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In a New Jersey Garden - Forsythian Parabolas

By Gordon M. Wickstrom


WHEN I VISITED HERE A COUPLE OF EASTERS AGO, the forsythia in this New Jersey garden were in full, rampant bloom. They reminded me that old-timers over in Pennsylvania held that when the forsythia bloomed, the Hendrickson—Ephemerella subvaria—came off. The long, graceful boughs of golden bloom, waving gently, also suggested the graceful motion of the cast of a fly, perhaps a Hendrickson, over easy flowing waters.

That experience found its way into the verses of "In a New Jersey Garden," which appeared in my Notes from an Old Fly Book.

Today, two years later and nearer to midsummer, in this same garden, the masses of yellow flowers are gone, the boughs now burdened with new green foliage, upturning. The bend, the curve, of each bough is clear to see and resembles a parabola.

That elegant curve recalls for me today our enthusiasm, right after World War II, for "parabolic fly rods," rods whose bend, or "action," also suggested a parabola. In these new rods, the action or flex began deep in the butt section, under the hand, and progressed upward to gather energy and power in the midsection before handing the work of the cast over to the substantial tip. Just like a limb of forsythia.

They were powerful rods, slow, strong, and hard to damage. If they inclined to the heavy side, they were, in the right hands, superb distance casters. Their enemies called them sluggish, soft, and indelicate—or worse, like the spineless, old-time "wet fly" action rods.

Needless to say, these new rods of half a century ago were of cane—before the introduction of fiberglass and a long generation away from the hard-bitten carbon "attack" rods of today.

Immediately after the war, a renaissance of cane rod building got under way based on wartime waterproof marine glues that were stronger even than bamboo fiber itself. In New York, Louis B. Feierabend had just invented and was manufacturing the brilliant Super Z ferrule and so solved forever one of the most vexing of all bamboo rod construction problems.

With the new glues and the new ferrules, American Tonkin cane rods were the finest fishing rods in the world. (Few fly fishermen today have lived through cane, glass, and carbon and realize that cane is the most indestructible of the three rod materials.)

Parabolics were the new sensation.

The illustrious Charles Ritz, great Parisian hotelier and passionate fly fisher, was perhaps the first to advocate and manufacture parabolic fly rods. A. J. McClane wrote several probing and surprisingly technical columns about this new rod design in Field and Stream and professed to admire them. One of the greatest of all American rod builders, Paul Young of Detroit, took up their manufacture and made a significant number of discerning anglers devotees of the new bend.

Still, the average fly caster never quite liked the true parabolic. It was not quite as forgiving a rod as it had been touted to be. It was too soft, too slow, and required careful timing in order to prevent the cast's falling back on itself. In the hands of many, the rods felt tip heavy, as though the tip were being dragged along through the cast instead of contributing dynamically to it. It was just too specialized a rod action ever to become popular.

But the idea wouldn't go away. Rods with "modified parabolic action" appeared, with more stuff in the butt and lighter, more sensitive tips. Some called them "progressive action." One could still sense a nice progression smoothly up the rod to a responsive tip joint. (Almost all the fine new cane rods were made in two pieces, three pieces being thought quite old-fashioned.) Lou Feierabend, of great ferrule fame, while developing machinery and rod tapers for Nat Uslan's five-strip construction, thought from the beginning that anglers would not accept a rod that bent under the hand and argued with Ulsan for a swelled butt on his progressive tapers. He wanted a rod that would sturdy up the cast and throw more and quicker energy into the tip section.

Ah! But not like those prewar, weak-tipped "dry fly actions" of old, which simply could not stand up under the strain of modern power-stroke casting. It's important to recognize that this modern American fly casting after World War II came under the influence, if not the control, of the West Coast, San Francisco anglers who wanted to throw big flies a hundred feet over big water to rampaging steelhead. They needed rods that would stand up under incessant double hauling, not to mention heavy fish. This "modified parabolic" (the word parabolic rather quickly dropped from the angling lexicon) or "progressive action" did superbly well.

Winston and Powell made these rods in the far West, Bill Phillipson tried them in Denver, Paul Young mastered them in Detroit, and Nat Uslan and Lou Feierabend built them out of five strips in New York. Fly rods were never to be the same again. Everywhere the new American Masters dominated the field, making the finest rods that the world had ever seen — before or since.

And so fishing goes on and on, inexorably connecting everything to everything else—or seeming to. A garden full of forsythia has much to tell us about our fishing. ~ Gordon M. Wickstrom

Credits: From Late in a Angler's Life Published by University of New Mexico Press. We thank Gordon for the use.


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