Avid angler makes bamboo fishing rods

Jessi Dodge, Buffalo Bulletin photo Zac Sexton of Buffalo has turned his passion for fishing into a passion for making bamboo fly-fishing rods. Sexton is turning part of his shop into a space where Johnson County youth can learn about fly-fishing.

BUFFALO — Zac Sexton is addicted to fly-fishing. 

“I am literally addicted to it,” he said. “My wife is an addictions counselor, and she says I'm addicted to it. I don't do things I'm supposed to do so that I can go fishing, blow off responsibilities so I can go fishing, that's what I do." 

And Sexton's day job at the county jail — or, in his case, overnight job — aids his addiction, because it leaves his afternoons wide open for standing in the flowing waters of Clear Creek to fish.

He'll even stay out so long some afternoons — until the final rays of sunlight are almost fully behind the Bighorns - that he's told his wife, Sarah, not to come looking for him until morning.

Sexton's passion for fly-fishing was sparked early in his life, he said, when he learned how to tie flies at just age 13.

By age 15 — before he even had his drivers license — he was working at a Buffalo store called Just Gone Fishing.

And by age 17, Sexton purchased his first bamboo fly-fishing rod — his now-preferred material — from an antique store in Buffalo.

“So I got that bamboo rod and I turned into a bamboo fishing snob at age 17, where I basically wouldn't fish anything but bamboo,” he said.

His passion eventually turned from just fishing with bamboo rods to making them, when he said he learned the process from his friend Mike and read as many books as he could find on the topic.

“He got me through my first one and then after that I couldn't stop," he said. "I literally couldn't stop making bamboo rods.”

While graphite and fiberglass rods have their advantages, Sexton said, he's drawn to bamboo because it's more of a hands-on process that allows the rod maker to go from a raw stalk of bamboo to a completed fishing rod. 

Sexton starts with bamboo that comes directly from the Guangdong region in southeast China. From there, he cuts the bamboo, sands it down, and lays several strips together to make what is known as a blank - the central piece of the rod before a reel or fishing wire have been attached. 

And Sexton isn't kidding when he says he hasn't stopped making rods in the years since he's learned how. His rodmaking shop in Buffalo is filled with dozens of stalks of bamboo, rod blanks and completed rods he's working on fixing up. 

While Sexton said he'd love to transition to just making rods, it isn't a reliable source of income for any small maker because it takes at least 40 hours to make each bamboo fly-fishing rod. "Here, I do them in batches, or at least I try to, so I'll build like a batch of four to six rods," Sexton said. "And that'll take me about six weeks. I could probably add up to eight as I get going and maybe do more."

While Sexton's main passion in fly-fishing is bamboo rods, he's also keenly aware of the importance of taking care of the environment and ecosystems that allow fish to thrive in the creeks of northeast Wyoming - and his own effect on them. 

While bamboo is his preferred rod-making material, an added perk is that it's a natural material that will eventually decompose, unlike other common materials for fishing rods, such as graphite or fiberglass. 

"It is a natural material and it will degrade eventually," he said. "Cork will degrade, the metal will disappear. Everything on a bamboo fly rod will disappear at some point. Graphite and fiberglass, not so much." 

Sexton also takes care to dispose of the less environmentally friendly materials he uses - such as epoxies and glues - in a safe and responsible way. 

On a recent fishing trip to Clear Creek just east of Buffalo, Sexton's passion for sustaining the environment around bodies of water was obvious as he pointed out the landowner's work to help restore creek banks on that stretch of the creek. 

Restoring creek banks, he said, helps keep water in the system "in the long run," by keeping the riparian area - wetlands adjacent to the creek - bigger, which helps to keep pastures in better shape, too. 

But his concerns over what is negatively affecting the environment around the water were obvious, too, as he spoke of how lower water heights are affecting both the availability of fish and their shrinking size. 

In years past, Sexton said, an angler could easily catch fish nearing 20 inches in Clear Creek, but now you're lucky to find them approaching 15 inches. And where Sexton was standing - where he fielded just a few bites and no catches - once netted him 44 fish in one day. 

Sexton's concerns around water availability have ratcheted up in recent years, too, as drought has continued to grip Wyoming and much of the West, with not enough winter snow to make up the difference. 

At the U.S. Geological Survey site in Clear Creek west of Buffalo, peak water height for the creek has dropped drastically in just the past four years. 

In 2018 and 2019, the creek peaked at nearly 4.5 feet during the early summer months. In 2020 and 2021, that peak was closer to 3.5 feet. In that same time frame, according to USGS data, streamflow has dropped from more than 1,000 cubic feet per second in 2018 and 2019, to highs of less than 700 cubic feet per second in 2020 and 2021. 

"Do you want our kids to go inner tubing down a creek that has a dry creek bed?" he said. "It's an entire ecosystem. Life depends on water. If we don't have water, we don't have a life worth living."

Sexton's passion for keeping the environment stable is at

least partly driven by his passion for sharing fly-fishing with younger generations. 

And those kids are one of the main reasons he's starting to work more on expanding his rod-making company — O. clarki Rods — and his company for making reels — O. clarki Outdoors — and maybe even providing lessons or guided fishing trips. 

His companies are named O. clarki after the scientific name for cutthroat trout — the native trout to the Buffalo area. 

Because rods take so long to make, Sexton said, he knows it's not an option as his main source of income, so he's teamed up with another Buffalo company to begin making fly-fishing reels that he hopes can help sustain his businesses. 

Both of those businesses, however, have a bigger purpose than just helping people have excellent, locally made equipment for their fishing. Sexton hopes they'll be able to support a school he's planning - based in his Buffalo shop - where Johnson County kids can learn how to make and repair fly-fishing rods and maybe find their own passion on the water. 

Sexton already volunteers his time with the Boys & Girls Club of the Bighorns and the Johnson County Mentoring Program, which he does, he said, because "I feel I'm obligated" after so many people have given back to him. 

From his mentors in early rod making to Buffalo and Sheridan locals who have helped him find storage space and even donated a free space for his shop, Sexton hopes he can be next in line to help others. 

And that starts at his shop in Buffalo, which he's currently turning into a space where kids from the Johnson County Family YMCA and mentoring program can come and be taught about fly-fishing.

"The money part can be difficult," he said. "... They can come here, use the space, I will teach them for nothing. I will donate materials and I'll donate rods, too." 

When his school eventually gets up and running, Sexton said, he hopes to help kids find a passion in the activity that has given him so much in his life. 

"It doesn't matter who you are, what your socioeconomic status is, who you are as a human being, you can succeed in this," he said. "You can succeed in fly-fishing, you can succeed in being outdoors, and you can be the best. You can be the worst, and you can still have a great time. Anybody can do this.”