Saltwater fly tackle evolves through the years
Jimmy Furlong stands atop one of the
first elevated casting platforms.
This is Part 2 of Reel Time’s look at the history of fly fishing tackle. Part 1 ran in the March 18 edition.
Less than 50 years ago, the fishing tackle available to anglers was vastly different than what we have today. For example, there were virtually no pre-made rods available, and anglers had wrapping machines to build their own rods from blanks made by US Fiberglass.
Florida fly fishing legends Lefty Kreh and Flip Pallot remember how they would take a blank, wrap the guides, glue the individual cork rings, turn and sand them on lathes and head to the street to try them out. It was a common practice to make a few casts, find the rod too whippy or a guide that trapped line and immediately break them apart and rebuild them. By constantly experimenting with different guides, blanks and other components, they essentially advanced the technology of rod building. Many of the spin and plug casting rods they built gave them ideas that they incorporated into fly rods. Companies like Shakespeare and Fenwick were aware of these pioneering anglers (who competed 12 months of the year,) and had representatives like Ben Hardesty work closely with them, making the new innovations in rod design available to the angling public.
Fly reels were also very basic, and required constant refinements to handle the rigors of the salt. The Pflueger Medalist, Taurus, Hardy, Zenith and Rogue reels of the day required the anglers to modify the inadequate drags and spools to fight and land the big fish they encountered. Some had metal drags (Rogue), while others used clickers (Hardy) and had drag adjustments in the handles (Taurus and Rogue). One of the solutions they discovered was to use greases with different viscosities on the center post of a reel in order to defeat the friction and subsequent heat developed when fighting big fish. Never Seize (used on the shafts of a ship’s propeller) was one of the products Kreh remembers using. Pallot recalls the automotive product STP having the perfect viscosity (with the addition of a few drops of gasoline.). Time and time again it would be an angler from one of the fly clubs (fishing for a MET record) that would come up with an innovation that would advance the sport. One of the fishermen’s favorite gathering places, where many of the new ideas were discussed, was Mel Shapiro’s fly shop on Bird Road in South Miami.
Fly lines of the day had advanced from the days when they were spun by hand from horse hair in a Cortland factory. The invention of nylon created stronger tapered lines that were coated with PVC. By 1954, Leon Martuch (Scientific Anglers) had patented a device to vary the coating on level fly line cores and followed with the addition of micro-balloons in the early 60s, which allowed the line to float.
A big problem for fly anglers was finding a fly line to match to their rods and reels. At the time, lines were not standardized. Fly anglers had to own many different lines for the various species they targeted. Cortland, Shakespeare, and Sunset all made lines the anglers used, but in those days there was no rhyme or reason to the weights and tapers. Myron Gregory, a leading tournament fly caster from San Francisco, was responsible for suggesting a standardized system. He recommended using numbers to determine line size instead of the confusing line lettering system that was in use at the time. Lefty remembers the long passionate letters Gregory would write to him, Pallot, Ted Trueblood, Al McLane and others, extolling the virtues of a line system. He also marshaled the outdoor writers of the time to pressure the line and rod manufacturers to adopt the system. Gregory was a true pioneer, and one of the first anglers Lefty remembers who used a shooting head. At the time, fly anglers could never just take a fly line from the package and fish with it. Every line available had to be modified to the particular use for which it was intended. Anglers would make the heads and tapers longer or shorter, and splice in different size running lines. Pallot remembers that at the time, all running lines (despite the fly line size), were standardized. In order to create the line he preferred, he would splice a product called Amnesia to the line. At that time, all monofilament line, according to Lefty, was as kinky as a coil spring. Amnesia, which had less memory, could be stretched and straightened into an effective running line.
In the early 60s, Pallot and his friends would fish for tarpon off the bridges in the Keys. In those days, as today, the fish would lie in the shadow lines and wait for food to be swept to them by the tide. The big difference was that it wasn’t uncommon for a tarpon to swim 20 feet to inhale one of the chicken feather creations the anglers cast. Because they lost so many fly lines to the bridge fenders, Pallot and his angling buddies would create their own lines. They would stretch 500 pound monofilament line beside a G2AF fly line and sand in the taper with Emory cloth. At the time, they didn’t realize that it was the weight of the line as well as the taper that really mattered. As always, they innovated with the materials they had on hand.
While technology played a big role in the advancement of fly tackle and techniques from the 1950s to the present, it was the often unheralded competitive anglers that spurred the creation of the tackle we enjoy today. Modern saltwater fly anglers owe a debt of gratitude to Kreh, Pallot and the men and women who continue to add to our collective knowledge. The next time you make a successful cast to a tailing bonefish you’ll have a new appreciation for the line that effortlessly unfolds in the 20-knot wind, the smooth bend of the rod and the silky smooth drag as the line rooster-tails to the horizon.