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Art of the Possible - Anglers Journal - A Fishing Life
The collaboration between a world-class builder and an angler with a vision results in a remarkable split-cane fly rod

Photos by Walter Hodges

It is a hot, airless September afternoon in the Catskills, the transitional stretch of that month when corn maze signs appear and swaths of summer birds begin to vanish. I’ve traveled to fish a favorite pool on the Delaware’s West Branch, and while you never need a reason to go fishing, this trip is special. Accompanying me is a new and unconventional piece of tackle: a split-cane fly rod that represents an extended collaboration with one of the world’s great builders and a personal, 40-year light-tackle odyssey. It is a piece of equipment I believe could alter the sport.

Massachusetts rod builder Per Brandin contemplates a nearly finished cane rod in his workshop.

Massachusetts rod builder Per Brandin contemplates a nearly finished cane rod in his workshop.

Despite being a tailwater, the river is unusually low. Following weeks of drought, its mile-long flats resemble millponds, and the unseasonable heat has trees releasing leaves early. They patter down softly, like raindrops leading a front, the effect pleasant if vaguely discordant. We are down to minutiae and 7X tippets and the wariest fish of the year.

While midstream shimmers, the bank I’m scouting is heavily shadowed, overhung and protected by interwoven branches of spruce, hemlock and oak. Springs also trickle in here, and the air smells sweeter and feels notably cooler. My eyes bracket the gloom, searching for the dimple or crease that could spell a trout. That’s how you fish this reach of water — shift an inch or two, stop, scan, repeat — the only way that’s really effective. One of the finest anglers I know, John Shaner, a lifelong habitué of the river, refers to the process as “oozing up a bank.”

The rod I’m fishing was built by Per Brandin. Of six-strip, two-piece construction, it measures 8 feet and carries a 2-weight fly line. It marks the fifth and final ideation of a concept we began testing a year ago. The color of a burnished, freshly opened chestnut, the rod is hollow-built from butt to within a few inches of the disconcertingly slender tips (among the finest its maker has ever fashioned) and is a study in purposeful lightness. It has a skeletal reel seat and shortened grip, both entirely ventilated, and is finished with micro-ferrules, light wire guides and shortened wraps. Overall weight is a trout scale above 2 ounces. Of a type, it’s among the most rigorously considered, aggressively parsed tools ever fashioned. The effect in hand is extraordinary, a rare equipoise of touch and delicacy with unusual precision. Quite literally, nothing like it has ever been built.

Why create such a rod? A technical response would go: While the featherweight line relates it to a category of “midge” tackle, its greater length allows far more function. At 8 feet and longer, you gain considerable line control, both on the water and in casting, and the additional leverage aids in fighting and playing fish. The full-flexing design also neutralizes the lunges and exertions of a hooked trout, and will more successfully accommodate the ultra-fine tippets and smaller flies so popular with modern anglers.

All of that might constitute the “official” reason. A more valid response might be, Why not? Lancewood rods measuring 12 feet and weighing as much in ounces were once considered appropriate tackle on a trout stream. Pushing limits is what keeps things interesting.

The builder discusses design points with the author.

The builder discusses design points with the author.

This unusual piece of gear marks a radical step forward in a noble, if eccentric, lineage of “Far & Fine Off” bamboo construction. Long considered slightly unorthodox, rods of this nature are true thoroughbreds and represent a particular style of building that requires very particular skills. Though the first in their line is hard to pinpoint, as a series the concept originated in the late 19th century with Hiram Leonard’s remarkable Catskill and Fairy Catskill rods. These achievements represented the apogee of that day’s rod maker’s art, after which the idea trickles down through, and is periodically refreshed by, various shops and innovative builders, among them Hiram Hawes and F.E. Thomas.

This tackle has always proved more popular in concept than in use, and for every such rod made, few were ever fished. The majority of these, through mistake, misuse and miscreants, were damaged or broken, and surviving examples in good condition are rare. I’ve been lucky to own, fish or cast intact examples by the aforementioned craftsmen and found the rods to be extraordinary instruments. However, as relates to contemporary fishing, the trout fly in the ointment is the unavoidable fact that they were designed for other purposes in other times.

Though hallmarks of the builder’s skill, the typically noodley, hyper-delicate character of most light, vintage fly rods 8 feet or longer suggests another intent. As a general rule, most were conceived as genteel wet fly rods. They may be adapted to dry-fly sport with varying degrees of success, but it’s a tenuous graft. Their use in any serious manner today requires a level of skill or masochism so great as to preclude the sane.

Which isn’t to say many haven’t tried. For both fly fishers and builders alike, the allure of the difficult for its own sake remains a powerful one. Fishing is a sport, after all. Innumerable trout have been spared the indignity of capture by anglers attempting to utilize such aberrant, demanding tackle. Likewise, history’s scrap bins overflow with failed attempts at this uniquely frustrating angling concept. Yet, as when reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, profound frustration can occasionally betoken enlightenment. Or, in this case, a finer presentation.

Of course, I wanted one. Where would we be without our manias? For reasons of sportiness, to test and gauge myself against the tackle (hopefully improving my timing and competence), and in accord with the teachings of respected authors and mentors, I sought this quixotic creature as avidly as Pellinore pursued the Beast Glatisant. Thus began a quest.

Spanning three decades, opinions received from the many tackle authorities I consulted ranged from mildly pessimistic to outright hostile. “That’s why they invented graphite,” or “It’s not what bamboo was meant to do” were typical ripostes. As orthodoxies go, they were right. Putting aside the pure whimsy of a 2-weight line, simply building long and light in the material presents inherent problems. A split-cane rod’s solid mass develops considerable momentum in use and frequently becomes erratic, leading to uncontrollable vibration and fluctuations. Too much weight in the upper portion of a rod, too little governing it. Many makers used the term “impossible.”

There were flashes of hope. In the 1980s, the brilliant Tom Maxwell took an interest, and we chatted at length about the possibility of constructing such a rod, actually discussing a commission. It would have been an involved project, and I couldn’t raise the dough. His premature and regrettable passing again dimmed the wick.

The truth is that, until relatively recently, few had all the pieces required to conceive of, let alone execute, such an exotic piece of kit. Having exhausted both mind and bank account, I grudgingly retired from the field. The search was temporarily abandoned, and my trouting allegiance switched to graphite, where achieving such a result, while difficult, remains far more practical.

Then, on another decade, I met Per Brandin.

Brandin analyzes a rod’s profile on his deflection board, which he deems critical to achieving “repeatability.

Brandin analyzes a rod’s profile on his deflection board, which he deems critical to achieving “repeatability.

In the ranks of split-cane maestros, Brandin, who is 65, is regarded as one of the most innovative and talented practitioners ever to favor a culm. Fresh, independent ideas on construction and design — the motto on his website is “design is the key to performance” — along with consummate, nuanced craft and abiding curiosity have elevated him to an unusual position in that fusty realm: a traditionalist unencumbered by tradition. Having considered, conceived and built rods for 35 years, for Brandin, learning has become the end. As one longtime collector I consulted put it, “A Brandin fly rod embodies ideas, not merely craft.”

Renowned for breathing new life into the unconventional Quadrate, or four-strip form, he was also an early adopter of hollow-building, refining and improving the demanding technique, which may just prove to be the big bang of split-cane construction. As a builder, “feel” has always been his mantra, and an engagement with Eastern philosophies is apparent when he states a desire to “build rods that are joyful.”

It must be stated that the rods are exceedingly difficult to obtain. The market for his talents greatly exceeds output, and Per’s flyrods are among the sport’s most costly, averaging more than $5,000. At auction, examples have sold for nearly double this amount.

Perpetually inquisitive, Brandin now devotes himself primarily to projects that satisfy a problem or intrigue him, just as prior greats originated and came to be identified with elegant solutions to angling challenges of their day: Paul Young’s brilliant Perfectionist and Para-15 tapers, the reach and languid grace of Jim Payne’s 204L, as well as his iconic Model 98, Everett Garrison’s revered Model 212. Brandin’s Model 834-2 DF, an 8-foot, 3-inch design he developed for 4-weight lines, is accepted among cognoscenti as having entered the pantheon of modern classics.

Meeting him for the first time, my hope revived significantly. It wasn’t long before I made my pitch. “Why couldn’t someone reinvigorate the grand tradition of the long, light rod, finally designing a functional 2-weight?” I asked.

He listened attentively, considered the question at length, then responded with the all too familiar “because it simply can’t be done.”

A day later, he called back. “I’ve been thinking about your problem.”

A cutaway view of the unique hollow-building process used by Per Brandin in constructing his bamboo fly rods. Apart from being lighter, the technique affords great touch and rod control.

A cutaway view of the unique hollow-building process used by Per Brandin in constructing his bamboo fly rods. Apart from being lighter, the technique affords great touch and rod control.

Upstream, tight to the shoreline, I sense, more than see, a movement not previously apparent. Distinguishing bank feeders in heavy overshadow can be sport in itself. This might have been anything: an upwelling, a congruency of water striders, perhaps a fallen acorn I’d somehow missed. There appears a ring, albeit minuscule. Very few small trout in this reach — pay attention. Once more, and this time a hint of length and concealed breadth. A good fish? Assuming the likelihood, I close with exaggerated care, suppressing wake, doing the things you need to do to have success in such skinny water. Finally satisfied with my position, I begin false casting, obliquely so as not to announce the line, re­adjusting only on presentation. The rod feels uncanny, nearly intuitive.

From my home in Vermont, I travel to Brandin’s workshop in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, via a winding river drive that is occasionally harrowing, always fascinating and which, on reflection, has much in common with the metaphysics of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. Utterly appropriate, of course, as I made it initially (and continue making it regularly), seeking both obscure knowledge and that magic instrument with which to best the storied Leviathan of Catskill Flats (brandin-splitcane.com).

Brandin arrived at what many believe is his position as the day’s premier builder of cane fly rods via a similarly winding and obscure route. As an angler, he came of age during the period when what had been a vigorous bamboo rod industry was in dramatic decline, undone by the rise of synthetic rod materials and new technologies, as well as a broad-scale movement away from craftsmanship. By the end of the ’60s, when his interest in bamboo first awakened, a majority of the hallowed builders and companies producing this arcane product were either shuttering operations or, having read the writing on the wall, anxiously reviewing other markets. Despite holdouts and a few standouts, it was a dour time in the history of the art. Not a few prophesied its demise.

Around 1970, attending an early Trout Unlimited symposium in Syracuse, New York, Brandin halted in front of the Leonard Rod Co. booth, transfixed by samples on its display rack. The quiet harmonies, evident workmanship and intrinsic elegance of the product transported him, suggested something exceptional yet obtainable. The moment provided an aesthetic and intellectual spur to action that would change the course of his life. Such galvanizing instances would recur throughout his career and have come to characterize his style and his unusual abilities as a maker.

It was not the best of times to adopt this esoteric profession. The few companies still producing fine bamboo rods were jettisoning staff, and a traditional apprentice’s passage was sinking fast. With depressing frequency, original knowledge and techniques — often closely guarded — as well as the unique machinery that birthed them, were disappearing, sliding into the void of history. A last, critical generation of great builders was turning over, and neither the market nor the times seemed to care a whit.

However, in Brandin, a fire had been lit.

The Per Brandin 802-2-GMS (Galen Mercer Special): an old challenge resolved.

The Per Brandin 802-2-GMS (Galen Mercer Special): an old challenge resolved.

Driving a cab at the time, he made just enough to begin obtaining rods built by a variety of storied makers: Winstons, Howells, Leonards. He examined, studied and considered each one, attempting to understand the rod’s specific action and personality. Interest grew rapidly from that of the collector/hobbyist to something more consuming. Trips were scheduled to meet admired builders, and important friendships were born.

Hoagy Carmichael Jr., acolyte of the remarkable Everett Garrison and an esteemed builder in his own right, saw something special in Brandin and took him under his wing. Sam Carlson, repository of both the F.E. Thomas and Edwards Quadrate traditions, became a teacher and major influence. From him, Brandin derived both a sense of meticulous craft and an introduction to the mystery and intricacies of four-strip construction — a challenging form he adopted and wholly mastered. He became friendly with Tom Morgan and Glenn Brackett, the master builders at the R.L. Winston Co., who’d advanced Lew Stoner’s brilliantly innovative, fluted hollow designs. Interest in the technique of hollow building grew to encompass the methods of E.C. Powell, another western great. (Brandin has recently written, and plans to soon publish, a definitive book on this maker’s bamboo rods.) This style of construction, which pares inner, less essential pith from the bamboo strip, vastly increasing a rod’s strength-to-weight ratio, would ultimately prove critical to his personal development and progress.

Ironically, what likely stayed the decline of bamboo rod making in general, and set the stage for Brandin’s bright future in particular, was a book by Garrison and Carmichael that appeared in 1977. A Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod described in ardent, meticulous detail the career and rigorous building philosophy of Garrison, among the most original and revered of amateur bamboo rod makers.

Influential despite a relatively small output, Garrison was a trained engineer whose approach to construction emphasized precision and repeatability. This concept, allied with his intimate production, experimental design philosophy and a startlingly lean, modern aesthetic, turned numerous heads, Brandin’s included. Coming at a time when many people felt (and much of the culture was) adrift, the book’s reverent tone and Garrison’s assured artisan’s ethic anchored a generation starved for verities. The book had a profound impact on Brandin and within the sport itself, and could honestly be said to have instigated a revival.

Implicit among its many good lessons was the critical role of mentoring as a prime source of learning. As shop floor hierarchies disintegrated, an earlier form of teaching was renewed. For many modern builders, tutoring — allied with diligence, skill and a vast hunger for knowledge — enabled mastery and the establishment of careers.

As an aside, it might be suggested that entering the field at this point of dissolution also afforded certain advantages, at least to a particular bent of mind.

One plus was the fact that you were less likely to be inculcated in a single, primary skill, pigeonholed into a specialist’s role no matter how far up the assembly ladder you climbed — a common stamp of many Golden Age rod shops. Another was that, provided you managed to attain the necessary craft (and possessed requisite commitment), evolving independently tends to encourage intellectual flexibility. Outside the locus of one influential master, a builder remains open to greater possibility and is more likely to experiment and try the unorthodox. No matter how honed the operation, shops exceeding a certain scale inevitably cater to Main Street: No bad thing in itself (and often a guarantor of consistency), but over time this state can lead to generality in both thinking and product, inhibiting potential.

The innovative split-cane maestro refines a fitting on his lathe. Brandin was an early adopter of the demanding hollow-building technique.

The innovative split-cane maestro refines a fitting on his lathe. Brandin was an early adopter of the demanding hollow-building technique.

From the outset, Brandin demonstrated obvious aptitude and began to consider the possibility of making a transition from a photography/art background to the alchemical trade of split-cane rod building. His early preference, perhaps befitting a Scandinavian heritage, was for rods of minimal adornment and maximum performance. (It would be years before he would include even signature wraps on a rod.) While others have embraced the “form follows function” mantra — Michigan’s iconoclastic Paul Young and the highly original Michael Montagne, for two — few have done it as lyrically or with such perfect pitch astream.

If there was an aha! moment in Brandin’s early building career, by his account it occurred soon after he began utilizing a micrometer to measure each rod’s taper, then transferring these increments to graph paper. Thus visualized, he grasped the potential for precise control and, to echo Garrison’s mantra, “repeatability.” Asked when he felt his rods first became his own — at what point he began to build a “Brandin” — he said the mid-’90s while sharing shop space in Oakland with Mario Wojnicki, a close friend and another exceptional contemporary maker.

During this period, Brandin assembled a run of four 8½-foot Tournament rods, each carrying 6-weight lines, all of which measured within a quarter-inch of one another on a deflection board — a tool commonly utilized by rod builders to gauge a rod’s profile precisely under simulated loading stress. Exceptional then, such results remain so today. Their achievement implied an attainment of control and precision that would become hallmarks of his mature style.

Mastery, however, is (or should be) expected of any accomplished artisan. A host of other qualities must exist and align to make the artist. The world’s greatest rod builders often define themselves through the indefinable: the uncanny feel for taper, hands that simply know (to a thousandth of an inch) what’s what, a profound simpatico for bamboo. All of these traits elevate and distinguish the unique maker. Perhaps the most important element on the list is imagination. The ability to remain open and curious, to consider the unconventional as well as the unlikely, is critical. It’s the itch that drives both individual reputation and the rest of the industry forward. In this area, Brandin’s rods are the class of the field.

The solution to this particular, hundred-year-old problem of building a long, functional 2-weight came after Brandin began contemplating another revolutionary rod, the B9 Taper conceived by the brilliant E.C. Powell. Utilizing an early and inspired hollow-building process, that rod represented a great advance for its day in terms of what was possible in building long and light. It had already provided a departure point for Brandin’s renowned 8-foot, 3-inch model for a 4-weight line, which he’d successfully scaled down to an 8-foot version that balanced 3-weights. The intricate process of progressively hollow-building rod tips — removing mass while increasing the rod’s sensitivity — in conjunction with reworked tapers that lightened the butt of that model, yielded what may well be the world’s first long, truly effective 2-weight built from split cane.

Staying low, the author scans a bank for rising trout. The demanding character of such water spurred his quest for this special rod.

Staying low, the author scans a bank for rising trout. The demanding character of such water spurred his quest for this special rod.

Presented with a prototype, I literally held my breath. From the initial cast, I knew something rare had occurred.

My first drift is outside by several inches and floats through unmolested. The rod’s touch, accuracy and tracking are remarkable: a complete absence of vibration or waggle, the thin “skin” of the walls and its unique tips allowing a stabilized, heightened sense of control. Carefully cleaning up after the cast, I initiate another. The fly alights and wanders blithely around a projection of rocks before it simply disappears. Immediate, impressive weight. A very good fish. Yards of fly line pooled at my feet vanish as the trout departs its shallow-water lie and makes a sustained, arcing run toward midriver. While protecting my tippet, the slender rod transmits worrisome dispatches concerning its progress among unseen snags.

While I dislike the practice, taking a quick photo to commemorate this fish seems appropriate, and I cast my eyes along the bank, seeking an ideal setting for the dénouement. Engaged in this vainglorious exercise, and not attending to business, I overlook an angled slab of rock and pivot, windmilling comically, at the precise instant the fish broaches. Goodbye.

Some hot words later, there’s nothing to do but shake my head at such hubris, reel in and pause to repair the leader.

This rod, while experimental, denoted a process as much as a benchmark. The market for such tackle has never been large. For its builder, who makes relatively few of any type per year, it has always been about the search. Yet by its creation, something important seems to have been confirmed. Seeking to ally modern function with historic grace, Brandin extended a marvelous, century-old tradition. From a hallowed premise, a radical new potential was born, one offering rod builders a blueprint for reimagining the scope of such light tackle while issuing a new challenge to fly fishers. It’s no small thing.

As I select a fresh fly, a blur slices the coniferous dark and takes my eye. Plummeting, an osprey completes a kamikaze dive into the pool, hitting the surface with startling impact. Beating the air ferociously, the bird emerges with a trout and regains the level of bordering treetops, only to drop its prize, which flashes brilliantly in the late-afternoon sun as it falls back to the river.

We’ve both lost a fish. This is oddly consoling, and I wonder if it occurs as often in his world as it does in mine.

Unlikely.

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