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The true purpose of a fly rod is to prevent its bearer from being arrested for vagrancy, for the delight of trout fishing is not the full creel but things seen and people met. A roughly dressed man idling with a rod in his hand is an angler; without it he is a vagabond.
And yet a fine fly rod is a magnificent thing, a strain of music made visible, a living part of the hand that holds it. Many an angler becomes so enchanted with the casting of a perfect rod that he resents interruption by trout.
The fly rod is, in fact, a sort of miracle. A typical 8-footer contains only two-and-a-fraction ounces of bamboo, but it can throw a fly 100 feet or kill a 20-pound salmon and after a quarter of a million casts still be a good rod.
The miracle is a modern one, for although fly rods of a sort are older than recorded history, the first that was anything more than a limber stick was made only about 75 years ago. Many men contributed to the development of the fly rod, but the man who took the last great steps in creating the fly rod that we know today was an American. He made the American fly rod the world's standard. And from the remote community of Bangor, Maine this American's name went round the world until it was recognized wherever flies were cast for trout. But only his name; even in his own country the man himself is almost unknown.
The man was Hiram L. Leonard, who not only achieved genius in several fields but was one of the most colorful and individualistic characters in the history of American angling.
He was born in Maine but grew up near Honesdale, Pa. By the time he was 20 he was "in charge of the machinery" of a coal mining company. Then he went to Bangor, Me., and was, successively, a taxidermist, a gunsmith, a professional market hunter and fur trader, and a taxidermist again, before he took up rodmaking.
Henry David Thoreau met him in 1857, when he was a hunter, and described him in Canoeing in the Wilderness as a handsome man of good height but not apparently robust, of gentlemanly address and faultless grooming (see above). He was a spiritualist, a vegetarian who abhorred liquor and detested tobacco. He was a good musician, playing the flute and bass viol, and held the entertaining belief that a man could not make a good fishing rod unless he loved music and could play at least one instrument.
Leonard set foot on the path to fame when a Boston sporting-goods house, Bradford & Anthony, was so impressed with the workmanship of a wooden rod that he had made for his own use that they started him making split bamboo rods for them. This type was becoming popular and the firm was having trouble getting well-made rods.
That was in 1871, when Leonard was 40 years old. From the start, he had more work than he could handle, even though he soon hired Fred Thomas to help him and, subsequently, Ed Payne, Billy Edwards and two of his cousins, Hiram and Loman Hawes, whom he brought up from Honesdale. Incidentally, all of those names—Thomas, Payne, Edwards and Hawes—were given to famous brands of fine fly rods in after years.
Fly rods had been made of strips split from a stalk of bamboo, planed to a fit and glued together to form a rod joint, well over 100 years before Leonard ever saw one. But they were so badly designed and made that none of them could cast 70 feet, a distance to which a man can throw a line with his bare hand if he knows how. It was the nature of Leonard's art that he converted those old switches into the modern miracle through three subsidiary miracles of his own—engineering design, craftsmanship and a new secret material.