Over My Waders


By Larry St. John (1920)


TACKLE is something that anglers use part of the time and talk about and tinker with all of the time. No man can say what the proper tackle is for any kind of fishing as every experienced angler is likely to have ideas of his own on that subject.

There are, however, certain conclusions that generations of skilled anglers have reached through cumulative experience and these are here set down for the benefit of the beginner and the inexpert; I also include some opinions of my own and permission is hereby granted the reader to disagree with me.

It is natural for an angler to love fine tackle and he should buy the best whenever he can. However, all anglers are not rich men and this is especially true of bass fishermen since the black bass, because of his wide distribution, is essentially a poor man’s game fish. For this reason I have tried to cover the tackle subject as practically as possible because it is appropriate, not necessarily expensive, tackle that makes fly fishing a pleasure in itself regardless of the heft of one’s basket at the end of the day.


The “rods” used by the earliest anglers evidently were of native cane of some sort or switches cut “a la small boy” from the stream side. The earliest description of a rod and its making, will be found in Berners’ “Treatyse.” She goes into detail on the election and curing of the wood and the making of the rod which, if followed out carefully, would produce a fairly good fishing tool of well seasoned and correctly proportioned wood. The early fly fishermen of Kentucky caught their fish with rods of native reed, 10 to 14 feet in length and weighing from 4 to 6 ounces. Used with the finest and excellent reels of their own manufacture, it is apparent that their tackle was as light and neat, if not as luxurious, as what we use to-day.

Dr. Bethune (1848) describes the rod of his choice as follows: “A fly rod should not be more than 141/2 feet long at the farthest; the butt solid, for you need weight to balance the instrument and your spare tips can be carried more safely in the handle of your land-net. . . . A rod in 3 pieces is preferred at the stream but inconvenient to carry and, if well made, four will not interfere materially with its excellence; i.e., the butt of Ash, the first joint of hickory, the second of lancewood and the tip of East India barn or, as I like better, the extreme of the tip of whalebone well spliced on. The rod should be sensibly elastic down to the hand, but proportionately so, for if one part seem not proportionately pliant, the rod is weak somewhere. In some rods there is what is called the double action and such a one I used for 15 years and thought nothing could be better; but, on trying another stiffer, though at first awkward in its use, I learned to like it better.”

Early American fly rods were often made up of different woods, as described by Dr. Bethune and Wells expresses a preference for this type of wood rod. They are still thus made, and sold for very low prices in England, but American makers do not catalog them. This is regrettable since a rod with butt of second growth white ash and middle joint and tip of lance or greenheart can be made and sold for a few dollars and is ideal for the beginner who can afford to invest only a very small amount in a fly rod. At present the most favored fly rod materials are steel, solid woods and split bamboo.


A present-day steel rod of the better class is wonderfully well made, being of a high class of material imported especially for the purpose. The steel rod is an excellent tool for certain kinds of fishing but the steel fly rod is very heavy and has a listless action compared with a rod of wood or bamboo, although considerable improvement has been made in them of late years. Compared with the old style steel rod the extra light weight model handles a line fairly well and when wrapped solidly with silk it is enormously strong. A friend who fishes for the heavy bass in Florida uses a rod of this kind and speaks highly of it. The regular steel rod of 9 feet weighs 8 ounces; the extra light weight style about ~ ounces.


Wells in his “Fly Rods and Fly Tackle” lists and describes more than 20 kinds of wood suitable for rod making but modern makers have settled upon lancewood, dagama, greenheart and bethabarra as being the most satisfactory.
Practically every angling writer and rod maker advises the purchase of a good wood rod if the angler cannot afford a hand-made one of split bamboo. In another work I have disagreed with this advice as regards the short bait casting rod, but as an unusual amount of skill and very good material are required to make a first class bamboo fly rod perhaps a well-made wood rod is the proper tool for the angler wishing to invest only a small amount, or for the beginner who, later on, may acquire more positive opinions as to what constitutes a good fly rod.

Later, I will discuss the cheap bamboo rod. In considering the purchase of a wood rod the angler must bear in mind that the merits of the sticks used in making a rod have much to do with the ex-cellence of the finished product.


Perhaps I am prejudiced as regards lancewood as my first fly rod was of that material and nobly did it perform. The best type of lancewood rod probably is made up with an ash butt as rods made entirely of lancewood are a trifle heavy although some anglers prefer them.
Lancewood comes from Cuba, the best sticks being light yellow in color and free from dark stains. One of the largest American tackle houses claims that lancewood has lost favor mainly because of inferior material being sold as this wood.
A first class hand made rod of lance can be bought for about six dollars; a nine footer weighs about 6 1/4 ounces.


Dagama also comes from Cuba and is similar to lancewood but is said to be more durable and free from pin knots. It is heavier than lance, a nine foot rod weighing 61/2 ounces, and a rod of this material costs about one dollar more.


In England greenheart is the most popular rod making material, not excepting bamboo, although the latter is making great headway as its merits become better known. Greenheart comes from South America and is of the color of walnut, being strong and fairly resilient. It takes a nice finish and makes a handsome rod but compared with bamboo it is somewhat heavy arid not quite as “snappy” in action - which is true of all wood rods.
Most of the greenheart used in this country comes from England where tackle makers have become skilled in the selection, cutting and curing of this wood. A good British greenheart rod can be bought in England for a few dollars and an excellent one laid down in America costs from eight to twelve dollars, depending on fittings. A good American maker lists his greenheart rods at nine dollars. An average English-made greenheart rod of 9 feet will weigh 7 ounces.


Bethabarra, or washaba, is the most expensive wood commonly used in rod making. It is a dark wood coming from British Guiana and is very strong and many anglers prefer it to any other wood. It is slightly heavier than greenheart and is said to hold shape better. A nine foot American made bethabarra rod weighs about 6~/4 ounces and costs eleven dolIars. A superior selection is sold under the name noibwood.


Beyond a doubt the best fly rod material is good bamboo properly selected, cured, split, glued, and correctly proportioned. It possesses strength combined with lightness, resiliency, pliancy, power and balance in greater degree than either steel or solid woods.
Formerly anglers and rod makers could draw fine distinctions between male and female Calcutta and Tonkin “canes,” but under present conditions good Calcutta is very rare and the word “ Calcutta” is becoming merely a trade term. Good bamboo of all kinds is more difficult to obtain and a good piece of Tonkin is better than an indifferent one of Calcutta. Male Calcutta, however, is supposed to be superior to either the female or Tonkin. The cheapest split cane is known as steel vine or African cane. It s light colored and makes up into good, inexpensive fly rods.


We assume that you know that bamboo is split and then glued together in order to utilize the hard outer enamel and reduce the diameter of the pieces. Some rods are made of bamboo split into six sections (hexagonal) and some in eight (octagonal) but the six strip construction is more often used. Some makers claim that the eight strip, being more nearly a true cylinder, possesses better action but this seems to be more theoretical than practical, while the tiny tips of an eight strip rod are likely to be “soft “ due to the comparative amount of glue necessary to hold the pieces together. Eight strip rods cost more than the six strip and if the angler wants a round rod they are preferable to the six strip planed down as planing certainly must injure a rod. As a general rule a well-made six strip rod leaves little to be desired.


A novelty in bamboo rod making is what is known as the “double built” rods which are made of two layers of split and glued bamboo, one within the other. They are heavier and strong, and it is claimed, hold their shape better, than ordinary rods and are popular for sea and salmon fishing but unnecessary, I believe, in single hand fly rods.
An English innovation is the steel center rod which consists of a fine piece of well-tempered steel running as a core through sections of regular split bamboo. The makers claim this construction gives a rod of superior casting power with only 1/4 of an ounce added weight. Friends who possess rods of this kind are enthusiastic admirers of this construction for heavy fishing.
An American maker supplies a rod of “twisted bamboo” which he claims equalizes the strain and produces better action. I have never tried a rod of this type so am unable to pass on its merits, but Perry Frazer, in his “Amateur Rodmaking,” speaks well of it.


As a general rule British rods are heavier and longer than those used in this country although the American light rod idea is becoming popular in England andBritish rod makers have been forced to cater to this demand both at home and abroad. The average Brit-ish angler, however, clings to his 12 and 14 foot rods because of his inborn conservatism.
American anglers marvel at the heavy rods and fine terminal tackle used by their British brethren but, as a matter of fact, the difference in weight between American and English rods is in ounces and not in power. British rod makers use heavier fittings and their rods are built heavier in the butt which often is increased by the use of a button and spike that adds as much as 11/2 ounces to a rod’s weight.
Because of this heft in the butt the American angler, whose knowledge of British fly rods has been gained by reading British tackle catalogs, is surprised to learn that a British-made rod of 10 feet and 8 ounces “swings” just as easily as an American rod of the same length and of 2 ounces less weight.
Comparing the best British and American rods I am of the opinion that, even after making allowances for the Britisher’s heavier construction, American rods possess more casting power. On the other hand they are poorer finished. That is, they do not display the niceties that one expects when paying twenty-five or more dollars for a fly rod. Good American fly rods are severely plain while British rods are invariably more distinctive in appearance and, with the exception of ferrules, better fitted. My sympathies are with the angler who pays thirty dollars or more for a fine fly rod and who objects to paying three dollars additional for agate first guide and tip-tops and proportionately for other “extras.”


Perhaps the ideal fly rod, like the ideal bait-casting rod, would be a single “stick” but such a construction would not fit in well with American fishing conditions. Imagine rushing for the I :40 with a nine or ten foot rod case! The same objection, but in less degree, applies to the rods of two pieces of equal length, which are popular in Europe. The average American fly rod is made in three pieces - butt, middle joint and tip, with an extra tip - and this seems to meet with general approval.

Wells maintains that the proper form is the three-piece rod with an independent handle, his reason being that it enables the angler to turn his rod from time to tiine and thus equalize the strain and avoid a “set.” It is a reasonable theory. “Tourist rods” are usually made up of three tips, two middle joints, two butt joints and an independent handle, for use when the angler goes into the wilderness far from the tackle repair shops. Naturally a rod of this type is expensive. The trunk, suitcase or Sunday” rod is made in four, five or six pieces for compactness and extreme portability. Its action, because of the number of ferrules is likely to be impaired somewhat and such a rod is recommended only when circumstances make it imperative. I know an angling parson who toted one of these rods in the tail of his frock coat when going about his parish and many a lusty fish he “snaked” out of wayside streams. The combination rod, consisting of a number of joints to be used interchangeably to make either a bait or fly rod, is a handy tool on canoe trips where weight and space are matters of great moment, and when one wishes to cast both bait and fly, but it is generally the fly rod end of the combination that is least satisfactory.

© 2000 Reed F. Curry

All content copyright Reed Curry © 2006.
Cartoon by Walter Young © 1961, used by permission.