Larry Donahe: Fly-fishing rods

Victoria’s Larry Donahe crafts custom fly-fishing rods.
Crafting fly-fishing rods from scratch is Victoria's artist and outdoorsman Larry Donahe.

While Larry Donahe’s creating a bamboo fly-fishing rod in his basement workshop, his mind is often drifting long distances to a stream in Montana or a river in New Jersey.

Donahe sometimes daydreams as pours about 50 hours of effort into each of the 15 to 20 L.P. Donahe Split Cane Rods (donahesplitcanerods.com) he custom builds each year. The rods are for fly fishermen from across the country, and in his head, Donahe’s out on the water with his customers, casting to test his craftsmanship. “I don’t have to be out on the water to be involved with fishing,” the 44-year-old resident of Victoria says. “I will have an image of where it’s going to be used, and the person using it, and that makes me feel good—that I’m a part of the legacy of fly fishing. These rods will be around a long time after me. My name is on the rods, and people will come to my kids and talk about the rods. That’s kind of fun.”

The single father with three young kids sells each rod from $1,500 to $1,800, but with equipment, materials and time, he estimates he earns about minimum wage. He’s been making rods for four years now because it’s his passion.

Growing up in a suburb of Portland, Ore., more than 30 years ago, Donahe briefly tinkered with a graphite fly fishing rod on an outing with his father. That was the extent of his experience until a decade later when the hobby began to captivate him on a camping trip with a friend in central Oregon. “He was fly fishing and I wasn’t,” Donahe recalls. “It looked like so much more fun, so I said I need to pick that back up.”

Following the whim turned into a career. He received a bamboo fly rod for his 40th birthday in Victoria, and said he “never looked back.” He was mentored by Daryll Whitehead and Chet Croco, and dropping the names of those well-known rod makers catches the attention of his customers.

To kick-start his business, Donahe traveled from Victoria to Montana to promote and sell his rods. On the trip, he met rod rep Mark Koscinski at a fly shop in Bozeman.

Donahe showed him an unfinished rod. “Right away, I noticed his woodworking was top shelf,” Koscinski says.

Donahe returned a few months later with a finished rod. “I pulled it out of the tube and said, ‘This is stellar,’ ” Koscinski says.

Koscinski began representing Donahe in Montana, buying a rod for himself and selling about 10 to other customers.

Although Donahe’s rods cost up to $1,800, Koscinski says his work is undervalued for two reasons: the level of craftsmanship and the influences from which he learned. “His work isn’t a secret,” Koscinski says. “It’s just among some of the best out there.”

Still, Donahe doesn’t try to keep his craft hidden. Anyone wanting to learn how to do it can come inside his workshop. Mark Leagjeld of St. Peter took him up on the offer.

“There’s a science to it all,” says Leagjeld, who later bought a Donahe rod. “His attention to detail is on display and is something that most wouldn’t go to. … Going into his shop will blow you away.”

Donahe might claim to be drifting when he’s varnishing bamboo in Victoria for a customer in Idaho, but Koscinski says there’s only one type of person that can make a rod of that caliber. “You have to be a Type-A, compulsive person,” Koscinski says with a laugh, “and it shows.”

 

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Want to learn from a master? Bamboo fly fishing rod maker Larry Donahe offers classes and studio tours to anyone interested in his craft. “I allow access because people are curious of what goes into it and because there is a lot more than meets the eye,” he says. Call 952.797.4943 or email at larry@donahesplitcanerods.com.