In the first week of November, Telluride Angler’s John Duncan flew to Seattle to visit the Sage Fly Rod Company on Bainbridge Island. John’s objective was to learn more about the craftsmanship and design of these mystical rods, to observe their production first hand and to grill rod designer Jerry Siem about his theories and methods. Sage has introduced several spectacular rods over the past five years, including the fabulous ONE Series, the ultra-powerful METHOD and, most recently, the SALT, which swept the industry awards at ICAST in July.
The visit seemed all the more compelling because Duncan was born and raised on Bainbridge Island, graduated from Bainbridge High School and learned to fly fish on the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula, which to this day serve as the inspiration and testing ground for many Sage fly rods.
Telluride Angler is producing a series of short videos from footage shot inside the factory, a rare opportunity for anglers to see the refined techniques by which Sage fly rods are produced. As the videos will reveal, the process is largely one of precise hand craftsmanship by rod builders of unusual skill.
Not all could be captured in the videos, so Duncan has noted his observations for anglers who share his interest in fly rod design.
Duncan on Sage
1. The first thing that strikes me is that pride shows at every level. The reception room is adorned in rod displays. The hallways are lined with fishing photos and awards. Mission statements are posted throughout the facility. Staff work at modern work stations, some of which are stand up desks for their health. The factory is well organized and clean. Rod builders delighted in sharing their work as Siem walked me around the floor.
2. Jerry Siem is a thinking man. He works tirelessly to improve not only his fly rods, but also his coffee. I sampled the 305 blend that he brought from home, an hour north by car, in his thermos cup. He wanted to make sure I noticed both the full flavor and lack of acidity. 305 blend is named for the main arterial highway on Bainbridge.
3. Siem has a scientist’s mind for materials selection and application. It is popular for guys like me to say that graphite materials haven’t changed much, but Sage uses both carbon fiber and resin that is completely proprietary. Siem explains that resins are all different. The highest grade operates like Velcro at the molecular level. Resin doesn’t actually impregnate the soft graphite fibers. Rather, it grabs onto them. The best resins “grab the soft graphite fibers at every point of contact.”
4. Sage creates rod blanks with tools and that optimize pattern cutting. A computer is used to generate a pattern of patterns, so to speak, on a sheet of graphite that is mechanically cut to assure precision and get the most out of the sheet. Siem: “like when my Mom made doughnuts.” These sophisticated cutting tools also help prevent carpal tunnel among rod builders.
5. Sage has achieved a highly integrated, synthesized work flow. At the heart is sophisticated forecasting and internal project management that allows future production processes to anticipate previous production processes. Sage makes everything in-house, including the rod cases and liners. Even the cloth rod identifier tags are made in the Sage factory, colored to match the fly rod in question. According to Siem, “self sufficiency ensures quality and delivery. We never want to wait on a supplier. All of our rods need to be available year-around, period.” I was duly impressed.
6. Siem isn’t the paint man, but he loves the colors. As we toured the manufacturing floor, he gravitated toward racks of rod parts: Salt blue, Grace pink, Method “magma,” Accel green and ONE black. He is clearly tickled by the fact that his coworkers take all of these rods he designs and make them stunningly beautiful. In life, it is probably best for molecular engineers, rod designers and artists to be different people. Siem is, quite convincingly, all three.
7. Even the shirts can cast. With Campbell, Dalton and Siem on the casting dock, all revealing the backing, I felt like a 12-year-old walking among redwoods. Every one of these guys is a top 1% caster, maybe top .1%. Campbell, who stands at least 6’5” and wears the CEO’s pinstripes and cropped hair, was a high profile target as Siem’s yarn hissed past his exposed left ear. Blackstone struggled to steady the camera. The scene could not adequately be captured on video, but you’ll see what I mean.
8. There is a lot we can learn at Sage, but also several aspects of rod design we simply have to accept as “magic,” including the taper designs for the ONE and SALT, and the whole rod color process. Also, there is a reason why Sage rods are the straightest in the world. This reason will not be revealed. But, trust me, your Sage fly rod will be straight.
9. Don Green lives. Some of his original custom made equipment, like the cellophane wrapping machine, is still in use. His casting pond, created to satisfy the need for a water supply under rural fire code, still rises in winter and falls in summer, the deck over which is seasonally covered in goose droppings.
10. More on Rod Designer Jerry Siem: Siem was the stunt caster and casting coach for A River Runs Through It. He prefers Montana for trout. For steelhead, he fishes the Olympic Peninsula and the Dean.
11. Sage, Sage, Sage. If I heard it once, I heard it ten times, “Because it’s a Sage.” Siem is the torchbearer for this company. He is Sage.
12. Sage has truly meticulous attention to detail. Every rod is given a “final inspection” at each stage of production. When the rod hits inventory, it requires no further inspection. There is literally no Final Inspection Department at Sage. In light of the quality of work executed at each stage of production, they simply don’t need one.
My Favorite Jerry Siem Quotes
1) (while casting a ONE 590-4 with a Rio Gold line) “How do you expect me to sleep at night knowing that this is out there?”
2) When asked how the Salt loads so easily, but generates so much power, “there are some very good reasons for that.” End of conversation.
3) Passing the paint room: “this is a place we will not show you.”
4) Passing the R&D department: “this is another place we will not show you,” men in white lab coats in motion behind the door.
5) When asked whether the Salt is the best Sage saltwater rod ever, “the Salt is definitely the best Sage saltwater rod of all time. Let me confirm that by saying that the Salt is the best saltwater rod of all time.” If not, Siem wouldn’t sleep at night.