Long rods then and now 2

This week our columnist Rob Brown talks about fishing rods made of greenheart, an incredibly strong wood

Native to the Guyana, Venezuela, and Surinam, greenheart was one of many new products introduced to Britain as a result of its imperial expansion. The British colonialists of the former South American country (until recently known as British Guyana) were quick to appreciate that the extremely hard and strong wood of Ocotea rodiei or greenheart, as the Brits dubbed it, would be particularly valuable in dock construction owing to the fact that it was resistant to the attacks of marine borers and also in shipbuilding because of its amazing strength.

They were correct. The Fram and the Endurance, the ships made famous in the polar expeditions of Amundsen and Shackleton and the two strongest wooden ships ever built, were sheathed in greenheart so as to prevent them from the crush of polar ice.

The wood of the tall evergreen tree is so hard it can’t be worked with standard tools. During the heyday of the British Empire loggers of greenheart suffered in tropical heat using hand saws to cut through the dense wood. Those who milled the wood had to take care not to pick up splinters as greenheart, while neither toxic nor irritating to the touch, can cause severe infections when its splinters pierce the skin.

Modern sawyers discovered that greenheart had the potentially lethal tendency to split quickly, and with such force, that pieces of a log flew into the air when it hit the saw kerf. In one instance, sections of a greenheart log penetrated the roof of a mill. Today’s sawyers wrap stout chains around the logs to avoid such mishaps.

Salmon angling has always been popular among the British upper classes who wielded two handed rods made of bamboo from the Tonkin province in China. The traditional bamboo rod is constructed from lathes made by splitting the bamboo culms or stalks.

When six of these strips have been planed to the correct widths and tapered, they are carefully glued together to form a hexagonal blank which forms the basis of the rod. Since bamboo lathes soften and lose their tensile strength when exposed to water, the blank must be  water proofed by varnishing. Constructing a bamboo rod requires considerable skill and much labour.

Greenheart, on the other hand, though heavier than bamboo, wood is considerably more dense than grass, is water resistant and strong.

Rod builders were quick to take advantage of these properties and were soon turning solid pieces of greenheart on lathes to make rod blanks, thus dispensing with the labour intensive process required to cobble together bamboo rods.

Two-handed bamboo salmon rods are heavy brutes. And rods made of greenheart are heavier still. Holding a greenheart rod in your hands is a little like holding a jousting lance—but a flexible one.

Anglers who favour greenheart flyrods, and there are still a few about, including the Prince of Wales, claim that greenheart’s ability to store and release energy makes it the best material ever discovered for casting with a two-handed rod. As proof, they cite the casting feats of Alexander Grant.

Grant, a Scots violinist and violin maker among other things, is reputed to have applied techniques derived from those of luthiers in the construction of his greenheart rods, one aspect of which was matching the joints in frequency to a note from a tuning fork. Realizing that wood of the same length had differing densities, Grant sought to fashion blanks with the same density from butt to tip.

To these he fastened what he called “drop down rings,” collapsing guides that trapped the fly line as the caster hoisted his rod aloft thus preventing the formation of any energy robbing slack from forming during the cast.

Grant believed that the farther the angler was from his quarry, the less likely he would spook the fish. For that reason, he strove to put as much distance between him and the salmon with long casts.

With his ‘Vibration Rods,’ fiddler, barber, luthier, and gillie, Alexander Grant cast flies as far as a staggering 165 feet on the River Ness. To get a sense of how great such a cast this was, picture standing on the goal line of a football field and  casting a fly to the 55 yard line.

Using modern rods of space age plastic and modern PVC lines, a few casters have surpassed that distance, but these fellows were shooting short heavy heads ahead of thin running line. The innovative Scot was picking up the entire length of silk line and casting the whole thing, a feat that has yet to be matched.

Though a few Grant Vibration rods still exist, sadly, the  craft of making them appears to have died with Grant.

…continued next week…