History of Fly Rods
An overview of history of fly rods from
200 A.D to 2000s
One of the most interesting histories of fly fishing and fly rods was written by Dr. Andrew N. Herd of England.
Dr. Herd traced fly fishing back to 200 A. D. in Macedonia. The Macedonians used a wooden pole with a line and a bit of crimson wool attached to homemade hooks to catch fish. Doubtless this was a solid pole and not very flexible but nonetheless a fly rod by definition.
The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle was published as part of the second edition of The Boke of St. Albans in 1496. This book describes in detail how to construct a fly rod of the period. The base of the rod was hazel, ash or willow, with an insert second top piece of smaller hazel. The final part of the top section was “a fair shoot of blackthorn, crabtree, medlar, or juniper”. The Treatyse describes a lot of soaking, drying, hole burning, fitting, binding and so on just to get a fly rod. No running out to a store for instant gratification here folks.
These rods were massive affairs and not the little light weight 00 – 5 line weight rods we enjoy today. The Treatyse also talks about how to make colored braided horsehair lines of different thickness for different fish species, how to make your own hooks, floats, weights, fish species and when to fish for them. Lines were about 16 feet in length so “casting” was more or a dapping or short pickup and drop technique.
In the eighteenth century, the fly rod started to slowly evolve. Poorly made jointed rods were being made, trout rod lengths ran from 9 to 12 feet and tapered braided horse hair lines were down to single hairs for 9 foot rods.
Silk lines were starting to make an appearance and “bamboo cane” was making an appearance in the top sections of salmon rods. The advent of the industrial revolution allowed the mass production of a variety of tapered fly lines and the beginning of machine produced fly reels. The fly reels were not well designed and often malfunctioned. Still no major revolution in fly-rods was taking place.
From 1800 to 1850, rod design and manufacture was improving. The best rods were still made from ash, hazel and lancewood as in the past centuries. But Calcutta Cane, of good enough quality, was being substituted for lancewood. Jointed rods were still unreliable and were likely to snap off. A variety of joints was tried. A female brass socket with a male wood end. A brass female socket and a brass male end. Screw joints were also used. A piece of whale bone 4 — 5 inches long was still used for rod tops. The joint quest would not end until the Orvis company invented the strong thin walled “suction joint”.
From 1851 to 1900, split cane rods were perfected. The false cast was discovered, dry fly technique emerged, mostly modern reels were being manufactured and a Scotsman advocated the upstream cast with a short ten foot rod.
1901 to 1950 — The hexagonal split cane rod was the dominant design. A trout rod was generally between 9’6″ to 11 feet. The ferrule was being increasingly used in rod production. Orvis perfected the suction ferrule. Hardy Company of England was promoting the ‘Universal’ reel seat invented by Dr. Emil Weeger.
Prior to the 1880s, rod butts were made by machining a swelling into the material or wrapping the handle with pigskin. By 1900, cork was the more common covering for fly rod handles. Ground cork for inferior rods and natural cork on premium rods.
The discovery of nymph fishing by angling great G.E.M. Skues was one of the most important fly fishing advances. Discoveries by Skues are still carrying us forward today..
1951 to 2000 — The glass-fiber rods appeared in the late 1940’s. But they did not sweep the market as their weight was similar to split cane. The lower cost of a fiber-glass rod was the main advantage. After the development of carbon fiber rods in 1976, rod weights plunged to the point where line weight became a factor in rod handling.
Another look at the development of modern fly rods is by Don Phillips, the inventor of the boron fly fishing rod in 1971. “The Technology of Fly Rods” The author is a fly fisherman, mechanical engineer and the inventor of the boron fly rod towards the end of 1971.
In 1952, the first modern fly line as we know it appeared. I have found both Cortland and Scientific Anglers claim to have developed the line in the same year. In any case, the new plastic line would float and not become water logged like silk. (Once a silk line was water logged, it had to be discarded.). Silk lines were effectively dead.
My poor summary above doesn’t do justice the vast amount of material on Dr Herd’s website. Please visit his site and spend some time getting all the fascinating information there.
My thanks to Dr. Andrew N. Herd of www.flyfishinghistory.com (Unfortunately, this site is no longer optional). Dr. Herd compiled a massive amount of data on his site about fly fishing history. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of hours that went into making his site let alone his book “The Fly”. This book is a complete history of fly fishing from its earliest recorded beginnings to the present. Dr. Herd’s second Book “The Flies” will contain details of every major fly pattern from medieval times to 1899.
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