Thursday, July 21, 2011

Grilse Rods

Grilse Rods by C. F. Burkheimer and Trey Combs 

Twenty years ago a friend and I were fly fishing for fresh run grilse steelhead (one-year ocean steelhead) along a long gravel bar on northern California’s Klamath River. I was casting a 4-weight rod and fishing #10 flies, mostly Night Dancers. The chrome bright steelhead ran mostly from 18-23 inches; our largest was an ancient 25 inch buck that was probably ascending the river for the fourth or fifth time—hardly a grilse. Many thousands of the steelhead were in migration and hooking a dozen from a single casting station was possible.

A lot of thoughts ran though my head. The fish were as beautiful as any angler could wish for, indeed, were I enjoying such fishing in Montana, there’d be a “Blue Ribbon” on every fence post. But the overriding thought was what it would be like to fish a 4-weight two-hand rod for the same fish? The Klamath and Trinity rivers offered hundreds of miles of this fishing. In the fall, southern Oregon’s Rogue above Grant’s Pass offered grilse and older steelhead in the four to five pound range. The Grande Ronde and Idaho’s mighty Snake were both one-year ocean steelhead waters. I thought, too, about some of the rivers I’d fished in Montana, the Madison, of course, but also the Big Hole and Big Horn. What advantages could I bring to my fishing if working a Muddler, or streamer, or a hopper pattern with a 4-weight two-hand rod of 11 feet or so?

Years later during several seasons I fished a number of Russia’s salmon rivers in the Kola Peninsula. The Varsuga that led to the White Sea in the southern Kola had a dominant grilse run of 4-7 pound salmon. Every two-hand rod I had was overkill; even my 7 weight single hand rod was more rod than necessary. I thought of a 4-weight or even 5 weight two-hand rod, and I knew that something was wrong with this picture.  Given the need, I was amazed that these rods didn’t exist.
As I detailed in the description of the Grilse #5 in the section on Burkheimer rods, I discussed this grilse series with Kerry Burkheimer in critical detail late in 2010. Scandinavian grilse can run 7-8 pounds and more; the fast growing Skeena steelhead can produce a grilse steelhead of 8 pounds; the average free rising steelhead on the Bulkley is usually well under 10 pounds. A grilse #6 would be more than enough rod to skate a Telkwa Stone, or #6 Grease Liner.

I recall hosting fly fishers on the Babine’s famous Silver Hilton Lodge during the last week of the season, a few days in October and a couple days in November. To my complete astonishment, after several days of hooking trophy Babine steelhead, a large run of grilse came in, very bright steelhead of 5 to 6 pounds. No one in camp had a rod to properly take in all this fun.
Kerry Burkheimer and I decided that a three rod grilse series, 4 through 6, all in 4-piece, would satisfy domestic and Canadian steelhead needs, and would have equal application for Atlantic salmon grilse in the Canadian Maritimes. The rods would be designed and produced in one-inch increments starting with an 11’ 4” #4 rod. The first rod would be the 11’ 5” #5 rod.
As the idea took hold, Kerry expanded the series to first include a #7, and then added a #8 and #9. Why? No one needs an 11’ 9” #9 two-hand rod to fish for a 6-pound steelhead or Atlantic salmon. The answer is that the series meets the increasing demands by fly fishers for shorter, fast action rods to cast Skagit and Scandi type lines. There is also the mentioned convenience of the grilse series being built as 4-piece models. This advantage cannot be over stated. You carry the rod with you inside a floatplane or helicopter (no need to strap the rods to the skids), or easily tied down to a raft. For the weak caster, casting a heavily weighed Bunny Leech overhead for a trophy Alaskan rainbow is a pleasure rather than an effort in futility.             
Each rod features a pewter reel seat, comes in a forest green finish, and offers refinements not found in stock models.  
As these additional models become available, I’ll discuss their application in greater detail.

Hope to see you Saturday at the Drift in Klickitat,

Trey Combs  

Burkheimer Rods

By Trey Combs
When I visited Kerry Burkheimer’s fly rod plant in Washougal, Washington, I discovered a remarkable marriage of timeless Old World devotion to absolute perfection in craftsmanship, to cutting edge performance in graphite technology.  During a time when fly fishing dealerships are quitting, when fly shops are going out of business, when sales in the fly fishing industry are static at best, Burkheimer rods remain so in demand they’re constantly backordered. King or commoner, with money up front, must wait for up to a month to get their Burkheimer rod.

Kerry’s guiding principle, “one at a time, one of a kind,” describes his custom approach to rod making. Once a blank has been completed, the many cosmetic options come into play. The standard model, the dark green “Classic,” can be upgraded:  reel seats, exotic wood inserts, colored guides, agate or titanium for stripping guides, even the rod itself can be given a custom color. He has standardized groups of upgrades for Presentation models, and for Vintage models. The fly fisher who receives his “Burkie” can go to the riverside knowing he’ll likely never see another angler fishing the same rod.

Kerry, quiet and unassuming, says simply,” We build the finest custom fly rods in the world.” Walk through the plant and Kerry would be hard to pick out. He and every employee works diligently at specific tasks. No job is so much as touched outside the plant; no fly rod component comes from overseas.

Kerry guides me from one workstation to the next. On a bench and positioned upright for final inspection, are a half-dozen trout rods, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. They are bound for a fly shop in Seoul, Korea. I smiled at this reversal in fly rod commerce; little else could so underscore the quality of Burkheimer rods. Standing in a corner is a knobby fly rod case made from South African Cape buffalo hide. Inside are two-hand rods. They’re on their way to England for Eric Clapton, an avid Atlantic salmon angler. Kerry doesn’t tout any of this. It’s business as usual.

The monthly factory output is but 100 rods. Kerry says, “We’re expanding, and by using additional rooms in the building, we can reach 200 rods per month. But that’s it. I never want to grow more than that.” Compare those numbers to other manufacturers who knock out 5,000 rods per month. That’s like comparing GM to Ferrari.
I asked Kerry about all the odd lengths; he doesn’t seem to build in conventional 6” increments.
“Do customers order a certain length, and you design and manufacture accordingly?”
“You kind of have it backwards,” he said. For example, we set out of build a 12-foot rod, and then take the resulting blank, and fine tune it. We may feel it needs an extra inch or so, or needs to be cut down a bit, to perform to our standards.
Kerry’s rod design apprenticeship lasted many years, first with Loomis Composites, and then with Russ Peak, a legendary pioneer in rod design. Kerry would eventually buy Peak’s business and soon establish his own brand.
I recall years ago when I was giving talks at an outdoor show and Russ Miller ran me down. I had featured him in “Steelhead Fly Fishing” and I knew him to be a passionate steelhead fly fisher. He told me of an 8-weight rod of about 13 feet he had recently purchased. At the time, this was an odd size. He’d been fishing it on the Skagit for winter steelhead and I thought the rod short and light for this kind of work. Russ never runs out of things to say about steelhead. But on this day, one superlative after another described this new rod until he had exhausted the subject. The rod was a Burkheimer. Like most steelhead fly fishers, I’d never heard of the brand. That would change very soon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Jan Cottrell will be displaying art at the Drift Cafe soon!

Drift Cafe

Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday
 Breakfast, Lunch, Pastries and Coffee
 Good Morning Steelhead
 Flies, Leaders, Tippets, and Materials.
 Downtown Klickitat!
High tech coffee maker!

Whats this all about?

It's not a secret society, it's not a club and it's not a joke.
Its for you.
This is a place where people gather.
A place to share.
To learn.