Root River Rod owner remembered for his open-heartedness, his love of bamboo fishing rods
Lanesboro business owner Steve Sobieniak, who passed away Sept. 22, said rebuilding bamboo rods was like 'giving a second life.'
LANESBORO, Minn. — Steve Sobieniak knew what a good fly fishing rod felt like.
He developed a feel for the graceful casting tool, particularly ones made of bamboo.
He could pick one up, hold it, test the looping graceful curl of the line and the supple movement of the bamboo rod. Each one was different. With the older ones, it was like hurtling back in time.
The bamboo rod may have been made decades ago, the maker long since deceased, but an exquisitely-made fly rod conveyed to Sobieniak something about the maker. The guy knew what he was doing.
It was something he wished for himself. And by most accounts, he achieved that goal.
“I hope they say, ‘This guy really knew what he was doing,'” he told the Post Bulletin in a July 2017 article.
Sobieniak, 67, died Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, after a yearlong battle with cancer.
Sobieniak was the owner of Root River Rods in downtown Lanesboro, and his fly rods were sold nationwide.
His passion for bamboo fly rods evolved from a lifetime of building and enjoying the outdoors. His father introduced him to fly fishing as a boy growing up in upstate New York. His mom was a lover of antiques. Before their revival in the mid-1970s, bamboo rods were viewed more as artifacts that belonged in museums than in the hands of fishermen.
Sobieniak made a name for himself in the construction industry. He was a skilled custom cabinet-maker in the Twin Cities and regularly featured on the television show, "Hometown." He worked with famed architect Sarah Susanka, prominent builders Dahle Bros, Landschhutle Group and others.
It was his love of fishing and woodworking that combined to ignite his interest in rod building, according to his obituary. One of his mentors was rod-maker and writer Hoagy Carmicheal.
He studied the craftsmen that popularized bamboo rods in the 19th and 20th centuries. He was taken in by the intricacy and care required to make six-sided fly rods from precision-milled bamboo strips.
Sobieniak had made regular trips to Southeast Minnesota for trout-fishing expeditions, said Wayne Bartz, a friend of Sobieniak. Except for that corner of the state, Minnesota isn’t known for having good trout-fishing spots. So it only seemed natural to move to Lanesboro when he opened his fly-fishing store in 2017.
“He had been coming down here for 20 years fishing before he opened the store,” said Lance Pedro, Sobieniak’s son-in-law who now operates the store.
He developed a reputation for being willing to talk to all comers, no matter the time of day.
“Steve is what I would say was one of the good guys,” Bartz said. “He was friendly to everybody who came into his shop. If you called him up when the shop wasn’t open, he would accommodate you.”
Bartz, who owns one of the Sobieniaks’s custom-made fly rods, said Sobieniak became well-known for buying, repairing and selling pre-owned bamboo rods.
“He was very interested in the history of fly fishing,” Bartz said. “And bamboo rods are one of the really big parts of the history of fly fishing.”
Rod-making has gone through various phases through the decades. From the late 19th century into the middle of the 20th century, bamboo was the material of choice for making rods. It had the virtue of casting better than other woods. And, intriguingly, the best bamboo came from one place in the world: The Tonkin area of China.
But bamboo went out of fashion, supplanted by fiberglass and graphite, which were cheaper and easier for making rods. It wasn’t until the mid-70s that bamboo made a comeback, spurred by the 1976 publication of “A Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod” written by Everett Garrison and Carmichael, with whom Sobieniak later became friends.
Pedro said Sobieniak appreciated the craftsmanship of custom-made rods, because well-made ones were unique, almost imbued with their own personalities.
“Each column of bamboo that you start with is just a little different than the last,” Pedro said.
He added that his father-in-law was “open-hearted” to anyone who walked through the door. And he had a strong work ethic – a necessary quality required in both running a business and finding time to build and re-build bamboo rods.
He made the time, because he was obsessed with bamboo rods. Root River Rods sold most of the flies and other gear needed for fly fishing. But Sobieniak’s specialty was making and repairing bamboo rods.
“I'm not alone. It’s an obsession,” Sobieniak said in an interview with the Post Bulletin. “A lot of people including myself want to see one of every maker’s rods and cast it.”
In that same interview, Sobieniak discussed the joy he got from repairing discarded old rods. To repair one so it could be used for fishing again was like giving it a “second life.”
“It’s almost like living in the shoes of those master rod makers to fix it, just get it back on the water,” he said.