I thought about beginning this little epistle with a terrible pun, something along the line of “grips get a bad rap,” but decided instead to just jump in head-long into one of the more entertaining fly rod controversies of the immediate post-war era. It involved a monolithic big shot (the South Bend Bait Company), an endearing little guy (Paul H. Young), and a nearly expired rod handle patent. While this little episode in fly rod history may not be earth shattering, I think it does illustrate nicely that fly rod design is sometimes dictated by powers outside of the rodbuilder’s control, in this case, an overlooked fishing rod handle patented in 1933 by William Bayard Sturgis of Chicago, Illinois.
Sturgis applied on 14 July 1932 for a novel development in a fly rod handle, specifically a new form of cork grip. On 17 October 1933 he received patent #1,931,303 for “a much more comfortable and firm grip obtained with less effort on the part of the angler.” Sturgis’ development was simple and elegant—a cut out in the grip where the thumb went that allowed the flycaster to more comfortable grasp the handle. Sturgis did not appear to be aligned with any tackle firm at the time, and as this grip does not show up on very many 1930s vintage rods, probably was not widely used.
All of that would change in 1940. That year, the South Bend Bait Company began to use the Sturgis patent grip on a line of fly rods, applying for a trademark on the word “Comficient,” which was coined to describe the Sturgis grip. The trademark was granted by the Patent & Trademark Office on 10 December 1940. Whether they purchased the patent from Sturgis outright (a likely development, as the firm had a voracious appetite for tackle patents) or paid a royalty is not known at this time. What is known is that South Bend received exclusive rights to market the patented grip.
It has been written that the Comficient Grip, as it came to be known, was used by South Bend as early as 1937 or 1938, but the author has examined complete South Bend catalogs dating 1936-1942, and the first sign of this rod handle is the 1941 catalog that announced it on Page 2 as a “new grip for new casting ease.” It was originally offered on only three models (#59, #159, #359). The term was derived from a melding of the words Comfortable and Efficient, and in true South Bend style (they did, after all, invent and market a whole host of “Oreno” tackle), the firm designed a snazzy circular logo to go with the catchy name.
South Bend had gotten into the bamboo fly rod market through the purchase of the Cross Rod Company of Massachusetts in 1926, a move that fortuitously brought the firm the great Wes Jordan, who oversaw production of South Bend Cross rods until the late 1930s. By 1941 South Bend was producing an impressive array of rods, ranging from the top-of-the line Jordan-made models at $35 to the new Comficient models at $7.50. The new grip must have been popular, as by 1942 the Comficient was now offered on 18 models, all of which received top billing in the catalog. World War II brought production of fly rods to a halt, although the firm issued a truncated 24-page book of fishing photos (its first new mailing since the 1942 catalog) in which it declared “our factory is in the process of manufacturing fishing parts.”
A little over 200 miles east of South Bend, another fishing tackle manufacturer was tooling up for the post-war tackle rush. Paul H. Young of Detroit (by way of Minnesota) had first tinkered with rodbuilding in the 1920s, but it was not as a true rodbuilder that he would first make his name. Contrary to what some have argued, as Young himself made clear in a letter to his lawyer (owned by J.K. Garrett and L.P. Brooks) dated 26 November 1946, he had never “built” rods as we might define the term today. He declared, “After procrastinating for near 20 years we have finally kicked the traces and started making fly rods right from scratch.” The implication, of course, is that he did not make fly rods from scratch before this date. Later in the letter he further elaborated: “from 1938 to 1942 I assembled good numbers of fly rods here of So. Bend, Edwards, Heddon and other sticks, making my own grips…” Again, note the careful use of the word “assembled.”
It was the issue of grips—which Young took great pains to declare he had always either had custom made to his specifications or more often simply crafted himself—that was at the crux of his legal inquiry. In particular, the South Bend Comficient grip. As he wrote to his lawyer (Mr. Gibson):
Starting around 1930 I purchased a good many styles of cork grips from So. Bend and used them in assembling special rods along with Cross and other glued up stock. These grips, I installed big end up and milled a thumb rest, often two, into the cork. There are a good number around here so fitted, also a number that were re-modeled, installing such grips.
Again, further evidence that Young, in addition to trafficking in custom trade rods, was also purchasing “glued up stock” and then customizing it for his clientele. He continued:
In 1933 I had [Fred] Thomas incorporate a similar styled grip on a number of custom orders that are still being used around here. From 1938 to 1942 I assembled good numbers of fly rods here of So. Bend, Edwards, Heddon and other sticks, making my own grips and putting in a single or double thumb rest, depending on the size of the rod.
This bit of history was an effort by Young to establish that he had been using the idea of the thumb rest fly rod grip since at least 1930, which means it would have predated the Sturgis patent by at least two years.
Young gets at the heart of the issue with his last paragraph:
All this leads me to the question of whether South Bend’s “Comfy” grip patent is intended to prevent me or others from using a gouged or milled out thumb rest on new rods. In as much as I am compiling a rod catalog this becomes important, and I would appreciate your companies’ reaction, as I wish to show a cut of the thumb rest.
Thus it was South Bend, who entered the post-war era with a flashy and expensive advertising campaign, that precipitated this neat bit of Young history. The Comficient Grip was being widely advertised, and since South Bend was famous for being sue-happy (it had inaugurated litigation against at least a dozen competitors in the previous 25 years), Young probably had real reason to fear a “cease-and-desist” letter.
The original copy of Young’s letter shows that Gibson received it on 29 November 1946 and likely responded soon after, for in the margins at the top are written both the trademark and patent date, which had less than four years before expiration. If there was an answer attached to Young’s later, it has been lost.
Apparently, South Bend either chose not to pursue a lawsuit or deemed it not in their best interests (Young had been a long-time customer), and the issue quickly disappeared, likely forgotten soon after even by the main participants. Yet the Young letter offers some real insight into not only his own rodmaking operation, but the minefield that was the fishing tackle field. Small fish like Young had to constantly be wary of making missteps when it came to crafting new tackle, for it would take only one costly legal mistake to force them to fold up shop. Paul H. Young clearly understood this, and penned this informative letter to avoid any future problems.
What impact this little episode may have had on Paul H. Young’s fledgling career as a rodbuilder I will leave for experts like Robert Golder (who has compiled an outstanding Young rod database) and others to debate. Perhaps they can further illuminate if Young continued to use the cut-out thumb grip in his own make of rods, or whether he went in a different direction (his handles were widely noted at all stages of his career as being among the best around).
One thing is certain; Paul H. Young certainly had a grip on the subject from the very beginning, despite South Bend’s handle monopoly.
POSTSCRIPT: Robert Golder has penned some great additional information on Young and this episode that can be read by clicking here.
-- © 2008 Dr. Todd