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The Big Rod

By Jim Clarke

After a lifetime in the gun and fishing tackle trade one may be excused perhaps for a feeling of having seen it all. My feeling is somewhat reinforced by having seen a rod like no other.

I was fishing the middle reaches of the River Bush in County Antrim many years ago, the guest of an elderly colonel whose family had lived by the river for many generations, indeed, his middle name was a patronym of one of the royal families of Ireland.

I had fished for a morning, taken two fish, grilse of about 8 lbs, and went up to the house for a bite of lunch as invited. During a very masculine lunch, doorstep sandwiches and beer (the lady of the house was elsewhere that day, or we would have had cucumber sandwiches and tea) our conversation turned to tackle. I was fishing a 12 ft Hardy Hollolight, a light salmon rod quite big enough for the Bush some 12 miles from the sea. My host habitually wielded a 15 ft Hardy L.R.H. He used it in Scotland each spring and on his annual forays to the Cork Blackwater and could see no reason to change from a rod he could use in his sleep, just because it was a little large. It was, however 50% heavier than my rod and a day with it left one in no doubt that one had been fishing! My host responded to my gentle teasing by replying that it was as nothing to his grandfather's rod. This took some believing, but to prove his point he took me through the stableyard to an outlying building which appeared to hold centuries of accumulated rubbish, gardening tools, saddles and assorted tack, a small trap which looked the right size for a Shetland pony or perhaps a very large dog, and many bales of aged hay and straw. This had at one time been the coach house, and was a roomy addition to the stable block, large enough to house a family of ten. At the far end, approached by another door, visible in the gloom were an venerable Morris Minor, the lady's, and an equally veteran Rover, my host's horseless carriage.

Dragging a ladder fron a corner, the colonel, a man of some 60 summers at this time, proceeded to climb to the roof beams! He then, with difficulty, extracted what became on closer inspection, a salmon fly rod complete with an enormous wooden reel.

What a rod it was!

An 18 ft one-piece Castleconnel!

For those of you to whom this is meaningless, a Castleconnel was a greenheart rod made beside and for use upon the Shannon, Ireland's biggest river and a prolific producer of salmon in it's day. These rods were usually in two or three pieces, spliced together, before the development of brass ferrules, with string or tape. They were the forerunners of the much respected Grant Vibration, of which almost everyone must have heard.

This monster, however, was in one piece! A greenheart salmon rod weighs a ton, or seems to, and this was no exception. To undertake the manufacture of such a giant can not have been for the fainthearted. How such a thing was made on Shannonside and then transported to County Antrim at the other end of the country defies the imagination. And this in the 1860's!

We took the rod into the yard and, with respect for it's great age, waved it gently to and fro. It was so soft and slow in the action that it seemed to take forever to recover from applied effort, but that recovery had a sweet inevitability about it that one felt sure it would have been wonderful to fish with - if one had the muscle power to start it moving in the first place.

Grandfather had taken hundreds of salmon fron the Bush on his rod, but, not surprisingly, had never taken it anywhere else! How different and difficult salmon fishing must have been in those days. Greenheart was very much a fixed material, by which I mean that little or nothing could be done to make it stiffer or lighter. To make a rod more capable thereforeone had no choice but to make it longer and ultimately heavier. You must realise that to add, say, two feet to the design of such a rod, the extra material must be at the butt, the heavy end, and the resultant product could be vastly different to the original design, two feet shorter.

The reel on the rod, fixed by two fairly crude brass brackets, was of wood, as I have said, apparently walnut, a heavy wood to start with, and approaching 7 inches in diameter. There was no backplate, the whole thing revolved, no line guard or check, just a big wing nut on the spindle which would provide rudimentary drag when required. Handling the combination can never have been easy. The line used at the time would probably have been Irish linen, taper unheard of, which absorbed water at an alarming rate, becoming impossible to fish with, unless liberally coated with a grease of some sort, usually mutton fat. This was commonly used in those days to to keep lines dry and to protect reels etc. from water damage. The resultant smell after a few weeks doesn't bear thinking about!

The only cast or leader material available to Grandfather would have been silkworm gut, an unbelievably primitive material. It came in lengths of from 10 to 20 inches, depending on how much it had been drawn or stretched, and had to be soaked in water for some hours to make it pliable and knotable. It was also somewhat unpredictable in breaking strain. A whole branch of the tackle industry grew up around the need for cast boxes made in wood, bakelite or celluloid, later in aluminium. These had to be watertight, for the coiled casts would be prepared before setting out, separated in the box by felt pads, the whole filled with water. These, it was hoped, would be useable when the river was reached. In those days there was no pulling a few yards of fresh tippet off a spool when needed. If you didn't have ready-soaked tippets with you in the box, you did without.

In 1935 a 16 ft Hardy greenheart rod weighed 35ozs, a corresponding Perfect reel another 18ozs. That total of 53ozs is 3lbs 5ozs! Compare that with today's graphite rods and lightweight reels, not much more than 15ozs for the lot. Today's floating lines are truly miraculous when set alongside those that our forefathers had to use, while superfine, dependable co-polymer or fluorocarbon must be unbelievable in relation to gut.

We have never had it so good!~ Jim Clarke

About Jim:

Jim Clarke

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, longer ago than he cares to remember, and on leaving school went into his family's business - Gunmakers and Fishing Tackle manufacturers. By the time he joined the firm it had become more retail than manufacturing , though the history and reputation of the company was somewhat patrician, which stood them in good stead in the face of the modern, retail only, fly-by-night businesses which proliferated in the fifties and sixties in the climate of leisure time explosion. A few years later, feeling somewhat stifled in a company run by father and two warring uncles, he left to take over an ailing gun maker in Chester, England. He was to stay there for thirty pleasant years, retiring some six years ago, ostensibly to have more time to fish. He had given up shooting, but in reality appears to have retired to garden, decorate and construct THINGS in the garden.†He has, nevertheless managed to fish in Ireland, Scotland Wales and England, with trips to Sweden and Alaska thrown in. You will find more of Jim's writing in our Readers Casts section.

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