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
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
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
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
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.