A short history of the fishing rod

The first fishing rods were nothing more sophisticated than hazel shoots about 6 feet long with a horsehair line of about the same length fixed to the tip. A hook was whipped on to the end of the line and stayed there until a fish broke it off - the same rod was used for bait or fly fishing and when the day was done, the angler twirled the rod around in his hand, which neatly wound the line around it and went home. The furthest back we can track the use of rods is about 2000 BC, but they were probably in use long before that, and where hazel wasn’t available, any other flexible wood or reed would do. The first description of a longer rod is given in The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle in 1496, the author of which describes a 14 foot two section rod with a hollow bottom section in which the tip could be stored.

Rods on tableTwo centuries later, although short rods were still in use, jointed examples of up to sixteen or even eighteen feet had become common. These had anything up to six sections to make them easy to transport and were made out of several different types of wood, very often with a whalebone tip and the line was either attached to the tip using a loop to loop connection, or fed through a single loop whipped to the tip, the other end being held by the angler, because reels weren’t commonly used until the eighteenth century. By the early 1700s, rods had become far more sophisticated and were becoming increasingly specialised, although many were still being made by anglers themselves, rather than by tackle shops, although it had been possible to buy made-up rods for at least a century. A wide range of materials was in use, ranging from deal, ash or willow for the butts, and hickory or hazel for tops, together with the standard whalebone extension. A few traditionalists still used juniper, bay tree and elder for butts; and yew, crab apple and blackthorn were used for tops, but these native woods were becoming distinctly old fashioned. The adventurous salmon fisherman could even try some new-fangled Indian stuff called 'Bambou cane' for the construction of his tops. A big step forward that took place around this time was the use of intermediate rings, which gave anglers much greater control over the fish, especially because the use of reels was becoming steadily more widespread.

Ash and hickory spinning rodWhen the nineteenth century dawned, there still weren’t that many fishermen, which is one of the reasons why the 1850s form such a marked watershed in tackle development - for example, by 1860, few anglers made their own rods any more. Many social changes took place in the middle of the century, not least the invention of the railway, and they had far-reaching consequences as far as angling was concerned. Lancewood had replaced hazel for tips, and bamboo was becoming much more common, although most of it was sourced from India and it was used whole, rather than split and glued up. Many rods had metal reinforced joints, but the development of the all-metal suction joint would have to wait until the end of the century as so spliced rods were common.

After the middle of the century, there was a tremendous change of pace, with new developments coming thick and fast. Not only did greenheart and split cane make their appearance, but a growing split began to appear between fly fishing and bait fishing, which was accompanied by increasingly specialisation in rod development - at the beginning of the century anglers quite frequently used the same rod for everything, by the end of the century it was rare for anyone to do so. So while Nottingham bait fishermen were using deal and lancewood rods about 12 feet long, roach fishermen on the Lea were using white bamboo rods up to 20 feet long, and trout fly fishermen were using split-cane or greenheart rods that were rapidly shrinking down to around ten foot long, although many double-handed trout rods were still in evidence.

The next big change was the introduction of glass fibre rods just after the end of the Second World War. To begin with these were very expensive and they didn’t offer any significant weight advantage over split-cane rods, with the result that the latter continued to be sold in the UK right through to the late sixties, by which time the American market was completely dominated by glass; Hardy’s didn’t even begin the production of glass rods in earnest until the sixties. As it turned out, the ascendancy of glass fibre was relatively brief, because in the late sixties the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough discovered a new material called carbon fibre. This time, Hardy’s were quick to take notice of the new compound and they began to design new rods with Richard Walker’s help, but they took such an extraordinarily long time to complete the development that the first one was made as late as 1976, three years after the American company, Fenwick, had put a carbon fibre rod on the market.