Fly-Fishing History, Part IX: The Post-War Era

Written by: Gordon M. Wickstrom

1936

Before the war, fly fishing and baitcasting ruled angling.

Editor’s note: Back in 2011, we featured entries from Gordon M. Wickstrom’s The History of Fishing for Trout with Artificial Flies in Britain and America: A Chronology of Five Hundred Years, 1496 to 2000. In this chronology, Gordon marks significant events—the publication of seminal books, tackle developments, important social changes, the dissemination of trout species beyond their native ranges, etc.—on both sides of the Atlantic. Since many readers were not around in those heady early days of the blog, I thought it deserves a repost.

Under correction, I want to make the case that those four short years from 1946 to 1950, immediately after WWII, were a period of expansion in the technology of angling unmatched in the history of the sport. Never before or since has so much happened so fast. So much and so fast that I hardly know where to begin this narrative.

But I shall make a start with a GI, coming home from the wars late in 1945. He’s crazy to get fishing again. With $300 in mustering-out pay, he can hardly wait to get back to the tackle he had stashed away “for the duration” and get some new stuff in the compulsive way of all anglers. Maybe he’ll need a new fly rod. Quite likely, in 1946, he’d settle for a mass-produced “production” bamboo rod—three pieces, nine feet, and heavy—for seven or so dollars at a local hardware store. The rod might, however, prove a disappointment and be almost impossible to cast decently. Our eager veteran would not have noticed that the tip section had but a single guide, two at best; the middle section, another two guides; and the butt section maybe only its single stripping guide. It’s easy to imagine how the line slapped around the rod on the forward cast, sapping its energy. Our GI might not have understood this way of keeping a rod cheap by reducing the number of guide wrappings—until, that is, he got caught up in the excitement of the technological revolution that was beginning to swirl around him.

The Rise of Glass
Of a sudden, in competition with those inexpensive production bamboo rods—their six strips still held together with animal glue—there appeared, as if out of nowhere, rods made of fiberglass cloth, tubular rods that required no glue at all, only imperishable resins. These rods were tough, strong, durable, and, if they had a decent number of guides, would cast very well, indeed. Better than the cheap bamboo competition any day and no worry that the six strips might sweat apart in the rod tube on a hot afternoon in the back of the car.

Glass had great promise and quickly showed up everywhere. Silaflex was the leading innovator and rodmaker, as well as the source of blanks for other companies to finish in their brand and style.

But don’t think for a minute that the bamboo, classic-cane people were quiescent during all this. The new waterproof, synthetic glues developed for the war reinvigorated the idea of the split-bamboo fly rod. Deadly serious, engineering types put their hand to it. Lou Feierabend invented and manufactured the revolutionary new Super Z ferrule of nickel silver and with a stroke did away with that other mortal weakness of bamboo rods—breakage at the ferrule where customarily the power fibers of the bamboo were cut away to fit the old style ferrules. With the new glues, the brilliant new ferrule, the penetrating oils to finish the cane (instead of the traditional and vulnerable varnish), custom cane rod building became a going concern again. . .only more expensive, of course.

In the end, though, they could not compete in price with the new glass, especially since glass offered that toughness, workaday durability, and basic efficiency. These rods were altogether “good enough” for the market of regular anglers, who neither needed nor wanted the refinements of cane in the majesty of four, five, or six strips that might have come from Orvis, or Payne, Edwards, Uslan, or Phillipson: a few of the masters at work holding out against the economy and popularity of glass

Spinning

The arrival of spinning gear from Europe, allowing anglers to make longer casts easily, caused many Americans to put down their fly rods for years.

Remember, that as I write along at such a halting pace, the developments of which I speak were occurring overnight and daily at a downright exhilarating rate. It was a great time for an angler with a dollar or two to be alive.

If cane rods owed so much to war-time developments, I ought to have mentioned that the idea for a fiberglass rod probably came from the long, whippy radio antennas on jeeps and the like. The idea seems to have occurred to someone that encasing the weak metal antenna in a tubular sheath of fiberglass, would protect it. Just roll the glass cloth around a mandrel, suffuse it with resins, and cook it just so, and look what we’ve got!

Of course there were departures from the Silaflex model, like the wrap-around of glass ribbon to make the snow-white, soft, odd-looking Shakespeare Wonderod.

The serious glass companies began putting adequate guides on their rods, and suddenly they all cast quite well. Our returning veteran learned about guide spacing and to look critically at a rod before laying down his dollar.

During this remarkable period, the hunting and fishing magazines, such as Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, came into their golden age and taught the new generation of anglers what they needed so to know. True-blue experts began to write on the new developments from Ted Trueblood to A. J. McClane, who moved technical writing about tackle to an unheard of level of precision and excellence. McClane was challenging—and an immense pleasure—to read on rod construction or fly lines, anything he chose to write on. He was, in fact, the superb encyclopedist of angling in the coming half-century.

Every day there was something new to learn and, what’s worse, something new you wanted to own. Budgets were strapped and domestic debates ensued.

The European Invasion
But of course, the real bombshell was the advent of spinning—”thread-lining,” the British called it—the fixed-spool reel, from which a thin line slithered off to unheard of distances. The trouble was getting a line thin enough, soft enough, yet strong enough, not to foul up on the cast. Nylon had been invented in 1938 and was early available to anglers in 20-inch, rather stiff tippet lengths. But when, in these post-war years, the French were able to manufacture their “Tortue” brand of nylon in those 100-yard, flawless coils of .008 inch stuff, spinning became the working angler’s dream.

Before nylon, the lines had been worse than terrible, made of linen and assorted impossible fibers. France and nylon solved that. With a French line, a “coffee grinder” spinning reel, likely from Switzerland or Italy, and an American glass rod with its oversized spinning guides, elegant 14-inch straight grip, and simple friction reel bands, our GI needed only an assortment of hardware.* At first there were no real spinning lures, those bits of enticing metal from 1/8 oz. to 1/4 oz. in weight. But the French and the Swiss were soon hammering them out and sending them over in an infinite variety of fancy, wobbling, spinning, swimming, and churning devices. Every action under the sun.

Floating Fly Line

The arrival of nylon, which made spinning possible, also allowed fly-fishing tackle-makers to construct floating fly lines with monofilament cores, which led to a fly-fishing revival.

Fly fishing seemed, if not down for the count, at least on the ropes. Adding insult to injury, an American “take” on spinning—the enclosed spool “tin can” reel—sent fly boxes and fly reels even deeper into the depths of the garage. The ingenious Humphreys reel from Denver, a reel that could be used on any old rod, began this downgrading into a rude popularity of the sport. It was all because of those long coils of nylon that enabled us to cast quarter-ounce spoons a country mile and catch untold numbers of trout who had never before seen such pretty little things way out there where anglers never before had reached.

Return to the Long Rod
But, the few, unreconstructed, die-hard fly fishermen were also to profit from the advent of nylon. Nylon meant that we now had a tapered leader, stronger, more durable, and free from the worries of the constant care that even the finest silk-worm gut required of us. It was gratifying to reel up a nylon leader carelessly, together with the line, and forget about it until next time on the stream. In every way, nylon was more dependable and easier to use—only maybe less interesting, less romantic. Technology, like the troll under the bridge of our advances, demanded its price.

It is difficult to imagine how we could have had the fly fishing boom of the past thirty years without nylon. Nylon may be the biggest thing that has happened to fly fishing since the rod and fly themselves. It has made it possible for even the masses of neophytes to deal with the complexities of leaders with tippets and flies tied to them.

The effort, during these years, to braid nylon fiber into fly lines was not as successful. A number of tricks were tried and faded away, some of them overnight. It was truly a transitional time with the classic oil-processed silk lines bridging the gap until well into the1950s, when lines of plastic coating over a dacron core appeared, also overnight.

Particularly in the West, the automatic fly reel had dominated the angling scene. Some sophisticate here and there might sport a fine single-action Hardy or Medalist. Martin, Perrine, South Bend, and Shakespeare dominated the automatic market—until the four years here under examination when the single-action began to make inroads on the heavy and cumbersome automatics.

And, of course, like a sleeping giant, fly tying and its literature began to burgeon all over. Fly tying was suddenly demystified and democratized, especially by the Minnesota giant, George Leonard Herter, whose massive catalogs of everything under the sun for fly tying, affordable and quickly available through the mail, changed everything. Not just the Herter catalogs, but his wildly eccentric, inspired, and almost complete Professional Fly Tying and Tackle Making (1941), an essential text in any liberal education in fly fishing. It was—and remains—thrilling stuff.

As l’envoi to this tedious-brief essay on the years of the most radical change in fly fishing, I must remind the reader that these years,1946-1950, were the years of planning and building the high dams that resulted in the cold, clean, stable tailwaters so essential to contemporary fly fishing. And, last but not least, the Interstate highway system that made those new waters accessible. American fly fishing was changed forever, and the Western ascendancy of the sport was underway.

Gordon M. Wickstrom is the author of Notes from an Old Fly Book (2001) and Late in an Angler’s Life (2004), editor of The Boulder Creek Angler newsletter, and writer and director of The Great Debate—A Fantasia for Anglers, an imagined debate between Frederic M. Halford and G. E. M. Skues.

*I shall say nothing of the infamous “bubble and fly” spinning. But I do want to remark on a kind of hardware fishing for lake and stream that pre-dated spinning, when a few skilled anglers with a six-foot bait casting rods and level-wind reels threw fully 5/8 oz., red and white Dardevles at trout and made big kills.

*I shall say nothing of the infamous “bubble and fly” spinning. But I do want to remark on a kind of hardware fishing for lake and stream that pre-dated spinning, when a few skilled anglers with a six-foot bait casting rods and level-wind reels threw fully 5/8 oz., red and white Dardevles at trout and made big kills.

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