By Lou Zambello:
(Condensed from The Unreasonable Virtue of Fly Fishing by Mark Kurlansky)
The rich history of rod making spans the globe and goes back hundreds of years. One of the earliest written references was in the 15th century; the book, Treatyse, stated that a fishing rod should be cut during the winter (when the wood was driest) from a hazel, aspen, or willow tree. It should be 9 feet long and as thick as a man’s lower arm. A tip section is then attached from the top shoot of black thorn, crabapple, or juniper, and the butt section planed to taper.
Early anglers constructed their rods themselves and it took an entire winter. Bait or fly fishermen used the same rod. They were all made in two parts and ranged from six to eighteen feet long. The sturdier butt section was wood and the more limber tip was constructed of a variety of materials. The rodmaker had to possess the skills of a cabinetmaker and a blacksmith. He heated and steamed the rod parts to straighten them and prepare them for joining. A hole was then burned into the lower section so as to insert the tip.
By the early 1700s, haberdasheries sold fishing rods for the non-do-it-yourselfers. Even then, anglers talked about the need for more limberness to absorb the pressure of big fish so the line wouldn’t break. During the heyday of whaling in the 17th century, baleen became the material of choice for rod tips because of its lighter weight and flexibility. Baleen is found in the mouths of filter-feeding whales.
It wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that rodmakers manufactured a product specifically for fly fishing with limber materials such as ash or willow. Trout rods measured twelve feet or more while salmon rods frequently exceeded seventeen feet! Americans began building their own rods from greenheart and lancewood imported from Britain. Then everything changed when the first bamboo canes arrived from the Far East. The first split-cane rods were manufactured in England in 1851 using cane strips glued together, but the results were crude.
Bangor, Maine’s own Hiram Leonard perfected the technique for building split cane rods and is considered the father of bamboo rods. He invented a machine that beveled the bamboo strip edges to make a more uniformly tapered rod in much less time. He also switched from India’s Calcutta cane to China’s Tonkin cane, which was more uniform and durable. By 1876, the H. Leonard Rod Company was producing 200 rods a year with only 11 employees. (Conclusion to follow)