Split Cane Rods
I am in a fortunate position to have a few close friends and associates who are, shall we say, high up in the fishing tackle food chain. And as a consequence of their generosity, I am privileged to be given some of the most modern and innovative trout rods with which to fish. Indeed, most of my spider fishing for the past few years has been exclusively carried out with some of the most advanced and lightweight graphite rods imaginable.
However, in the past decade or so, I have started to turn away from these modern manifestations and have increasingly become captivated by the soul and elegance that is split cane. It is hard to put my finger on just why I have started to turn towards cane. It’s not a simple yearning for the past, as I grew up in the seventies when the golden age of British bamboo rod making was supposedly at an end. Mass-produced glass fibre rods had already saturated the market, and the evolution of carbon fibre was beginning. Anglers, and especially young anglers like myself, became hypnotised by modernity and the brave new world of the modern fly rod. It seemed then that there was always some new rod with new magical powers on the market. And today, it seems no different.
In concert with the new religion of the tungsten bead, it appears that new “Nymphing” rods are beginning to saturate the market, just like the powerful dry fly rods of the late eighties and early nineties. But in truth, I no longer follow the latest angling trend. I have reached a comfort level in my angling and casting abilities, and I am happy with both my successes and failures as an angler. The allure of casting a fly into the far distance, or the ability to lob a heavy bead of tungsten at short range, are two presentation techniques that fail utterly to catch my imagination.
I suppose a few years of working for a well-known American retailer and tackle manufacturer have made me plain cynical. But the truth is, I just do not believe anything I read regarding rod reviews or professional angler’s endorsements. I know how the system works, and how product reviews are linked to advertising budgets. When was the last time you read a really bad review of a fly rod?
So, with this world-weary view, I began about ten years ago to turn much of my fishing over to the use of cane rods. For me, there is an integrity and purity to the casting of a split cane rod that is lacking in modern glass or graphite rods. There is also the fact that I can speak directly to a cane rod builder and discuss a range of variables that go into the making of my ideal rod.
However, we now live in a disposable society. Where increasingly nothing is valued, especially craftmanship. Graphite rods fit comfortably within this disposable ideology and are purposely built around a mass-production model where profitability is the primary concern. They are by their very incarnation, mass-produced, disposable and utilitarian add-ons to our sport. For me though split cane rods cut across this depreciation of our sport and speak directly to the soul of the owner. They are handled with a reverence that is bound out of an appreciation not only of its casting quality but also its origin and heritage. The purchase of a split cane rod is an investment in a craftsman’s philosophy and time. And these rods take us back to a time when artisan craftsmen were revered for their skill and dedication, and when we valued their craftmanship over glossy advertisements and profit margins.
For me, there is an almost elusive spirit within a split cane rod. The taper is quite simply everything, and it gives the rod a serenity that allows it to stand out from all others, and dare I say it, even above build quality. There is no Computer-Aided Design or modern production values, cane rods are where a sympathy of design and harmony of materials combine. Living materials blended with a vision and craftmanship into a living process. And it is this living process that gives every rod an individual character and personality of its own, an undefinable quality that is absent in modern graphite rods. But let’s make no mistake here, the building of a split cane rod is an incredibly labour intensive process. And the high prices quoted for many of these wonderfully crafted rods in no way adequately reflects the level of dedication and skill that goes into making them. And it’s because of these labour-intensive processes that I would argue that a hand-planed split cane fly rod offers more value for money than any of today’s modern graphite rods.
Over time I have slowly built up a small but fine collection of rods that cover most of my fishing opportunities. One of my first purchases was a vintage 8ft Hardy Phantom dated to the 1960s. Even for its age it still has a nice crisp feel to its casting action, and regularly accompanies me on fishing trips.
However, my first commissioned rod was a beautiful 7ft 4-weight designed and made by Gary Marshall. And it is the commissioning and building of this rod that shows the true difference in philosophies between a split cane rod maker and modern rod factories. For a couple of months, emails were exchanged between Gary and myself about the rod finish, I prefer blonde rods. We discussed the design and feel of the cork handle, the reel seat fixtures and fittings, as well as an inscription on the rod to commemorate the birth of my son. And all this was even before we got to discuss tapers and fishing!
A visit to Gary was planned, where I would see a few examples of his work, cast a few rods and discuss where and how the rod would be fished. I explained that it would be a rod for the upland becks that I occasionally fish and that it would need to perform at short ranges and have the backbone required to flick out a short roll cast. Gary’s adaption of the Cattanach “Sir D” taper was cast over the garden lawn and the choice of rod picked straight away.
“JJ” as the rod is called, is perfect for fishing the many small becks in the Yorkshire Dales and is a testament to Gary’s craft as a cane rod maker. The first fish taken on the rod was a beautiful 2½lb grayling that rose to a diminutive size 16 Red Tag.
In the intervening years since my first custom rod purchase, I have become more and more enchanted with the world of split cane rod building. And have been extremely fortunate to have met and spoken to some of the world’s finest rod makers around including Per Brandlin, Bob Colson, Jeff Wagner and many others. Their dedication to the craft and reverence to those rod makers that came before them, is a testament to the fine traditions of our sport. But it is also a living, breathing and evolving tradition. They are not only constantly pushing the boundaries in designing and perfecting new tapers, but by necessity have embraced the new digital world by building websites and social media profiles in between the sanding down and straightening of nodes.
A living and breathing example of this blend of modernity and tradition can be found in the work of Luke Bannister. Luke’s evocative “fishing interludes” on YouTube are as wonderful as the rods he builds. Having spoken to Luke a couple of times over the years, I was delighted to try out an 8ft version of his renowned Superfast rod. Its hollow build coupled with its fast and smooth responsive action makes it perfect for an angler brought up on fast modern graphite rods. And as you would expect from a master of his craft, the rod’s finish was sublime. It was and is a magnificent rod, but not quite right for shall we say, my languid style of casting.
A lifetime of fishing “teams” of north country spiders with short open casting loops has given me a sort of “hybrid” style of casting which means I often can’t get on with many rods. But no matter, for this, is where the true art and precision of a rod maker comes into its own. After a few months of researching tapers and deliberating on performance, I had a particular taper in mind that might complement my casting style as well as the size of my home river. My new rod needed that length to control the line on the water coupled with a “progressive feel”, together with the ability to cast a variety of different loop shapes over a distance of 6 to 15 yards, which is for me the sweet spot for dry fly fishing. I eventually choose the classic Garrison 206 taper which though originally designed around the casting of silk lines, would nevertheless suit my casting and fishing style down to the ground. Especially if the taper was tweaked to a longer 8ft rod. After several email conversations with Luke, it was agreed that Mr Garrison’s classic rod taper could be tweaked sufficiently with a slightly swelled butt section to build a rod to my liking. As with Gary years before, Luke was insistent that the rod should look and feel how I envisioned it. And so, I choose another blonde rod build “Afterall, gentlemen prefer blondes”. Clear whippings tipped with Pearsall’s green gossamer silk were specified, along with a chunky western-style grip. I also expressed a wish that the rod should have that distinct “Bannister” quality to it. As this rod should not be viewed as a Garrison copy, but instead be an embodiment of Luke’s personality and craft as a rod maker.
On my first day with the rod, I could not hide the smile on my face as the rod progressively loaded its first cast! It is simply a joy to cast and covers a range of distances with equal comfort. Loops both wide and narrow are formed with consummate ease and there is a reserve of power for when tighter loops and greater distances are needed. Within such a short space of time, the “206” has become my new rod of choice and has accompanied me on recent fishing days. The first fish to be landed was a typically beautiful golden bellied Wharfdale brownie of about 1lb. The serenity of the rod’s casting action being perfectly in tune with the splendour of that late summer day.
For those wishing to learn more about these two wonderful split cane rod makers please follow the links below.
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.