April 26th, 2004

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Reactions To An Article
By Harry J. Briscoe

The June 2004 issue of Fly Rod and Reel Magazine has an interesting article called "Straight From the Source", written by Ted Leeson. It is an extensive interview with eight famous rod designers, from eight of the major rod-building companies. The article is both informative and interesting and it provides a good bit of background about the current state of the fly-rod designing business. Reading and re-reading it however, has set me to thinking that it may reveal as much about "us" (as consumers) as it does about fly rod construction. Mr. Leeson hints at that fact in his introductory paragraphs when he suggests that, "... some of what they (the designers) offer is practical advice, but much of it is simply interesting (as) people at the top of their craft talk about what they know." Now, even though I own a fly-rod business of my own, please don't take my comments here to be critical of either the article, or of the opinions of those interviewed folks whose comments formed the basis of the piece. These thoughts are not intended as criticisms. Those are all good guys and they all make good products. My thoughts here are just observations, maybe a little food for your own thoughts.

The introductory section of the piece is called "On Rod Actions," and really sets the stage. I re-read it three times just to be sure of what I thought I was understanding. Finally I took a felt-tip marker, and went through it again in an attempt to sort out and clarify the swarm of apparent contradictions of terms and meanings. That's not because the piece was poorly written - it's because it has become so "complicated". Allow me just a few (quotes directly from the article) - rods bend according to their tapers, but "taper" is (now) a "multidimensional" concept. There are "internal tapers" and there are "external tapers," a "fast" taper is not necessarily fast, and "slow" sometimes can be fast, but then it can also be slow. Some rods can be fast and slow at the same time depending on exactly what you are referring to. "'Action' is an umbrella term" and its definition depends on who you talk to. "Stiffness is a particularly slippery concept" that can be "measured in different terms and is difficult to talk about in any useful way" and it is replete with "common misconceptions ...". In addition to designs and tapers, materials of varying modulus(ii) can create "fast action rods that are soft" and soft actions that are fast. "Recovery rates" are critical, for instance; "Speed of recovery is the time component of action" (that one is almost poetic). "Performance is the ability of a rod to unload" - sometimes. "Efficiency" is defined in terms of line speed and loop size (but says nothing of delivering a fly to a target). "As a general rule, stiffer rods recover more quickly...but that...doesn't always hold (true)." Three different definitions of just what "fast" means are presented, and then "power" and "latent" power are identified as concepts that frequently lie unrecognized by the underdeveloped skills of the caster.

As confusing as all that sounds, the truth is it all pretty much made sense, but that's when I got to wondering about "us." The article almost burst with the enthusiasm of the rod-designers as they struggle to conquer each of these "multidimensional concepts" and produce the "ultimate" fly rod. Stepping back from that idea for a moment...

One might suppose, in rod-building, there might be an over-riding objective out there, and that, in non-scientific terms, might be to build a rod that "fishes" better. It seems though, that such a seemingly simple objective has been overshadowed by our own technical prowess, and that, almost by definition,..."If we can do it, then we should do it." A lot of what we build and foist in one another's directions for sales and consumption today is built on that credo. It's almost an edict today that "if anything can be changed (improved?), then it should be changed," and, it should be changed every year! Is there an element of over-engineering creeping into our world? Did it start to creep in about 15 years ago? What really, is the point? What is all of this ability and understanding leading to? If a "new and improved" rod is to come out every year, what does that say about the one you sold me "this" year? Can "this" really help me improve my catching - my enjoyment? Or, like the government bureaucracies, have we just grown to such a level of inertial complication that we are headed down an endless highway? I know that the "reviewers" who make their way around the Fly Tackle Dealer's Show every year are asking (almost only), "What have you got that's new this year?" That makes sense, they're writers, they've got magazines, they've got to provide something for the readers, but an element of the impression is that "if it isn't new, it isn't interesting." I digress...

The following "chapters" of the article deal with rod actions and ratings. These passages are educational for sure, but in fact, they are chock full of snippets from the author and the various contributors, each "accidentally" (in my judgment) revealing a bit more of the "truth". I may be just a tad bit unfair in my conclusion here, but bear with me. It seemed to me that the designers and the engineers love designing fast-action rods. The ultimate achievement, it seems to me, is to design the ultimate distance rod. Unfortunately for them, "we" (fishermen, customers, casters) just can't really keep up with what they are building. As a whole, we aren't good enough casters to get the maximum out of what they design for us, and that's a real shame because there is so much room yet to "go." Mr. Leeson even states, "Indeed, I got the sense from virtually all these designers that most modern fly rods, on the performance curve, are ahead of most modern fishermen." Pity. We could only hope to be a better lot.

That said, the sections on "medium" and "slow" rods, do extol the virtues of these ("inferior") options, and they do (grudgingly) point out a lot of the pleasure and versatility that comes from using them. In fact, they are "almost" (but not quite) recommended as the "best" (??) choice for many anglers. There was even a reference to a "wistful" sense of "loss" that these rods were not more in favor. In fact, "nearly all" felt that "slow actions were under-appreciated and underutilized by most anglers". Now, I haven't done a scientific survey of all of the rod ads I see, but I don't think that's the primary tone of the marketing most of the time. What does that say about "us"? We all want Ferraris? Surely market research has these rod-builders targeting that which we "want", doesn't it? I do know this, as it comes to golf, for instance. Any infomercial that promises a longer drive will sell drivers - forget the fact that driving only accounts for about 12 strokes in the average round. When we go to the driving range we spend most of our time with the driver, rather than chipping and putting where our score could be improved; (and brother Callaway is always very anxious to show us the newest option in drivers). And $500 drivers abound out there. Can you really buy a better game? They are snapped up furiously as they reach the stores - and six months later they appear on ebay, having themselves been replaced by the next generation of promises.

I rather think the objective of a good fly-rod might be to "lay the fly down gently and on target at whatever distance that target may be." And agreed, one single rod does not accomplish that objective for all situations. Beyond that, good fishing, for me at least translates to a good "feel," a good "joy," a good "satisfaction," a good "pleasure," a good "confidence," and a good "value." Those might really be the things we want,...aren't they? Walton Powell once told me, "Sure, you should practice to be a better caster, you'll enjoy it more, but let me tell you something, 'The trout doesn't give a damn about what your loop looks like!' ".

If you ask most guides to describe the most common mistake that fly-fishermen make, it is that they look past the most-productive water, close in to their feet, and pick targets that are too far away. They spend their time fishing well beyond where they should, and frequently beyond the limits of their own casting ability. (I know that the biggest trout I ever caught was taken by accident on an "afterthought" cast of about 15 feet). If you ask most fly-shop owners to describe the first thing most prospective rod-purchasers do on a casting ground, it is that they immediately attempt to see how far they can cast, and they nod approvingly or disapprovingly at the rod they have just "tested." These are two very well known realities, probably practiced by most of us (come on, admit it). Neither of these approaches often adds to our fish-catching success. What that may say is that most of us are not "in it" for the fishing. We may think we are, but that's not how we behave. The last line in the article quotes Tom Dorsey, "...when we talk about rods we try to get scientific. But fly rods are probably closer to violins and wine than they are to rocket ships." Heaven forbid that most of us select rocket ships for our fly-casting, and we forget that fly-fishing is what we came for.
~ Harry J. Briscoe
President, Hexagraph Fly Rods
April 21, 2004

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