This, which I discovered on a trout lake, is partly true on a salmon river. The greenheart is the more mettlesome weapon. On the other hand, the difference between salmon rods is not so perceptible as that between trout rods. As the built-cane rod grows in size it seems to grow also in the quality that is desirable. That, I daresay, is partly because it has a larger and sterner heart of steel. At all events, it is so good that one could scarcely wish for a better. You can use a built-cane rod in practically absolute confidence that it will not break. Paradoxical as the statement may seem, the built-cane rod, though each piece has six strips, or it may be eight, is more nearly a natural product than a rod of any other wood. Hickory, greenheart, and lance-wood pieces are sawn from a plank, and only by a very rare accident are they ever, when finished, perfect. Plane and file have had to cross the fibre, and not infrequently the pieces are apt to snap. Besides, however long and carefully they may have been kept before being manufactured, these woods seem never quite to settle so much, in losing sap, that they can shrink no more. Thus, in course of time the ferrules become loose. Now, when a ferrule becomes loose, even slightly so, which may happen without the owner of the rod noticing the change, the wood within its grip is in a position like that of a walnut within a pair of crackers. Suddenly, when in use, the rod will fall in two. It does not need a heavy fish to bring about the calamity. When a rod shows signs of overwork, it is not from battling with fish that it has suffered. Weakness or lack of straightness has been brought about by long struggles with its own weight and with the atmosphere. A rod is subjected to considerable strain in the simple act of your throwing a line into the water or drawing it out. All of the few breakages which I myself have suffered, instead of happening at the instance of fish, have been on such occasions. They were pieces of greenheart that gave way. My three built-cane rods, the oldest of which has been in use for nine seasons, are still inviolate. The centerings of steel, while contributing to the good result, do not altogether account for the toughness of these rods. That is due mainly to their natural constitution. Their outer surfaces have never been touched by saw, or plane, or file. The skin, which is the hardest part of the wood, is retained. Moisture does not penetrate, and the material does not rot. The cane itself seems never to shrink by a hair's-breadth. The ferrules are as firm as they would be if they were natural and inseparable growths.
The apparently invincible strength of the steelcentred built-cane rod may seem to many an ample compensation for its defectiveness in the characteristic quality of greenheart. In salmon rods, though not in trout rods, it seems so to myself; but I am not meaning to urge this view. Preference for greenheart is easily understood, and there are professional craftsmen who work so well with it that any rod supplied by them may be trusted to have a good sporting chance of unimpaired life for many years.
Much more important than the comparative merits of the woods is the dynamic character of the finished product, whatever the material may be. A first-class modern rod is an extremely delicate instrument. Mr. Hardy's remark about the importance of a very minute fraction of an inch in thickness of the butt illustrates the wonderful subtlety of the whole. There are a few specifications that may be set down roughly. A salmon rod, to be used for fly-fishing in a large river, should be about eighteen feet long; if made of cane it should weigh rather less than two pounds and a half, or if of greenheart a little more; and it should enable you to cover rather over thirty yards. On smaller rivers the befitting rods are of smaller size, weight, and power. When we have said that, however, we have gone but a little way into the problem. I can imagine a rod that would cast a fly beautifully thirty-five yards, and cast it half that distance clumsily. Such a rod, it is scarcely needful to say, is not ideal. The fly has to fall neatly, at whatever spot it is aimed. How is a rod to be endowed with this versatility of action ?
In as far as it is a concern of exact science, the secret is in the hands of a few makers; but it is questionable whether any one of these could build a perfect rod on unaided scientific principles. He could not, although provided with ample materials and the finest tools, simply set to work and say of the result, "Now, that is exactly as it should be." He would have to try the rod before he could be sure. At the first cast it might show some defect of what he would call "balance." "Balance," in this connection, is a makeshift word. It applies not only to the graduated weight of the rod; it applies to the spring of the rod as well. That also is graduated; but the graduation is peculiar. The flexibility of a perfect rod at any point is not in proportion to its relative thinness at that point. If it were, the upper half of the top-piece could be bent into a circle without breaking. Exactly how the flexibility is distributed I cannot tell in anything like scientific terms; but it is not impossible to say how the flexibility should feel. It should begin in the butt, a few inches above the winch; it should not be felt as being in the top-piece, though it is there; in a particular measure, as you cast, you should be conscious of it as active in the middle yard of the rod. Of course, the power which drives the fly comes mainly from yourself; but it should set going a fresh force, that of resilience, about the middle of the instrument. If it does, it is a good rod that you are using. Whether you have fifteen yards of line out, or thirty, or any length between, it will serve you pleasantly and with precision.
This, of course, is said on the assumption that you know how to handle a rod. The stance at golf and the grip of the driver are hardly, if at all, matters more important. There is a certain similarity between wielding the rod and wielding the club. Once, at St. Andrews, I asked a scratch man, noted for long shots off the tee, how he held the driver. I had understood that good players gripped tightly with the left hand and very lightly with the other. " O," said my scratch man, " I think I hold pretty tight with both.'" Now, it is credible that a man might hold a fishing-rod in that way and throw a fair line. If he did hold it so, however, he would be wasting strength. To grip tightly is to expend energy, and energy applied by the left hand to a fishing-rod does not communicate itself to the line. I think that, on the contrary, it may possibly neutralise some part of the energy of the right hand, just above the reel. The energy of the left hand tends, if anywhither, in a direction opposite to that in which the right hand is engaged. We hear of single-handed rods and double-handed rods; but, I think, the truth is that all rods, properly used, are single-handed. The appearances deceive. A trout rod you hold in one hand, and to a salmon rod you apply both hands; and you are apt to assume that to cast a salmon fly you use both arms. This is true only in a manner. You use the left hand to help the right in holding the rod; but that is all that the left hand does, or should do. It is through the right hand that the propelling force goes, or should go. The other is, or should be, merely a rest for the rod.
How, then, should the right hand act ? Think of golf again, and the answer will suggest itself. However truly hit the ball might be, it would not go far if it were driven by a club held loosely by both hands. It would go a few yards only. The full energy of the muscles can reach the ball only if the muscles and the ball are in close contact. If the club were held loosely at the moment of impact, there would, however swiftly the weapon might be travelling, be a breach of continuity. The energy received by the ball would be little more than the inertia of the head of the club. The energy of the muscles would be lost in the breach.
A miscarriage exactly similar is possible in fishing. Unless the right hand is held in the right way the best of rods will be a failure. The way is variable, but the principle is plain. If you wish to cast only twelve or fifteen yards, little force is needed, and you must not grip tightly: by a tight grip you would, if the length of line allowed, overshoot the mark. If you wish to cast thirty yards you must grip tightly. Only so can the energy of the arm be communicated to the rod. In that case, indeed, rod and arm are as one.