Bamboo, Glass, & Graphite: A Brief History of Fly Rods

The most popular construction for fly fishing rods today is the graphite rod. Bamboo and fiberglass rods are still commonly used, but most anglers prefer graphite rods for their weight, flexibility, and durability. But how did we get here?

References to fly fishing rods date back as far as 200 AD. Roman author and angler Aelian published “Aelian’s Natural History” which depicted an illustration of an ancient fishing technique used by the Macedonians. They tied red wool and homemade hooks to wooden branches that could weigh up to 20 pounds. Weighty, cumbersome rods like these would remain the norm for hundreds of years.

By the 17th century, craftsmen began hollowing fly rods to bring the weight down. Soon after, builders started testing a wider variety of wood types, joining pieces to create specialized rods for particular uses. 

Bamboo rods exploded in popularity during the 18th century for their comparatively lightweight construction and pliable nature. Split cane rods were also developed during this time, starting with 3-4 strip designs developed by American violin maker Samuel Phillipe. Soon after H.L. Leonard Rod Company introduced the first 6-strip rods to a wider market.

Fiberglass and Graphite Revolution

Fly fishing popularity boomed in the 19th century as rod builders refined their craft and processes using more advanced techniques and machinery. In 1946, a military researcher Dr. Howald fixed his broken split cane rod, and used a fiberglass tube to fix it, which inspired the very first commercial fiberglass rods, manufactured by the Shakespeare Company. Fiberglass rods helped further the popularity of fly fishing as efficiencies drove production prices even lower. 

By 1973 the very first graphite rods finally hit the market. Modern manufacturers Fenwick and Hardy both claim to have developed the first graphite rods. Within a few short years, more companies saw the potential in graphite rods and they quickly became the preferred choice of anglers. 

Graphite durability depends on the quality of graphite, so manufacturers have been working to improve the material year after year. Today, graphite rods offer impressive lightweight strength and maneuverability enjoyed by the majority of fly fishers.

With all these developments in fly fishing, anglers have a rich choice of options, from modern graphite construction to traditional bamboo and split cane rods. When you cast your line, you are connecting with nature and thousands of years of technological advancement. 

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