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Building custom fly rod is a work of art

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Blue Ridge is the county seat of Fannin, where more and more visitors enjoy hanging out. They like to browse the shops and restaurants in town, one of the several options available to those who come this way.

Some think it is neat to ride the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway to McCaysville, a 3.5-hour, 26-mile round trip through the mountains. The train runs March through December. Others enjoy fly fishing the Toccoa River, where trophy trout are usually plying the waters. Even on chilly winter days — even when there is snow on the ground. The Toccoa is the only river in Georgia that flows north.

The Cherokee meaning of Toccoa is “beautiful,” and the 1,200 residents of Blue Ridge find that worth repeating, agreeing with Chamber of Commerce promotional brochures. They actually believe everything around here is beautiful and are happy to testify to their conviction. “I grew up here and feel fortunate that I did,” said Jessica Ware, a dental hygienist. Lindsey Walker, a junior in high school, wants to study nursing at the University of Georgia. “If that works out, I am sure I’ll want to come home on weekends. This is a special place.”

Crystal Vanreeth, from Orlando, came here for a visit and settled in. “Once I spent time here, I couldn’t leave,” she smiled. While they were touting life in Blue Ridge, Katina Yeoman and Matthew Dixon were nodding approvingly. Nothing like home-town patronization.

There is a mix of “homemade” architecture — from brick to wood to stone. There’s a city park, where wooden benches allow for reflection and small talk for those who take respite. Gift shops, boutiques, arts and crafts — step this way, there’s something for everybody. The pleasant aroma of something freshly baked informs you before you see the marquee that there is a bakery in the middle of town. You choose to stop by Mustard Seed Trading Co. just because of its name. Look around and you realize that Rexall stores still exist.

If Blue Ridge ever hosted a “show and tell” gathering, it would surely showcase Bill Oyster, who makes fly rods that are downright rapturous for the purists and well-heeled. At almost any point of the year, you will see a half dozen people or more, learning from the master. They themselves are eagerly and anxiously building a fly rod. It will be their very own fly rod, which means that fishing becomes more personal, more fulfilling, and more memorable.

As they work, they conjure up images of what it will be like when they get to the river and hook a nice rainbow. That is if they wander over to the nearby Toccoa River and test their equipment.

Who knows, they may choose to christen their personal fly rod on a popular river in Montana or Idaho. More often than not, it’s the Toccoa. When you finish your own rod, you can’t wait to fish with it and the Toccoa offers you the quickest and most convenient option.

Word-of-mouth advertising has brought people from far away places to enroll in classes with Bill to make a bamboo rod from start to finish. And when you start, you begin with Tonkin bamboo which originates in the Sui River Valley in China. There’s only 20 square miles of the precious stuff.

Bill’s class is taught year-round, a six-day course with a routine of 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., or whenever the student has had enough for the day. Afterward, they gather at one of the local restaurants or watering holes and talk about what they have experienced.

The base cost of producing a bamboo fly rod at Bill’s shop is $1,390, but you could spend $10,000 or more if you like. He sells many fly rods in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. This is about the only place in the country where you can find high-end fly rods for sale. It brings about a rarefied atmosphere for a fly fisherman to own a fly rod with “Oyster” engraved on it. In the fly fishing industry, that name is the ultimate in branding. To have your product endorsed by a former president of the United States is about as good as it gets. Bill has guided President Jimmy Carter on north Georgia streams for years.

In a normal year, Bill makes over 60 rods for sale and notes that it takes at least 50 hours to make a bamboo fly rod. There may be as much as one hundred hours of engraving time on his best rods. He smiles, “I spent 200 hours engraving President Carter’s rods.” Bill engraves every rod himself, an artist giving every fly rod his very best effort.

While he never got around to finishing his degree at the University of Georgia, Bill often reflects back to his campus days at the “oldest chartered state university” in the country. “It was the art school training in Athens where I learned about engraving, which is essential to my business, so you can see that I have great appreciation for my time at Georgia.”

An artist at work! You can experience that with Bill Oyster if you enroll in one of his classes. Build your rod, book an outing with David Hulsey of Unicoi Outfitters down the street, and head to the Toccoa for a life-enriching experience.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.