The art of the rod

November 15

Carl McNeil’s fibreglass rods are pretty fly.

WHEN A MASTER FLY CASTING INSTRUCTOR, WHO BY HIS OWN ADMISSION MAKES THE BEST FLY RODS IN THE WORLD, ASKS FOR THE NAME OF THE ARTICLE YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT HIM, AND YOU SAY, ‘THE ART OF THE ROD’, YOU DON’T EXPECT HIM TO REPLY WITH, “THAT SOUNDS LIKE A BIT OF WANK.” YOU CAN SEE WHY CARL MCNEIL, A DOWN TO EARTH KIWI WHO CALLS A SHOVEL A SHOVEL, MIGHT SAY THIS; IN THE BUSINESS HE’S IN, SELLING HIGH-END CUSTOM- MADE FLY RODS RETAILING FOR $1500 EACH, PRETENTIOUSNESS PROBABLY WEARS THIN.

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Art comes in many forms. According to internet- meme Albert Einstein (although probably not the real Albert Einstein): “Art is standing with one hand extended into the world and letting ourselves be a conduit for passing energy.” It’s not a stretch to imagine a fly-fisher standing waist deep in a fast-flowing stream, one hand extended into the world with a rod, as a conduit for passing energy.

In 2011, Carl and his partner, Jeanie Ackley, upped sticks and moved to Albert Town from Dunedin. Jeanie is a marine biologist who worked for 19 years for Natural History NZ in Dunedin as a camerawoman, assistant producer and script writer. They combined their talents to form a film company, On the Fly Productions, to make fly fishing films, and, later, fly fishing instructional videos. Carl also worked for ten years as a fly casting instructor; he’s a member of Fly Fishers International, an American-based organisation whose main aim is to support healthy fisheries. As the popularity of their instructional videos grew, anglers wanted to know what rods Carl used. This flowed into developing their own range of bespoke custom-made fibreglass rods, under the Epic brand, for their business, the Swift Fly Fishing Company.

“ART IS STANDING WITH ONE HAND EXTENDED INTO THE WORLD AND LETTING OURSELVES BE A CONDUIT FOR PASSING ENERGY”

About five years ago, when Carl told his friends he was going to make fibreglass rods they said, “you’re f*ck*n’ nuts!” The majority of modern fly rods are made from carbon fibre; fibreglass is considered ‘old school’. Fibreglass hit its peak between 1950 and 1970 as a better alternative to the bamboo rod, but, as Carl says, “I wanted to make something with a point of difference and glass rods are more robust and they’re also very beautiful.” It is a warm, tactile material. Soulful. And a glass rod is really bubbly and smooth to cast. As for art, “There’s a principle we employ in the manufacture of our rods. It’s an artist’s term from painting called ‘truth to the material’,” Carl explains. “You let the materials show through, let the materials be as they are. The rods aren’t coated for that reason, but they are colourful.” They are, and the colours have a fruity feel: Amber, Flame, Olive, Salsa, So Blue. They’re not hues most people would choose for their lounge, but on a rod they shine, and when Carl holds up a fibreglass rod to the light you can see the glow – its soul.

The aesthetics of a fly rod have always been an important element for some. But humans have been catching fish for thousands of years with little more than a wooden pole. In the classic work The Complete Angler, published in 1653, Izaak Walton describes how to make your own rod. “Get a yellow whole deal (fir or pine) board that is free from knots, cut off about seven feet of the best end, and saw it into some square breadths: let a joiner plane off the angles, and make it perfectly round, a little tapering, and this will serve for the stock; then piece it to a fine straight hasel, of about six feet long, and then a delicate piece of fine-grained yew, planed round like an arrow, and tapering, with whalebone, as before, of about two feet in length.” Four hundred years later and there are academic Physics papers that analyse the fly rod with millimetre-level precision. You don’t have to understand what they’re on about, what’s fascinating is how far the design of rods is taken. One such paper offers “an analysis of fly fishing rod casting dynamics developed comprising of a nonlinear finite element representation of the composite fly rod and lumped parameter model for the fly line.”

Carl doesn’t go down a “parameter model” rabbit hole to build his rods, but there is definitely science in the design. He does build the mandrel (the steel blank the fibreglass is wrapped around) to his own exacting standards; the fibreglass blanks are manufactured overseas then assembled in Wānaka.

Epic employ two rod makers. As Carl explains, with palpable frustration, “It’s really difficult finding the right person in Wānaka. We get flooded with people who want to play. They’re not actually interested in having a job at all. There’s no rod building qualification. It’s like watchmaking, a dying art.” They paid an immigration lawyer $3500 to help them employ Trevor Bourne, an Englishman who moved to Wānaka specially to build rods. The other rod builder is Fern Hynson. Fern is Trevor’s apprentice, and she’s been building rods for about two years.

Watching Fern wrap silk thread around the guides that hold the line, you understand a certain skill set and personality are needed. From Auckland, she’s lived in Wānaka for five and a half years. She worked for 12 years as a dental laboratory technician making things like crowns and dentures, which entails the kind of fine detailed work that gave her a head start in building rods. She’s also a jeweller in her spare time.

Wrapping the guides on the blank is the most time- consuming part of building the rod; the whole process of attaching the reel seat and cork handle can take eight hours from go to whoa. She places the rod in a spindle that is controlled by a pedal, like a sewing machine. As Fern guides the thread, she rotates the rod with her foot pedal. Each wrap butts against the other, and she pushes them together with a burnisher, leaning into her task much like a fisher does when they’re stalking a fish.

Once the wraps are finished and secured with a secret knot, she applies three coats of epoxy over the thread with an artist’s brush. The epoxy takes four hours to cure in an oven Carl designed. As she applies the epoxy, she huffs on it like someone cleaning their reading glasses. It’s kind of cute, but Fern says it actually helps get rid of the air bubbles. As the epoxy dries, it reacts with the thread to form a clear coating that makes it look like the guide is floating on the rod.

Part of the art of the rod is in trying to attain perfection. After the epoxy is dry, Fern turns the guide slowly around looking for flaws; in this case, a dust mote has settled in the epoxy leaving a little wart-like bump. With a razor blade, she shaves it off and applies more epoxy to repair it.

“WHEN CARL TOLD HIS FRIENDS HE WAS GOING TO MAKE FIBREGLASS RODS THEY SAID, YOU’RE F*CK*N’ NUTS!”

Beauty, a bit of fruit and a lot of soul don’t mean a jot if a rod doesn’t perform. Carl believes being an angler is fundamental to designing a fly rod. He has thousands of hours of casting experience, and he knows intimately what a good fly rod feels like. As he explains, a fly rod is a third class lever, where the effort is found between the resistance and the fulcrum. The effort is the rod, the resistance is the fly line, and the fulcrum is the hand. When you cast, it isn’t the fly you are casting but the line. Done properly, the fly can be propelled at nearly 180 metres per second past your ear (many a hook has connected with an angler’s ear), only to decelerate over the water and drop like a snowflake. Despite a lifetime casting, Carl still loves it. “It’s a real meditation, a lovely, beautiful thing to do.”

He picks up the rod and whips it back and forth, and it comes alive, as focused as the person holding it, an extension of his arm extending out, gathering energy.

ALLAN UREN

ALLAN UREN LIVES IN WĀNAKA. HE’S A MOUNTAINEER, ROCK CLIMBER, SKIER AND, IN HIS SPARE TIME, A PAINTER AND DECORATOR. HE’S WRITTEN FOR NEW ZEALAND GEOGRAPHIC AND WILDERNESS MAGAZINE, AND HAS A SHORT STORY IN TO THE MOUNTAINS, A COLLECTION OF NEW ZEALAND ALPINE WRITING.

All photos: Ray Tiddy Photography


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