The World’s Largest Fly Rod:  A true community art project

Photo Credit: Melissa Sawatsky

The World’s Largest Fly Rod:  A true community art project

👤Melissa Sawatsky 🕔Aug 01, 2013

In the 1980s, tourism promoters in British Columbia encouraged cities and towns to develop a roadside attraction or landmark that would draw visitors.

Some of the communities that took on this challenge went for the record books: The World’s Largest Gold Pan resides in Quesnel, the World’s Largest Cross Country Skis flank the visitors’ centre in 100 Mile House, and the World’s Largest Hockey Stick and Puck, originally commissioned by the Government of Canada for the Expo 86 World’s Fair in Vancouver, graces the front of the Cowichan Community Centre in Duncan.

Not to be outdone by its more southerly counterparts, residents of Houston, BC conceived of, constructed, and installed the World’s Largest Fly Rod. Its conception took place at a tourism workshop sponsored by the Houston Chamber of Commerce in the late 1980s. Several ideas as to what could symbolize Houston were thrown around the table. During a coffee break, Warner Jarvis, who was an avid local fly fisherman, declared, “I’ve got it!” He found a napkin and proceeded to sketch out a concept for the

World’s Largest Fly Rod and, shortly thereafter, work began.

Jarvis’ vision was crafted into reality, thanks to the time, skills and effort of countless community volunteers. Andrew Knappett drew up the plans and did much of the initial design work. John Hols coordinated the construction of the aluminum rod, which consisted of arranging time at six local machine shops, then sending it to Vancouver to be finished with anodized bronze to simulate graphite. The rod measures 18 metres and weighs about 360 kilograms, with a reel that has a diameter of 90 centimetres.

In the end, the construction entailed 576 hours of volunteer labour and 470 hours of donated shop time and equipment, with 41 local companies contributing to the project in some form.

Alongside Jarvis, there were many other local fly fishing enthusiasts who contributed to the creation of the fly rod, including Ray Makowichuk, Richard Darling, Helge Byman, John Lyotier and John Brockley. These individuals spent many hours experimenting with ideas for the line and fly in order to complete the vision.

During a recent phone conversation, Makowichuk recollects how the community came together to make the project happen. When he got wind of Jarvis’ concept for the landmark, he got on board right away. “A lot of people in Houston are passionate about fishing and fly fishing, so this was a great project for everyone. We are referred to as the steelhead capital of the world, after all.”

Makowichuk came up with the original fly using goat hair and other craft supplies to create a fluorescent orange Skykomish Sunrise (a popular northwest steelhead pattern) measuring over 50 centimetres. Morice Bellicini made the hook and Ray hung the assembled fly on a line made of hollow plastic with a tapered leader (weed-eater cord and 300-test tip).

To raise funds to support this monumental venture, the District of Houston sold shares of the rod to residents for $5 each, which bought them a length of the rod. The community built the rod, and pieces of it literally belong to its residents. In the spirit of shared ownership, the partially completed rod was on display at the Houston Trade Show in 1989 to give residents a chance to touch and see it up close before its final installation in Steelhead Park the following spring.

On May 5, 1990 the rod was installed at a gala event that saw Highway 16 closed for the duration. The various people who were involved in its construction hand-carried it from the site of its final assembly in the industrial park to its intended home in Steelhead Park. Jarvis and Makowichuk led the procession, flanked by residents and children on bicycles, and delivered the fly rod to its final destination where a crane and more volunteers waited to erect and secure it in a tall, proud vertical display.

For 20 years, Makowichuk took it upon himself to replace the weatherworn fly each spring. It’s due to be replaced again, but the assembly will be a little more involved this time. “The hook is missing now, and I’m having trouble getting a hold of the goat hair I need to make the fly.” He has certainly taken community spirit to a whole new level with his personal commitment to maintaining the now 23-year-old monumental art installation.

The World’s Largest Fly Rod is an apt symbol for Houston’s reputation as one of the best fishing spots in BC. Tourists regularly stop to take photos of the attraction and, in so doing, learn something about the region that otherwise may have passed them by. Although promoting tourism may have been the original intention behind the project, the community involvement and commitment that was required in order to see it through seems to be a more important and lasting outcome. The personal investment that so many local residents put into its creation speaks to something less tangible than the fly rod itself, but rather the spirit of generosity and volunteerism that often serves as the lifeblood of any community.

Makowichuk’s affection for the fly rod is evident in his voice. “I drive that route 10 times a day and look at it every time I go by. It worked out really well.” He brings up Warner Jarvis and Helge Byman—old friends who have since passed on. “Most of the local people remember them.” I suspect that for Makowichuk, the rod symbolizes a great deal more than his passion for fly-fishing. He still keeps busy fishing and working as an assistant guide on the local rivers.

The World’s Largest Fly Rod is a fun and light-hearted attraction for those passing through Houston, but it also serves as a legacy to those who generously donated their time, skills and labour for the good of the community.