Photography and story by Corey Woosley
Bill wears the Stetson Stratoliner Fedora
William “Bill” Oyster is a full-time career bamboo fly rod maker with a workshop in one of the south’s most authentic mountain towns (Blue Ridge, GA). Each Oyster Bamboo Fly Rod is intensely handcrafted. Bill is the only professional bamboo fly rod maker in the world who personally hand engraves his own rods. The performance and aesthetics of each rod is truly remarkable.
As the most prolific teacher of this rod making art alive today, Bill draws students from as far away as England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand as well as every corner of the US to his southern mountain own studio in beautiful Blue Ridge, Georgia.
Each year, Oyster introduces a little more of the world to this traditional
craft and a look into the life of a bamboo fly rod maker.
Corey writes: Our truck wound down a mountain road that paralleled the Toccoa River a few miles outside the small sleepy town of Blue Ridge, Georgia. Eventually, we came upon an unassuming pull off that we tucked the truck into. Bill Oyster exited the front seat and made his way to the rear to gather his fishing gear. It was mid-October and the first bit of cool weather for the season had arrived with the morning. It had been unseasonably warm up until that point and the cool, crisp air was a welcome offering. Bill is middle-aged with a medium build and a medium height. The hair that’s still on his head is salt and pepper and it’s accompanied by one hell of a silver beard. On paper, he sounds older than he actually looks, but he is fit and has a youthful face and his eyes are hopeful like they are still looking forward to something. Bill is a craftsman by trade and constructs the world’s finest split cane fly rods by hand. I watched him work in his shop the day before as he took extremely plain looking bamboo poles and turned them into functioning pieces of art
Our group made its way down to the water where we stopped and pulled on our waders. Bill strung up one of his current creations, an 8’6”, 7wt. hollow body bamboo rod. It was beautiful… Bill and I eased off the bank and into the moving water. I hung back with my camera and let him work his way upstream alone in search of the day’s first pocket or riffle to cast a fly into. He finally found a piece of water he deemed worthy and unfurled his line. He proceeded to haul out a cast so elegant and effortless it felt like I was listening to a Billie Holiday song. The rest of the morning was vainly spent trying to catch trout. Although it was a cooler morning, the water temperature hadn’t experienced the same change yet, and the fish were locked jawed or maybe even non-existent. Finally, we threw in the towel and decided to head back to town for some lunch.
On the truck ride home I asked Bill what drew him to fly fishing. He revealed in a former life he had been a professional cyclist and that he used the meditation of fishing to balance the demands physically and mentally of being a professional athlete. Bill went on to explain that he eventually suffered a pretty serious accident that ended his cycling career. He said after the accident he wasn’t really sure where his path was going to lead. He had already completed a considerable amount of schooling. He had studied Aerospace Engineering, English Literature, Philosophy, and finally, Studio Art all spread across three major colleges in two states, accumulating endless amounts of credit hours but finished with zero degrees, so there wasn’t much to fall back on. In the interim, however, Bill still had fly fishing, and along with that, he began a new pursuit of building his own bamboo fly rods.
There is no question about whether or not Bill has achieved excellence with his fly rods. He is an absolute master. He has made rods for people all over the world including sheiks, presidents, celebrities, and the list goes on. He has the claim of selling the most expensive fly rods in the world and the buyers to prove it. With so much to boast about, one might be tempted to think Bill is probably some kind of egomaniac that keeps his trade secrets closely guarded, but his humility is startling and as far as sharing his craft goes, he’s an open book. Bill’s wife, Shannen, explained to me that when he was starting out, almost no one was willing to share their knowledge and that he swore if he ever figured out how to make a rod he would share what he had learned with others. Now, he and his team host rod building classes almost every other week year-round, where they teach their students how to build a rod the same exact way Bill does.
After lunch, we reconvened and headed to a private property where a friend of Bill’s had a stream stocked with oversized trout, pellet pigs as they are affectionately referred to. Typically a stream like this would be frowned upon by fly fishing purists, especially ones that are so committed to the pursuit of purity that they build their own fly rod, by hand, out of bamboo. There was none of that with Bill though. He was genuinely happy to be on the water, with friends, catching fish. Bill ended up guiding me into a beautiful Rainbow Trout and caught a true trophy of his own. The balance of Bill’s life came into sharp focus on the water. He had the discipline and commitment to create the finest handcrafted rods that took years to master and hundreds of hours to create and still have fun and appreciate the innocence of catching stocked fish with them. That simple epiphany brought me to a pause.