of the rod is original?
Anyone who has watched episodes of Antiques Road Show on PBS knows how important history and knowledge are in determining the monetary value of an antique. The same applies to vintage bamboo, so here are some generalities that may help you understand whether you have a treasure or something less in your possession.
- Generally speaking, the shorter the rod, the more desirable it is for fishing and the higher its value. Fly rods 8 feet or shorter usually command the highest dollar.
- If it was a high-quality rod when it was made, it will have the same appeal to today’s fly fishers and rod collectors.
- Condition is so important! A high-grade rod in poor condition is worth only a fraction of the value compared with one in excellent shape.
- Don’t buy into the myth that just because a rod was made by a well- known shop or individual, it is a better-quality rod and worth more. For example, Leonard rods varied widely in quality, depending on who owned and managed the company after the fire that gutted the H. L. Leonard Rod Company in the mid-1960s. The exception to this rule is Payne rods made by either Jim Payne or his father, Ed Payne. They held to the highest-quality standards of any rod maker for more than sixty years.
- Look for quality features on the rod: genuine agate stripping guides (a costly upgrade); perfectly executed silk wraps over the guides; aesthetically pleasing cosmetics; flawless varnish finish; richly blued components; high-quality cork in the handle; straight bamboo sections, all of exactly the same length; and ferrules that fit with velvety smoothness all the way. Engraving (not stamping) of any kind usually indicates exceptional quality.
- Originality is so important! Any work that is performed on a rod tends to devalue it unless that work is so close to the original that it is indistinguishable. A totally refurbished rod, especially one refurbished to nonprofessional standards, is worth less than half the value of a similar rod in original condition.
- When it comes to good looks, just because a rod is jazzed up cosmetically is no guarantee that the rod is a great caster. We all cast differently, so when someone pronounces that a particular rod casts exceptionally well, it may not perform the same way in your hands. The best rod makers produced actions that fit the customer with little need to adjust his or her casting stroke.
By now it should be obvious that in order to give someone an accurate appraisal of the monetary value of his or her bamboo rods, it is important to examine the rod in hand. However, I’ve listed below some general value categories of rods, assuming they are in good-to-excellent original condition.
- High-end rods: Paynes (made by Jim before his death in 1968), Gillums, Garrisons, Dickersons, “Sam” Carlsons, Paul Youngs.
- Midlevel rods: F. E. Thomases, H. L. Leonards (shorter than 8 feet), E. C. Powells (hollow built), R. L. Winstons (shorter, San Francisco made).
- Lower-level rods: Heddons, Grangers, Phillipsons, Montagues, South Bends, Shakespeares . . . and many more.
Sentimental value is of course less tangible than monetary value and is totally dependent on the personal significance of an older rod. How would you value an old rod that belonged to your father or grandfather? It’s his DNA that’s combined with fish slime and dirt on the cork grip. He may have repaired a missing guide with his wife’s sewing thread or overwrapped a fractured portion of the bamboo. Often, one tip is short because it broke—one hopes on a large fish, but sometimes for a less noble reason, such as tugging on a snagged tree branch. These are the types of rods that should be kept in the family and appreciated for what they are: a glimpse into the past fishing exploits of a family member.
These sentimental rods are the ones that I find most exciting—they have stories to tell. For example, residual Mucilin under the guides indicates the rod was used with pure silk fly lines. Heavy downward “sets” in the rod sections indicate heavy pressure from large fish or perhaps from trolling with streamers or live bait. Nicks in the varnish of the butt section may be the result of rubbing on the gunwales of a canoe while trolling streamers.
I recall one time in the late 1990s when I was giving a presentation at the American Museum of Fly Fishing. A local woman brought in several rods that had belonged to her late father. She wanted to fish them and asked me to “make them fishable.” Back in my shop, as I pulled one F. E. Thomas rod from its tube, I noticed a piece of paper rolled up inside the tube. I carefully extracted an old mimeographed copy of a map of a lake in Maine with penciled notes about underwater features such as drop-offs, boulders, and spots to anchor and fish. When I returned the rods to her, I said, “I found something of interest in one of the tubes.” Then I produced the map, and her eyes got, well, a little wet. She revealed the fact that she grew up spending summers on that lake, and those were her dad’s notes on the map. She had no idea this treasure was safely stored inside the Thomas rod tube. It was a precious moment for us both—and I knew she would especially enjoy fishing that rod for years to come.
Twenty years from now, it’s doubtful that our children or grandkids will be saying, “Wow, I have my dad’s graphite fly rod.” However, the same cannot be said about those bamboo rods in our closets. It’s up to us to pass along the history and tradition established by master bamboo rod makers of the past. Let’s pass these sentimental rods along to the next generations.
Article credit: This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Gordon’s Quill (vol. 27, no. 33), a publication of Theodore Gordon Flyfishers Inc.
Note: The American Museum of Fly Fishing does not, as a matter of policy, offer monetary evaluations on any objects.