Short rods for small streams by Ed Herbst

Short rods for small streams by Ed Herbst

Saturday, 21 January 2017 12:14

- ‘Whatever its nature, Lilliput water in any form offers the fly fisher one constant thing. This is its store of bright, and somehow cheerful little trout, as wild as the midget creatures on which they prey. Sadly, few of us pay lasting tribute to the Lilliputs we know, forgetting our debts to such waters for our earliest tuition, or shrugging the miniscule away as now beneath our notice.’

Peter Turnbull-Kemp, “Lilliput Water”, Piscator no 91, 1974.

I have always said that if you are looking for a tangible reason for the fall of the Berlin Wall you need look no further than a Bassmaster catalogue.

The USA has become the world’s most powerful and influential nation because Americans have the ability to recognise and exploit niche markets.  Furthermore, they provide customer satisfaction by combining excellent research and development, an outstanding work ethic and an absolute commitment to service delivery.

From a fly fishing perspective you need look no further than Mudhole which covers every aspect of rod building.

I discovered this when I asked Pretoria-based rod builder Koos Eckard to build a rod which would not break my bank as a birthday gift for my friend Andrew Ingram to fish at Lakenvlei Dam which is about a two-hour drive from Cape Town.

He strongly advocated a Mudhole MHX blank and a delighted Andrew found that, using the Lakenvlei Special, he could, for the first time, cast a full fly line.

While visiting my friend, the artist and custom fly tyer Marcel Terblanche, in Franschhoek I spotted a very serviceable split cane rod he had made using local bamboo and a wooden planing form that he built himself. I asked him if he could replicate the original 1987 six and a half foot, two-piece Orvis One Ounce using the six foot six inch MHX 2-weight carbon fibre blank. The deal was that I would buy the components and, as I am no longer able to wade streams, he would fish it for me.

Click in images to enlarge them


The original Orvis One Ounce which was first manufactured 30 years ago

“Build me a ‘Minus One Ounce’!” was my challenge to him.

The service at Mudhole is outstanding and, within three days of placing the order, Marcel received the components and the result has been a revelation.

To build a One Ounce rod, Orvis reduced the sliding rings on the tiny all-cork handle to a sliver which proved problematic because they abraded the cork.

Marcel utilises heat resistant rubber O rings used in outboard motors which are durable, lighter than the metal equivalent and a lot less expensive – an idea he picked up on the Ultralight website.

 The handle design on his first rod was originally introduced to South Africa by Steve Boshoff and Tom Sutcliffe named it the Palm Grip. To cut costs and to be able to market replicas at an affordable price, Marcel - using the Palm Grip design - incorporated cork that he hand-selected at a local wine cellar supplies company.  This high quality cork is superlight and has a tight structure because it must cope with high pressures during and after the champagne bottling process. While less aesthetically pleasing than imported Fluor grade cork which is getting increasingly more expensive and more difficult to find, this grip is functional and comfortable in the hand.

The three-piece, matt-finish MHX blank – which comes with a guarantee - weighs .6 of an ounce. To save weight, Marcel used ultralight, black single foot guides, also sourced from Mudhole.  It has always been my understanding that on long casts – hardly required on small streams - line flow was better with traditional snake guides. More and more manufacturers are, however, moving to single foots including Hardy, Redington, Greys, Daiwa, Marryat and Airflo.

To reduce weight, the blank is left exposed at the back of the handle, an idea I first saw on the Bjarne Frijs rods - what Frijs calls, the ‘Window on the Soul’

On a second rod, Marcel then found that he could further reduce the handle  weight by using two O-rings with grooves incised in the rod grip to hold them. This idea was also introduced to South Africa by Steve Boshoff a decade ago when he built me an ultralight Scott 2-weight using cable ties. The O rings provide an advantage over the cable ties which had to be cut loose before the reel could be removed.


The author with the original cable tie rod handle design on a Scott built by Steve Boshoff.

The finished rod weighs between 0.8 and 0.9 ounce, and is, in my opinion, superior to the original One Ounce.


The lighter double O ring rod handle at the top with the ‘Palm Grip’ version below it. Note the trout spots burnt onto the handle of the lower rod.

The combined weight of the rod and reel using small stream reels such as the Orvis CFO2 or the Wychwood is about two and a half ounces and Marcel says it casts and roll casts beautifully, particularly when used in conjunction with his furled leaders.

This is an ideal small stream stalking rod and Marcel will produce replicas for sale at little more than half the cost of the top range American and British equivalents.

Marcel’s ability as an artist is manifest in the pyrography work on his cork grips and rod tubes which are covered in suede. He burns a trout motif into the suede and can also add your name and contact details – very handy if your rod tube is mislaid at the airport, although it is small enough to fit into a suitcase.

Brown trout Terblanche

The ‘Palm Grip’ version of Marcels ‘sub-One Ounce’ 2-weight ‘Small Stream Special’

Marcel recently gave me one of his paintings which is derived from a photograph that Tom Sutcliffe took of me on the Smalblaar.  He added, however, a lovely little detail that was not in the original photograph – a ‘Bloukeur’ shrub - Psoralea pinnata which, in spring, attracts hordes of Brown Monkey Beetles that the trout avidly feed on. You can read the details in my article ‘Trout in the Fynbos Biome’ on the Cape Piscatorial Society website.

Ed Herbst painting

Marcel Terblanche (left) with the author and the painting derived from a Tom Sutcliffe photograph.

I have been re-readingEd Shenk’s Fly Rod Trouting, most specifically the chapter ‘Short Fly Rods’ in which he mentions a one-piece, split cane six footer which Lee Wulff got Orvis to make for him. This took me to a book by one of his Letort Spring Run contemporaries, Ed Koch.

Koch writes: ‘I was introduced to the midge rod by Ed Shenk of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Years ago he made two short, ultralight, one-piece glass rods that handled an e-level line. Three and four-weight lines were unheard of at that time. Occasionally he was able to find an English double-tapered silk line in that size that was perfect for these rods.’

So, my next challenge to Marcel is to build an Ed Shenk-type, single piece ‘Minus Minus One Ounce’.

Hopefully he can persuade Mudhole to sell him an un-feruled version of the blank he is now using but, if that is not possible, the New Zealand company CTS would be happy to oblige.

Nyanga Highlands

The book authored by Peter Turnbull-Kemp who loved ‘Lilliput water’ and fished a Leonard Baby Catskill

In closing: Peter Turnbull-Kemp, who wrote the Lilliput Water article from which the anchor quote to this one is derived, fished the iconic ‘Whisper Rod’ of the split cane era, the Leonard Baby Catskill 37L. It was six foot long and weighed one ounce.

In an email to me, Ted Simroe, former vice-president, and bamboo rod builder for the H.L. Leonard Rod Co. from 1967-1978 described the lengths to which he went to get the Baby Catskill down to one ounce:

            ‘The rod you asked about was initially labelled the Leonard 37L. That was changed to the 36L in the mid-seventies when the model numbering was changed for all the Leonard rods. The 6 foot, 1 oz. rod was developed in the early 1950s, and was supposed to have been developed to accommodate a special membership group of the famous Anglers Club of New York. To be a member of this group, which was called the "28-8-18 Club," one had to land an 18 inch trout on a size 28 fly using an 8X tippet. I personally have never been able to confirm this requirement or its relationship to the 37L. However, it has always been a good "story," even if just a rumour! By the way, the rod was designed to be used with a level silk line, size 1.

            ‘There were several issues with getting the weight down to 1 oz. or less, although the idea of a 1 oz. rod was not the starting point. The ferrules on that rod were 7/64ths of an inch, which had to be specially made. The tip tops were actually # 2.5/64ths. The Perfection Company made a special # 3/64ths tip top for Lennard, but did not have the tubing necessary to fashion anything smaller. Also, the "swelled butt" section, which was a Leonard characteristic, was eliminated. If you have ever seen one of these rods, I am sure you would be amazed at the delicacy of the sections, especially of the tip sections. No one else ever came close to making a cane rod that light. We used a beveller that incorporated 3/4" diameter carbide saws, and I am still amazed when I think what I accomplished with that machine! I can remember that when I planned to cut the tip sections, I would plan on starting early on Saturday AM, when no one was around. I would start with enough cane to make 24 tip sections.

‘Because each of the six strips were so small, some would fracture in just being picked up. Others would break coming out of the saws. I always considered myself lucky if I could end up with 12 complete tips. We would then lose 3 or 4 more when gluing the six strips together, and another 1 or 2 in the assembly process! From all this, we felt good if we could end up with 3 complete rods.

‘As far as the reel seat was concerned, the Leonard Fairy Reel was developed for this rod. It was a raised pillar design, like all the Leonard reels, but the side plates were all hard rubber, with no aluminium castings around the edges. The reel foot was shorter and narrower than normal, and the wood reel seat was only 2 3/4" long, rather than the standard 3 1/2" long. The butt cap and ring were about 1/2 the size of the standard Catskill hardware, and the nickel silver winding and cork checks were also eliminated. The wood used was either white pine, butternut or basswood. Balsa was never used as far as I know. I do remember making one rod with an all cork cut-out reel seat. I eliminated the stripping guide and used a # 1 snake guide instead. We only put one coat of varnish on that rod instead of the normal 2 or 3. The finished rod weighed in at 7/8 oz. exactly.

‘As I mentioned earlier, # 1 level silk line was originally used on these rods. When silk gave way to the plastic coated lines, a 3-weight was the smallest available, and most used that line since it was all that was available. Actually, I fished one of these rods using greased 30 pound Dacron squidding line, and it worked better than anything else!’

Peter Turnbull-Kemp coupled his Leonard Baby Catskill with an appropriate reel, the Hardy Featherweight.  Born in Scotland, Peter fought in the Scots Guards in World War II and, thereafter, worked for the then Southern Rhodesia’s Department of National Parks. He established a trout hatchery in the Nyanga National Park and developed Africa’s first pellet diet for hatchery trout. A copy of his 1994 book The Flyfisher’s Nyanga is in the library of the Cape Piscatorial Society. I believe his Leonard Baby Catskill is now owned by a Capetonian. It would be interesting to know how it got from modern-day Zimbabwe to the southern tip of Africa where, as Turnbull-Kemp well knew, ‘cheerful little trout’ can be found in the Lilliput water that he so loved.

Marcel caught his first-ever trout in Nyanga on a feeder stream of the Udu dam when he was 13.

            “It weighed four pounds and I caught it on one of my own flies which incorporated a wing made from springbok hair”, he said.

Marcel can be contacted by email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via his website




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