“Incomparable skills” - The Gary Howells bamboo rod making story by Ed Herbst

“Incomparable skills” - The Gary Howells bamboo rod making story by Ed Herbst

Thursday, 03 July 2014 08:53


In 1997 “A Master's Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod” was published and it was the first book of any significance to chronicle a golden age in American split cane fly rod building and to describe the tools and techniques used to build them. It was co-authored by Everett Garrison, a master rod craftsman and Hoagy Carmichael who went on to build rods himself.


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Since then we have had a number of excellent books on the subject by authors such as Wayne Cattanach, Ray Gould, Jack Howell, John Gierach and Ed Engle but only one which focused on the life and times of a master rod builder. In 2010 Whitefish Press published a biography on Wesley Jordan, the man whose tenure at Orvis produced some legendary rods. It was written by his son William and it added a great deal to our knowledge of an era and its craftsmanship.

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Now Whitefish Press has brought out a second biography and its subject is a man who was always something of a mystery to me - Gary Howells.

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“Howells: The Bamboo Fly Rods & Fly Fishing Legacy of Gary H. Howells” by Joseph H. Beelart is a specialist book and at R1195 it is not inexpensive which is why Craig Thom of Netbooks/Stream-X in Cape Town, before ordering, is trying to establish whether there is any demand for it.


The reason why I was interested in Howells is that Ernest Schweibert clearly regarded him as the pre-eminent split cane rod builder of his age – 1957 to 1990. In his book “Trout”, the Encyclopedia Britannica of fly fishing literature, he describes Howells as a craftsman with “incomparable skills” but there was very little information available on him – until now.

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A Howells rod

The reason for the dearth of information is now clear: From 1970 until 1997 he made rods under his own name, but never enough to satisfy the demand. For two decades Howells limited rods to one per customer per year, and his annual backorder list was usually sold out at the start of his production cycle.

Howells was an intensely private individual, and he valued his privacy most highly during his fishing sojourns. He once wrote, “I hide in the bushes so my customers can't find me …” Howells was also very secretive about his building techniques; but, with a limited group of rod builders, he willingly shared ideas. Thus, Howells’ craft lives on.

Tom Sutcliffe then referred me to the beautiful Spinoza website and it was here that I came across the rods of Darryl Whitehead whose rods seem to be, by reputation, very much like those of Gary Howells’. What particularly interested me was his six foot, one piece rod for a 2/3 line.


I can’t say that I like the engraved butt plate and the pale reel seat but the idea of a one-piece, six foot split cane rod for small stream fly fishing is mouth- watering.

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A palm grip made by Koos Eckard

Such a rod with a palm grip or better still, Steve Boshoff’s centre axis design would be the ultimate, in my subjective opinion, for the steep gradient streams, which the late Robert Kirby so evocatively described as “crystal staircase” streams.

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Steve Boshoff’s centre axis design

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The author ((left) with Steve Boshoff and one of his centre axis rods


You are casting into tiny pockets, not much bigger than a bath and no more than knee-deep. Each one has a resident trout watching the surface for drop-in food.

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The author casting into a ‘crystal staircase’

You need accuracy and delicacy of presentation. CDC flies guarantee the latter. The fold up on the forward cast and then pop open when the energy of the cast dissipates, parachuting onto the water like thistledown. The accuracy depends on you but short split cane rods which cast tight loops excel in such conditions.

Metal ferrules add weight and diminish feel on split cane rods but one piece rods are more difficult to transport.

Paying R30 000 for a fly road will probably see you divorced in a heartbeat but perhaps there is a less expensive way.

Chris Bogart at Shenandoah rods in Virginia might be persuaded to build you a six foot, 1-piece blank and you can then get Koos Eckard in Pretoria, whose workmanship is superb, to build it for you with the “palm grip” an adaptation of a Hardy design that Steve Boshoff and I worked on a decade ago before he went on to concentrate on his centre axis and other models.


It could be done and I think it would work out at quite a bit less than R30 000.

Incidentally, Gloria Jordan, Wesley Jordan’s widow, who worked with him at Orvis, continues to build rods which honour his legacy and one of them is a five foot, one piece model.


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A Steve Dugmore wand above and the maker hand-planning a blank in his workshop below

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We are lucky to have two superb craftsmen, Stephen Boshoff and Stephen Dugmore building split cane rods locally and interest is growing so there might well be a few potential customers for the new book on Gary Howells


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