Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part 3

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part 3

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

© 2008 The Author

The Sad Demise of Thaddeus Norris

From humble beginnings in January 1874, over the past three years Thaddeus Norris had labored long and hard to establish his name as synonymous with quality. But just as he was put into a position to reap the rewards of his hard work, and perhaps expand his rod enterprise, it all came to a sudden end. On 11 April 1877, Thaddeus Norris died "suddenly and painlessly," as his obituary in Forest & Stream declared. It continued:

The guild of anglers has lost a master of the gentle art...Possessing great mechanical gifts, he was led on little by little to essay making his own implements for his spring and summer campaigns, and in time acquired such great facility and such accurate knowledge of the best materials for their construction, that his rods and flies, in the judgment of many experts, had no superiors.

His obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer gave more details of his passing, including some really surprising information concerning the final months of his rodmaking career:

Thaddeus Norris, Esqr., a well known resident and retired merchant of this city, died suddenly, at half-past one o’clock yesterday morning, at his residence, 208 West Logan Square. For about a year prior to his death he had been suffering from paralysis of the brain, superinduced by exposure while pursuing his favorite pastime and study of angling and fish, but no immediate danger was at any time apprehended from his disease—not even a few hours before his sudden decease, when he busied himself preparing flies for a friend.

His death, although sudden, is underscored even more by the fact he labored the last year of his rodmaking career under certain physical duress. Testimonials to Norris’ character were universally positive; no less a titan in the field as Charles Orvis wrote in Fishing with the Fly that "It was not only my good fortune to know 'Uncle Thad' Norris, but to have fished with him. The dear lovable old another century...will be more read and appreciated than he is to-day."

In the wake of Uncle Thad’s passing, we get more evidence of how small Norris' rod making concern was in the form of the newly renamed Holberton & Co., now at 117 Fulton Street, which no longer offered Norris rods within a couple weeks of Norris’ passing. Wakeman Holberton probably had the same kind of situation as Abercrombie & Fitch experienced a century later when Jim Payne passed on and there stock of Payne rods sold out in a day. In true Wakeman Holberton style, he declared "best quality of trout flies teid after...Thad Norris and other patterns." Holberton would continue to use Norris’ name in advertising for some time.

Wakeman Holberton, as Norris' agent in New York, probably saw a run on his Norris rod stock when news of Uncle Thad's death became known.

The Final Chapter of the Norris Rod

Interestingly, although Thad Norris had passed on, it was not the end of the saga of the Norris rods. On 18 April 1878, just a week after Thad's death, his son Richard Norris of 2550 Gray's Ferry Road, Philadelphia took out a notice in Forest & Stream declaring:

Parties wishing to procure one or more of the above make of Rods can do so by applying in person or by letter...Comprising four Salmon Rods, two Trunk Rods (Trout), thirty trout rods of Split Bamboo, Lancewood and Iron Wood and Greenheart, with extra tips of split bamboo and extra middle joints. Some of the above in Red Cedar cases.

So this was the end result of three years of steady work at the rod bench: 36 rods, some of them in Red Cedar cases. These rods must have sold very, very quickly because there are no subsequent notices.

Again, we are privileged to discover what happened to Thad Norris' personal fly rods. On 24 April 1879, about two years after Thad's passing, Thomas E. Kirby, auctioneer, presided over the auction of Norris' own fly rods, held at Kurtz's Gallery on Broadway on 26 April 1879. The auction notice was published in Forest & Stream and read:

Important Auction Sale to close the estate of the late Thaddeus Norris, Esq., of Phila. Prize Medal Trout and Salmon Rods and other Angling Implements. Norris Rods…are of well-known reputation, and are guaranteed to be genuine Norris Rods of the best workmanship, selected woods, and stamped with the maker's name. This is the only opportunity which will be offered to obtain one of these rods, there being no more for sale after this lot is disposed of. Nos. 16, 20, and 24 were made for and were on exhibition at the Centennial Exhibition, for which first prizes were awarded, and medal also.

That this lot included the presentation rods is all the evidence needed that this was Thad's own private rods, many likely made for his own use.

Again, by a quirk of amazing luck, the auction was deemed so important it warranted a detailed article in the Sunday edition of The New York Times. The article reported that twenty trout and four salmon rods were sold, including the three Philadelphia Exhibition rods which brought $31, $39, and $46 respectively ($646 to $959 today). "This being the last of his make obtainable," the article declared, "there was a large attendance and a spirited competition, and unusually good prices were realized." Trout rods went from $13.00 to $26.25 each, and salmon rods from $17 to $26. It was a sad end to the rod making career of Thaddeus Norris.

The Legacy of the Norris Rod

By the 1880s, Thaddeus Norris had rightfully been elevated to his current position as one of the true titans in American fishing history, but strangely enough, his contributions to rodmaking were receding from memory. Many of the anglers whom he had known and for whom he had crafted rods had passed on, and besides Norris rods were so rare (and so cherished by their owners) that few ever came up for sale.

The select anglers such as W.C. Prime who knew Uncle Thad personally were growing thin in number, so when Prime’s I Go A-Fishing was reprinted in 1905 (the year of his death), when he wrote that "the grand merit of the Norris rod [is] its spring is steady, even, long and easy" almost no one left had any frame of comparison. More common were the views of newer writers like J.R.W. Hitchcock, who wrote in the journal Outing in 1886 that in the Maine resorts one often found:

Against the rough board walls, upon pegs inserted in slivery beams, rods of high and low degree, the nickle-plated hexagonal split bamboo of Leonard or Conroy, the modest ash and lancewood of Mitchell, perhaps a venerable Thad. Norris rod...

Although likely less than a decade old by this time, Norris’ fly rods were now “venerable.”

Yet his impact on other rodmakers, at least, was acknowledged in one of the seminal books on the subject. Henry P. Wells wrote in his Fly-Rods and Fly-Tackle, which included a primer on rodmaking, that:

If others, in following the precepts of this chapter, shall derive therefrom some portion of the recreation rodmaking has afforded me—if the coming generation of anglers feel towards me but a tithe of the gratitude and sense of obligation with which I regarded Mr. Norris when I was a beginner, I shall be quite content with the reward of my labor.

Norris fly rods were not forgotten by one “venerable” organization at least. According to various catalogues, the Smithsonian Institution’s collection included the following five Norris-made rods. They were described as follows, with what I believe are acquisition numbers in parentheses:

(26890) Trunk rod of Greenheart; five-jointed with extra fourth piece and tip, seven pieces in all; weight 8 oz.; length, 11' 6", Thaddeus Norris, Philadelphia, Pa.

(26887) Salmon-rod of greenheart, four jointed in red cedar case, with extra third piece and tip; weight, 30 oz.; length, 17 feet 3 inches.

(26888) Extra greenheart trout rod; cedar case; three-jointed, with one extra middle and two extra tips; six pieces in all; weight 8 oz., length 12 feet.

(26889) Rent and glued bamboo trout rod in cedar case, with one extra middle and two extra tips, six pieces in all; weight 8 oz., length, 12 feet.

(26883) Plain trout-rod of greenheart, three jointed, with extra middle top, five pieces; weight, 8 oz.; length ___.

Whether these rods still reside in the collection of the National Museum is unknown.

Conclusion: Thaddeus Norris, Rodmaker

Thad Norris is one of the small handfull of individuals who put American angling on the map. Yet, even if his work as an early author and fish culturist have been recognized, for too long his contributions to rodmaking have been either glossed over or ignored. Hopefully, when the names of the early rodsmiths are mentioned, room will be made for Uncle Thad, to whom so much is owed by so many rodmakers, amateur and professional alike. As The Philadelphia Inquirer declared on his passing, "Being a good amateur mechanic, he manufactured all his fishing apparatus, and so great was the virtue attached to a rod, reel or net made by 'Thad' Norris, that anglers have been known to offer many times its value in order to possess it." Of course, this implies there may exist in some dim and dark attic a hand-made Norris fly reel. That is the stuff that dreams are made of.

A Thaddeus Norris rod would be the centerpiece of any collection. Recently, in the November 2007 Lang’s Auction, a twelve-foot Thaddeus Norris hand-made rod sold for $17,920, and at that it was in the author’s opinion underpriced (the preauction estimate was “only” $5000 to $7000). There are only around five known Norris rods residing in collections today, not surprising as the lifetime output of this rodmaker, who only made rods professionally for less than four years (and was clearly ill the final year of his life) was surely less than 1000 rods and probably less than half that number.

A 12-foot Norris rod that sold in November 2007 for $17,920. Courtesy of Lang's Auctions.

Such was the personality of Thaddeus Norris that in his final years, when others sought a contemplative retirement, he not only immersed himself in the rodmaker’s trade, but found a huge measure of satisfaction in it. It has been said a man’s character is defined by what he does after he is finished working; for much of Thad’s life it was fishing. For the final years, it was the fishing rod.

To a select company of his contemporaries he was a rodmaker without peer, to the knowledgable angler he was a titan of the angling world, and for the average literate fisherman he was the beloved Uncle Thad. What of those of us in the 21st century? I would echo the words of Norris’ friend and fellow writer Henry van Dyke, who once wrote in his book Fisherman’s Luck that “I am sorry for the man who cannot find pleasure in reading…Thaddeus Norris.”

I truly feel sorry for the man who cannot find pleasure in the beauty of a Thad Norris rod.

-- Dr. Todd Larson © 2008.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part 2

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part 2

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

© 2008 The Author

Portrait of Thaddeus Norris, from Fred Mather’s Men I Have Fished With.

Rodsmithing 101

Thad Norris’ importance went far beyond just the fly rods he made with his own hand. His Chapter XVII in The American Angler's Book entitled "Rod-Making" gives a succinct overview of the contemporary state of rod building that is the seminal work of the era for rod history. As Norris declared at the beginning of the chapter:

[those] who have leisure and a mechanical turn, they can make rods for different kinds of angling, and whether for bottom or fly-fishing, can adopt any fancy they may have as to proportions or materials. Thus rod-making, like tying flies, becomes not only an amusement, but may be ranked among the useful as well as the ornamental requisites in the education of a complete angler.

Norris then proceeded to teach the reader not only how to repair rods but also how to construct them from scratch, including a method for constructing a rent and glued "four-sectioned tip" from Malacca Cane. He even revealed some of his trade secrets:

In making fly-rods for some of my friends, I have lately adopted a plan by which the same rod may be used for either light or heavy fishing. This improvement consists in having the butt in two pieces; the upper piece being about three feet long, has a ferrule at the lower end, into which the handle—if I may so call the lower part of the butt—is fitted. There are two handles, one of a foot or fifteen inches, and the other two feet long.

Exactly when Norris began to sell his rods is unknown, but it is likely somewhere very close to 1870. Having divested himself of his hatchery, Norris turned to rodmaking with a gusto. In the immediate years leading up to this turning point, he had become more and more fascinated with the art, and thus more proficient. As he recalled in The American Angler's Book:

A love of "tinkering," however, and the kind approval of friends as to some fancied or real excellence in the rods he made for them, induced an investment in a lathe, work-bench, tools, etc., and many pleasant hours have since been given to making rods, from the withy little switch of a fly-rod for trout-fishing, to the "heavy artillery" used in trolling, bass-fishing, and even in taking the lordly salmon.

With many bench hours behind him, between 1870 and 1873 Norris began to make commercial rods, albeit on an extremely limited scale. The evidence from this comes in the form of letters to the editor of Forest & Stream, an organ founded in 1873 and that would prove to be Norris' final major public venue. A dozen or more correspondents were already touting the merits of the Norris rod in the first years of publication, something not possible for a rod officially introduced the following year.

A key component of the Norris rod was his hand-made ferrules, which were non-dowel joints. As Dr. James A. Henshall wrote in More About the Black Bass, "If there were wanting any proof of the practical superiority of the non-dowel joint over the dowel and mortise joint, it would be found in the fact that so many old anglers, as Thaddeus Norris, Reuben Wood, and Chas. F. Orvis, having the mechanical skill to construct their own rods, discarded the latter for the former style of joint many years ago." And as Henry P. Wells later noted in Fly-Rods and Fly-Tackle: Suggestions as to Their Manufacture and Use (1885), "The simple ferrule is not new; Thaddeus Norris used it years ago, and advocated it in his most excellent book The American Angler."

His rods were available for sale, albeit to an extremely limited clientele. One of these customers was Fred Mather, noted fish culturist and angling author. Mather was great friends with Norris, and as he declared in his fishing memoirs:

I handled many of [Norris’] rods, and wanted one. I feared to tell him so, because the notion might occur to him to give me one; so I had a friend buy a rod for me, and I used it for several years, its value increasing each season, until it was stolen from me in a car while returning from a fishing trip. If I had used the rod until it was 'superannuated' it would be in an honored place on my wall...

The Norris “Rod Factory”

Perhaps Uncle Thad would have been happy making a limited amount of hand crafted fly rods for close friends and associates. But for reasons that we may never know, Thaddeus Norris embarked on a new career as a professional rodmaker.

The first notice of this new endeavour came in the 29 January 1874 edition of Forest & Stream when the journal declared: "A private letter states that the veteran angler, Thad. Norris, Esq., is presently to start a large fishing tackle and rod factory at Philadelphia. His rods are very highly prized by many anglers, though different persons have their favorite makers." And just like that, Norris became a professional rod maker.

“A large fishing rod factory” of course implies something along the lines of what Hiram Leonard was putting together in Highland Mills, New York. Perhaps it was Norris’ lofty goal to eventually oversee a workshop filled with apprentice rodsmiths, but the truth of the matter is that, regardless of the intended size and scope of Norris' rodmaking enterprise, his so-called "factory" was an artful bit of obfuscation. Fortunately, we have evidence of the size and scope of Norris' rodmaking concern. Fred Mather visited Uncle Thad every week throughout the summer of 1876. He wrote:

That summer it was my custom to visit Uncle Thad in his home on Logan Square every Tuesday evening, and we would go up into his workshop where the justly celebrated 'Norris split-bamboo rods' were made, and often talk until "the 'wee sma' hours ayont the twal."...The workshop of Uncle Thad—I love to call him so—differed from the rod-maker of to-day. The latter has his ferrules drawn by an expert who perhaps draws tubes for microscopes and telescopes...In Uncle Thad's day—and he was abreast of the time in rod-making, if not ahead of it—he made his ferrules by hand and brazed them, afterward smoothing them with flat files, grinding them together with emery powder and oil, and then burnished them in a lathe.

Philadelphia’s Logan Square, home to Thaddeus Norris rod shop.

Hardly a rod factory. In fact, this was as expansive as Thad Norris would ever get. He made his rods entirely from scratch, which meant that his production would have been extremely limited. Whether he had any help greater than a shop boy or two is unlikely; he often wrote that his trout and salmon flies, two other products he began to sell, were all made by his own hand.

On 05 March 1874, Norris began taking out his first advertisements in Forest & Stream, ads that would run consecutively for the next two months. Having been founded less than a year earlier, Norris gave the fledgling journal badly needed support and name recognition. He wrote a personal letter to publisher Charles Hallock dated 08 January 1874 where he declared "I am charmed with your paper and much gratified with the success you are achieving...I hear it spoken of everywhere in terms of high commendation, and will do all I can in its interest."

The first Norris advertisement declared "Thaddeus Norris, 208 West Logan Square, Philadelphia, Penn., makes to order and keeps on hand Fine Trout and Salmon Rods of Iron Wood, Lancewood, Greenheart, and rent and glued bamboo." Of interest is the point that these rods were made to order. This implies very little inventory of stock rods, and also does nothing to support the idea of a "rod factory."

The first Norris advertisement, January 1874 Forest & Stream.

Promoting the Norris Fly Rod

Testimonials for Norris rods came from far and wide. Perhaps the greatest of the Norris rod enthusiasts was William Cowper Prime. In addition to touting the merits of the Norris rod in journals, he wrote in his memoir I Go A-Fishing (1873) lovingly of his three favorite Norris rods, and declared "with one of these light rods I have during five years' use killed many hundred pounds of fish in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America; and I would not part with either of [my Norris rods] for a hundred times its cost."

Others followed in Prime’s footsteps. Frequent Forest & Stream contributor "Homo." declared "I shall try my Norris rod on the new game and know it will prove as trusty as did Mr. Prime's at Holyoke..." B.F. Bowles was most effusive in his praise of the Norris rod, calling it on 18 June 1874 my "beloved ten ounce Norris."

One can assume that this positive press kept Norris backordered, for he did not advertise at all for the rest of 1874 or the entirety of 1875. He did continue to act as a correspondent for the journal; for example, in July 1875 Norris wrote Forest & Stream that "I tie all kinds of flies ordered by my customers..." Along these lines, Norris’ instructive article on how to tie flies was considered by Charles Hallock to be the best of its kind.

In January 1876, Norris returned with his second advertisement declaring "Norris Fly Rods for Trout, Salmon, and Bass." Interestingly, it also noted he sold flies, reels, lines, leaders, fly-books, etc., implying his firm was morphing into a fishing tackle trade house. Did he offer a catalog at this time? These ads ran through the month of January and then, as before, abruptly stopped.

The second Norris advertisement, January 1876 Forest & Stream.

The big event for the nation that year was the Philadelphia Centennial, and Uncle Thad must have been hard at work preparing presentation rods for this seminal event in American history. In addition to consulting and working with the Exhibition on fish culture and displays, Norris handcrafted three rods especially for the Centennial. The first two were trout rods, one being a 12-footer (butt, two middles, three tips) of greenheart and split bamboo in a red cedar case, and the other an 11-footer (butt, two middles, three tips) split bamboo weighing 4 3/4 ounces. The third was a greenheart and split bamboo 17 foot, 3 inch salmon rod (four joints with extra third piece and tip) made with solid pin ferrules and weighing 30 ounces. All three rods were awarded first prizes and medals at the Exhibition. As we shall discover, these rods will reappear later in our narrative.

How much was a Norris fly rod? We have a great window into how the angling public felt about his work from Wakeman Holberton, a popular (some would say borderline shyster) fishing tackle dealer in New York who worked out a deal with Norris to become his New York agent. He wrote in April 1877 that:

A fly rod for black bass should be a moderately stiff rod, not less than ten or more than twelve feet long--such a rod as would be called a rather heavy trout rod. There is no necessity of its weighing over 12 ounces, but it should weigh at least 7 1/2 or 8 ounces. Such a rod will cost from $7 for a plain ash and lancewood (very serviceable) to $60 for the finest Leonard or Norris split bamboo.

Clearly, Norris was the top of the line, held both in esteem and price in the same breath as Hiram Leonard. $60 in 1877 was equivalent to approximately $1200 in 2007 terms.

A third advertisement for Norris rods was published in January 1877, also in Forest & Stream. It read "Norris Fly Rods, of greenheart and rent and glued bamboo, for trout, salmon and bass...Agent in New York for rods, Holberton & Beemer, 102 Nassau Street." It would be the last advertisement for Norris' firm, although Holberton & Beemer's Sportsmen's Emporium advertised "Thad Norris' Greenheart and Split Bamboo Rods" through February 1877.

The third and final Norris advertisement, January 1877 Forest & Stream.

Of interest also is that Norris advertised that he sold ferrules and other rodmaking materials for amateur builders. This would mean that one might potentially find a Thaddeus Norris ferrule on a non-Norris built rod.

TOMORROW: Thaddeus Norris, Rodmaker: The Sad Demise of Thaddeus Norris, and the Legacy of the Norris Rod

-- © 2008 Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part I

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

© 2008 The Author

Painting of “Uncle Thad” Norris, courtesy Dean Smith.


What would convince a successful businessman, internationally respected author, and an icon in his field to begin a new career at the age of 63 that promised enormously long hours, excruciatingly exacting work, and precious little pay? At a time when most of us would be looking forward to retirement, few of us would undertake such a daunting life change. What could possibly have possessed a man so respected in so many fields to take up rodmaking as a profession? The answer to that question, not surprisingly, is the untold story of the life of Thaddeus Norris, the acclaimed "Uncle Thad" of American fishing lore.

The most important American angling writer of his generation was born in Warrenton, Virginia on 15 August 1811. He attended common school in Wheeling, West Virginia, and it was in the hills and dells of this region where the young Thaddeus first developed a love for fishing. At the age of eighteen he moved to Philadelphia, where he would successfully engage in business for the next forty years. How successful? When his seminal The American Angler's Book came out in 1864, The Round Table, a popular Philadelphia literary magazine, declared that it was "handsome, and crowded with fine wood engravings" and that Norris was "one of our rich merchants who is an adept in the gentle craft, a lover of Isaac Walton's memory, and a very intelligent writer."

This is not the only evidence we have of his business acumen. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in his obituary, gave notice of his mercantile career. "He came to this city when quite young," it declared, "and opened a trade in general merchandise. He continued a successful business there and in branch houses at New Orleans and Memphis until the outbreak of the civil war, when he retired from the trade and turned his whole attention to the subject of fish..."

That year, as the Civil War came to a close, his firm—known as Thaddeus Norris & Co. of Philadelphia—got involved in a complicated case when the assets of its New Orleans branch were confiscated by Union troops, revealing the home branch of Norris & Co. as a creditor to the tune of $17,116.73. That was an enormous sum equaling $218,542 in today's terms. While much is still to be learned about his private life, it is known he married a woman named Dorothea and had three children, two sons (Richard and Thaddeus Norris Jr.) and a daughter. It was noted by several accounts that Norris was a Quaker, although this claim has yet to be substantiated.

The Bryn Mawr home of Thaddeus Norris, Jr., ca. 1900.

Uncle Thad, American Angler

Norris' business career was a great success. Yet his fishing exploits are so important that his brilliant mercantile career is but an obscure footnote. “Uncle Thad,” as he was almost universally known, would probably have wanted it that way. As he famously declared, he acquired a love of fishing as a boy but "never became an angler until he ceased to trust in the flesh." In other words, he became an angler only when he took up a fly rod.

It was the mid-1840s when Norris began to take angling more seriously and became an extremely proficient angler, particularly concerning fly fishing of which he would remain a lifelong adherent. In 1848, noted author Jones Wister was privy to a fly casting competition between Thaddeus Norris and William Cadwalder held at Penn Gaskill's Dam. Apparently, things got so heated between the two men that Thad bet $100 (more than $2500 in today’s terms) he could outcast Cadwalder. In his Reminiscences (1920), Wister described the event:

Time and time again Cadwalder threw his 'fly' out over the water, trying to outdistance that thrown by Mr. Norris, but in vain, as the latter's 'fly' soared far beyond his own. Both men had beautifully equipped rods and reels, which were envied by me. The onlookers said that Norris had the best rod, which he had made himself. At any rate, it soon became evident that Cadwalder had lost the bet...

This is important evidence that at even at this early date, Norris was a rodmaker, and a fine fly caster it must be added.

As a busy merchant, Thad began to treasure his time on stream and water even more, and with a scientific mind began over the next fifteen years to collect his thoughts on the subject to the point that he set out to put them in print. But when the Civil War broke out, Norris despaired ever seeing his work in print. "I had collected most of the matter contained in this book when the present rebellion broke out,” he wrote, “I then thought it doubtful whether the following pages would ever be printed." One shudders to think that this book—and Norris' subsequent career—almost never was.

Fortunately, at the urging of friends, Norris set out to publish the book even though hostilities were still raging, and it was a revelation from the beginning. On 08 October 1864, The New York Times undertook to review The American Angler's Book and declared that Norris "has produced what may almost be called an encyclopedia of the subject, so copious is the book in instruction respecting the fish themselves, and the various devices practiced to withdraw them from the domain of the naturalist to that of the culinary 'artiste' and epicure."

The American Angler's Book was a watershed in American fishing, a magnum opus of 692 pages that helped to revolutionize sport fishing in America. It was a success both critically and financially, going through three editions in the first two years alone. Yet not content to bask in the glow of his pioneering book, Norris turned to another passion, fish culture, and produced in a relatively short period of time another pioneering work entitled American Fish Culture in 1868. Basically an overview of the current state of fish culture, no less an authority than Fred Mather declared in his legendary Men I Have Fished With (1897) that "it gave all that was then known about breeding trout, salmon, oysters and other things..." Norris went into the trout breeding business soon after American Fish Culture was published, but sold his Bloomsbury, New Jersey trout farm in 1870 to Dr. J.H. Slack.

Norris the Amateur Rodsmith

As Norris turned 60 in 1871, he could look back over a life in which he had achieved enviable success in multiple fields. But Thaddeus Norris was to have a final career, one in which his achievements have been greatly overlooked. That career was as a professional rodmaker.

Sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s Thaddeus Norris built his first rod from scratch. Like most rodmakers, his evolution from tackle tinkerer to full blown rodsmith is still repeated even today. Like most rodmakers, he began by simply altering his rods to better suit the way he fished, which was followed by mastering the art of the rewrap and ended with him crafting replacement tips. From there it is but a small step to making one’s own rod. This then further progressed to constructing his own ferrules, and art he honed with the help of a neighboring jeweler. Soon he was hand crafting all parts of his own rods for himself and friends.

This may seem remarkable by today’s standards, but remember, this was an era best summed up W.A. Perry in his American Game Fishes (1892), who wrote:

The gratification of taking fish is enhanced a thousand-fold by the thought that it was done by means of one's own handicraft throughout. To make one's own rod, tie one's own leaders, dress one one's flies, search out oneself the haunts of the streams's Apollo, the trout, catch him oneself, and share him around the camp-fire with one's friend, is, me seems, the very pinnacle of piscatorial accomplishment. Thus did the part masters of the gentle craft, from the earliest days to those of Uncle Thaddeus Norris, of fragrant and well-loved memory.

Norris soon became an innovative and important rodmaker, and more importantly, one of the very first instructors in the art of rodcraft.

He probably got his first lessons in bamboo fly rod making from Samuel Phillippe, widely acclaimed as the first American split bamboo rod maker. Solon Phillippe, the maker's son, declared in a letter to Dr. James Henshall that his father Samuel:

was a good trout fisher, and fished at times in company with Thad. Norris, of Philadelphia...He visited a number of places with Mr. Thad. Norris, when the latter was seeking a location for a trout hatchery, and which was finally located near Bloomsburg, NH. Mr. Norris often saw Phillippe at work on split-bamboo rods in his shop.

Having been witness to the great mechanical genius of Samuel Phillippe, who made everything from custom hand forged fish hooks to bamboo rods, Norris would soon blaze his own path as a maker of rods that would soon be heralded by his contemporaries as without equal.

Perhaps this was not true of his earliest works, at least from the perspective of the industrial age. The earliest Norris rods would have been heavy and cumbersome by today’s standards. Fortunately, we have an example of a noted angler running across what has to be one of Norris’ earliest efforts. Kit Clarke, in The Practical Angler, described the following incident that took place on the Brodhead, one of Norris’ favorite fishing streams, in the period leading up to the publication of his book in 1892:

Not long ago I was fishing upon the famous Brodhead, in Pennsylvania, where I met a gentleman with a rod as heavy and unwieldy as anything of the kind I had ever seen. It bore evidence of having been home-made, and by dint of long service had become painfully "set" or bent. The butt was of ash, the second of middle joint of hickory, and the tip of lancewood. I was not a little surprised to learn that it was a fly-casting rod made and used by that foremost among Quaker anglers, Thaddeus Norris, and his name still appeared burned into the hand piece. About the time this rod was made a revolution had taken place in the manufacture and use of angling implements, and this was an example of the new departure.

We can assume (with some degree of certainty) that this is one of the earlier of Uncle Thad’s rods, likely pre-Civil War, as many of Clarke’s contemporaries were still fishing with later Norris rods and universally described them as graceful and stylish. Besides, the fact that a Norris rod was still being used a half century after it was made is a testament to its quality construction if not its elegant design.

TOMORROW: Thaddeus Norris, Rodmaker: Rodsmithing 101

-- © 2008 Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

Monday, January 28, 2008

News of the Week, 28 January 2008

Shark's head is cut off because it won't let go of Aussie angler's leg...A Virginian state record striper...Meet the codfather...Wisconsin has VHS problems that don't involve rewound tapes...Beware the Tiger Fish!...Miss Minnesota makes her home state proud...A failed dream of hosting a TV fishing show leads Oklahoma public official down sordid path to jail...Californians are still insane...Stranded fishermen drink shark's blood to survive 11 days adrift...It must be THE NEWS OF THE WEEK!

The Big Lead: Killer Mako shark's head cut off in order to free Australian fisherman from Jaws of Death. You read that correctly. You may now shudder in horror.

Author and rodmaker Jeff Hatton gets some love from The Rocky Mountain News.

The Louisville Courier profiles the Kentuckiana fly fishing show.

The Berkshire Eagle argues for Catch-and-Release Ice Fishing.

Karl White is profiled in the latest edition of News Oklahoma.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazettes want you to meet the Burbot. And no, they're not talking about Ben Roethlisberger.

The Bangor Daily News opines on fly rodding for billfish.

Fish are seeing red...hooks, that is.

Virginia Angler boats state record 73 pound Striper.

This week in Know Your New Zealand Fish: The Kingfish.

Meet the Codfather.

The Wisconsin DNR is in hot water over its VHS rules. And we're not talking about "be kind, rewind."

The Dayton Daily News ponders the question of why Great Lakes anglers are declining in numbers.

The Weston & Somerset Mercury shows how young anglers can get hooked on the fishing.

When fishing in Mozambique, Beware the Tiger Fish!

Why South Africans believe a ban on abalone will lead to its extinction.

Broken dream of hosting own fishing show leads Oklahoma public official on sordid path towards corruption and jail.

Sacramento's Channel CW31 profiles fly rod maker Larry Tusoni.

Reason #4491 that Anglers Are Better People than Non-Fishers: Angler loses rod. Another angler catches same rod from the ocean. Rod and owner are reunited. Cue the violins.

From the "Why Middle America Thinks Californians Are Insane" File: Four months after destroying over a million Northern Pike for being an invasive species, the California DNR prepares to stock Lake Davis with one million non-native trout.

Miss Minnesota makes her home state proud by introducing herself at the Miss America contest: "Where we consider ice fishing to be a major league sport, I'm Miss Minnesota!"

The Amador Ledger-Dispatch opines on fishing ethics.

Finishing with a Flourish: Pacific island fishermen stranded on the ocean for 11 days survive by drinking shark's blood.

-- Dr. Todd

Friday, January 25, 2008

Friday Funhouse

The Friday Funhouse

The Northern Pike is a true water wolf; when given the choice, the Pike prefers a nice piece of bass.

Things I Would Buy If I Could Afford Them

Your auction of the week is clearly this Salish Native American creel that formerly resided in the Granville Sportfishing Museum.

Here is an awesome Pequea salesman's sample case.

They don't come much nicer than this awesome Bauman's Minnow Cage in the box.

One of the best reels up this week is this rare Seamaster fly reel made for Debie Waterman.

A 1903 Hardy Bros. catalog is breaking the bank.

This great Orvis 8' fly rod is dated 1910.

One of the great fishing lures in history--the 1885 Pflueger Luminous Crystal Minnow.

An awesome E.W. Edwards & Son fly rod.

A really interesting bait this week is the Davis Lure Co. Lectro-Lure in the box.

As a long-time collector of fluted spinners, I am shocked at how much this Winchester fluted in the box is going to bring.

A toy Evinrude 35hp in the box will sell for more than a real Evinrude 35hp did in its day...

This is a nifty hand-forged fishing spear

This Howe's Vacuum Bait in the tin box is a true classic.

A rare Pontiac Radium Minnow is a tough find.

A not often seen Rider Casting Reel rounds out the Funhouse for today.

Be good to yourself and others.

-- Dr. Todd

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Review of Fin-Nor: The Legacy Years

A Review of Fin-Nor: The Legacy Years

The history of big game saltwater fishing has experienced a renaissance of late. For years, those interested in blue water angling turned to old standbys like Harlan Major or read the original writings of men like Zane Grey. In the past decade, however, much has been published on big game saltwater fishing, ranging from George Reiger's Profiles in Saltwater Angling to the on-going series on the history of saltwater fishing lures in Hunting & Fishing Collectibles Magazine.

The one glaring exception has been the dearth of histories on big game saltwater fishing gear. Other than the out-of-print book on Kovalovsky, not much has been published on the major reel manufacturers, ranging from Penn to J.A. Coxe to Ed. Vom Hofe, all of whom have not had their stories told with any depth. Perhaps Fin-Nor: The Legacy Years, by Bruce Mathews and Ed Pritchard, heralds a new age in the history of big game saltwater fishing tackle.

This slim hardcover volume, coming in at just under 100 pages, tells the fascinating story of how Miami's Finley-Norwood Machine Shop and its enterprising owner Fred Grieten became the world famous Fin-Nor Reel Company. The story of Fin-Nor, as it turns out, is pretty much the story of the popularization of saltwater big game fishing in America.

It all began in a garage. Grieten, a mechanical genius, cut his (gear) teeth tooling the incredibly huge Ed Knowles reel in 1934. Although not a fisherman himself, he took this experience and began to construct a reel that would change the world. The first Fin-Nor reels came out in 1936 and immediately began to alter the saltwater landscape. For the first time, anglers had reliable and powerful reels intended for the largest game fish that swim, and when paired with the great Tycoon Tackle rods--a firm that Fin-Nor developed a decades-long relationship--the combos became the chosen tackle of numerous angling icons, ranging from the legendary Captain Tommy Gifford to Alfred Glassell Jr. to Michael Lerner.

The book is at its best when detailing the specific history of the development of the big water ocean reel, a section undoubtedly vastly enriched by co-author Pritchard, who provided nearly all the photos (and almost certainly the historical information) on not just Fin-Nor reels but many of their major competitors, from Garey to Kovalovsky. Pritchard has a world-class collection as well as a repository of information on saltwater tackle and techniques, and this book could not have been written without him.

There is much to like about this book. It is well written and engaging, and strives at all times to place the development of Fin-Nor within the broad context of the development of the sport. The photos are clear and, as the book is printed in color, richly detailed. The historical aspects of Fin-Nor are told in as much detail as the authors could uncover, which, due to the passing of nearly everyone involved in the origins of the firm, still has some gaps. I imagine the book would have been infinitely easier to write twenty years ago.

There are also a few drawbacks about the book. First and foremost is the extraordinarily small font used to print the book. I do not have failing eyesight, but at times I struggled to read portions of this book, in particular the sidebars which, I believe, were printed in an almost surreal six-point font. Second, the Fin-Nor story is not carried up to the present. I know the book is subtitled The Legacy Years, but certainly chronicling the story from the 1960s to the present would allow the reader to help place the current incarnation of Fin-Nor--this time in the Zebco fold--in proper perspective. Such popular Fin-Nor products as the Wedding Cake Fly Reels and the Gar Wood Spinning Reels are only an afterthought, as this period is covered in just a few pages. Finally, the section on how ocean reels received the 1/0, 2/0, etc. designation is lacking in historical depth; there is a far more detailed analysis on ORCA's Reel Talk chat board.

That is being a bit nitpicky, however. This is a great book and will certainly be the standard work on Fin-Nor for years to come, and the authors should be commended for telling the story both accurately and in an eminently readable style. While the price is a big hefty for a rather slim volume, I am confident anyone interested in saltwater fishing, and in particular the history of marlin, tuna, and shark angling, will not balk at the cost. Fin-Nor: The Legacy Years should become a staple of any well-stocked fishing library.

The book is available from Fin-Nor's Web Site or a limited number of signed copies are available directly from Ed Pritchard.

-- Dr. Todd

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

From Whence the Word Plug?

From Whence the Word Plug?

by Dr. Todd Larson

Facetiously, I noted on Joe's Chat Board that I hate Bill Sonnett. Well, I was of course kidding, as Bill is a great guy who has certainly forgotten more about fishing history than I'll ever know. But I am still a bit peeved that he asked a question that I spent the better part of my day researching because it was so damn interesting. That'll teach me to read Bill's posts.

What was this question? Well, Bill wondered where the origins of the word "plug" came from. I sadly admit I had never thought of it before. Lures had always been plugs in my mind, but as I began to dig through the files I soon discovered some very interesting things and developed some new ideas on the origins of this word.

What I discovered is that, when it comes to angling, there are three different meanings of the word "plug." I have a theory, which I'll get to eventually, on how the word plug came to be associated with the fishing lure. But before I get into that, we need to understand the term "plug fishing."

To be brief, "plug fishing" was a term for live bait fishing popularized in the 1890s. The first use of the term that I could find came in an article published in October 1896 by the famed Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby. Crosby wrote in her famous column "Fly Rod's Note Book" in The Phillips (Maine) Phonograph that "Great will be the rejoicing among the fly-fishermen to hear that the grand old pools at Upper Dam are not for plug fisherman after this. The Fish Commissioners held a hearing Sept. 9, when it ased that 'From the gate-house to open water in the Mollchunkamunk Lake should be for artificial fly only,' and there is no doubt but what this will become a law."

Later, on 05 December 1896, William P. Frye echoed these sentiments when he wrote a letter to the editor of Forest & Stream. He opined: "From time to time my attention has been called to the fact that in the heat of the summer, when the trout had sought the spring holes for cool water, they were captured by deep fishing with worms and minnows, in enormous quanities, all of them killed, many wasted...This very fact impels seriously and emphatically assert that if summer 'plug fishing' in Mooselucmeguntic Lake is not prohibited by law, in time serious results will follow."

The issue did not go away. On June 16, 1900, Forest & Stream published an article entitled "The Maine Waters," in which the authors declared "Gentlemen Smith and Bly are doing all they can to sustain Round Mountain Lake and adjacent ponds and streams as the best fishing resorts. They do not encourage 'plug fishing,' and have only one or two guests who desire to do such fishing."

We get a full definition In an anonymous article dated 05 January 1901 entitled "From the Connecticut Lakes to Lake Kennebago," the author declared: "Monday, June 4, was spent fishing on Second Lake, and the only luck that can be had is by 'plug fishing,'--that is, fishing from an anchored boat with live bait."

So clearly "Plug Fishing" was a term used to describe casting with a bait casting rod and reel, and in the references listed, casting live bait.

But this is only the first definition of the word plug. Additionally, tournament casters used the word "plug" to describe their tournament casting weights. While I suspect a careful reading of Cliff Netherton will uncover earlier usage, the earliest use of the term in this connotation I can find is 1907, when Lou S. Darling wrote in "Tournament Casting" that "The regulation tournament casting weights, called 'plugs,' are half and quarter ounce in weight." The term was used commonly after this date by casters (and probably before it).

The third use of the term "plug," this time as a fishing lure, I suspect is a by-product of a combination of the earlier two definitions. By around 1905 or so, I believe the word "plug" came to mean anything (lure or weight) casted with rod and reel.

The earliest use of the word "plug" I could uncover in my admittedly limited research was when in June 1909, Edwin L. Hedderly, writing about fishing off Catalina Island in California, declared "A number of Eastern plug baits have been tried for bass, but have proven impracticable." This was penned in a letter to Forest & Stream.

Soon after, the word "plug" as fishing lure became common parlance. For example, in 1912, Edward Farnham Todd referred to plugs in his article "Some Casting Lures" where he wrote: "The best results can be got with the lure sold in the tackle shops under many different names, but commonly called a 'white plug.'" He was referring to a Yellow Kid/Decker style bait.

By 1915 the term was in common usage, and articles proliferated like "Is the Single Hook More Deadly than the Gang or Plug Bait?" published in Field & Stream and the legendary "Whence the Plug?" by Sam Stinson, published in The American Angler. The plug was here to stay.

Well, that's the results of a day's research. I'm sure others will come up with earlier references, or competing theories, but at least we now having a starting point. You can thank Bill Sonnett for that.

-- Dr. Todd

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Voices from the Past: Dick Lundin

Fred Young's Balsa wood lure known as the Big-O was a revelation in bass fishing. Many people, however, know the Big-O only in its plastic version. Here is a short bit on the origins of the Cotton Cordell Big-O from Dick Lundin, a longtime OWAA writer. It dates from April, 1973.

Outdoor News

by Dick Lundin

THE HOTTEST PLUG on the market at the moment seems to be the almost legendary and murderous Big-0, invented by Fred Young, an East Tennesseean who hand-carved a few out of a block of balsa wood for some of his friends.

With it, bass fishing professionals who have been able to find one, are winning big dollars in tournaments.

According to Roland Martin of Tulsa, Okla., "This balsa lure does have something different. It's in the wiggle. Most diving type baits have a lazy wiggle, but the vibrations from this lure are more like a bait fish swims."

Martin should know because he is one of the most respected bass anglers on the national tour.

Cotton Cordell has purchased the name from the balsa-woodworking inventor and is now in the process of turning out thousands of a plastic version of the Big-0.

You should find it soon in local tackle stores.

Martin offers this bit of advice on fishing the bait: "Because the lure is so hard to obtain, most fishermen won't really fish it right. It'll get hung up, but fish it hitting, bumping or working in heavy cover. Crank it, and keeping it coming — and hang on tight!"

A plastic Cordell Big-O, one of millions sold.

-- Dr. Todd

Monday, January 21, 2008

News of the Week, 21 January 2008

A kiwi fisherman set adrift fights off killer sharks with his fishing rod...a Haskell Minnow strolls in off the street at an NFLCC show...the Kiwis love their Blue Cod...the Aussies can't get enough Dave...hide the good china, the Trout Bums are coming...a fish story involving eagles, an airboat, and a really big must be THE NEWS OF THE WEEK!

THE BIG LEAD: Shocker of the Year: Man Sold Stolen Fishing Tackle on eBay.

Joe's Message Board reports that a Haskell Minnow walked into the Milwaukee NFLCC Show, and sold for over $20,000.

The Louisville Courier-Journal shows us how to learn on the fly.

Sam Cook, my hometown outdoor writer--and one of the best in the business--opines on the demise of lead shot for hunters and anglers.

Phil White--after some technical web site issues have been solved--gives us the eBay report for December 2007.

Ben Wright opines on the state of Spinning Reels in his December 2007 Spinning Reel Report.

North Carolina attracts anglers searching for fifty pound bass.

Iowa City's KCRG reports on fish lure carver Dan Mascal. Complete with video.

Texas High School Freshman is Better Angler than You: Boats 13 pound largemouth.

Hartford residents rejoice, a new tackle shop has just opened.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports on a new book on Baja Fishing. You stay classy, San Diego.

The Michigan City News-Dispatch reports on old tackle for kids, an idea gaining steam.

This Week in Know Your New Zealand Fish: The Blue Cod.

North Carolinians spend $1.7 billion on outdoor pursuits. That's a lot of Scooter Poopers.

Aussies can't get enough of Dave...

The Oklahoma Outdoorsman reports on the secret behind Lucky Craft lures with real skin.

UK's Dorest Echo reports on a "fish of a lifetime."

What do you do when fish bums come to town? Why, watch a movie of course. Oh, and hide the good China too.

Fish & Fly tells us about the joys of micro flies.

The Hickory Record reports on a local angler who wants to be a positive influence on youth.

A fish tale involving an airboat, eagles, and a hellaciously large catfish.

The New York Times reports on Rod, Reel & City.

Budding journalist hoping to write story on sturgeon fishing hooks TWO seven foot monsters.

The Concord Monitor reports on a man who's sharp on carp. Complete with yummy chum recipe.

Angler boats 500 pound sturgeon.

The Daily Lafaeytte Advertiser spotlights Olivier's Custom Rod Shop.

Georgie Sportsman Magazine reports on a monster striper.

The Albany Times-Union opines on antique fishing tackle.

The Baxter Bulletin profiles modern lure maker Gary Baker.

Phil White reports on a disturbing eBay trend concerning fishing tackle.

Wally Murray, Hoagy Carmichael, and others opine on the past and present state of the Museum of American Fly Fishing.

Finishing with a Flourish: Kiwi fishermen set adrift battle off sharks with fishing rods for nine hours.

-- Dr. Todd