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The long evolution of modern fishing poles

By BY DONNELL TATE, Harbor Report - | Oct 22, 2020

“God made poles and men made rods” is an old saying that goes back a long way, but it is still true today. The old Mississippi cane pole has evolved drastically from the days of cotton cords, whiskey bottle cork floaters and catfishing in freshwater rivers.

The evolution of rods began back in the ninth century with the Chinese leading this development with their rods made of bamboo and hand-crafted reels.

During the 13th century, men in Europe were starting to build rods. This was not surprising since these craftsmen knew how to build longbows — many of the skills and materials for which were appropriate for the fashioning of crude fishing poles.

Actually the craft of rod making is generally traced back as far as 1496 to a book entitled “The Book of Saint Albans” by Juliana Berners. This enterprising book details the process of constructing one’s own rod with hazel, willow or ash.

The book also explains the process of curing, drying, straightening and even tapering rods. The common rod of this era usually ranged anywhere from ten to 18 feet in total length. The main reason rods were so long was the reel hadn’t been invented yet, and casting far out in the river demanded longer rods.

In 1660, a French book entitled “Les Rus Innocentes” by Frere Francois Fortin appeared. It included articles about constructing rods out of hollowed-out holly or hornbeam with the tip of a whalebone.

Iziak Walton’s book, “The Complete Angler (1676),” contains descriptions of rods constructed of hazel and also recommends using fir.

Most of these rods were basically of solid construction and were very heavy. Rods that were over 12 feet were especially heavy and limber.

It wasn’t until the late 1600s that rods were constructed by gluing strips of fir or Hazelwood together. Soon, a group of expert craftsmen graced the scene with more sophisticated rods that eventually created a huge market and made rod-building a profession.

Calcutta bamboo, which is still in use today, was popular and in general use in the 1600s.

Poles made of the bamboo consisted of solid pieces instead of beveled strips. Other rod-building materials of this time included hickory from America and Lancewood, which were greatly cherished. Although they took a set quickly, they were handled with great care and handed down to succeeding generations.

By the 1800s, the split bamboo rods came into general use, but they were primarily used only for their tips.

As a result, split and beveled sections of bamboo were being glued together in three- and four-strip tips in the 1840s by British rod-makers such as Bernard, Aldren and Farlow.

These great rods with butts of ash and tips of bamboo were eventually put on exhibit in 1851 in a craftsman’s show.

Although splitting the bamboo was apparently thought up by the British, using six pieces of 60-degree, beveled split-bamboo segments was a totally American idea. This revolutionary six-sided bamboo rod was to become the forerunner of the traditional split-cane fly rods that are still professionally built today.

If any one person should be credited with the creation of the six-sided (hexagonal) bamboo fly rod, it should be Samuel Phillippe of Eastern Pennsylvania (1855). But many rod builders followed. It is also recorded that J.E. Green of New Jersey built the first four-sided, complete bamboo rod in 1860.

Eventually the split-cane rod found its way to the ocean. It did not, however, have the solid backbone needed for the strong saltwater species.

The cane took a set very quickly, but the salt ate into the varnish and totally ruined many a great bamboo rod. The bamboo rod was more suited for freshwater and a great amount of pampering. Many a rod of split cane was used on the ocean and defeated many a marlin and other deep-sea gamefish.

Fiberglass was one of the many by-products of World War II, and it was just the material anglers were looking for. It fit the bill with its responsiveness, durability, lightness and strength. Although the first fiberglass rods were hastily contrived staffs, they were the first of many to be made. Today’s technology brings to the angler “longitudinal graphite” super glass rods. They are engineered, one-piece, high-content graphite composite rods with progressive tapers that handle years of hard trolling with ease.

They are not only lighter but stronger than fiberglass alone for maximum fish-fighting effectiveness.