Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Symbiosis and Grace: A tale of two fly rods.

2 DaVinci rods top. Bottom Para 15. Writer's log and pen while writing this mess.

Author’s note:

This is an essay based on reflections. Essentially, it is what might be considered a rod ‘Shoot-out’ in the modern slang, but nobody gets injured, and there is no violence. It is an examination of character and personality of inanimate objects with some allegory, analogies, and hints of anthropomorphism thrown in for clarification or explanation, or even accidental obfuscation. My approach to this and writing style is not common and may be considered enigmatic. I certainly hope so, for thought is not always linear, and writing should not always be either. The style might be read a bit like interrupted poetic prose spattered with philosophy and nonsense randomly but with intent and design not unlike a Jackson Pollack painting. Sometimes it might seem that I am searching for something without putting my fingers on it, only to have an epiphany a few paragraphs later, and detour yet again. Sometimes I wonder what people must think when they attempt to get through these little diversions of mine, but then I might deem it the highest compliment and praise if someone reads this and it spurs thought…. For thought is what I am after…after all….

These reflections were written at local parks while casting and taking notes and day-dreaming, a process I referred to once in an essay as ‘Water-Putting’. I would hike 4 miles, then go the quietest location I could find, set up the rods and begin taking endless notes and exploring ideas while casting. I hope you enjoy it!


The two fly rods explained

Both fly rods are 2 piece, 8 feet long, and take a 5 weight line. That is where the similarities end, for they are as different as air and water. Both rods were built and ‘interpreted’ by Joe Balestrieri, the cane whisperer and bamboo rod builder at Redwing Fly Rods, and a great friend. I acquired both rods this year, after having hand-built a leather rod tube to accommodate them, and purchasing a rare pre-war Hardy Perfect reel with an ‘agate-up’ line guard to balance the rods. I even made a leather reel case for the Hardy as well, long before either rod was a reality. Either a lot of thought and planning went into this, or a bit of insanity….. most likely both.

The rods are a DaVinci, and a Young Parabolic 15. Here are their histories.

The DaVinci, or the ‘Symbiosis’ of the title is a fusion of bamboo and graphite. Following the designs of Charles Ritz of the Vario-Power series of rod which married a bamboo tip to a fiberglass butt, Pezon & Michel of France built a rod with a cane butt section and a graphite tip in 1990 to 1991. The fact that little is known about this rod has little to do with performance, only with popularity, or a lack of it and a corresponding lack of understanding. It may have been a little too much of a diversion for the average angler, too much to chew on, and not understood at all, or the concept of fusion itself may have been seen as heretical. More on that later… Joe also leant me his personal DaVinci rod he built so that I could test cast and fish with it. It is a nine-foot for a six-weight line, and appears in the photo as the rod with the skeletal grip, another idea borrowed from the late Paul Young, the expansive idea-chaser and bamboo rod builder from Detroit Michigan. Balestrieri also used a modified Ritz grip on the rod in addition to the skeletal reel seat, blending the best of borrowed ideas and mixing them together to make a different flavor of rod. Sometimes the best tasting pasta dishes are assembled by scratch, and with only ingredients on-hand and in the mind, as I found out when Balestrieri cooked me a Sicilian bacon, white sauce and asparagus dish when I picked up the rod. He pulled that dish out and improvised. It was divine!

Since I mentioned Paul Young, the second rod is one I wanted Balestrieri to make for me. I wanted an all-around trout rod of around eight feet or so and for a five-weight line. What he came up with was a lightened Paul Young Para 15 taper. Instead of casting a six-weight line, as the original rods did, this one cast a true five beautifully. The name ‘Para 15’ comes from the ferrule being 15/64th in diameter. Para is short for ‘Parabolic’, which is fly-rod gibberish to attempt to explain a taper that bends mostly nearer the grip, and often has a stiffer tip. Parabolic rods thus are ‘regressive’ in taper, as they stand convention on its head by bending far down the blank. The most parabolic of the parabolics, rods like the Para 15 and the Princess, also by Paul Young, have a fluid slow action that flings the line out there without effort much like a slingshot.

Ernest Schwiebert, in his book Trout Tackle 2 told us that Young preferred his Para 15, and that perhaps it was Young’s favorite rod. Schwiebert himself commented that the Para 15 was “Perhaps the finest all-around trout rod in my collection.” That says a lot as Schwiebert owned countless bamboo rods from all the great makers, and fished them all over the world, and wrote about them as well in his stories and his histories of tackle and technique.

The rod Balestrieri built for me is similar to a lightened regressive taper Para 15 Young called the ‘Keller’. This rod is the ‘Grace’ in the title.

Before I break out the bottle of wine and begin waxing poetic, these two rods are perhaps the finest casting fly-rods I have ever had the privilege to hold or own, but for very different reasons; thus the point of the explorative reflections.


Getting to know you…


DaVinci, as in the great Leonardo, was the great historic artist he is considered both because of his divine talent and exquisite beauty of touch in capturing the human figure, as well as his diversity in designing and drafting war machines, civil engineering tools, castle and town layouts and defenses, etc. His explorations were incredible. His sketches are exquisite in their subtle strokes and detail, and almost casual in their greatness. They leave the average artist dumbfounded.

 The rod named after him may have had its name taken as a tribute to the fusion of the classical paintings and the drafting drawings. At least it would be nice to believe so. I use the term symbiosis to describe the rod as in two parts working together to achieve what each by themselves, could not achieve alone. For no two materials anchor the far bookends of opinion, puritanism, zeal and stubbornness in fly rod design and casting; bamboo of lore, and graphite of pure energy. One made of natural fibers bending in the wind, and one mastered by man and melded by alchemists out of carbon; Each material having supporters scoffing at each other. Bamboo fanatics will never admit that graphite is a viable material at all, and often call rods made of carbon fiber ‘Plastic’ just to raise a hackle or two. Graphite proponents call cane rods ‘Buggy-whips’ and dismiss cane as short-distance over-priced affectations. Cane nuts have started internet forums where they endlessly argue about nuances so obscure that to the layperson who wanders by and innocently trespasses on their lofty comfort and security with a perceived blasphemy of a question, they must seem like a bunch of model-railroad fanatics involved in a street fight to settle the issue of which gauge track is better.

These two sides are so polarized around performance versus classicism, that when some eccentric artist or craftsman one day makes a rod of both materials combined it must cause silence, and then cries of anger and blasphemy. How dare you disgrace cane with graphite you heretic. Heresy! How dare you mess up my graphite power tool with the addition of that dumb wood butt-section? Now it weighs 1/32nd of an ounce more and I can’t cast. So erupted the Capulets and the Montagues, yet Romeo and Juliet lay still bound together in brash reality right there in front of us. And they loved…. They loved without prejudice. They loved completely, with all of themselves.

So the DaVinci may never be accepted. Its dichotomy is too extreme. It angers the purists, and adulterates the puritan. The Capulets and Montagues war and rage and argue and fight… The experts will tell you that any fly- rod like this will be a disaster….

Until you cast it. Then the true duet begins, like a love song from West-Side Story, Bernstein’s brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s play… Romeo and Juliet in the modern age. These materials compliment each other amazingly. The cane butt pulls the weight closer to the grip, causing the rod to feel lighter in hand and more responsive. The cane bends near the butt, causing the rod action to be very powerful but semi-parabolic in nature. The graphite tip on my rod is longer than the butt section, and creates a unique property of a lack of deflection. Therefore, the best of two materials come together. The graphite tip is also lighter, reducing the overall weight of the flyrod, and preventing what often happens in bamboo rods; the tips become too heavy, especially in weights over 5 or lengths over 8 feet.

It took no time at all to understand this rod. Step up to the plate and swing. She takes all you can give as long as you are smooth. It is not a close distance rod, instead it wants some gas. I first fished it on a small spring creek where I was hampered by brush, and the rod did not like it. I caught fish, but I continually had to make the rod do things it didn’t want to do. Under 20 feet it didn’t want to load right, but when moving to a larger body of water it ran free. This rod does not want to be confined. With a cigar grip, a unique burned cork butt, and bright red wraps, it stands out as the convertible sports car in a field of sedans.

Only once, did I really step on the gas and run it full out, and the entire fly line went out and the backing banged the reel. Yet… it didn’t sell. Nobody understands it. Sad. Blasphemy! Heretic! Or… symbiosis? Just ask Romeo and Juliet! On second thought, don’t do that, it kind of ended badly for them. Perhaps peanut butter and jelly might be a better analogy. Yet… of Shakespeare’s plays, what is the most popular? Yes. The dichotomy.

I taught a fly-casting class for a Trout Unlimited chapter this summer using the DaVinci rod, and although everyone seemed to think it was interesting, watching people look at the rod and wiggle it was not unlike the tale of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. If I hadn’t owned it and cast it, I would be in the same boat. One guy asked, “Why did you bring that rod?” I thought… “Why not?”. Sometimes it seems to be my place on earth to be the odd one who makes us all question things by doing everything contrary to conventional wisdom, and making it work.


Unlike the DaVinci, the Para 15 is a difficult gal to figure out. She is the demure one seated alone on the settee at the dance. She is not the most desirable or flashy of the girls, she has an understated quiet grace, part Greek with a quiet smile and classic cupid lips, but if you want to take the time to know her, she is the keeper, and the one you want to spend the rest of the night dancing with. Just don’t step on her toes… she hates that. Grace is demanding of respect. She is complicated despite being straightforward. She seems quirky at first. If you cast her right with smooth movements, she rewards you with an elegant loop and bend like lips slowly curving into a beguiling smile.

Parabolic rods are like this. You may hate the rod one second because you are pushing it too hard, and then the next second, when you smooth out your stroke and come into agreement with the rod, it rewards you. There is no wiggle-room in this rod. Either you are going to play beautiful music together, or you are going to make one god-awful racket and end up on the floor frustrated and tangled up in your own underwear. The rod sets the tempo, not you. Unlike some graphite rods that you can push, mold, and change to your ways, this Para 15 will not budge. So… after getting over a few tailing-loops and some frustrated casting, I closed my eyes and cast. I was not leading the dance, the rod was, and I opened my eyes to an epiphany. I felt it first in my arm and hand as the bend of the rod came alive so very subtly, and then witnessed the loop as 50 feet of line gracefully uncoiled and the reel quacked out a few more inches in protest. I cast it again with the maker, and while talking to him and not paying attention to my casting stroke, he said, “That was a perfect cast!” I had taken myself out of it, at least my conscious mind, and let my soul or unconscious take control. Joe laughed, and I did too. This Para 15 wanted no part of my thoughts, it only wanted what it’s soul’s essence desired. Pure smooth strokes. Don’t think, just feel….

This quirkiness is why some people never like parabolic rods. If you have an inflexible casting stroke and cadence, and you perform a tango even when the dance is a waltz, the rod will not make the adaptation, and will punish you. This ability to get to know the personalities of unique rods fascinates me. The changes I have to make as a caster in order to make the rod perform allow me to become a better caster because I am listening, not doing the talking.

The Para 15 requires patience. The style of casting that just seemed to gel includes a bit of Charles Ritz in his High Speed-High Line approach along with a smooth long travel on the back cast starting low with the tip to the ground, then smoothly accelerating forward and stopping however gently before lowering the tip. A powerful stop to create a tight loop made the rod do strange things, and I had to let it be in charge again before I understood again that it demands smoothness. Any noise or abrupt movements will shock it and it will stop singing for you. It took some time before I got to really understand the Para 15 since the flaws in casting came not from the rod, but from me.

This rod will perform up close and at distance, so it is more versatile than the DaVinci, and it might be hard to scratch together an argument against it as the finest all-around trout rod ever. I still struggle at distance with the rod though, but only in park-casting distances, because despite all the tales of 90 foot casts, for most situations a 60 foot cast is quite far, and a more realistic average distance on big water might be 50 feet, and the Para 15 is dead on at 40 and 50 feet, repeatedly hitting the same leaf at distance while simulating dry-fly accuracy. However, like most of us, one man’s meat is another’s poison, and after trying an overly heavy old double taper line on the rod, I put on a weight-forward 5 weight line and the rod sang an aria of its own. That is another important aspect to fly-rods. There is no such thing as the right line out of the box. I have rods rated for a seven that I cast with a six, and rods rated for a 4 that I cast with a five. Another caster might like the exact opposite. Balestrieri and I fooled around with one of his finest rod creations several times in succession with different lines often getting wildly different results before he grabbed a silk line that was actually a bit heavy, and after my prediction that it would only make it more confusing, the line flew out and hit the junipers at the edge of his property. We just looked at each other and smiled.

We have to give the rods different foods, if you will, and see how they react. A casting stroke more powerful might mean a lighter line or not. I tested or ‘fed’ my rods a variety of lines, many no longer in production.

Like my analogy to the dark brunette Greek and Italian classic like Cecilia Bartoli the opera mezzo-soprano, the Para 15 has a quiet and subtle beauty. It has a cork reel seat, not a deep polished wood. This is in keeping with the rods of Paul Young who was known to be a bit of a nut on saving weight and often sacrificing aesthetics in favor of performance. So this rod has no fancy ball gown, only an Italian green silk wrap. It is simple like an Italian feast of grapes, bread and wine taken in a Sicilian field in the hills and true to the roots and character of the maker Balestrieri.

The differences in these two rods always lead my mind to stray to music again. If these two rods were performing artists, how would they differ? Why, with as much character difference as they do in casting. Vladimir Horowitz the fiery Russian pianist would love to pound the keyboard of the DaVinci, while he would probably break the Para 15. Alfred Cortot, the poetic interpreter of Chopin and Debussy would love the complicated and quiet intricate rhythms of the Para 15, while he might find the DaVinci to be too brutal to make music.

I was doing research the other day for this article and became fascinated with bamboo collectors use of the term ‘Experimental’. The term was used to describe the DaVinci, as well as Paul Young’s rare but vaunted Princess, a regressive 7 foot for a 4 weight line of which very few were built. Critics seemed to imply that a taper that was not popular or of which few were made constituted an ‘Experiment’ in a connoted derogatory sense. Apparently, experiments that sold were acts of genius in contrast. Certainly the Princess and the DaVinci ideas were not failures due to their lack of casting brilliance, but perhaps the deviations of these rods might make us read the ‘Experimental’ critique as better defined as “I don’t get it….” That led me to include the CD cover for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, songs so beautiful and full of life yet profane, as a part of the montage photo heading this piece of experimental prose and fly-rod reflection. I thought it fitting, and I wanted to thumb my nose at convention, especially by those that collect rods and argue about them, but when it comes down to it, have no clue where the rod’s soul lies.

The soul comment leads me back to the more mundane word ‘Character’, and why I wrote this piece in the first place. I have cast some poor rods in my time, but more often than not, a decent rod with thought behind the taper and intent and purpose behind the design that at first might not speak to me will often reveal itself when I am not trying or thinking. That is why I built the Romeo and Juliet analogy and “Getting to know you…”.  One has to spend some time with a fly-rod in order to find out what makes it tick…. Far more than is given in any magazine “Rod shoot-out” I have ever read.


Conclusion ad nauseam…


So the Para 15 is the finest rod I have ever cast…. Or is it the Da Vinci? Both? Neither? Or is the point of ever trying to assign a score to a delicate object like a fine cane rod like trying to rank the finest painters and musical artists in a list….? An impossible task, and one that is perpetrated every day. Instead, art history teaches us that comparison and contrast is an exercise in itself. Not pointless, but leading to thought and more respect and a deeper appreciation of the intent of the object itself.

On the other hand, we could just go out and catch a bunch of fish. I like to think it can be more than just that…. It can be art if we let it be. Casting and rods can be like the fine instruments and music they were intended as. Just add a glass of fine claret, turn down the music, pick up a fly-rod and close your eyes.




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