Necessity is the mother of invention. - 16th c.


A Brief History of the Bamboo Flyrod

In this column I will attempt to give a brief history of the split cane flyrod. This overview will be truncated but I hope to illuminate readers about how cane flyrods came into being, their place in our angling heritage and their evolution to today's status. For readers that wish to delve much deeper into the evolution of flyfishing tackle I heartily recommend Classic & Antique Fly-Fishing Tackle by A.J. Campbell. This book is by far the most definitive and exhaustively researched on this fascinating topic.

Cane flyrods came into existence out of the desire to improve on the previous rodmaking material of choice: wood. As is still the case today, rodbuilders have always searched for a building material that is lighter, stronger and with a higher modulus of elasticity. Prior to about 1834, American flyrods were made of wood and were typically at least 11 feet long. While wood rods were very easy to manufacture, they did have their drawbacks. Wood rods were subject to warping and their tips very susceptible to breakage. In addition, you can imagine the work involved with casting such a long wooden flyrod with it's attendant weight.

In attempting to solve the problem of broken rod tips early rodbuilders substituted wood for more flexible materials such as whale baleen. The next idea was trying laminated strips of wood, followed by the use of laminated bamboo strips. The first 'rent and glued' bamboo rod tips originated in England and they were composed of a bamboo species imported from India, so-called 'Calcutta cane.' This started an evolution towards substituting cane rod sections for rod sections other then the tip until rods were made entirely of bamboo.

The cane rod sections were originally made from two strips split and glued, then progressed to three strips, followed by four-strip sections. There is controversy over who can claim to have built the first rod using cane for all sections of the rod as well as who originated of the idea of using the familiar six-strip design. It is generally agreed that the first person to make six-strip sections was Samuel Philippe of Easton, Pennsylvania. The first entire rod of six-strip construction is attributable to Charles Murphy of New York and rods utilizing this form of construction were fairly accepted by 1870.

It has been postulated that it was easier for builders to split six usable narrow strips from Calcutta cane. Calcutta cane was prone to damage by boring insects and was also often damaged by the practice of scorching the bamboo with fire. This practice was apparently used to either straighten the culms, kill the insects, or for cosmetic ornamentation. In addition, Calcutta bamboo had a relatively thin layer of outer 'power fibers' and a very pithy interior. Because the four-strip design utilizes proportionally larger strips then the corresponding six-strip design, four-sided rods had a larger amount of powerless 'pith' in the middle of the completed rod sections. The problems associated with Calcutta cane as a rod material were obviated when the Charles Demarest company began to import a new species of cane ('Tonkin' bamboo) for rodbuilding sometime prior to 1900.

Many early rodbuilders were trained gunsmiths. This is a natural fit as many of their gun clients were also anglers. Gunsmiths learned their skills in working wood and metal to fine tolerances by virtue of apprenticeships under master builders and these skills and tradition became part of the rodbuilding craft. One such gunsmith, Hiram Leonard, was soon to revolutionize cane rodbuilding by utilizing a machine to manufacture the six tapered cane pieces that when glued together, compose a rod section.

The importance of the Leonard machine cannot be overstated for it wedded the craft of building rods to the industrial revolution. As a result cane rods could be made more efficiently and therefor widely available for angler's to use. The craft of cane rodbuilding progressed from the tedium associated with fashioning strips by hand methods to the principles of mass production. Leonard was fully aware of the business advantage that his machinery gave him, and kept his rod -forming machine under lock and key with the threat of firing any employee that dared to enter the room where it was housed.

Although today there is a wealth of information available in every medium to learn how to build rods-books, videos, internet chatrooms, rodbuilding classes- this was not always the case because rodbuilders guarded their building methods as proprietary. It was as essential to guard against divulging trade 'secrets' as it is today in competitive industries, and for the same reasons. Having worked through a period of apprenticeship to learn the craft, these men derived their very livelihoods from rodbuilding.

As I close this first column, you can see that many hurdles were overcome in a roughly forty year period in order to bring cane flyrods from their infancy to the standard of the industry. Born out of necessity to replace an inferior rodbuilding material, rodbuilders experimented with bamboo in various geometric configurations to finally settle upon the common six-strip hexagonal section. In order to make rods available for the angling public Hiram Leonard had to find a way to produce rods efficiently in this new material, and so was the first to use a machine to produce rod sections quickly. Finally, rodbuilders had discovered a new type of cane to build their rods that held numerous advantages over the 'old' material.

Part, II.

Before I digressed in my last column to discuss Tonkin cane, we had covered bamboo rodbuilding from its early origins up to Hiram Leonard's innovations at the turn of the century. Leonard had found a way to make rods in quantity through the invention of his machine to cut and taper the six pieces of bamboo that make up a rod section.

One might be tempted to view the early work of Leonard and his contemporaries with a certain amount of what I will call 'historical bias.' In our modern, throwaway society we tend to view objects from our past with certain disdain. We may think of them as quaint relics of our past or somehow technologically inferior to products made at a later date. But closer examination reveals this is certainly not true, and the earliest work produced by Leonard and the workers that trained under him bears witness to the extraordinary talent of the men that produced these rods. Comparing a fine early rod to the mass produced graphite of today is as comparing a fine handmade watch to a cheap digital from Walmart.

The men hired to work for Leonard reads like a who's- who of the 'Golden Age' of cane rodbuilding. As in the case of many successful businesses, Leonard had the wisdom of hiring highly skilled craftsmen and trained them well in an atmosphere of excellence before they struck out to establish their own high quality companies. Some of the most recognized names of people that worked for Leonard include Ed Payne, Fred Thomas, and Hiram Hawes.

There were several forces at play that changed the nature of the tackle trade. Just as Leonard was able to make cane blanks efficiently with his beveler, Thomas Chubb of Vermont began to mass- produce the metal components that are utilized in building rods such as the reelseats and ferrules. Whether the lower cost of building a rod resulted in a boom in flyfishing, or whether the demand for an economical rod spurred these changes, I don't know. But some of the workers under Leonard became disenchanted with the drive to produce rods at an ever- increasing rate and at lower quality, and even Leonard himself was unhappy with the movement towards a lower standard.

As an example of this change, last year we received an early Ed Payne rod in for restoration. Made around 1910, it was a truly extraordinary testament to the early standards of craftsmanship. The hand -made, all nickel silver cap and ring reelseat stood out as the finest workmanship in a reelseat that I've ever seen. The slide band was as delicately knurled as the finest watch, and the overall proportions were pleasing to the eye. Likewise, the ferrules were extraordinarily well made and still fit like a glove. This rod also featured full intermediate wraps and a fine signature wrap, two embellishments that were often present on early rods but took extra time to execute. I could only wonder at the pride that the original owner must have had as he uncased this beautiful instrument for a day on the stream. This person was no doubt a man of some means, as a rod such as this did not come cheap. As time passed, high-quality rods like those made by Ed Payne's son Jim continued to be made, but the finer points of metalwork were to be simplified for mass production and cost factors.

Another major change occurred with the advent of dry fly fishing. Prior to this time, a fisherman would typically use a long rod to cast a fairly open loop. At the end of the line was a leader with a couple wet flies attached and the cast was made across the current and allowed to swing across and downstream from the angler. As more people began to fish dry flies rod companies altered their tapers to produce faster, tip-action rods more suitable for this style of fishing and rods generally became shorter and lighter in weight.

With the advent of low-cost (and also sometimes low-quality) production rods more people could afford to enter the sport of flyfishing and the tackle trade flourished. It is important to remember that cane rods were made in all quality grades, from the truly terrible to the sublime. And just as there are more Fords on the road today then Jaguars, you are much more likely to find a Montague in grandpa's garage then a Payne. It is often a surprise to a person when they learn that the rod they've found isn't worth thousands of dollars. In addition, many folks may have gained their only impression of cane rods through casting a low-quality article. I would urge anyone with an interest in trying a cane rod to 'test-drive' as many as they can with a builder at their shop or at a flyfishing show. I guarantee that anyone having a bad impression of cane from having cast a long, cheap and poorly made production rod will be favorably impressed.

What caused the end of the 'Golden Age' of cane rodbuilding? There were several factors, but the embargo on bamboo had some part. In addition, the advent of fiberglass as a rodmaking material allowed rods to be produced in a fraction of the time that a cane rod could be made. They were lighter, 'low maintenance' fishing tools that could stand a lot of use (or abuse) and their manufacture didn't require the level of skill involved with producing a fine cane rod. Because of these factors, one might be tempted to proclaim that rods made from synthetic materials are 'better' then cane. To which I can only answer thusly: I'll trade you any graphite rod of your choosing for a rod like that Payne we restored! Do I have any takers?

!!!!!!!! Special Offer !!!!!!!! Order any J.D. Wagner flyrod with a Hardy reel and we will fill the reel with backing and a Cortland 333HT DT flyline for FREE!!!!!!!!!!!

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