Bamboo Bonzai

History of the Split Cane Flyrod, Part II.

J.D. Wagner Logo

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 a 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 those 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? ~ J.D. Wagner

With Bamboo Archives

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice