A solid affair
TOM FORT tells of a long and trusting relationship with an old fishing
DO YOU REMEMBER that W.C. Fields sketch in which the great man compares the
respective merits as pets of a bottle of whisky and a dog? The whisky
he enthuses, needs no feeding. You don’t have to take it for a walk. It doesn’t wake you with its barking and bite people, I forget the rest of
it, but it occurs to me that much the same applies to a favourite fishing
rod with the additional virtue that it is better than either dog or bottle
for casting a fly and playing a fish.
A rod should be a companion as well as a tool. The first of my
fly-fishing companions was called Black Demon, which was apt since it was a
rod from hell, of thoroughly bad character, and led me astray in my
impressionable youth. In time I moved on, to a Sharpe’s Featherweight,
dark impregnated cane with burgundy whippings, and we were inseparable for
many years until I managed – don’t press me on the details – to stuff its
tip into my breast pocket and scrunch it into a fractured, irreparable
Next I took up with a French artefact, aristocratically named, the Ritz
Super Parabolic FFP Fario Club, eight foot five inches of pale cane,
elegantly whipped in green. Like many French aristocrats, it was graceful
and extremely stylish. But like some aristocrats of all nations, it
lacked something when the wind blew and the going got tough: resilience,
backbone, call it what you will. My affection waned and the
relationship cooled. Then the Barder came into my life.
Barder, I should explain, is a man, and we will come to him in a moment.
As for the rod, it was – is – eight-and-a-half feet in length, Tonkin cane,
tempered, split, heat-treated, tapered, glued, seasoned, varnished, its
whippings of bottle green, its reel seat of olive wood, its action
runs through it, from slender tip through central section to the butt.
It has delicacy and strength in perfect proportion and harmony, and it looks
as good today as it did when I first laid hands on it; which is more than
can be said either for its owner or its maker.
I first became aware of Edward Barder as a boy, because I fished with his
father, Dick, for chub and pike. Edward began young, soundly tutored
by Dick, and he developed from the earliest days a consuming curiosity about
freshwater and its inhabitants. He was not much of a one for exams,
but he was always clever with his hands, and one day Dick presented him with
a cane rod with a smashed top section and told Edward that if he mended it
he could keep it. He mended it, and it broke in a tussle with a chub. He got hold of Colonel G. Lawton Moss’s standard text, How to Build Your Own
Split-Cane Fishing Rod, and did better next time.
Edward did not linger over his formal education. He worked for a while
in the licensing trade, then got a job at a fishing tackle shop between
Reading and Newbury. One day a lady came in and asked if he could
provide her with a new version of a favourite cane trout rod, and Edward
obliged. Word got about. He was commissioned to make some
coarse-fishing rods, and another day a lad called Colin Whitehouse came in
and bought one. Colin is now the other half of The Edward Barder Rod
Edward went to Hardy’s in Pall Mall, where his further education began. He
learned about Hardy’s own cane rods, but – much more significant – he also
got to study and repair rods from the famous American makers, Leonard,
Garrison, and Payne. Going back in time, mast of the impetus in
late19th~century rod technology came from the other side of the Atlantic –
remember Skues’s nine foot Leonard, the “World’s Best Rod”? In
particular, Edward came to appreciate the American emphasis on the need for
the cross-section of the rod to be a perfect hexagon built from perfect
equilateral triangles, and for exact engineering of the taper to avoid
stretching the fibres, thereby distributing the stress of casting and
playing a fish through the whole structure.
Two years at Hardy’s was enough. It was time for Barder to find his
own way. He was determined that he would work only with cane, fully
conscious of the received wisdom that the material had been superceded by
the incredible lightness and toughness of carbon fibre and was therefore
redundant. In the intervening period, whether making rods for coarse-
or fly-fishing, he has never wavered from the conviction that – in certain
circumstances, for certain people – cane has qualities factory-made carbon
I’ll let Barder himself explain, for he is an eloquent evangelist: “Carbon
fibre is wonderful stuff. In terms of strength/weight ratio, it is
frighteningly good, and on that score cane cannot compete. But there
is no doubt in my mind that you get more feeling from cane. Cane tells
you what your back cast is doing, which carbon will not do, and it gives
more cushioning and efficiency in playing a fish.” Now, before you
dismiss this as sales patter, let me tell you that he is right. When I
first fished with the rod he made for me, I knew pretty well at once – as
happens occasionally with women – that this was the one for me. It was
a rod I could admire for its looks, which gave me everything I could ask for
in the way of performance, and which in time came to feel more like an
extension of my own arm and self than a utensil picked up for fishing.
We have partnered each other on the smooth, suave waters of Test and Itchen,
on the more unkempt streams of Ireland, in the wild places of Cumbria and
Slovenia. It tried to console me one tragic night on the Eden when the
biggest trout I have ever hooked in 40 years’ fishing that river tore past
me, downstream and away; when I finally got my first Eden two-pounder, I
laid it beside my Barder and each set off the other’s beauty.
It’s a sad fact that we never triumphed together over a truly huge trout.
We came reasonably close one day on the Avon near Amesbury. The rod
put the Mayfly just where it was needed, brushing a tuft of grass sticking
out from the near bank, and bent to its business as the fish roared up, then
across, then down; and sprang back to the straight and narrow without a
murmur of reproach as the bloody thing made good its escape.
In those early days I had a tendency towards getting over- excited,
particularly when evening rises became hectic. I remember an amazing
sedge hatch on the Suir in County Tipperary, which began with my dropping my
scissors and forceps in the water no fewer than three times as I bent to net
fish. I felt my Barder exercised a calming influence, restraining my
excesses, focusing my mind on getting after those slashing Suir trout.
So we matured together. The rod’s virtues were ideally matched to my
faults, so it materially assisted in lifting me from utter incompetence to
passable mediocrity. As it happens, I don’t have a dog, but if I had,
I hope I would feel towards it as I do towards my Barder. As an
implement for casting a fly and hooking and playing a fish, I would have
thought it could not be improved, on, but it has. Mine is now 13 years old,
and its equivalent of today is lighter, its tip more refined, its strength
in the middle section greater, the flexibility through to the butt enhanced.
Barder believes, rightly I think, that at four-and-a-half ounces for his
eight-and-a-half foot two-piece model (the three-piece is a fraction more
because of the extra ferrules), there is no weight penalty. It is
heavier than the equivalent carbon rod, but that weight is manageable to the
point of insignificance – assuming your hands and wrists are in reasonable
Then there is the matter of aesthetics. Of course, there are those for
whom the look of a rod is nothing; and actually I wouldn’t portray myself as
being overburdened with aesthetic, sensibility. But I would defy
anyone who loves fly-fishing and has a scintilla of soul not to thrill at
the sight and feel of these exquisite creations. From the
nickel-silver ferrules, sliding reel grip and butt cap, to the
stainless-steel rings, to the transparent whippings tipped in tan silk, to
the polished olive wood of tile reel seat (cut from his parents’ trees at
their home in Provence), to the silk rod bag, to the aluminium leather case,
the fittings – all made in Barder’s workshop – are the finest.
So where’s the catch? Well, they cost. Each rod (they come with two
top sections, which Edward urges should be used on alternate outings)
represents around 60 hours of highly skilled work, and between them Edward
and Colin Whitehouse turn out no more than 50 a year. They do a range
of models between 6 ft 6 in and 8 ft 6 in and with line weights from three
to six. The 7 ft 6 in, 8 ft and 8 ft 6 in models are available in
three pieces as well as two. A two-piece rod comes in at 1,500, the
three-piece at 1,700, and you are likely to have to wait a year or so
before you take delivery. It’s serious money and represents a serious
But here’s another perspective. These rods look fantastic, and they do
a fantastic job. Properly cared for, and given the occasional service, they
will last you out.
Think of it this way. You work hard. You love trout fishing.
You have just the one fly-fishing life. You deserve the best. So