Of Wood, Bamboo, Brass and Silk

Physical objects have the power to connect us with the past.  Something of the history of an object and those who used it can, with repeated and long-term use, become infused into the object itself.  If you are sensitive to such things, that history can be felt.  One does not have to be a mystic or a metaphysician to appreciate this fact, you only have to be open to it.  I’m among the small contingent of anglers that prefer to fish with antique fly fishing tackle.  While admittedly not always the most efficient tool for the job, if someone were to ask me why I prefer to fish this way, the best answer I could give was that it puts me in touch, on both a conscious and subconscious level, with the fishermen, fish, and experiences that are infused into the history and lifetime of the tackle.  Modern tackle, lacking this rich history and connection to other people and other places, are to me just cold and impersonal products of the industrial laboratory.

The rod is the central component of any fly fishing outfit, whether antique or modern.  If it does not function well, it doesn’t matter what reel, line, or fly you use.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll talk about “antique rods”, which will include both bamboo rods and the solid wood rods that predate bamboo, usually made from greenheart or lancewood.  Bamboo rods really started to come into their own at the beginning of the 20th century and with that, wood rods became less and less common, although they were still made up until the 1930s.  And please keep in mind that what I say is just my own personal opinion, not meant to offend.  Many, many more people use graphite rods than use antique ones, so I realize that my views represent a distinct minority.

Modern graphite and fiberglass rods are born of the chemical laboratory, with any one being pretty much identical to the next one.  Bamboo and wood are natural materials.  And because they are natural, each rod is unique and has something of a “personality.”  To put it in more ineffable terms, a properly made bamboo rod–as Per Brandin has said recently–has a soul.  Every one of them carries a life with it.  That bamboo plant grew on a hill in China and waved this way and that in the wind, no two stems exactly the same.  It was cut and carried to a warehouse and dried, again no two the same. Then it was handed to a builder and he or she split and milled or planed it to shape, with every one being unique.  That gives each rod an individual character.  Antique rods are original art, like an oil painting.  Modern rods are more akin to posters or prints. 

On a more practical level, antique rods are much more pleasant to cast at short to medium distances, and they are more sensitive in transmitting the feel of the strike and the fish than is graphite.  I like the extra weight of bamboo and wood (and we’re talking mere ounces here) verses graphite.  It feels more substantial in hand while casting and fighting fish and provides better tactile feedback on what the rod and line are doing, especially if it has a solid wood handle instead of cork.  Antique rods feel like an extension of my arm, a reflexive, extra muscle.  Graphite (and fiberglass to a somewhat lesser extent) feels like a piece of equipment or a tool. 

Antique rods look like the shiny mahogany boats from yesterday, while graphite looks like the new fiberglass speedboat.  Antique rods are like a fine handmade wood bow, ready to take the buck as it approaches the stand, while graphite is like a 30.06 from 200 yards, dropping the buck with cold efficiency.  Antique rods are a handmade violin, graphite, an electric guitar.  Antique rods are the seasoned old fisherman, comfortable with his capabilities and satisfied with the simple things, while graphite is the youngster, eager to catch the most fish, as fast as possible.  Antique rods are at home on the cabin wall, holding memories of past days on the water, while graphite sits uncomfortably in the closet, waiting only to be fished.  Like food, for some, it’s a rich experience of many senses to be savored — for others, it’s about getting full fast.

The brass and steel period-correct reels that you would use on an antique rod, while heavier, balance out the heavier rod and just feel and look right.  Modern aluminum reels do not do that.  And balance is the key to a good casting and fishing outfit.  If the balance is there, any extra weight from antique gear will hardly be noticed.  And, to me, there’s just something aesthetically wrong and cognitively dissonant about putting a modern reel on an antique rod, or vice versa.

All antique rods were designed and made to be used with silk lines — plastic lines didn’t come into widespread use until the 1950s.  The silk line is an extension of the antique rod, much more pliable than plastic and smaller in diameter for the same line weight.  And while they do require some extra care, drying them out and cleaning them off after each use and dressing them with line dressing before the next use, that extra effort pays off with a smaller line that cuts the wind better, is more accurate and stealthier than plastic, and is just more of a joy to cast.  On the practical side, a good silk line, properly cared for, should last at least 20 years while you might be lucky to get 5 years regular use from a plastic line.

In the end, it all comes down to personal choice and the enjoyment you get from using the tackle you prefer. For me, when I catch a fish on an antique rod, I’m connected to a wild, living creature by a rod and a line made from something that was wild and living too. I’m participating in the continuation of a long tradition, by holding and fishing a thing of beauty and grace that people have been using for perhaps the past hundred years.  And, though it might sound a little “out there,” I feel that the rod, reel, and line I’m using are infused with the memories of all of the fish they caught in the past, and all of the many fishermen that used the tackle.  It connects me to the greater whole of a long and storied angling history, making me feel part of something that started long before I was born and that will continue long after I’m gone. And that, I think, is quite a lot to get from the simple act of standing in a stream and trying to hook a fish on a fly.

By Kevin Haney

I would like to start a special interest group of folks who are interested in collecting and fishing antique fly fishing tackle.  Some of the things we could do are learning to better cast antique rods, refinish silk lines, basic rod and reel repair, making furled leaders, and outings using antique tackle.  If you are interested, contact me at kevinhaney1@outlook.com.