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
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
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.