Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Voices from the Past: Edmund Ware Smith (1937)

The following article, broken up into two parts (this week and next here on the blog) details an analysis of ca. 1937 fly rods by a very underrated writer named Edmund Ware Smith. For a time, Smith was the angling editor the The National Sportsman, where this article appeared in March, 1937. I find it fascinating as he not only fished almost every available fly rod of the day, but knew many of the men who built them. Here is his analysis, taken up as responds to a letter from a California friend asking for advice about choosing an all-purpose fly rod:

Fishing and Fishermen
by Edmund Ware Smith

Memory and Anticipation
The rod I sent my California friend was a Heddon No. 35 New Peerless, 9 1/2 ft., weight approximately 6 1/2 ounces. Cost, $35. I wanted him to have a good rod, and he got it. And by reason of his letter, I am minded to tell of other good rods, as I have known them by actual casting contact.

The Heddon No. 35 is too heavy to be ideal for average trout-fly fishing for average men. But it approaches that mythical mark of "all-purpose." I simply mean that it behaves well on average water for trout, is at its best on heavy fish in heavy water and against hard winds, or in casting fly-rod lures for bass--bugs, small spinners, etc.--and may, at the heaviest extreme, be used for grilse and salmon.

But best weights and dimensions for your early fly fishing are 8 1/2 feet length, and about 4 3/4 ounces weight--and, of course, as inexpensive as you can buy with a reasonable guarantee of good service, good action, good balance. To my mind, and with a careful eye to all of these considerations, including price, the Heddon Blue Waters No. 10 is a good buy at $12. You have a good range in weights and lengths; actions run from sub-medium to stiff. I favor stiff action. Use a heavier line, which will cast much better in wind--and in general, having what is known as "direction," it will give you better accuracy than you can get with the lighter line.

Prices and Qualities
Up to a certain point, prices follow quality in an upward trend. That "point" is reached when refinements in action, bamboo selection, balance, and workmanship cease--and just plain "dolling up" begins. What earthly use to a fly rod is a hand-checkered Circassian walnut grip? None! If someone tried to pin me down to the price-point at which casting and lasting qualities cease, and luxury begins, I'd be perfectly willing to say "between twenty-five and thirty dollars," and start arguing if necessary.

I can't tell you exactly, but I have owned approximately thirty-five different fly rods of twelve different makers: Cross (for several years now owned by South Bend), South Bend, Heddon, TrueTemper, Edwards (owned for three years by Horton), Horton, Leonard, Montague, Horrocks-lbbotson, Thomas, Payne, and Lyon & Coulson.

It is not only difficult, but dangerous, to compare the products of all these makers. Yet it is not wholly pointless. I mean, a cautious analysis may serve to aid you in buying, for you may say to yourself: "I want a rod in this or that price and quality class." But be it remembered, your correspondent is just one individual, and any individual has his eccentricities. Definition: An eccentricity is a preference without sound reason. Or, degustibus non est disputandum, which is to say there is (sometimes) no accounting for taste.

Thus, having established an "out," even while burning my bridges behind me, I may say that the quality, price, balance, and all-around perfection of the Leonard, Thomas, Cross, Payne, and Edwards rods are high. Their prices in best grades are equaled only by their strutting value. In fact, when I was very young and very foolish, my whole bearing and vocabulary was wont to change the moment I began casting with a rod by any of the above makers, especially Leonard and Thomas. But mark you! And mark you carefully! If while using any of the above rods in top grades, some envious soul says: "Hah! You're paying for a name!" your prompt and witheringly valid comeback is this: "You're damn right I am--and it's a name worth paying for!"

NEXT WEEK: Part 2: A break-down of various makers.

-- Dr. Todd


Unknown said...

Edmund Ware Smith, why have I not heard of him before? This is why I read this blog - to learn the past that didn't make it in the "popular" books. Dr. Todd, you're doing us all a great service.

Fly rods, like everything else, have a practical value (i.e. how useful are they) & a personal value (i.e. what personal memories are attached to this item). If you have a memory attached to a particular maker, than that is where your heart & loyalty will be. With so many different names on the fly rod market today, I wonder what Mr. Smith would have to say about the rods made today & the fly fishing industry in general. Can't wait to read the next part!!

Peabody said...

Edmund Ware Smith is my favorite writer. I don't know why he was lost to history. In 1955, for instance, he was an editor for Sports Illustrated and President Eisenhower was travelling to Maine to fish with Smith. His style of writing (first person stories) kind of fell out of favor for more technical "how to" writing. It's a shame. Thanks for keeping his name out there.

JohnF said...

Although his books are still available, many are very expensive.
It is worth looking at some old book sites to find them.

He is one of my favorites, as is the work of one of his illustrators, Maurice Day.