Neil Travis - January 10, 2011

Halford, considered by many to be the Father of Dry Fly Fishing, published a book entitled “Dry-Fly Fishing in 1889, which is 122 years ago. As I was rereading Halfords classic fly fishing book I was immediately struck by how relevant his information is even today. It was also interesting to note that many of the discussions about two handed versus one handed rods are similar to the discussions that are being made today.

Before we look at some of Halfords conclusions about fly rod design we need to understand that the six strip, glued bamboo fly rod was a relatively new invention, and that none of the modern materials – fiberglass, graphite, boron – were even a twinkle in any inventor’s eye. Most of the fly rods that were in use in Halfords time were between 11 and 13 foot long, and they were made from hickory, greenheart, whole cane and built or split cane. They were still using spliced joints to join the sections of the rod together but new types of ferrules were beginning to replace them. There were screw-type ferrules, tongued, suction and many other ingenious models. Fly lines were either horsehair or plaited silk. Reels were made of brass, leaders were made of gut, and flies were tied to gut. Despite all the obvious differences between the equipment that was available to Halford and the modern equipment that we have today his insights and conclusions about rods for dry flying fishing are remarkably applicable even today.

Let’s look at Halfords advice on choosing a fly rod for fishing a dry fly:

“The first and most important factor to be considered is the choice of a rod; and on this question the whole angling fraternity is divided into two totally distinct schools, vis., those who advise the use of a double-handed and those who prefer a single-handed one for dry-fly fishing. The advocates of the double-handed rod allege that with it they can throw a longer line, and that at the same time the fly is laid as lightly on the water as with the single-handed. They also lay great stress on having more power over a fish while playing it, and being better able to keep a hooked trout from plunging headlong into the nearest bed of weeds. On the other hand votaries of the single-handed rod deny that a longer line can be thrown with a double-handed. They also urge that any fancied advantage due to greater power over the hooked fish is far more than outbalanced by the manifest disadvantage of having to carry and wield a heavier implement. Above all, they defend their preference on the ground of being able to cast with greater delicacy and accuracy, of being far less liable to break the fine gut in the act of striking, and in addition of being able to cast with greater ease against a much stronger adverse wind than is possible with a the best balanced double-handed rod.”

Halford was a proponent of the single-handed rod. This caused a strong disagreement with Francis Francis, a prominent and highly respected angler whose book, A Book on Angling, went through several editions and was considered by many anglers to be the final authority on questions concerning fly fishing. He was an advocate of the double-handed rods but Halford noted that he did concede the point that “for delicate or accuracy with the wind, and in a far greater degree against the wind, the double-handed rod never had a chance with the single-handed.”

In the sixth edition of his book he inserted the following footnote:

“I have seen 26 yards cast with a single-handed rod, and I also cast the same length at the same time with the same line and rod. -----I have heard of even longer casts than this.”

26 yards [78 feet] is quite a cast with the equipment that was available at that time.

Halford discussed how to choose a single-handed rod:

“Having determined to select a single-handed rod, the points to consider are, firstly, the material which the rod should be made; secondly, its length; and thirdly, the style of action to be preferred.”

This sounds very similar to the decisions that the modern angler needs to make when purchasing a fly rod. Halford noted that “practically speaking, only two open to the would-be purchaser, namely, split cane, and green-heart.” He noted that “green-heart is less expensive, and not much heavier than glued-up split cane.” However, green-heart “has a knack of breaking off short in a somewhat surprising way.” This seemed to be a problem in the butt section around the ferrule. Halford noted that sometimes the problem is caused by the angler.

“He has smashed his rod by neglect or a primary desideratum for one who wishes to become a fisherman, namely, patience. He has returned his fly from the water and set it swinging out behind him, but instead of waiting until his rod is released from the strain of this backward motion, has prematurely forced it forward again the mistaken notion that this action will enable him to cast further. No timber can stand this double strain, and hence the smash.”

While Halford was not reticent to recommend that the angler purchase a green-heart rod he was clearly sold on the advantage of the newer design, glued-up, split cane.

“For the fisherman for whom the comparatively small difference in price is not important, glued cane cam be most strongly recommended. It is far superior in every way, and is well worth the difference in cost. It cast better and casts further, and does the work with less labour both to the angler and to the rod. In fact there is precisely the same difference between a split cane and a green-heart rod as between a thoroughbred and an underbred horse. One answers when called upon for extra effort, the other shuts up. ------the built cane rod will slide four or five yards of slack through the rings when making a long cast, if a fairly heavy line is used; to attempt this with a green-heart rod of similar action would result in a broken rod.”

Halford went on to discuss, at length, how a good split and glued cane rod had to be constructed. He warned his readers against purchasing a cheap model, noting:

I found his discussion about guides; he called them ‘rod rings’, to be most interesting.

“The rod rings may be either upright, for those who prefer them (and of all the upright forms that known as the snake is the best), or them may be of the ordinary loose pattern. The line passes a little more freely through the former, and the advantage of the latter is that when packed in the case there is less likelihood of their becoming broken or injured. In either case they should be made of hard German silver.”

After concluding his discussion on fly rod materials and construction he entered into a lengthy discourse on rod length and rod action. We will examine those discussions in the future, but I believe that much of Halfords advice is still valuable today.

I found it particularly interesting that, when commenting on the fact that hurrying the back cast could ‘smash’ a rod, he attributed the problem to a lack of patience! He also rightly attributed the cause of this action to the mistaken idea that by applying extra force that the cast would go farther. Anyone that has been a casting instructor knows that this is still a problem today.

It’s apparent that, even in Halfords day, quality cane rods were expensive. Halford wrote a long discussion about how a cane rod was constructed, and all the work that was involved. He talked about the purchasing and selecting of the cane, the seasoning of the cane, and then the experience necessary to judge the resulting cane. He spoke about the fact that many “cheap or inferior” rods were made out of sawn rather than split sections. Then there were issues with the taper and stiffness of the various sections, the time it took for the glue to dry, varnish and the fitting of ferrules. Halford made quite a convincing case for the cost of a quality cane rod. While some of the issues facing rod makers in Halfords day are no longer an issue for modern cane rod makers, the fact remains that making a quality cane rod is still labor intensive. Halfords conclusion “It is impossible to make a rod of this description excepting at a comparatively high price.” is still true today.

In future articles we will examine more of the universal fly fishing wisdom of F.M. Halford and other anglers whose insights, both in theory and practice, form the basis of our modern fly-fishing techniques and practice.

All quotes from the 1889 edition of Dry Fly-Fishing in Theory and Practice, F.M. Halford

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