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The Old Masters

By James Castwell

They aren't all gone yet, but someday they will be, the 'Master Cane Makers,' and it troubles me. It troubles me that they are not being replenished. Oh, sure there are still a few very good makers out there, producing rod after rod on a daily basis and not being able to keep up no mater how many days and hours a week they work. Most of them are years, not months or weeks behind in delivery. For the average person to buy a fine cane rod, he must be willing to wait on the average of 24 to 36 months. I recently asked one of the best, Ron Kusse, if he could keep up with orders if he had one more of 'himself' working at his shop. He told me, and I fully believe him on this, "I could not keep up and fill all the orders I have now if I had six of me in here."

Years back, there were several companies working full time cranking out fine cane rods and in the process training and developing workmen to continue the craft. Honored names were created in that era, names we all know and respect. Most of these companies are gone now, the tools sold off or discarded and the employees in other jobs, retired or just plain gone.

Our modern fly rods are all graphite now and we are developing a fine batch of folks who really know how to 'roll' a rod and the other mysterious things that go on to produce these marvels of casting. But, they are craftsmen, not artists. Artistry is not needed to make today's rods. Not to put them down in any way, please. No slight intended, but the years of apprentice and then on to journeyman have been replaced by finely tuned and computerized machines. A person in a rod shop today usually does not make a whole rod, just some part of it, over and over, again and again.

Sure, we have many cane makers today turning out very nice rods, but for the most part, they have day jobs. They build for a myriad of reasons, but none are to produce the numbers of rods like Payne, Young, Leonard, or Powell, just to name a few. Some of the larger companies are still making cane rods, often sublet to off-site makers on a one-at-a-time basis when called for. Their production has now turned to graphite, that's where the main market is.

So, the masters are leaving us. The true 'old-world' craftsmen who can turn a culm into a priceless possession. Who will replace them? Who indeed. Will the trade re-build itself? Will some company start producing nothing but fine cane rods, and that's all? Will the home craftsmen or hobbyist, who now fashion one bamboo rod a month, leave their day jobs and keep the tradition of great American cane rods alive?

The market will decide that for us. Will the demand be for rods which are as near to perfection as an artists hands are able to make, or for rods which are only very similar to each other? Will the home craftsmen continue to learn and improve their methods, skills and tapers, continuing to advance, but never settling on a few patterns which will become their legacy? The rods produced today are almost always, or nearly so, direct duplications of tapers from by-gone years, or the current craftsmen's adaptation or modification for today's lines and casting preferences. Time will tell.

Where will it end? It will not end, but will evolve as the pendulum of progress continues to swing. The ebbs and flows of our desires, wants, and demands will steer it's course. Will there be masters as we know them today, men like Kusse and Summers? Hard to tell, but, we will have something, there will always be something. It will be up to us. If we continue to be satisfied with what we have now, then that's all we will end up with. If we want a return of the old days of many fine cane rod companies, we must start soon. We have lost way too many of the great masters now. ~ J Castwell

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