Bring Back The Cane. Part One.
The classic Hardy CC De France compared with the modern Tom Regula bespoke fly rod. Explore the history and construction of split-cane fly rods explained by Clark Colman's in The Total FlyFisher Magazine. Can you answer the question: is there still a place for cane within the running-water flyfisher's armoury?
Nowadays, working your way up or down a river or stream with a split-cane fly rod can attract quizzical glances from fellow anglers wielding more familiar carbon or graphite equivalents. Some will regard your continued use of cane as an affectation at best and a stubborn refusal to move with the times at worst. However, such views might just soften a little if you place a cane 'wand" in their hands and give them a few minutes to try it out. I did this recently, with a superb guiding client from Australia, and couldn't help but smile at the pleasantly surprised reaction that followed.
"I expected it to weigh a ton and bend like a steamed noodle, but this one's really light and crisp!'
Most split-cane fly rods are, admittedly, a little heavier than those built from carbon or graphite and offer the soft, all-through or full-flex action with which they've long been associated. They may not, therefore, be quite as easy on the arm and wrist over the course of a day on the water, or be as capable of delivering the kind of high tip speed, high line speed, tight loops and quick recovery that mapy of us look to the very latestill rod materials and designs for. However, for those whose fishing circumstances, preferred techniques and casting style suit them, tradition al-action cane rods are a joy to use.
Investing in a modern split-cane rod with a traditional action precludes the kind of damage risks inherent in taking an older rod to the water, while advancements in material sourcing and construction techniques have also enabled current craftsmen to produce models that not only look just as, if not more, beautiful as those of yesteryear, but which have many of the snappier performance characteristics that we've come to expect of carbon or graphite. So just how have cane rods come since their earliest days? I'll be using this two-part feature to try and find out...
The Age Of Cane
The initial popularity and widespread use of split-cane rods arose out of a desire on the part of mid-to-late 18th- century rod builders for a lighter, stronger and crisper material than wood. Hazel, hickory and other coppice woods had been used for centuries beforehand, but although straightforward enough to work with, they left much to be desired where the above-mentioned criteria were concerned as did their oft-encountered tendency to warp and break (especially at or near the rod tip). Split Calcutta cane was first used for the tip sections of fly rods alone, with the rest still being made of the usual woods, greenheart (an evergreen, dense and water, resistant wood from South America) or whole cane. Versions constructed entirely of split cane then began to appear in greater numbers.
These were largely two-piece rods, with each section initially fashioned from two strips of cane. Three and four-strip versions followed, before the first six-strip, hexagonal fly rods became fairly common by the late 1800s. These were almost entirely hand built. However, Hiram Lewis Leonard, an American gunsmith turned rod builder whose products would come to be almost eulogised by, among others, GEM Skues (our nymph fishing forefather's WBR or World's Best Rod was an 8ft Leonard), spurred the process on towards mechanisation through devising and employing a machine known as a Beveler to cut and taper the strips of cane that were glued and whipped together to form rod sections.
The high pith content of Calcutta cane did nothing for the strength and longevity of early split-cane fly rods and the material was also prone to damage by insects and during the manufacturing process. This led to its replacement with Tonkin cane by the turn of the 20th century. Originating in China, Tonkin became prized for its high fibre density and resulting straightness, strength and flexibility essential prerequisites for use as a rod material. Further industrial advancements enabled other components like ferrules, rod guides, handles and reel seats to be produced faster, in greater quantities and at a reduced cost.
The resulting boom in split-cane rod manufacturing brought with it concern on the part of some (such as Leonard himself) that standards were slipping, and where quality performance were concerned it's fair to say that a bigger gulf emerged between the truly excellent (as exemplified by companies such as Orvis in the US and Hardy Bros in the UK) and the downright awful. That said, cane rods certainly became more accessible and affordable, and it would be interesting to determine whether. at the same time, the number of flyfishermen around the world increased. I'd certainly like to think it did!
In terms of their performance, split-cane rods were initially characterised by their lengthiness and all-through actions — neither of which was conducive to comfortable false casting and producing encrgised, narrow and aerodynamic loops with the silk fly lines that partnered them. Such drawbacks were less or an issue for wet-fly fishers than for those buying into the so-called 'dry-fly revolution' of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The doctrines of F M Halford and his disciplines called for greater casting precision and the ability to deliver single, lightweight patterns (plus the leaders to which they were attached) upstream and sometimes into a headwind. This in turn prompted rod builders to adapt their approach and produce shorter rods, with cane tapers that allowed for the crisper actions that were much sought after by the new dry-fly men.
Not Gone And Certainly Not Forgotten
Some late 19th and early 20th century anglers balked at abandoning the longer, heavier wooden or whole-cane rods with which they'd learnt their craft. In a similar vein, a number of their successors have refused to stray much beyond split cane on rivers and streams worldwide — even after the emergence of fibreglass by the 19 SOS, and of carhon and graphite thereafter, allowed for easier and quicker manufacturing of lighter, faster and more wear-and-tear-resistant rods.
One of my favourite angling writers, Dr Laurence Catlow, remained firmly wedded to his Hardy Perfection, Mitre Hardy, Sharpe's Eighty Three and others, until the late 20th century. Catlow's justification for this, as expressed in his spellbinding second book Once a A FlyFisher, must surely echo that of many like-minded souls: Such views are very much that of the and in time the gift a seduductive little Loomis Dr Catlow to declare the age of split cane "dead". His feting of the new rod's lightness, together with its casting, accuracy, line control and trout-playing capabilities, certainly puts his old cane friends in the shade. However, there's surely something to be said for the heritage, cosmetic beauty and soft, shock-aborbing action of a traditional split-cane rod? What's more, modern cane rod makers are able to tap into the best of both worlds in producing rods that are not only as stunning as of decades and centuries past, but which can, if so desired, be brought closer to carbon and graphite in terms of performance better than ever before.
All In The Making
A split-cane fly rod begins its life as a comb of bamboo weighing around 3lb — considerably more than the 3oz to 4oz rod blank into which it's transformed! This process, the amount of stages therein, the number of modern devices used and the overall time taken (which can be anything from 40 to 70-plus hours) depends on the rod builder's individual style, the speed at which they wish to work and the number of rods they aim to build. It can generally be summarised as follows.
After being 'flamed' to darken it for cosmetic effect (this is not done if a paler coloration is desired), the bamboo comb is split by tapping a wedge into one end and down its entire length. The two pieces are then themselves split to create thinner strips of a width normally less than one centimetre. Splitting is still largely done with hand tools. However, unless the maker is intent on preserving as much tradition as possible, an electric belt sander will then be used to flatten any surface protrusions before the strips are planed (either by hand or a milling machine) to an angle along their undersides. It's the angle to which the strips are planed that determines the finished rod's flexibility and whereabouts along the blank this flex is largely found. The greater precision to which planing and shaping can be done nowadays can allow for significantly faster rods than our rod-building forefathers were able to produce.
Once examined and deemed fit for purpose, six cane strips (ultimately forming one rod section) are placed together in a hexagonal configuration, loosely secured at one end with thread and dipped in a tank of thin but strong thermo-setting glue. The joined strips are then more tightly bound along their length; a temporary measure carried out by hand or a binding machine to hold them in the correct position while the glue sets. If (as is often the case) the resulting six-strip section is not entirely straight, it's then held over a naked flame to soften the bamboo and allow any kinks to be smoothed out by hand.
Ferrules are then glued onto the rod sections and a lathe is commonly used to slim down the bottom of the butt section to accommodate the reel seat and handle. Seats can be made from a number of materials, from bronze to maple burl, allowing for as much simplicity or ornateness as is desired. Handles, meanwhile, tend to be fashioned from 12 to 14 cork rings slid on above the seat, glued together, shaped on a lathe and sanded to a smooth finish. The tip ring is glued on and details such as the rod 's name, maker, length and line rating are added to the butt section above the handle with India ink. The entire Cane sections are then varnished (either by dipping or brushing) and allowed to dry, with two or three coats often required for a suitable gloss. Silk thread is used to attach the rod guides and, if desired, to form decorative whippings in between the guides. This is also given multiple varnishings for fusion to the rod and protection.
Short of protective ferrule 'stoppers' and a suitable bag and/or tube, the split-cane fly rod is now complete and ready to go to a good home. So, in part two of this feature I'll be taking delivery of just such a rod from Dorset's Tom Regula, one of the modern generation of English bespoke cane rod builders. To judge from his website and the testimonials thereon, Tom achieves the perfect marriage of tradition, progress, beauty and practical fishing performance when it comes to crafting his bespoke rods. What better way, then, to assess the similarities and differences between older and newer models — plus the relevance of split cane for running-water flyfishers in the 21st century than to pit one of Tom's against one or two of the 'serving veterans' in my little collection? I hope you can join me for this experiment next month!