Per Brandin, one of the nation's foremost builders of fine bamboo fishing rods, still recalls the day cane stirred his soul.

It was during his senior year of high school. The young Brandin, then living in his hometown of Tarrytown, N.Y., was a highly-active member of the local Trout Unlimited chapter. That year, the New York state fly-fishing symposium was held in Syracuse.

"I had my driver's license and drove up in the family's '65 Volvo," Brandin said recently. "There was a floor with dealers there and one of them was the H.L. Leonard Rod Company. There was a forest of beautiful golden rods with red wraps. I picked one up and shook it and just fell in love with the feel of bamboo.

"People ask me about bamboo rods, what is the most important thing," Brandin said. "I always tell them the most important thing is the guy that made it. That spirit is very elusive, but I feel it is real."

Holding a Brandin split cane rod in his Bozeman home recently, bamboo rod aficionado Mark Koscinski said that story — and the story behind each maker and each bamboo rod — lies at the heart of what makes fishing cane so special.

"I fish most of the rods I come across and each rod is unique," Koscinski said. "When you fish bamboo you are taking that personal connection with you."

Koscinski, owner of Hell Mountain Fishing Company, specializes in bamboo fly rods, fine fly reels and equipment. His current stock includes more than 70 bamboo rods, dozens of reels and a library of historic books on angling with the fly. Koscinski's collection includes rods constructed by some of the sport's most revered craftsmen, men like Brandin, Glenn Brackett and Tom Morgan.

When fly fishermen discuss fishing cane rods, they often speak of the resonance or spirit of a rod. It's not a quality that factors into the equation when weighing the merits of fiberglass or graphite — materials that have surged to the forefront of rod building over the last half century — but it is an aspect vitally important in the world of bamboo. It is that most intangible quality that nurtures an angler's deep connection to the sport's roots, and turns fishing into a transcendent experience for Koscinski and others passionate about cane.

"Bamboo represents the history, heritage and culture of fly-fishing," Koscinski said. "Bamboo is something that becomes the next step. If you become an accomplished fly fisher and start to think about your quarry, tactics and entomology, you start to look at the evolution of equipment. That leads to a much richer experience when you are out on the river."

While several major rod manufacturers — including R.L. Winston in Twin Bridges and Thomas & Thomas Rodmakers in Greenfield, Mass. — continue to produce a line of bamboo rods, many of the country's most-respected rod builders now operate independently in much the same way their predecessors did.

For collectors, many of the most sought-after bamboo fly rods were crafted in small workshops by individuals or small groups of builders more than 100 years ago. H.L. Leonard, E. C. Powell and E. F. Payne were among the early craftsmen that set the stage for ensuing innovations. But while tapers and rod actions have run the gambit over the last century, little has changed in the actual process of constructing cane rods.

What remains of utmost importance in terms of desirability is the builder's connection to the traditions of rod construction and the sport.

A few years after setting his eyes on that golden cane in Syracuse, Brandin found himself working as a cabdriver in Tarrytown. He spent upwards of 80 hours a week collecting fares and didn't have time to spend the money he was earning, so he began purchasing bamboo rods. He bought an H.L. Leonard, a Thomas & Thomas and other cane rods before he came across a copy of "A Master's Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod" by Everett Garrison and Hoagy B. Carmichael.

Brandin learned the craft of building bamboo rods from Peter Phelps, later working with Carmichael who showed him a hand-rubbed finishing technique he continues to use in the construction of his rods today.

"It takes me 50 hours to make a bamboo rod. That product gets infused with the maker. Somehow, all of that history is in there."

Bozeman-based rod maker Bill Blackburn, who studied the art of cane rod construction under former R.L. Winston rod builder Tom Morgan, said the craft takes years of dedication to master.

Still, he said, there are few rod builders who feel they've found the perfect design.

"An eight-foot rod with two tips has 72 feet of bamboo honed to within a 1000th of an inch," Blackburn said. "Bamboo is a designer-friendly material, but I think everybody is entirely seeking to make their rods better."

Blackburn said one of the attractions of bamboo is that no two rods can ever be built exactly the same due to natural variances in the organic structure of cane. As a result, two rods built to the same exacting specification could fish markedly different on the stream.

In the world of graphite or fiberglass rods, that aspect could present a liability. But in the world of bamboo, those imperfections add to the character of a rod. They provide feedback to the angler and a personal connection that cannot be duplicated.

"Bamboo is just a lot more fun to fish than graphite," Blackburn said. "They have a charm and character all their own."

And those intangibles can demand top dollar on today's market. Most bamboo rod makers that have paid their dues charge $1,500 or more for a new rod. Rods built by early builders can garner much more on the secondhand market.

The demand for bamboo, while no longer fished by the masses, is still strong for rods crafted by the country's top builders. Brandin, 57, quit taking orders for new rods some time ago. He figures he'll be well into his 60s before he fulfills all his commitments.

Because bamboo rod construction is so labor intensive (an experienced rod builder may only produce 30-50 rods a year) the value of a builder's rods may be prized more for their rarity than their monetary value. At the upper end of the spectrum, it is much more than craftsmanship that establishes a rod's worth.

"All the rod makers have their own signature," Koscinski said. "When you can put the individual strips of bamboo together and they look like they grew that way, you are talking about true craftsmanship. What makes one rod more desirable than the other, once you get past the quality of their work, is their lineage — their bloodline if you will — and those intangible connections to the sport.

"When I take a Blackburn fishing with me, I am taking Bill fishing with me all day," Koscinski said. "Bamboo rods are a very personal tool."

Ben Pierce can be reached at bpierce@dailychronicle.com and 582-2625. Follow him online at chronicleoutdoors.com and twitter.com/BGPierce.