Hand me down my fishing cane
James Beeson heads to Hampshire to find out if Edward Barder’s fine split-cane rods are up to the demands of a modern river angler
James Beeson tries an Edward Barder split-cane rod
ABIG TROUT was rising beneath an overhanging tree on a bend in the river. Edward held the rod and I slipped under the barbed wire fence, wriggling on my back so that I could slide feet-first down the high bank. I crouched in a shallow run downstream of the fish and waited for him to rise again as proof that he wasn’t spooked. Edward complimented me on my manoeuvre and Richard (photographer) joked, “That comes from years in the Royal Marines.” I was quick to deny the link as I’ve never served in Her Majesty’s armed forces and wouldn’t want to bring them into disrepute by association. The rod was an 8 ft 4 wt Edward Barder that belonged to, and had been borrowed from, a local customer for the day. It was in perfect condition and had obviously been lovingly looked after and now here it was in my hands. With a high bank and barbed-wire fence behind me, I needed to cast over my opposite shoulder to stand any chance of landing the fly in the small window between the dense thicket of overhanging branches. Perhaps it would be better if the trout had been alerted, but there he was happily sucking down every mayfly that drifted over his head. Bamboo is not a fragile material, it would hardly be any good for making rods if it were, but using somebody else’s treasured possession is fraught with responsibility. It was only a short cast, but it needed a little curve for the French Partridge Mayfly to land several
inches upstream of his position. There could be only one chance. The drifting fly would either snag the downstream branches or be taken. It disappeared in a confident swirl. I waited as long as I dared and set the hook. The water erupted in a mixture of white water and angry trout. The beautiful cane rod bent under his weight as I administered a heavy dose of side strain to steer him towards open water. One of the good things about cane rods is how well they apply pressure to a fish. It might seem counterintuitive but the natural flex of the power fibres in the bamboo means you can pull a lot harder without worrying about breaking off. It’s a great help on rivers with lots of snags, like my local River Guash, where I often fish with the 6 ft 6 in split-cane rod that belonged to my father before he gave it to me. Brown trout are dogged fighters and will use every scrap of underwater structure to defeat you so being able to bully them a bit is useful. This trout took the battle to the air, jumping several times before sliding over the rim of the long-handled net. The longer reach of an extendable net helps protect the tip when landing fish. It would be wrong to say the hand-built split-cane rod was the only reason I caught that fish, but it certainly helped. Delicacy and finesse, so important to dry-fly presentation, come as standard with cane. We started the day at the workshop, a charming old wooden hut on the banks of the River Kennet. If you have never been to a rod-builder’s workshop before it is something worth experiencing at least once in your life. There are block planes and wooden-handled tools, stacks of bamboo culms, various types of adjustable planing forms, a machine for binding the glued joints, one for turning the cork, tins of varnish and, of course, lots of rods in various stages of completion. From the workshop we drove to the river, a small Hampshire chalkstream that I’m not allowed to name, its course running within sight of the Basingstoke skyline. The banks were awash with the many shades of green from an English spring in full swing. We walked to the river through a meadow, the scent of wildflowers being carried to us by a wind that was stronger than I would have liked. I was a little worried how the unfamiliar rod would cope in the conditions. It is curious that something which appears as quintessentially English as a split-cane fly-rod should have been largely developed on the other side of the Atlantic. The influence of Garrison, Payne, Dickerson and Leonard remains to this day. Edward Barder himself started out building rods using the classic tapers. Once he had gained a fuller understanding of the craft he began to develop his own specifications, and now all Barder rods are made using his own proprietary tapers. A signature element of his design is the swelled butt that is intended to guide the cast. This does seem to make a substantial difference. The rod loads under its own weight, making it effortless to cast, and talks to you in a way that I’ve not experienced before. It tells you what it wants in terms of timing, unlike my own cane rod with which I have to make a conscious effort to slow down when switching from carbon. A kingfisher flashed past as I stood behind a fallen log and cast towards a fish that lay on the outside of a bend. The bright conditions were ideal for spotting
“The beautiful cane rod bent under his weight as I administered a heavy dose of side strain to steer him towards open water”
FAR RIGHT Hooked! The big trout between the bushes takes James’s fly – then realises its mistake. RIGHT The rod bends beautifully. BELOW The man himself, Edward Barder offers some advice.