LYON • It’s not often that Mike Clark leads guests to the back of his shop. It is, after all, his space. His domain. A small wooden world of fine and meticulous workmanship.
You could say magic happens here, if they are so romantically inclined with the bamboo fly rod. Clark is not very inclined, a man of few words between puffs of his Marlboro Red.
More inclined was Norman Maclean, who wrote: “Grace comes by art, and art does not come easily. Clark doesn’t like being called an artist. He is not an artist who does something to be exposed. He’s more of a craftsman making something to use, a tool – and ideally by someone who’s more serious about fishing than they are about the Maclean-inspired film, ‘A River Runs Through It’. .
Around a craftsman, it tends to be messy. “Sorry,” the ponytailed, bearded 75-year-old told his guests, slowly bending over. “I’m going to take out these cat treats.”
Patch and Smudge live with Clark here at the company which is also his home. South Creek Ltd. is an aptly named business for an ordinary man. Built over four decades, Clark’s reputation is anything but.
Just ask John Gierach, the fly-fishing legend and author who lives nearby in those river-cut mountains of northern Colorado.
“I’ve had people come up to visit me and say, ‘Can we go see Mike? Like they were asking me if I could get them an audience with Mahatma Gandhi or something,” Gierach says. “He is known as one of the old masters.”
An ancient master of a rare and centuries-old craft.
Long before the graphite and fiberglass rods of today, there was bamboo. The mighty grass stands 12 feet tall in a corner of Clark’s shop, shipped from China. Clark spends his days transforming it, much like the 19th century master Hiram Leonard.
The culms are split and tapered into smaller strips, sanded and planed and glued together to a point measuring so many thousandths of an inch. It is also a precise and slow process of varnishing, screen printing, heating, cooling and waiting. It’s a process Clark refuses to change, much like his hand tools from 1979. That’s when he built his first bamboo fly rod.
The product is a dream for the pure sport purist – something of an Excalibur from around $3,000.
And few, Gierach says, produce like Clark.
“I know rod makers, they are amateurs who make a few rods a year and sell them,” explains Gierach. “But Mike, you know, he lives above his store, he turns on the lights, walks down the stairs, pets the cats, gets a cup of coffee and goes to work.”
Yet, due to his refusal of machinery and extra manpower, his supply is limited. Clark says he makes about 25 rods a year. “I can’t stand on this bench like I used to,” he said.
His waiting list is around three years. “At one time, the backlog was almost six years,” he says. “That’s when I said, ‘Enough is enough.'”
It was then that he enlisted his only employee today, Kathy Jensen. She was an unlikely choice, a transplant from the California tech world. They met at the local cafe.
“I said to him, ‘I’ve never picked up a fishing rod, let alone a fly rod. I don’t know anything,’” she said. “He said, ‘Perfect. When can you start?'”
Now, she specializes in upper aesthetics – the finishing flourishes of metals, woods and colored wraps. Nothing too colorful, Jensen warns customers, at Clark’s request. Earth tones, she implores.
“We like to make traditional fishing rods,” says Jensen. “Not carnival bars.”
She enjoys this creative part of the job more than paperwork and customer service. But someone has to take care of that part.
“That damn block of tin over there,” Clark said pointing to the computer, “I hate that.”
He would also prefer to get rid of his cell phone. “Only three people have the number, and that’s how it’s going to stay,” he says.
Clark is not romantic, yet he is best described by the framed poetry on the wall. It is a testament of the late writer Robert Travers.
“I fish because I love; because I like the surroundings where there are trout, which are always beautiful, and I hate the surroundings where there are crowds of people, which are always ugly,” Traver professed. He loved fishing “because, in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is both an endless source of pleasure and an act of petty rebellion”.
Before making bamboo fly rods, Clark hated what he did. He hated the job that had him shoveling snow and towing cars around Boulder County, ringing his Motorola in the middle of the night for an emergency.
And before that, out of high school in Lakewood, he hated his time in Vietnam. He returned to an ungrateful nation in 1969.
“I hid for about nine months,” Clark says.
He moved to the mountains. He fished a lot. He did what he did as a child, always looking forward to the weekends when his dad would load up the motorhome and, early in the morning, the family would set sail for a distant lake.
His father fished with bamboo. Clark thought of that in tough times, thought of throwing it in the yard when he was a kid. It was, he later decided, the simplest representation of the simplicity he was looking for.
So he would put more into the world – one rod at a time, hand-made after hand-made.
And so it continues today, relentlessly, without compromise.
“I think it’s perfectionism,” says Gierach. “You want to do it as well as possible, or as well as you can do. And you never quite decide, OK, I nailed it.
But Clark learns to draw boundaries. Someone recently called in for business. It would be Wednesday or Thursday, the caller said.
“Do it Tuesday or Thursday,” Clark replied. “Wednesday I’m going fishing.”