evolution of the fly rod

Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, fly fisher, photographer & more, find Phil’s photography here

evolution of the fly rodThere was a time in my life when I wanted just one good fly rod to go with my meager supply of fly fishing stuff. I had lobbied successfully for a Columbia fly fishing vest for a birthday present some time before but a good fly rod was still financially out of reach for my young family. It was a little funny to watch me if you knew anything about fly fishing because up to that point I used an old spin casting rod that was unusually long and I had turned the handle and real seat around to try and get my Dad’s old fly reel closer to the butt of the rod making it look more like a fly rod. This set up worked through University and into my early married life after graduation. I used my Dad’s old rust colored fly line on the reel and to this I tied some monofilament line with a size 12 Adams or a Royal Coachman from Dad’s old metal fly box and I was good to go.

I bought a red fiberglass fly rod, a WF6F fly line, a cheap reel and some leaders and began lobbying my wife for summer holidays on the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, my home waters as it were, because that is where Dad would take us fishing. We began planning, looking at maps and determining where we might go and camp.

My kids and my wife got me a couple of books about Fly Fishing for Christmas that year which I read with a great deal of pleasure. This turned out to be a strategic mistake on my families’ part. I was dismayed by the huge amount I did not know about the world of fly fishing equipment and the art of fly-fishing itself. It became apparent to me that I needed a new graphite rod, a material that had just come to the fly fishing market. Still not wanting to spend hundreds of dollars on a Fly Rod I got a 9’ six weight rod sold by Winchester made with a blend of graphite and fiberglass, or so said the label. This rod was a bit of a revelation in that it was able to cast line leader and fly far better than anything I had handled up to this point. I carried both rods with me on trips, the red fiberglass rod as a backup and I used the graphite rod pretty much all the time. Eventually I gave my red rod to a young man from Blue Bronna Wilderness Camps who had begun to fish with me when I wandered to the river which was pretty much all the time. The Winchester rod provided good service for many years.

Karen and I moved to Northeast Texas sixteen years ago to teach University and it was there I met a bunch of guys who had a fly fishing club called the “East Texas Fly Fishers”. It wasn’t unusual for people in this club to have 4 or 5 different state fishing licenses in any given year and they loved the sport making it a pleasure to be around them. They also had some very high end equipment. One guy, Mike by name, made beautiful split bamboo fly rods and this got me thinking about building my own graphite rods. I bought the necessary equipment and bits and pieces and began turning out fly rods not just for myself but for my son in-laws, my grand kids and for friends. I even managed to keep a few for myself. They are all made on high end graphite blanks and I think they are more aesthetically pleasing than the very best rods out there in the retail market. They are also a pleasure to cast.

Now I am ready for the next step that no one has invented yet, carrying multiple fly rods in a tangle free way. Each with different tackle on them so that as you wade a stream, say the Livingstone River in Alberta for instance, you could have rods set up for every situation you might encounter. For the shallow spots you could have a dry fly rig, for really deep holes a heavily weighted nymph rig with sink tip line and one or two rods for the situations that weren’t as deep or as shallow. I imagine a rod case much like a golf club bag thrown up on a shoulder and as the fisherman approaches a stretch of water he chooses his club/rod and gets right down to casting instead of spending precious time rigging the single rod for the situation he faces. We could improve on this if we hired a fishing caddie, a guy or gal who could carry everything, rods, drinking water, fly boxes, lunches, bear spray and coffee. He or she would have to be an expert at rigging rods and an expert wader. All you, the angler, would have to say would be “give me the 6 weight Sage with the dry fly rig, I think a number 14 Elk Hair Caddis will do”.


  1. What a great idea, Phil–if you snagged a tree, you’d be “in the rough” and the caddie could climb that tree while you continue to fish with one of the other rods.

    My path to fly rod greatness was very similar to yours–from flexible pieces of fine-grain trim wood attached to each other and homemade guides added, to an inverted spinning rod, to a hand-made graphite rod made of a four-piece Fenwick spinning rod blank (since I couldn’t find any 4-piece fly rod blanks in existence or didn’t know where to look), to a two-piece cheap graphite rod, and finally to a rod I made from a recent technology Orvis blank. Like you I found that with care I could make a rod so much more aesthetically pleasing than anything on the market, and do it for a small fraction of the cost, and love it with every cast.

    Instead of finding a caddie I made a rack that holds a rod *almost* completely set up–reel, line, leader, shot and fly are all on there, but the four rod sections are still separate. Someone would carry this and another fully assembled rod I guess. I just used it to carry an almost-read-to-go rod in a sedan too short for a 9-foot rod.

    Generally I just move very slowly from stream section to stream section; I can spend a few hours trying different flies and depths in one spot. If I move to a different type of water, it’s only one change-out of setup. But I know not all streams allow this; some are best fished by covering some serious ground. (This is a cue for Mike Cline to weigh in on the merits of fishing kayaks.)

    – Mike

    1. Very pleased to read your comments, I am glad you enjoyed them. I think the fly rod caddy has the potential to change guiding forever. ?

      1. Phil, I for one wouldn’t mind seeing a few photos of the fly rods you make–in particular some of the “aesthetic” features you’ve created. If you have a website you could steer us to that has a few shots on it….

        I could reciprocate with a few images of the rod I use today.

        – Mike

    2. Mike,
      Indeed the kayak as I employ it is the perfect “rod caddie”. One only has to watch a Pro Bass angler with a dozen rods lined up on the deck, each setup for a specific task to know this axiom: Your flies or lures won’t catch any fish unless they are in the water. Having multiple rods ready to go just speeds the process up. I usually carry a streamer, dry fly and nymph setup in the kayak all the time. I have used the “human caddie” approach with the wife walking along with another rod ready to go, but that has limitations and downsides,

      1. Oh…so you engage in…uh…fishing? Myself, my hobby is “knot tying while standing in water.” Ready-to-go setups on a floating rack have no place in my world, they being only missed opportunities to remove and replace leaders, lead and flies. If I had my way I’d bring nothing but a rod blank and spool of thread, and wind the guides on right there mid-current, then set up a vise and whip up impromptu replicas of whatever’s flying around that morning, and maybe light a fire to melt and cast some micro-shot. I’d weave plant fiber and hair from my own noggin t make a leader, perhaps get in a cast or two by nightfall, then pack it all up and head for home.

        Seriously, I hear you guys. There’s something to be said for the preparedness of multiple setups each itching to have the coach put them in the game, but maybe something else for the minimalist one-rod picture. When I’m nymphing and see rises, I wish for the former. When I need to hike over the spine of the hill to the next bend I appreciate the simplicity of the latter.

        Telling myself that tying knots and changing things out is part of the joy I came for works…kinda. But yes, I do often wish I had another rod within an arm’s reach.

        – Mike

  2. Hi Mike, I have a few pictures of the rods under construction, none of the finished product that I can remember. I have a new blank to get started on and I will try to remember to get some images of the finished product. I like to blend thread colors when I am wrapping and I usually put a one or two thread highlight at the end of each guide and on what I call the label wraps. I haven’t tried to inlay feathers in the but end of the rod but I am thinking about trying that out sometime soon.


    1. I have some nice photos of the grip-shaping process, and I too like to add an accent thread. I have not blended threads though. I also haven’t done any image or feather inlays, although a feather might be a nice idea. I do like to add a distinctive winding just above the grip–dresses things up real nice.

      I made a lot of my own tools, such as grip-glueing clamp and rod-section-drying-racks and grip turning lathe bearing and such. A little forethought and they worked great first try. And I just use a cheap little “lathe” that clamps my electric drill onto a little frame. I tape the trigger at the speed I need and shape the cork with coarse sandpaper glued to a small stick, and shape any harder wood accent rings in a similar way.

      I also insist on a down-locking reel seat, and they aren’t nearly as easy to find anymore (or at least there are far fewer options as there are uplocking). I prefer a reel way down at the butt-end of the rod, with no knob there for the line to loop around. So I find myself modifying uplocking reel seats to mount them in reverse, which can be difficult.

      I have not made a lot of rods though. Right now I have a tiny little 3-weight 6-footer blank ready to go but I’ve been procrastinating for a long time, preferring to tie flies and fish instead of build. Sounds like you’ve made quite a few.

      – Mike

      1. I have been building rods now for about 13 years and still have a lot to learn when it comes to fancy inlay work. Most of what I do that might be called fancy has to do with thread manipulation of one kind or another. I’ve got some Pea Hen feathers that I am eyeing for a rod but so far I haven’t done anything with them. I will see if I can’t get some images of the fly rods up on my web site for you to have a look at.

        If you are anywhere near Athens Texas on March 11th we have an event called Fly Fish Texas going on which is a full day of fly fishing fun at the fisheries department. It would be great to get to meet you. https://tpwd.texas.gov/spdest/visitorcenters/tffc/visit/specialevents/flyfishtx/schedule.phtml

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