Vintage Rods - Choosing
Use the frame to the right of this page to navigate around this web site.
Choosing a Float Rod | Choosing a Carp Rod |
Choosing a Barbel
To be loved, float rods require what Chris calls ‘the feel’. Some have it,
some don’t. Allcocks’ Wizard, Record Breaker, Elite, and Eclipse have the feel,
so do Milwards’ 11’ Floatcraft, Aerolite, Craftversa, Swimaster, and Swimversa.
Aspindales’ rare two-piece Aero may be the best float rod ever. Hardys’ Wallis
Avon, and Wallis All-Round rods are lovely, and their Perfection Roach should be
on every feeling anglers’ required list. Longer tonkin rods can be front heavy.
Beyond 12’ rods really need to be made of Spanish reed, but these are not very
happy with strong fish.
No matter which float rod you eventually choose, it is likely that with the
passage of time you’ll end up with three, or six. All these rods will be
‘essential’ to you. Many days will start with the agony of selecting from your
collection, and often you will take three to the water, when any one would do.
There are general float rods (all-rounders) and there are specialist float rods.
The first type really IS essential.
The 11’ Allcocks Wizard is the quintessential rod. It can be used with
confidence for everything from dace to small barbel. Because it is proven, and
has the Allcocks name, it is an expensive rod, if in first class restored
condition. Wizards also vary enormously in action and power. Consider
Wizard-type rods from other makers. Aspindales made a beauty, so did Milwards.
Although I conduct an on-going love affair with whole cane butt rods, I am
also completely taken by the glorious little all-split-cane 10’6” Eclipse. Most
general float rods seem to be about 11’, but knocking 6” off the length of a rod
makes a great difference to its balance. The Eclipse feels dead right, and
Wallis casts like a demon.
My own working float rods are: For light roach fishing in bigger rivers, a
Swimversa or Aero. For roach and chub in heavier water (such as the Hampshire
Avon) an early long handle type Allcocks ‘Black Label’ Wizard. For closer range,
smaller rivers, and on wandering days, its usually the Eclipse, and occasionally
my old love, the Hardys Wallis All Round. When float fishing for barbel, I use
an 11’ Judd Senior Wizard. Both St. Peter, and God, are likely to be using
top of page >>
For most anglers the description ‘carp rod’ is synonymous with Mk IV. Every
feeling angler wants a Mk.IV. It is an Icon, a magic wand, history made real, a
touchstone, and a link with Walker’s immortality. Mark IV type rods were made by
many manufacturers, many of them much better than the James’ version that is so
eagerly sought for the caché of its name.
For those wanting to understand the Mk IV business better, the following
excerpt from an article published in CarpWorld some years ago, may help.
The Great Mk.IV Pecking Order
As everyone knows, Dick Walker always said that he designed the Mk.IV because
he felt at the time there were no rods on the market that were really suitable
for big carp. In truth, there were several excellent rods available in the late
1940’s that would have performed the job very well. Dick however, knew he wanted
something special, and the rest is history. As designed by Dick Walker this was
a highly efficient rod that has since become a classic. It is a rod that is
still in great demand today despite the fact that a good new one can now cost
seventy times as much as the original. Apart from its designed use, this
versatile rod can, at a pinch, be happily employed to spin for pike and salmon,
or leger for chub and barbel.
Whatever the condition of an old Mk.IV it’s the provenance of each rod that
governs its place in the pecking order of desirability. The vast majority of
them were made by B.James of Ealing who cornered the lion’s share of the market
with the invaluable advantage of Walkers personal recommendation. Whether or not
they made the best Mk.IVs (and in the view of many cane experts they certainly
didn’t) B.James-made rods now, as then, have the greatest appeal to the vast
majority of would-be Mk.IV owners.
Carp rod collectors will know though, that there are several rods that are
infinitely more desirable than the bog-standard James Mk.IV. They’re all
wonderful, but to aficionados some are more wonderful than others. Leaving aside
the vexed matter of values: in order of covetability, the rods grade
approximately as follows:
There are certain to be carp rod enthusiasts who would disagree with these
gradings, and I wouldn’t want to offend the proud owner of any venerable Mk.IV.
I’ve spoken to a few pundits about this, and the general consensus is that this
list is not far wrong. This list says nothing of the actual usability of an
individual rod. To a great extent this will depend upon the attitude of the
owner. Chris Yates uses his priceless Grade 2 Walker rod without hesitation,
whereas, as far as I know, Chris Sandford wouldn’t dream of using his ex. B.B.
grade 1. Rod.
J.B.Walker rods made from kits can be good. Whatever the results of amateur
handiwork in the assembly of these rods, the cane is often of stunning
spring-steel quality. J.B.Walker bought their cane stocks from various sources,
but it seems to have been generally excellent. The blanks that they bought in
from Bob Southwell of Croydon were among the best ever made. Southwell also
marketed his own Mk. IV version under the brand name of The Captain, and these
are very much sought after. Because of the extra stresses imposed on the blank
by Southwell’s method of pressing the cane knots, rather than cutting off the
excess material, they occasionally show small linear splits in the area of the
knots. Southwell’s natural successor was his one-time apprentice Ted Oliver of
Knebworth, who made Southwell type split-bamboo rods from very high quality
A carp rod really doesn’t need to be called a Mk IV. Stalking enthusiasts will
find eight and nine footers much more appropriate. Salmon spinning rods make
excellent stalking rods. Carp rods do not have to be made with two equal joints.
Consider rods with separate handles, and other three piece rods. The extra
ferrule is anathema to many cane pundits, but some of these rods are really
excellent. I offer the opinion that the Constable Superb is a much better all
round carp rod than the Mk IV.
top of page >>
I have been accused of being too deeply involved and emotional when it comes to
choosing rods. I’m sure that there’s a certain truth in this, but I prefer to
remove the word too, which takes out the pejorative element in the sentence. For
anyone with a hint of feeling for the lovely business of fishing, rod selection
is a decidedly touchy-feely meeting, perhaps leading to a partnership that will
last a life-time. A dedicated angler may spend more of his life holding his
fishing rod, than he does holding his wife. Neither is a marriage that should be
entered into lightly.
I own perhaps two-hundred rods in varying stages of completion, but I choose to
actually use only about a dozen of them. I have many gleamingly restored rods
that I have never used, preferring to stick my chosen partners in life.
Occasionally a rod comes alive in my hand, and there’s the strange feeling that
it has chosen me, rather than my choosing it.
The critical thing about barbel rods is that we spend a lot of time holding
them. They don’t sit in rod-rests, like carp rods; we nestle them under our arms
whilst feeling for that first electric pluck of a bite, or even the tearing
wrench that threatens to drag rod and angler together into the water. So much
time spent in such close proximity requires that the partnership be well
Beyond that really important stuff we arrive at the practicabilities of the
matter. The plain fact is that no one barbel rod will do every job well. The
angler who has to poke his rod be between the overhanging branches of knitted
alders may need a poker-like 8’ rod. The angler who Wallis casts float 30 yards
over a near-bank torrent to reach the far-side slack, may need a lithe
twelve-footer. An anglers’ ideal specification for a barbel rod will vary from
river to river, and season to season. A late summer fourteen pounder from a fast
and weedy Hampshire Avon swim, requires a lot more rod than a feisty three
pounder from the Swale in winter.
Unfortunately, many anglers have to consider the cost of all this. If I have to
offer any advice it is, just for goodness sake pay for what you want, provided
you can afford it. Don’t be stingy with yourself. If you can’t afford it
immediately, wait until you can afford what you really want. You will discover
that this is one purchase in which you will never regret extravagance, and may
ever regret expedience. Never walk away from something wonderful. One achingly
perfect rod is better than two mediocre rods. This is not a land of discounts
and barter, it is a land of wonder, and privileged stewardship.
The first question the angler should address, is whether the barbel rod will be
used for float fishing, or for legering. The important thing to remember is that
stand off rings are not suitable for legering, because the matching off-set
tip-ring puts a heavy twisting moment into the tip section cane, and this soon
results in a nasty ‘set’, or worse, splitting of the cane. Stand off rings are
ideal for float rods because they encourage line to slide through the rings when
the rod is wet. Low cradle rings allow line to stick to the blank, and this
inhibits casting with float tackle.
Rod actions vary enormously. For casting very heavy baits and leads, a robust
tip is essential. A robust tip on a modestly-built mid and butt produces a
forward heavy rod with a through action. But, against that seeming disadvantage
must be set the fact that rods are normally set into rests, so the weight
distribution is less important. Big rivers, such as the Wye in flood conditions,
require very powerful rods. Such rods do not show delicate bites on the tip, but
then, under such conditions delicate bites are pretty rare. At the other end of
the scale, stiff butted rods with sensitive tips show bites very well. The tips
of such rods should not be used to play the fish. It is therefore necessary to
drop the angle of the rod, and play the fish off the mid and butt sections. The
Judd Senior Wizard is an example of this type. Look for some weight at the thick
end of the mid section. It’s here that power seems to be required. There are any
number of taper variations, but I am generally impressed by the abilities of
rods that have a fairly steep mid section, or compound tapers that allow steep
steps up in blank diameter.
Avoid floppy rods. Steely action is what you need. A good cane barbel rod feels
really quite stiff, and when given a waggle it stops moving around very quickly.
Yet, when put under pressure the apparent unyielding stiffness becomes a lovely
springy curve, and it’s that which puts pressure on the fish.
Among traditionalist anglers the early B. James’ whole cane butt Avocet has, for
many years, been considered the perfect barbel rod. It’s not a particularly
powerful rod, but I suppose it probably is as close as man may come to the best
all-round barbel rod. Unfortunately, with so many disgracefully caged in
collector’s showcases, there are very few to be had, and the odd good one that
emerges seems to fetch a King’s ransom. Avocets vary quite a bit in their whole
cane section. The best are of larger diameter, and quite powerful. Those with
serrated female ferrules are made with smaller diameter cane. They are lovely
rods, but they are less powerful than the few made with unserrated female
ferrules. The split cane sections for early Avocets were not made by James
themselves, but by Bob Southwell of Croydon. These rods (pre. 1956) are
overwhelmingly better than later examples from the James’ workshops. Southwell
also made Avocets to sell under his own brand name The Captain, and these are
finds of seismic importance.
The whole B. James cult thing has obscured the fact that several other
manufacturers also made The whole B. James cult thing has obscured the fact that
several other manufacturers also made whole-cane-butt barbel rods. I believe
that several of these makers’ rods every bit as good as the Avocet, and some,
better. Such rods were made by Martin James Rods, Milwards, Eggington of Merton,
Priory Rods of Bournemouth, Sowerbutts, Homers, and many other excellent
provincial firms. The ‘Senior Wizard’ made by the London firm of Judd, is
probably the finest of all, but it is even rarer than the Avocet. I have seen
only three examples, two eleven footers, and a twelve footer. Small makers
sometimes made such rods to order, and these obscurely- named examples can prove
to be gems. The large diameter butt Avocet type by Chadderton of Kent is an
excellent example. Look at the rod, rather than the name, and bear in mind too
that behind an apparently faceless rod, may lurk the genius of a great
If you can find a Southwell-made rod, you can’t go wrong, but they have all
sorts of names on them, disguising their true maker. For instance, Precision
Rods marketed an absolutely marvellous barbel rod called the Avon Festival. It
had compound taper split cane sections, and a whole cane butt. To my eyes it is
clearly a Southwell blank, despite the fact that Precision Rods were miles away,
in Redditch. I cannot explain this. Many small London firms used Southwell
blanks. I was told by a man who should know that Judds used Southwell blanks,
but the Senior Wizards I’ve seen were certainly not Southwell-made: I wish they
were. A Senior Wizard taper made by Southwell would rank alongside the Holy
Grail. Let’s hope they didn’t all end up as firewood. If there is a downside to
Southwell split cane, it is that it is more brittle than most, so anglers who
have stuck their rod-tips into unyielding tree-trunks have often shortened their
rods by a foot or more.
Whole cane butt rods really are the nicest. Fifty years ago Bernard Venables
wrote that the whole cane butt was superior, ‘because it steadies the action’ of
the rod. To me, they just look and feel right; which may be another way of
saying the same thing as the great Venables. But, there are many, many more rods
available made entirely from split cane. Excellent rods were made by Constable,
Priory, Chapmans, and others. Eleven footers seem to be favourite, but consider
10’6” rods too. They are often lighter to hand, and a good compromise between
the stocky Mk IV types, (which to me feel all wrong for barbel fishing) and the
powerful, full-blown, eleven footers.
For those seeking something less meaty, perhaps for little barbel, there is
little to beat the wonderful Allcocks Wizard, but the for all its well-connected
history, the Wizard is not really a barbel rod. Wizards used for light legering
really should be re-ringed with low cradle rings, and they should have a couple
of additional rings too (four or five intermediate rings on the tip, and four on
the middle section).
For what it’s worth, my own choices are: for occasions when a big barbel may be
encountered, a Judd Senior Wizard; and for weed-free winter barbel, an early
B.James (Southwell) Avocet. I keep my wonderful Wizards for less strenuous
duties, with lighter float tackle.
To return to the rod/wife analogy, and to borrow from South Pacific, another
Rogers and Hamerstein musical: once you have found her never let her go. When
you have your rod, go fishing, and forget all else. The vintage tackle
collection craze has blinded many to the fact that we are, or perhaps should be,
anglers first and foremost. I believe unshakably that my wedded bliss with
‘traditionalist tackle’ has given me an essential compatibility with the world
of British (I feel here that I should be saying English) freshwater fishing. My
cane rods seem to sit well in the picture before me. They bend and blend to the
crease of the current where who-knows-what? may dwell. They require my care, and
repay me with boundless pleasure in their company. I do not spend my days on the
river dwelling on the necessity to acquire the latest, the greatest, the
strongest, the thinnest, or the one with the highest modulus. My rods were not
made with the aid of a degree in chemistry, but by a man with a big piece of
Chinese bamboo, and a sharp plane - and that somehow makes it right: it’s nature
within nature. I just sit with my happy partnership established, understood,
appreciated, and valued. Nice, isn’t it.
top of page >>