Up until this point in our series we've covered the history of cane rods, the
rodmaker's bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis), as well as a series detailing how
rods are built from beginning to end. But now comes the good part- a series
of columns to introduce you to some of the finest and most talented people in
the rodbuilding business.
We are fortunate to participate in a sport that has such a long and colorful
history and emphasis on tradition. For many people flyfishing becomes much
more then a sport or simple pastime, it becomes a way of life and each
person's memories and contributions become a rich part of our angling
This next series of columns will feature some folks that I've come to respect
and value for their contributions to cane rodbuilding as well as having been
privileged to meet and talk to over the years. I have found through making
friendships in this community that the best stories are not in the equipment
or the work itself, but the people behind them.
A few years back, my wife and I received a distinct honor: an invitation to
attend a yearly gathering of a small and select group of rodbuilders hosted
by Jon Parker (Parker Rods) and his wife Carol along with their neighbor,
Dave Shadrick. This event is held at their retirement home in Wyoming along
the North Platte and is notable not just for the graciousness of the
Parker's, but also for the quality of the company they keep.
On one of our first evenings there, Jon and Carol had arranged an intimate
dinner with a few of his best friends. Seated at the table were noted
rodbuilders Charlie Jenkins and the late John Lohman, artist Charlie Ports
and to our right sat Louis Feierabend. Our dinner began with a fresh
watercress salad that Louis had picked during a float that day, and as the
wonderful meal progressed we were captivated by Louis' story.
Louis is probably best known as the inventor of the Super-Z ferrule (more on
that later), but this is but one of his many accomplishments. You see, he's
what many people would refer to as a Renaissance Man- with an extraordinary
breadth of talent, knowledge and experience acquired over his life of 90
years. Talking with Louis is a chance to learn much about rodbuilding as well
as some of the many luminaries of the fly fishing world.
I recently gave Louis a call at his home in the mountains outside Boulder, CO
to check up on him and see how he was doing. He told me he just turned
90 and was still enjoying life and getting around well. He mentioned he
enjoys the wildlife on his fourteen-acre spread, and has even managed to tame
a fox that comes to eat out of his hand! He said he was looking
hopefully forward to spring, when he can get out and fish the uncrowded
feeder streams in the area.
Louis was born on February 17, 1910 near Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His family owned
a greenhouse that raised flowers for the wholesale market in New York City.
As a young boy, Louis learned how to fish at a local farm pond called
'Bullhead Pond' on account of the small catfish that the boys caught there.
He recounted that his first fishing outfit was about as rudimentary possible:
a stick with a length of catgut.
His father died while Louis was still quite young and after some public
schooling he was sent off to a military school in Staunton, Virginia. The
officials at the school allowed him to bring his .22 caliber rifle with him
from home. One day while target shooting near a stream he noticed some bass
in the water, and lacking a fishing rod, traded his gun for his first
split-bamboo rod. This Utica rod, Louis laughingly remembers, was a real
During his second year at Military School a classmate invited Louis to spend
some time at their family cabin along the Gallatin River, near Bozeman, MT.
It was there that he was introduced to trout fishing and caught his first
fish on an artificial wet fly. The year was 1927, and so began his love for
trout and rivers.
Louis went on to college at the University of Miami, but the Depression cut
short his dream of a degree. He landed a job in procurement at Wright
Aeronautical in Patterson, N.J and through this job became knowledgeable
about engineering and also developed a love for flight. Finding that he could
advance no further without a degree, he left the company and briefly was
employed by a man named Fulton.
During his stint with Fulton he met two women, one a buyer, the second an
engineer, and they set up shop in a basement to begin making ferrules for the
tackle trade. At this time (1948) the fiberglass looked to be the promising
rodmaking material of the future, but the existing types of ferrules were
unsuitable for the hollow design of the new fiberglass rod blanks. Drawing on
his engineering background, Louis designed and patented the Super-Z ferrule.
This ingenious new design worked for both the new fiberglass rods as well as
bamboo rods and offered additional strength, easier mounting and manufacture.
Upon hearing of this new design, the noted independent cane rodbuilder
Everett Garrison came to visit the ferrule making shop. As a fellow engineer,
Garrison himself was quick to see the advantages of Louis' Super-Z design and
became an instant convert. Louis also showed his design to Jim Payne who
remarked, "I wish I would have thought of that." Although the business grew
as they began to supply the glass rod trade with the new ferrules, the size
of the market and the going rate for the ferrules ($1.50 a set!) wasn't
sufficient to support all three workers, and Louis had a wife and four
children to take care of. He turned over the business to the women, asking
only for a lathe and continuing patent rights to the design.
For a time Louis went into partnership with John Bishop and they opened a
tackle store called Rockland Tackle. The shop was located between New York
City and the Catskills and it was there that he rubbed elbows with the famous
anglers of the time. Ray Bergman, Lee Wulff, and Jim Payne would drop by from
time to time. Louis admits that he probably didn't have the right temperament
for the tackle trade, and was perhaps too honest and straight talking for his
Louis next came on board the staff at the newly established Uslan Rod Company
in Spring Valley, N.Y. The Uslan Company had found their own niche in the
rodbuilding world by manufacturing 5-sided bamboo rods. Louis was charged
with improving productivity by designing new machinery as well as redesigning
the rod tapers to make these rods much better casting instruments.
Louis set out to improve the Uslan rod tapers in his typical straightforward
style. He took micrometer measurements on some of the better rods of the day
such as those made by Payne, Thomas and Leonard. These measurements were
plotted on graph paper for comparison, and Louis adapted what he learned to
the 5-sided rods at Uslan. The resulting efforts were then tested for
approval by angling experts such as Wulff and Bergman. It is worth noting
that every rod in the Uslan catalog was developed through this method of
empirical experimentation and simple graphing of rod tapers.
Louis shared the knowledge he gained at Uslan when he was asked to author a
chapter on rodbuilding for McClane's Wise Fisherman's Encyclopedia.
This concise treatise on rodbuilding should be required reading for anyone that
desires the knowledge of how to build cane rods without wading through
superfluous pseudo-scientific mumbojumbo.
Again finding that the pay in the field of rodbuilding wasn't sufficient to
support his family, Louis left Uslan in 1952 and took a job at IBM. Although
IBM was hesitant to hire Louis because he didn't hold a degree they soon
found that his diverse experiences and talents were uniquely suited to
facilitating projects. Because he could 'speak the language' of the engineer
as well as having the practical experience in the shop to produce things, he
found a nice niche for himself. He helped design typewriters and assisted the
company in a patent infringement suit. As the company moved into the
electronic-age he was responsible for managing teams that developed the first
automatic tape recorder, which in turn evolved into the IBM 7330 project- the
first tape recording device to be incorporated into a computer.
Louis has led such a full life that it wasn't easy writing this column and
attempting to condense his 90 years into such a brief article. I almost
forgot to mention that Louis was a welcome guest of Jim Payne at the Payne
factory and they spent many pleasant hours together fishing. Or how Jim
offered him a job, which he had to politely decline. Louis wanted to also
share a bit of his world with Jim, and took him on a ride in his glider. (Did
I forget to mention he's got over a 1,000 flight hours?) As I close this
article I was happy to find that Louis is still designing, inventing and
moving forward with the same vigor and curiosity that we can all only hope to
have in our futures. ~ J.D. Wagner ~
© 2000, J.D. Wagner, Inc.