The best thing about fly-fishing is that it gives you a reason to get out and explore, according to master fly rod craftsman Bill Oyster. “There’s no fly-fishing in ugly places,” he says, with a knowing smile. This multi-faceted angler divides his time between gorgeous fish habitat and his workshop in tiny Blue Ridge, Georgia, where he designs and creates highly coveted custom fly rods.
“From a purely craftsmanship standpoint, fly rod making is part of the American craftsman heritage, alongside woven baskets and pottery,” Oyster explains, from the comfort of the workspace he’s had more than 20 years. His small but booming business, Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods, has elevated a practical American tradition to a thrilling marriage of art, science, and nature. Oyster’s clients have included President Jimmy Carter, professional athletes, famous writers, and billionaires, whose identity he fiercely protects. But it’s the water, rather than the movers and shakers, to which this Blue Ridge maker feels most connected.
Oyster—who studied art, philosophy, and engineering before weaving them into a career based on his love of fly-fishing—makes rods, but not reels. “The rod is the most important part,” he explains. “It’s what transforms and transitions the energy from the fisherman’s hand to the fly. These days, fly rods are typically made of carbon fiber and graphite,” he explains, of the industry’s mid-century move to synthetic materials. “They’re manufactured en masse, mostly overseas, by relatively unskilled labor. The rods we make are bamboo, the worldwide standard from the mid-1800s until the move to synthetic materials. Bamboo really takes some serious handcraft,” he says. “There’s no way around the time or skill involved, which means we have the higher price tags.” Today, Oyster’s custom fly rods include (but are not limited to) the most expensive fly rods in America, if not the world: a custom rod can fetch nearly $20,000 (although the average is $6,000–$8,000).
Southern Accents: Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods are carefully crafted for the expert fisherman, and include intricate nickel silver engravings, a process Bill Oyster learned to further customize his work. His rods can include gold inlay, specific sculpting, and artistic scenes.
In essence, Oyster is creating beloved family heirlooms. Bamboo rods “are all about beauty, tradition, and remembering,” says Oyster. “In today’s throw-away mentality, people don’t expect things to last anymore, but if you don’t put these bamboo rods back in the tube wet, and you keep them out of extreme weather, you pass them on for generations,” says Oyster, “especially if they’re customized.”
The bamboo of Oyster’s fly rods is harvested from a small 20–30 square mile river valley in southern China. “That particular bamboo has just the right properties, the perfect fiber densities,” he explains. Each of his rods is made of 24 individual pieces of bamboo: hollow, and about three inches in diameter. “We’re cracking and splitting the shell into strips, planed down into triangles,” explains Oyster of his process. Those triangular strips are tapered fat to thin, then glued together lengthwise to form a hexagon. Even basic rods still take him over 30 hours of work, before he begins the engraving process. The more complex rods can each take hundreds of hours each. Oyster’s are precision-planed within 1/1000 of an inch.
The many lengths and weights of rods are for specific performance situations, but he also has to customize the action of the rod, which a devout fly fisherman like Oyster understands and translates into his work. Any change will make a change to the action of the rod. The line guides make the fly line take the shape of the bending rod. “The different bands of color you see near the line guides are silk thread,” Oyster explains, “wound round and round, and then varnished over the top. We also do a thing called ‘inserts’: twelve additional strips, inlaid above the grip, to give an alternate, tapered accent of color . . . wispy streaks of color like you’d see on a pool cue.”
Many of Oyster’s commissions have been executive retirement gifts. “When a man’s retiring from 40 years on the job, he doesn’t want a Rolex,” laughs the rod-maker, fully understanding the desire to flee clocks and simply unplug on the water. Oyster’s customized fly rods also incorporate intricate hand-engraved nickel silver accents, a process he learned so he could further customize his work, without relying on an engraver who didn’t know anything about rods. Oyster can also incorporate gold inlay, sculpting, even artistic scenes. He gets some specific requests, but most clients—after seeing the dazzling rods he’s already created—give very little input, typically only dates of retirement, or perhaps a name or event to commemorate.
Reel Man: Bill Oyster crafts his fly rods out of bamboo shipped from a small river valley in southern China. Each rod contains 24 individual bamboo pieces and can take more than 30 hours to create, and that’s before he begins engraving. Oyster’s customers have included professional athletes and authors, as well as President Jimmy Carter.
Visit this passionate angler’s Blue Ridge headquarters and you’ll discover large observation windows for seeing firsthand the many steps of Oyster’s well-honed craft. As he engraves, a nearby camera affords the opportunity to see—on a monitor in the showroom—exactly what he’s seeing on his workbench. You can also discuss upcoming fishing trips led by Oyster himself; past destinations have included Patagonia for trout, Andros Island for bonefish, Paraguay for golden dorado, and Belize for tarpon.
Oyster’s business evolved with the construction of a building that houses his retail shop, studio, and upstairs, The Oyster Cast & Blast Inn. Guests of the four-room inn are a combination of tourists, devout anglers, or students of Oyster’s fly-rod-making classes, where 60 hours lead to one’s own handmade rod. Close to 150 people, from around the globe, come through Oyster’s school each year.
The quaint village shop and studio regularly gets Main Street walk-ins who assume a business named “Oyster” must sell seafood. In fact, the man behind the name hasn’t kept a fish in 15 years or more. Most fly fishermen eventually develop a strong catch-and-release philosophy, and he’s no different. “There’s so much beauty to the experience,” he admits, “that there’s a real feeling of satisfaction to watch that fish swim away, and knowing it’s still there. You never know what 12-year-old kid is going to hook it the very next day for a memory of a lifetime.”
Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods, 494 E Main St, Blue Ridge, GA. (706) 374-4239, oysterbamboo.com
There was a time. When winter blues needed serious green. When tropical warmth, vivid colors, and heady fragrances took you back to your happy place, to a far more cheerful season. It’s right now at Biltmore. More precisely, at the estate’s green-packed Conservatory, where Todd Roy and Kathryn Marsh share the mood-altering retreat on a gloomy, ripe-for-depression winter morning.
“As you walk through the door—” Todd says.
“Aaaah!” Kathryn interrupts with a gasp.
“Uplift,” Todd continues. “I mean, the colors, the bright colors—”
“And the temperature, too, hot and humid,” Kathryn says, adding. “You feel like you’ve walked into a tropical oasis.”
Todd, a gardener, and Kathryn, a conservation horticulturist, are among 60-odd plant whisperers who tend the Conservatory’s residents. Flora by the hundreds, the plants provide physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment, especially for folks with seasonal affective disorder who might be losing it right about now. “What we’re doing in there is very thought out,” Todd says. “Where we place things, we paint with plants. It’s an art.”
They stand just outside the grand 1895 greenhouse on a morning just cloudy enough to be a bummer—until you walk into 7,000 square feet of color so vibrant and varied, balminess so humid and snuggly, and fragrances so heady and mouthwatering, you feel your solstice-sad Eeyore magically bloom into a spring-sunny Pooh.
See over here? That’s the ylang-ylang, a fast-growing tower of a tree that originates in Indonesia and whose rich oils perfume Chanel No. 5. And there? That’s the dombeya; just yesterday its delicate pink blossoms appeared. “It’s a tropical hydrangea,” Todd says, “that smells like buttered birthday cake frosting.”
If that’s not enough to melt your wintertime frost, step into the Orchid Room, one of the Conservatory’s six glass-enclosed apartments. Here, at least 600 orchids vibrate with more colors than a box of Crayolas—lady slippers, dancing ladies, moth and corsage orchids, to name just a few. They’re immigrants from Southeast Asia, South America, Papua New Guinea, and beyond, and some cost a small fortune. After the Biltmore’s legendary Christmas season, the Conservatory’s orchids take center stage. The peak season for these prized flowers begins in January and runs into March. The delicate, often rare, and breathtaking masterpieces belong to one of the, if not the, largest flowering-plant families on Earth.
“Just the beauty is so uplifting,” Kathryn says. “To be surrounded by something gorgeous and warm and colorful.”
In Structural Probability, the Greenville Center for Creative Arts features four artists whose style is rooted in the unexpected elegance of fixed shapes and hard edges. Laura Mosquera and Ethiopian-born Abraham Abebe create vibrantly hued works, their geometric, inlaid patterns manipulated to show new perspectives from every angle. Ceramic artist David Bogus detaches everyday objects from their typical plane of use, reimagining them with fresh pops of color and in a rearranged state—stacked, suspended, stationary. Maryland-based artist Lindsay McCulloch’s frenetic prints and paintings remind of the static of a television image, present but not in focus, like a word or thought nearly there but just out of reach. The artist admits she enjoys exploring life’s “shifting impermanence,” an apropos thought at the start of a new year.
Structural Probability will be on display at the Greenville Center for Creative Arts through January 24. Located at 25 Draper St, Ste. A, GCCA is open Mon–Fri, 9am–5pm and Sat, 11am–3pm. Admission is free. For more information, visit artcentergreenville.org.
An expanding entertainment district in downtown San Antonio is good reason to hop a plane to the Lonestar State