Over My Waders


By Larry St. John (1920)


Several American angling writers once had a controversy as to whether the chief end of a fishing rod is ability to cast well or to hook and play a fish properly To me it seemed like arguing on the relative merits of one’s right and left leg since a good rod must do both well. To meet these requirements a rod must possess strength and power combined with lightness and balance, pliancy (bend) combined with resiliency (spring), these so related as to cast a reasonably long line straight and true with the minimum of effort on the angler’s part, and to hook and land the fish that rise to our flies.


Good action is an indefinite term when applied to a fly rod as every angler’s idea of good action is likely to be different from that of his brothers. Some fly fishermen are slow, methodical workers, cast with great deliberation, and prefer the long “weepy” type of rod and its smooth action; others cast “snappy,” handle a long line without much regard to delicacy and will use nothing but a rod stiff from butt to tip. Between these extremes you will find a multitude of opinions more or less reasonable. The English have the theories of rod action whittled down to a fine point, even producing devices to register the number of vibrations in a rod but such matters belong to the manufacturer not the angler.


Without going into a tiresome discussion of the technicalities of rod action, the ideal fly rod for bass fishing would be along the lines of the rod used by the dry fly fishermen or the tournament type of rod - a rod often described as having “plenty of back bone.” Such a rod is a powerful caster, capable of handling a longer line than is commonly used in trouting in this country and with considerable “horse power” in the upper third which is needed as a bass’s mouth is bonier and tougher than a trout’s and at times one must strike hard. Furthermore, bass flies are bulkier and take up more water than trout flies and the bass fly fisherman is more often called upon to use spinner, cork bodied flies and other heavy lures. Finally, the bass averages much more in weight than do the trout of most waters and like the trout he is often caught in cluttered-up places where he cannot always be given his head. Such a rod, if of fair weight and length, naturally is not an easy one to use all day and any modifications of it should be along the lines of making it slightly more pliant for ease of casting but the angler should remem-ber that the farther he goes in this direction the farther he gets away from the ideal rod from the standpoint of bass fishing efficiency.


The rods commonly used for bass fly fishing range from 9 to 10 1/2 feet, both inclusive, the 9, 9½ and 10 foot lengths being the most popular. Just what length to select depends on the preference and the physique of the man that intends to use it. By this I do not mean that I subscribe to the fine drawn theory that one’s rod should be arbitrarily gauged by one’s height but a man of slight stature would derive more satisfaction by fishing with a nine foot rod than one of greater length, since the ideal bass rod is not an easy one to “swing “ for long periods.
A rod of American manufacture of the correct action should weigh from 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 ounces in the 9 foot length; 5 1/4 to 5 3/4 in the 91/2 foot and 6 to 6½ounces in the 10. One might say that these lengths and weights are almost standard in regions where fly fishing for bass is commonly practiced.
For fishing where bass run heavier than ordinarily, such as in the southern states; for weedy rivers and lakes where the fish must be landed quickly or never; for wide, wind-swept bodies of water or for British rods made along British lines, a half or three-quarters of an ounce may be added to the g and 9½ footers and a full ounce or even more to those of 10 feet.
One may have his rod made especially for bass fishing but rods made for dry fly trout fishing often prove ideal for our purpose and any fairly heavy trout rod may be used in an emergency.


Of the making of many trout rods there is no end and there is a surprising variation of opinion among experienced trout fishermen as to what a trout rod should be. Perhaps it would avoid confusion if they were put into classes in a general way which I will now proceed to attempt.


The so-called “ baby “ or “ fairy “ trout rods are dainty little fishing tools seldom over 7½ feet in length and weighing from less than an ounce to 21/2 ounces or so. They are not, as one might imagine, mere toys to hang on the walls of the den nor are they practical for general fishing conditions. Casts of from fifty to seventy-five feet have been made with rods of this type and fish up to two pounds have been landed with them but they are for the expert angler and for most favorable conditions, such as casting from a boat in water where there are no snags or obstructions of any kind so that the fish can be played with considerable freedom. The difficulties of making a rod of this light weight that will stand up under any kind of fishing bring their cost up.


A little heavier than the foregoing we have the type of rod that might be called the brook rod, which ranges from 7 1/2 to 8½ feet in length and weighs under four ounces. These fine little tools are perfection for fishing small streams where “lunker” trout are not often found.


The rod used by the general run of trout fishers will be 9 or 9½ feet long and weigh anywhere from 4 to 5 1/2 ounces. Such a rod meets the average (if there be a thing) fishing conditions that prevail in American waters. There is a wide range of weight here and an equally broad choice of action and relative stiffness.


The heavy trout rod class overlaps the bass rods and the same weights and lengths are often used. That is, 9 to 10 feet in length and from 5 to 8 ounces in weight, the latter being for the heavier fishing such as is found in Lake Superior waters and the larger streams of the far west.


The dry fly rod approximates the bass fly rod, or rather the bass fly fisher has seized upon the dry fly rod - or one similar to it - as his very own. American anglers most often use the so-called tournament weights in their dry fly fishing. That is, 9 foot rods weighing 43/4 ounces and 91/2 footers that scale 5 3/4 ounces. Anglers often work out their own ideas in dry fly rods and we know one expert who fishes with floating flies with an 8 1/2 foot rod that weighs four ounces. It is interesting to note that the late Mr. F. M. Halford, the famous English dry fly expert, reduced the weight of his dry fly rods as he gained in experience. His last model, which he pronounced as perfect, was 91/2 feet in length and weighing with spear and other heavy British fittings, 8 ounces, 14 drachms. We note a similar tendency among our more expert dry fly men.


The best test for a fly rod is a season’s use on the lake or stream but no tackle dealer is going to sell his rods on that basis. The average inexperienced fly fisherman will go into a tackle store, pick up a rod, swing it a little, discuss it much and then buy or reject it, depending on the salesmanship of the tackle man. Perhaps a skilled rod maker can get an idea of a rod's action by swinging it a few times; I cannot and I am sure that the average angler can do no better. To really know what one is buying he should rig the rod up with reel and line and actually cast with it. For this reason I prefer to buy from a small tackle shop where I am known and where the owner will permit to take a rod home and give it a try-out. That is the real way to buy a rod but it is not always possible.
In buying a wood rod do not get one that is stained which hides imperfection of grain. Examine it carefully for bad spots. In buying any rod old it out straight and “sight” along its length. It should droop a trifle at the tip; if the dip is extreme try another as this fault will increase when the rod is put into use. A tip may be a trifle too stiff in a new rod as use will remedy that. If the rod is satisfactory so far slowly roll it over - the droop should remain constant during a complete turn of the rod; if the tip is inclined to stick out at an angle during the rolling process it signifies a bad spot some place.
Now put a reel and line on the rod, run the line through the guides and tip-top and fasten the end of line to some heavy object. Then put a strain on rod and note its curve. When you release the strain the tip should fly back to normal with speed and snap and a good rod should stand this test from every angle.
Finally, make a few imaginary casts with the rod and note if it feels right in your hand. If it does you tested it as much as possible under the circumstances. It is better to take a little care in selecting a rod in the first place than to try to “ get used to it later on if you find it not up to your ideal.


We have given some idea of comparative prices of wood rods but the great range in prices in split bamboo rods is something bewildering to the beginner. They can be bought for from seventy-five cents to seventy-five dollars. Obviously one is not going to get a first class rod for seventy-five cents nor for seven dollars and fifty cents. On the other hand it is not necessary to invest thirty or more dollars for a rod fit to fish with. For from ten to twenty-five dollars one can get a first class bamboo fly rod - one good enough for the father of his country if it is selected carefully.
The raw materials - unsplit bamboo, fittings and varnish - of a thirty-five dollar fly rod can be bought in the open market for about twelve dollars. The difference represents profit, workmanship and selection. It requires not only considerable mechanical skill to produce a good bamboo fly rod but rare good judgment as well. From hundreds of pieces of unsplit “canes,” all looking to the untrained eye pretty much alike, the rod maker must select a few coming up to his standard and likely, in his estimation, to produce the ideal he has in mind. Pieces with “shakes,” borings, soft spots and other imperfections are discarded and the ones selected are then cut out roughly by machinery or split by hand with a dull knife, when other imperfections are often discovered. From what remains, the skilled rod maker matches up as to toughness, resiliency, etc., enough pieces to make a rod. These pieces are carefully cured and then tied together in the form of a rod and again tested. At this critical stage unforeseen imperfections may come to light. If they finally come up to standard the pieces are glued up and the rod making proceeds. This, in a brief and general way, is the method of making a fine hand-made split bamboo rod. The pieces that were rejected in the various tests may go into cheaper rods. From this the prospective rod buyer can an idea as to why bamboo rods vary so in price and why certain makers, who have reputations to maintain, charge what appears to be a “stiff” price for their output which, so far as surface appearances go, is nothing extraordinary. A few makers also have secret processes for improving bamboo.


Unfortunately all anglers cannot afford to pay twenty or more dollars for a fly rod and he then can buy either a hand-made one of solid wood or a cheaper one of bamboo.
As stated before, a fine hand-made bamboo rod is a matter of selection but American factory efficiency has been applied to producing rods as well as other things and everything considered the present day machine-made bamboo rod is surprisingly good - for the money. The splitting machines used in modern rod factories do remarkably well when one considers the good, bad and indifferent material they work with and by making a careful selection one often gets a fairly good rod for a small investment. I have owned a number of cheap bamboo fly rods that were good fishing tools and it is a notable fact that you see more rods on the streams costing less than fifteen do1lars than those costing more than that amount.

© 2000 Reed F. Curry

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