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Split-cane and bluebottles

By Mike Harding

A longing for split-cane leads to fond memories for Mike Harding.

A longing for split-cane leads to fond memories for Mike Harding
A longing for split-cane leads to fond memories for Mike Harding

I’ve started to hanker after a split-cane rod. Lord knows why. Perhaps it’s the same impulse that makes me hanker after a Morgan sports car or a Split Screen VW Campervan; something to do with the classic design, the care and love that went into them and the fact that they weren’t made somewhere in the middle of China by a twelve-year-old girl who gets paid tuppence an hour and lives on deep-fried cabbage.

It may be nostalgia, too, because the first fly rod I ever owned was a lovely split-cane, eight foot, 4-weight made in Yorkshire and called The Ribblesdale. It was made specifically, it seems, for “Dawsons of Settle” (the words were painted just above the cork handle) where I got not only my rod but my reel, line and all my flies. Dawsons was not a fishing tackle shop but a Yorkshire Dales, small town, general hardware store which sold everything from bull gelding clamps to size 18 Snipe & Purple. It was there, one sunny spring afternoon, in a shop that smelled of paraffin and grass seed, that I paid my money and walked out with everything a man needs to keep him out of the house from sun up to sun down.

That lovely rod went the way of all flesh when I lent it to my old Uncle Harry who wanted to learn fly fishing in his retirement. Unfortunately, he died before he had even wet a line, and even more unfortunately, somebody cleared his house out before I had time to lay claim to my rod. Some skip-rat may well have flogged it to the local bric-a-brac shop, and where my lovely rod is now is anybody’s guess. Above the overmantle in some faux-rustic pub, perhaps.

I do love the rods I have now. Carbon fibre makes for a light rod that I can cast all day, and if, as once did happen, the tip of a rod gets damaged, I can replace it easily and cheaply. But there was something about that Ribblesdale, the lovely burgundy of the agate rings (I seem to remember that they were all lined) and the golden amber of the varnished wood. I caught many a fish with it and had countless great days out on the river with just that rod, one tin of flies and a couple of spare casts. Now I go out as though prepared for World War III with every pocket in my voluminous vest filled with fly boxes, leaders, clippers, pliers, torches, sinkant, floatant, priest, spools of tippet, wader repair kit, lead shot, scissors and, probably, several small kitchen sinks. The simplicity of going out with just a rod, reel, one small box of flies, a spool of 3lb monofil and a flask of tea both appeals to me and terrifies me – what if I run out of monofil?

What if I don’t have the one fly in my box that the fish are going mad for? In fact, just writing this is giving me a panic attack.

Mind you, when I come to think of it, my first ever rod was a cane rod – not handmade, just a six foot bamboo gardening cane. I nicked it from Old Man Corkett’s allotment one dusky evening, climbing over the fence, heart banging, me and my mates (Kenny and Jimmy) all out looking for free fishing rods. I do hope that, from his exalted place up there, he now forgives us. We were, all three of us, about ten-years-old and with those burgled bamboo rods, some fixed nylon, cheap quill floats, a pack of hooks and a tin of worms we fished the mill ponds and canals for miles around. When we realised the limitations of our tackle we bought steel, ex-army tank aerials from the ham radio shops downtown, whipped rings onto them and stuck wooden handles and rod seats on them. They worked but they were heavy and not a lot of fun to fish with. The bug hadn’t bitten Kenny and Jimmy as hard as it had me, and soon I was a solitary fisherman, something that has never bothered me before or since.

Then, in an act of tremendous kindness, another uncle, Bobby, bought me a third-hand greenheart rod with an old wooden reel. It changed my life completely. My old mother still remembers how she would hear me, every day of the summer holidays, just as the dark finally took the day, coming whistling down our street having spent the hours since breakfast fishing for roach and perch on one of the local waters. Twelve-years-old and a real fisherman – though she didn’t like it when I forgot to empty my maggot tin and she lifted the lid off only to fill the house with bluebottles. For days my father would go round the house muttering, smacking the windows with a rolled up newspaper, glaring at me when he missed. Happy, happy days.

So perhaps my idle thoughts about a split-cane rod are a hankering back to those much simpler times, those days when happiness was a keep-net half full of roach, the taste of tea from a flask and my mum’s sandwiches (wafer-thin ham and brown sauce on sliced white bread). If you see a campervan parked on the river bank one lovely summer evening and a solitary figure out there in mid-stream, his lovely old split-cane rod bent double by a furious brown trout, tip toe quietly away. Don’t make a noise, you might wake him up.

Mike Harding writes a regular monthly column in Fly Fishing & Fly Tying magazine on his fly-fishing and tying exploits.

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