The search for the ultimate small stream fly rod
Text and pictures by Ed Herbst
I started fishing the trout streams close to Cape Town in the late seventies and from the start I was fascinated by the concept of low-mass ultra light line fly rods.
I bought several from American aerospace engineer Don Phillips whose solid boron rods had tips as thin as a needle and whose version of the Leonard Baby Catskill earned high praise from Ernest Schweibert. I also bought, and still treasure, the composite rods of Henry Haneda whose rods are ideal for small stream fly fishing. http://libertydesignsinc.com/flyrods.html
However, the chronology of the modern, mass production “whisper” rods effectively started in 1984 when the then CEO of Orvis, Leigh Perkins, challenged company rod designer, Howard Steere, to produce the first 2-weight fly rod, the Ultrafine. This was followed in 1987 by the first production 1-weight and the ‘One Ounce’ in 1991.
There was then a seven year hiatus until Jerry Siem of Sage produced the three-piece, seven foot ten inch, SPL “Ought Weight” with its 54 grain line. In 2005 he designed and engineered the TXL “Double Ought” with is 43 grain line and in 2007 the “Triple Ought” for a 32 grain line. A one weight line weighs 60 grains and a two weight line 80 grains so the triple ought line is landing on the water with half the impact of the 2-weight line which was introduced 26 years ago. A most useful source of information on the evolution of these rods is Bill Byrd’s Ultrafly website: http://www.byrdultrafly.com/techmain.htm
I had long felt that mass-produced rods could be improved and my meeting with Stephen Boshoff, was thus serendipitous in the extreme.
I met him in 2000 when I booked a cottage for the weekend on Ernst and Anchen Stofberg’s farm, Dwarsberg (http://www.trouthaven.co.za/) so that I could fish the Holsloot stream which is little more than an hour’s drive from Cape Town. I was told that a fellow Cape Piscatorial Society member (http://www.piscator.co.za/) had also booked a cottage and strolled across to suggest we share a beat as I am always wary of fishing on my own.
It was the start of a valued friendship, but also the beginning of a search for the ultimate small stream fly rod.
I was to discover that not only did Stephen share my interest in low-flash, low-mass “Whisper Rods”, but that he was also a consummate and visionary craftsman when it came to building them.
I was fishing with one of the first Sage “Ought” Weights to reach the country. After a discussion about what our ultimate small stream rod would be I gave Steve my factory-produced rod and he built me a new one on a Sage ‘0’ blank that I ordered through local agents, Frontier Fly Fishers in Johannesburg.
The rod paid homage to Howard Steere and the uplocking, reverse half wells handle had its origins in the Henry Haneda’s handle design which I had found to be the most comfortable I had ever used. This was because the handle was made entirely of cork and the transition from the handle to reel seat did not involve the abrupt gap that conventional fly rod handles with wooden reel seats have. I am a huge, huge fan of Haneda’s rods and an illustration of the grip which so inspired us can be found on:
Stephen’s bespoke Sage “0” was a revelation. Based on the Haneda and Orvis designs, it had an up-locking reel seat and a reverse half-Wells handle made entirely of cork. The front reel seat was hooded within the cork grip. A shelf of cork extended along the top of the handle almost to the butt so that the transition from the handle to reel seat did not involve the abrupt gap which conventional, mass-produced fly rod handles have between the back of the cork handle and the wooden reel seat. Tom Sutcliffe was later to call this handle the 'palm grip.'
Schematic design by Steve Boshoff of his uplocking reel seat and half-Wells handle all in cork
The standard 'palm' grip handle on Tom Sutcliffe's Sage 0-weight
The handle on Ed Herbst's latest TXL-F built by Steve Boshoff
Some years later we were to discover that the idea of a shelf of cork at the back of the handle and extending rearwards over the top of the reel seat had also occurred to others as Swiss CDC master, Marc Petitjean, has this feature on the rods he uses, as does the rod featured in the second picture in a review of the superb hubless reel design link below), the Dormisch Absi. However both these rods have wooden reel seats that add weight compared to an all-cork reel seat.
The front of the grip emulates the Haneda and Orvis Superfine designs in that it tapers all the way to the blank, again avoiding the abrupt transition between handle and blank that characterises mass produced fly rods and inhibits using the forefinger on top grip which many small stream fly fishers feel enhances short-range accuracy.
The author with an early Stephen Boshoff prototype handle on a Scott 1-weight blank. A cigar grip, it was an attempt to simplify the construction process and reduce weight. The reel seat uses plastic cable ties beneath which are rubber shower washers. It eschews a butt cap and, to reduce rod flash, it has been spray-painted a matte khaki – which has the advantage of showing up better against streamside vegetation in photographs than normal carbon fibre rods.
Later, to save more weight we were to drop the butt cap exposing the blank and Stephen cut the back of the butt at a slant to facilitate any line which might be caught between the handle and the wrist dropping away from the rod.
The exposed blank on the butt of a Sage 000 TXL
The idea of an exposed blank is not new in the manufacture of split cane fly rods of course – Danish split cane rod maker, Bjarne Fries, calls it “the window to the soul of the rod” see:
Some Japanese split cane rod makers, such as Asama, also use this idea, http://blog.livedoor.jp/keytaccata/ but, to my knowledge, this has not been used before on carbon fibre/graphite rods.)
Stephen’s latest rods have their genesis in a concept by Kurt Danielsson, the Dane whose Loop reel introduced the currently ubiquitous large arbour reel to fly fishers. In the mid-eighties, Danielsson built a rod in which the reel was not slung beneath the rod but was made an integral part of it and attached to the back of the rod butt. He sent some photographs to Sage who produced a very limited run of rods based on this concept. (There is not much new in fly fishing, however, and Abraham Coates of Watertown, New York patented a similar concept in 20 March, 1888!)
The first such rod, which Stephen finished in April, was built on a three-piece eight foot Scott 1-weight blank – alas no longer manufactured.
Stephen Boshoff’s first prototype centre axis reel fly rod built on a Scott blank
Stephen’s centre-axis reel design is far more elegant than the original “Centre-Axis” rod built by Sage and I have never fished with a rod that is better balanced or experienced a rod handle that is more comfortable.
The reel, in this first, carbon fibre, version, a Vision GT 2/4, sits flush against the junction of the hand and wrist facilitating the “squeeze cast” developed by Joe Humphries and well demonstrated on his DVD’s, most specifically “A Casting Approach to Dry Fly Tactics in Tight Brush” which Craig Thom of Netbooks has in stock. The rod is spray-painted matte-grey to reduce fish-scaring flash.
However, because tubular rods deform and become oval when bent which inhibits casting accuracy, Stephen felt that the ultimate small stream 'whisper' rod would have to be made in split cane. (Visit www.hexagraph.com and read the article, “The Case for the Solid Fly Rod, and the review by Ken Morrow for more information on hollow, tubular rods and their reaction to casting stresses.)
Stephen Boshoff attaches his trademark logo to the door of his Scarborough workshop
Stephen’s latest version, which he handed me a week ago, is a seven foot, 2-weight split cane with spliced joints instead of ferrules.
The ‘reel seat’ connecting rod and reel is made from the roots of locally-harvested besembos (Clotalario spartiodes). The two pieces of grooved bamboo at the top of the picture protect the splice joints when the rod is not being used. The splice joints were chosen because they enhance lightness and sensitivity to a greater extent than the metal ferrules which are normally used on split cane fly rods. In the lower picture the splices are joined, taped and secured ready for casting.
Google “spliced joint rods” and visit the split cane rod websites of Gary Nicholson of Nicho Bamboo Rods and Per Brandin for more detail.
Bamboo rods quote
“There will always be bamboo rod makers, because bamboo
possesses characteristics beyond any other rod material. Bamboo
has heart, muscle and sinew. A rod of bamboo is a living thing and
you will never go to the river alone because the maker who
fashioned it is always with you. All the engineering skill in the world
cannot put heart into glass, metals or high technology synthetics.
Pick up a sleeping bamboo rod and feel it come to life in your hand.
Break the tip of a graphite rod and there's no harm done or felt
except perhaps to one's wallet. There may even be a no-fault lifetime
guarantee to mitigate such a loss. But snap the tip of a bamboo rod
and one's heart breaks with it."
Jordan the Rodmaker, A biography of Wesley D. Jordan at Cross -
South Bend - Orvis by William H. Jordan
The new rod is mated to what we feel is the ultimate small stream fly reel currently available, the matte-finish, Sage Click 1 fly reel which, according to my digital jeweller’s scale weighs 63.3 grams. http://www.sageflyfish.com/dyn_prodlist.php?k=132673
Despite being almost a third bigger than the original but now discontinued, 69.9 gram, Orvis CFO 2 – which reigned as the quintessential small stream fly reel from its introduction in 1972 until 1989 when it was replaced by the larger, heavier CFO 123 – it is a quarter of an ounce lighter.
When our streams fine down after the winter rains I will fish it with a Terenzio Zandri silk line and a three-foot furled leader made from Benecchi 12/0 fly tying thread by Briton Rod Dibble.
The author will mate the new rod with a Terenzio Zandri silk line coupled with an ultra-delicate Rod Dibble furled leader
Dibble’s leaders, which have already been tried by Peter Brigg in Natal who rates them highly, are sold by the UK firm, Spidersplus,
After Stephen built the spliced joint rod with its centre-axis reel, I came across another centre axis model on the site of the Japanese split cane master, Kawagarasu San.
Stephen said: “. What interests me about his rod is the Japanese aesthetics and functionality, including the use of twine to tie components together (as opposed to using glue/ epoxy). Also the home-made reel in wood, a project which I have been planning for a while.”
“Kawagarasu’s work shows that different people are grappling with the same design issues – often drawing on materials and ways of work which come naturally to them (I feel comfortable with wood, having grown up a woodwork teacher’s son), is of their “region/ locale” in terms of its craft traditions, and within the limits of their tools (in my case, largely hand tools).”
One of Stephen Boshoff’s more conventional split cane customer rods, a seven foot 3-weight, equipped with an Ari Hart reel.
Stephen is constantly fine tuning and refining his rod handles. This is the latest version on the recently announced Sage four-piece TXL-F 000 blank. Instead of exposing the blank at the back of the handle, a feature which characterized some of his recent rods, this rod features a new version of the “palm” grip. Says Stephen: “It is inspired by the simple aesthetic of Evert Garrison and Bjarne Fries grips. The light and delicate wooden butt cap is made from white oak which blends with the colour of the cork.”
In between building rods, both Stephen and Mario Geldenhuys are building nets in wood and/ or bamboo for larger trout and small streams. Small stream trout normally do not need nets and I asked Stephen to build me an ultra-light net to be used as a photographic prop. The netting and the means of attaching it to the wooden frame were chosen with this in mind. Vincent Marinaro, by the way, preferred his nets made with this method of net mounting.
A net made by Stephen Boshoff for the author and weighing about one and a half ounces. It has a two-strip bamboo frame with a Jelutong (Dyera costulata) grip. Jelutong, a wood similar to balsa, is commonly used for woodcarving.
A net being built by Stephen Boshoff for Peter Brigg, author of one of the most beautiful books on fly fishing extant.
The author is editor of Piscator, journal of the Cape Piscatorial Society (www.piscator.co.za) and the oldest fly fishing magazine in South Africa. It has been in unbroken publication since 1948.