The Strength of the Light Rod

The founding editor of ESQUIRE and publisher of that magazine since 1952, Mr. Gingrich is known among his angling friends as a devoted fly fisherman who has scored a success with his skillful handling of light rods and light tackle. We are happy to publish the following excerpt from his new book, THE WELL-TEMPERED ANGLER, soon to f>e published by Knopf.

EDWARD R. HEWITT first demon strated, forty years ago or more, the scientific basis for the method of fishing with light tackle that Lee Wulff has since dramatized: to let a fish wear himself out, with minimum strain on the rod and the leader, by holding the rod up high, at the absolute vertical, as we all tend to do when playing a fish at a distance with a short rod. In Secrets of the Salmon, first published in 1922, Mr. Hewitt showed in diagrams, with different rods of all weights, from one and a half ounces up, how much less strain the rod exerted on the line and leader when held at the vertical than at each of the successively lower angles pictured. It was a startling demonstration, but nobody, seemingly including Mr. Hewitt himself, was temperamentally disposed to do much of anything about it. Then, after some thirty-five years, Lee Wulff began to exploit the technique and to explain it, as he did in his 1958 book, The Atlantic Salmon.

The proof of the principle was there all the time, as propounded first by Mr. Hewitt, and in effect, it was giving the lie to all the huffing-puffing heroics of the “give ‘em the butt” technique of anglers of the “heave ho, my hearties” school. If anybody had bothered to study the significance of Mr. Hewitt’s diagrams, it would have been immediately apparent that to rear back and “give ‘em the butt” — meaning to thrust the lower end of the rod forward and thus force its arc into the truest vertical that the pull of the running fish will permit — was the only thing to do to ease the strain on both rod and leader, instead of increasing it, as those hell-for-leather fishers thought they were doing.

The peculiar thing is that dozens of English books on salmon fishing over the past eighty years or so have dwelt at some length on how often the trout fisherman finds himself confronted with the necessity of playing a salmon on trout tackle. Of course, maybe it isn’t so peculiar, when you reflect that to this day most English trout fishermen use rods that we would now consider heavy for salmon. But in 1922 in Secrets of the Salmon, Mr. Hewitt mentioned taking salmon on a one-and-a-half-ounce rod by way of explaining why he had included a rod of that weight in the comparative diagrams. He and all the other English authors spoke of this as if it were some dire catastrophe and said the angler had been lucky not to lose both fish and rod when put to such an extreme test. Nobody else before Lee Wulff, to my knowledge, pointed out in print that it is actually an advantage to play a strong fish on a small rod rather than on a bigger one. This is the revelation of his book The Atlantic Salmon, in which he shows with word and picture that the less the fish has to pull against, the fewer are his chances to break off during the jumps and rushes that wear him out faster than you could ever wear him out by main force. I’ve seen the Icelandic artist Gudmundur Einarsson, a veritable giant of a man, stand on a high rock in the middle of the big Laxa and haul in a twenty-five-pounder, using his gargantuan rod as if it were a derrick. But I’ve seen Lee Wulff master a fish of the same size, or even a little larger, in little more than half the time, on tackle one tenth as heavy, by letting the fish run and wear himself out, rather than attempting any of the “pull-devil, pull-baker” tactics that his tackle couldn’t permit. And it was a lot prettier sight to watch.

GUDMUNDUR could throw a line halfway to Reykjavik, from anywhere in Snaefellsnes, but he wouldn’t have had any possible use for my Midge rod, except perhaps to use it as a toothpick. Gudmundur’s stance and actions as he swung his huge rod always reminded me of the statue of the discus thrower; my own, with the light rod, seemed to be most nearly comparable with those of a tennis player with a big serve. Lee wulff, however, thinks of his action with the light rod as being more nearly like that of throwing a baseball than anything else. He thinks of it as being a cross between, or a combination of, the old style of casting and the trick of casting with the line alone, without using any rod.

I know, for myself, the exact moment when I found the knack of getting around the apparent disadvantage of the little Midge rod. I was fishing for some of the larger bass that had taken to holing up in one corner of Louis Renault’s pond in Stamford, and particularly for one that had weighed two and a half pounds when I took him out of Gene Tunney’s pond to put him in Louie’s, and had weighed in at two and three quarters, three, and three and a half on subsequent occasions when I had taken him out for periodic checkups. He had formerly been very fond of a blue spider, but lately had evinced no interest in anything but a Vivif, a lure the size and shape of a small sucker, which Louie had tossed him, via a spinning rod, and which he had bunted a couple of times without taking.

L knew I couldn’t cast anything as monstrous as that on any rod I had, but I thought I would like to try him on a few big streamers and rubber bass bugs. But how to do it without snapping the fragile tip of my slender Midge, which I was using at the time, and especially, how to get such a heavy lure, both back and then ahead about forty feet, to reach the spot where I had last seen him? I thought I’d try doing it without the rod, so I propped the rod against a bush, drew the line out through the guides, and tried casting it as a free line. After one attempt, I spent the next ten minutes unsnarting the resultant tangle. So I decided to try it with the rod, but to “throw the rod away” only in a figurative sense, having just proved to my own extreme dissatisfaction that I couldn’t do it by actually throwing the rod away literally. But I could try pretending that the rod wasn’t there, using its guides only to help me keep the line in the air and not at my feet in an unholy mess. This time it seemed more promising. Within a few minutes I found that casting through the rod, as it were, and using the rod really only as a direction-change stick, between back casts and forward casts, keeping my rod hand almost out of it and letting my left hand do all the work, in the whee-whee-ew rhythm of the quick successive tugs of the double-line haul, the line began to sing out fore and aft, and I could feel no real sense of strain on the rod itself at all.

By the time I got the trick working I had forgotten all about the big old bass in the corner of the pond, until he suddenly took off for the pond’s farther shore with my bass bug in his mouth, reminding me of his presence by a sort of reverse application of the adage about the watched pot that never boils. Boiling was what he was certainly doing, and my Midge rod, which I had been shooting around with such elaborate care in my casting, was now thrust into the starring role of this most impromptu production. I was delighted to see, after a few minutes, that he now weighed three and three quarters, but even more pleased to see that the Midge had suffered not at all from being a party to the eighty-foot travels of that big bass bug back and forth through the air over Louie’s pond.

From that moment on, I never had another qualm about using the Midge on streamers and salmon flies, up to size 4. Beyond that size, I still drew the line, preferring on sizes 2 and 1 to use the stouter tips of my Hardy C. C. de France or the Pezon & Michel that Charlie Ritz had made for me as his answer to my Midge. These rods, though both six-and-a-half-footers, have more wood in them at the tip, and though I “throw the rod away” in using them on larger flies, particularly on false casts whenever more than thirty-five feet of line is extended in the air, I have the added sense of security of knowing that they could take it better if I should inadvertently let too much of the strain of that much line weight fall on them.

Lee Wulff’s tactics were much more scientific than my crude do-it-yourself tumblings. He demonstrated, first of all, that a salmon could be played with no rod at all, by way of establishing a ne plus ultra in the arguments for ultralight tackle. Wulff’s a pilot; he applied the principles that he had found most successful, as a seat-of-the-pants bush flier, in outwitting the wind. He showed that if you can just make a fast enough cast, you can often take advantage of the vagaries of even strong winds by getting a quick cast in between puffs. With a stopwatch he timed his efforts with two of his Orvis rods. He gave both his best performance and showed that there was a distinct advantage in speed in his little six-and-a-half-foot two-ounce rod over his nine-foot-five-ouncer. The time he needed on the former to straighten out his back casts and forward casts averaged only 18.4 seconds, whereas on the latter, the larger rod, the operation took 23.1 seconds. More astonishing still, the rate of travel of his line on the little rod worked out to ninety-six miles per hour, exactly twenty miles per hour faster than the seventy-six-mile-per-hour rate of travel of his line on the larger rod.

Don’t be misled by this into thinking that speed is in itself any great desideratum in fly casting, whether with light rod or heavy, for the best and longest casts are slow and smooth. I cite this difference in speed here only to point out that when you have to get off a quick cast, between puffs of wind, it’s comforting and perhaps surprising to realize that you can get it off faster with the small light rod than you can with a long heavy one.

Look at the pictures of Lee Wulff playing large fish on his light rod, and you’ll see things that are wrong, by the old-timers’ dogma, in almost every picture. He casts, at ninety-six miles per hour, with his forefinger fully extended on the top of the grip of his rod. Heresy, says Charlie Ritz, on the ground that while the forefinger grip may be an advantage for accuracy of placement of the fly, it impedes speed and power, in the “high-speed, high-line” theory of casting. Lee holds his rod as high as his long reach can lift it, and well back, too, bringing the rod to the full vertical against a running fish — a sight that would make Paul Young, who made the original Midge rod, turn in his grave, remembering how he always used to warn us not to raise our little rods higher than forty-five to sixty degrees to the angle of pull. On his back cast, his arm is fully extended, a good eighteen to twenty inches behind his head — to the horror of every old-time casting instructor who ever stressed the necessity of confining the rod’s motion to a gentle are from ten o’clock to one o’clock on an imaginary clockfacc. And on the forward cast, his whole body goes forward in a follow-through reminiscent of pitchers like Christy Mathewson or Walter Johnson, with no remote resemblance to the casting form of their contemporaries, with its easy and graceful rockingchair motion of the forearm alone.

The only one of the old-timers who wouldn’t have had to feel that Lee Wulff’s exemplification of the modern style of casting made him eat his own words would have been Mr. Hewitt, because in a sense, all that Lee Wulff is doing today is merely a colonization and consolidation of ground that Mr. Hewitt staked out over four decades ago. But Mr. Hewitt was such a weirdly opinion-bound old codger, at least in those last years, that he wouldn’t believe anything, even if he knew it was so, unless he’d said it first. Now that you look back over his writings, though, you wonder why he didn’t do the very things that Lee Wulff is doing today.

Over forty years ago, Mr. Hewitt took a twentyfive-pound salmon, on the Upsalquitch in the presence of George La Branche and Ambrose Monell, on a size 14 of his own Neversink skater — and this is the mark a lot of us are shooting for today, although I believe Charlie Fox has equaled it more than once, on skaters Mr. Hewitt gave him. Hewitt took a twelve-pound salmon on a one-anda-half-ounce rod, before 1922, but Mills still lists today ten-foot rods as made to Hewitt’s specifications and still sells his gut leaders, too, stained with silver nitrate, for those Bourbons in their clientele who consider nylon, Perlon, Platyl, and Tortue as, collectively, only “imitation gut.”

We do plenty of running, to get and keep on terms with large fish, when we use light tackle. But this is not because of the lightness of our rods, but because of the delicacy of our terminal tackle. There is our Achilles heel, during the first five minutes of playing a large fish. And that’s why we need at least 150 yards of backing, and sometimes twice that, to let the fish enjoy his first run, while we in turn run like hell to try and get below him.

Lee Wulff has solved this problem of backing, in terms of light tackle, in a wonderfully commonsense way. Take your rod and line out on a lawn and cast as close to a country mile as you can, doubleline haul and all. Then cut the line off, at the reel, and fill up the rest of the space you’ve saved on the spool with extra yards of backing. This is how I can squeeze three hundred yards of nine-pound backing, far exceeding the strength of my six-pound tippet, on even an L. R. H. Hardy Light-weight three-andthree-sixteenths-inch reel, to equip my Midge for salmon fishing.

It is precisely at this juncture, when the fish that is playing you has managed to run out enough line to wrap you around one or more rocks, that you will display no semblance of ease and grace, and you may well incur one or more pratfalls. But you will also experience, by way of compensation for that ever present hazard, the satisfaction of realizing that you are giving that noble fish the nearest thing to an even break that he ever gets during his whole hazardous life cycle.

It’s strange that this seems to have no appeal to the English anglers. They, who have for so long been the custodians of our angling heritage, who have such a punctilious regard for other points of protocol and such an almost superstitious reverence for doing things the most sporting way, seem to consider us eccentric in our devotion to light tackle. This is indeed a sign of America’s coming of age, when we can appear eccentric in the eyes of the English.