My favorite film of the past several years has been Chasing The Taper, and that describes the activity that has been occupying my time in recent weeks.
I decided I would like to find a special seven foot four weight rod to fish with the late Ed Shenk’s classic Hardy Featherweight fly reel. I decided on the seven foot length as an homage to The Master, my late friend and mentor, with a nod to the practical challenges of the Catskill rivers dear to my heart. Ed was the master and chief proponent of the short fly rod, often preferring rods between five and six feet long. He did build and fish some seven footers, though if he was here to see me put his reel into the seat of a lovely seven foot bamboo rod I would expect him to tell me it “isn’t a bad rod for one that’s a foot too long”.
Ed got me interested in shorter rods thirty years ago, so much so that I built a 6 1/2 foot three weight for our first day of fishing on the Letort; my first and only self-made graphite rod. I accumulated a number of shorties over the years, and fished them regularly in the Cumberland Valley. Fishing the larger Catskill rivers, particularly in the fine and far off style I choose to practice, rather demands a longer rod for versatility and ease of presentation. A seven foot four weight has been a favored rod of mine for many years, and a special taper, a rod that makes it easy to fish at distance, would honor Ed’s short rod tradition and allow me to fish in my own style on my new home waters.
Rods of this nomenclature are designed and made as small stream rods, and most excel at making casts of ten to thirty-five feet in tight quarters. They are a great pleasure to fish, lovely and intimate in appearance when well executed in split bamboo. Many such rods will reach comfortably to forty-five feet, but run out of gas beyond that range. Thus my search for a unique and capable taper has consumed a good deal of my attention.
I have worried a few of my rod making friends, chiefly Tom Smithwick, who has been kind enough to continue my education in rod tapers. I know of no man more qualified. With the threat of Coronavirus still preventing me from travel and general human contact, I am unable to cast a variety of rods, the one sure way to find my sword to Valhalla. To make the best of this situation, I am working hard to learn to be able to look at the graph of a fly rod taper and equate that to what I feel in my hand when I cast such a rod.
The best way to do that would be to have the rods and graphs side by side, but that is a luxury I do not have. I have cast quite a number of bamboo fly rods in my lifetime, though some of those encounters were brief and long ago. My best efforts have been aimed squarely at a couple of the rods I own and fish frequently: my Jim Downes Garrison 206, my Guba/Zietak Payne 102H, and my venerable Thomas Dirigo. I have studied these tapers with an eye toward seeing the flex of each rod as I have cast it, and I hope that I have made some progress, begun to learn how to interpret those rod tapers from paper. I have a couple of strong possibilities, and I am hopeful that the Shenk Tribute Rod project will find its way to fruition.
I can picture the day if I sit back and close my eyes: it is hot, but a gentle breeze keeps me comfortable as I stalk across the eddy at a snail’s pace. Stealth is necessary, for pushing waves toward the bank with the occasional dimple ends the game. Ten minutes, fifteen, and I reach a casting position fifty feet out. My eyes scan the lie, and then the current between, watching closely each bit of detritus the surface carries. Seeing an odd little wiggle in the path of a leaf fragment a foot out from the lie I slowly shift position: three steps upstream, one step in, enough I hope that the slack in my leader will counteract that tricky little current. I pull another twenty-five feet of line from the reel and make a cast fifteen feet downstream of the lie, get the feel of the rod, see how the tippet falls with the angle of the breeze. I’m ready.
Stripping another five feet of line I raise the little rod, false cast once, and deliver. The line and leader turn over softly, low to the water, and the fly blips gently two feet upstream from the lie and begins it’s drift. As it crosses into a shadow there is a brief murmur on the surface and I strip to tighten and raise the rod in one motion… and then it is the boil, the song of the Master’s Hardy and that lithe wand of cane bent terribly. Salute my friend!