Aug 10, 2017
THE WORLD OF STEEL FISHING RODS
Before there were graphite fishing rods, there were fiberglass rods. In the 1980s, there were boron fishing rods. They were reported to be very sensitive rods. Unfortunately, those boron rods had a major flaw. They fell apart after prolonged exposure to the sun; a very inconvenient feature in a fishing rod. But, before fiberglass there were generally only two other options in fishing rods; bamboo or steel. Bamboo was used mostly in fly rods.
For much of the rest of the fishing world who fished for walleye, bass, northern pike and even muskies in the early half of the 20th century, the only reasonable alternative to the cane pole on one end, or bamboo fly rods on the other end of the spectrum, was steel fishing rods. Those were the fishing rods of the common man; the meat and potatoes guy and/or the shot and a beer fisherman.
Steel rods were mostly popular from the early years of the last century through both World Wars, but began to lose their popularity in the early 1950s as more fishermen changed over to fiberglass. Those old steel rods were casting rods. This was due to the fact that spinning and spin casting gear didn’t become readily available until after World War II.
I remember my father having a steel casting rod. My grandfather gave him the rod with a casting reel sometime around the time I was born in 1949. I remember using that rod from time to time during my boyhood. I wasn’t very good at casting those old reels, but it made a great rod for bait fishing. His casting rod was a solid steel rod. Normally, they were square steel-sided tapered rods. The one my father had was actually fairly supple, but generally most solid steel rods were a bit stiff.
As a young boy, my grandfather gave me a solid steel rod. I think originally it was a longer rod but by the time I got it, it was shortened with the rod tip soldered on. I remember not having used it as often as my fiberglass spin casting rod since it was much stiffer. Despite that, I caught my fair share of bullheads with it. Now it hangs on the wall in my office.
The other variety of steel rods were tubular steel casting rods. These rods were hollow. They were also very supple and soft. I recently found a December 1949 issue of Sports Afield magazine, published the same month and year I was born. Their fresh water fishing editor was the legendary Jason Lucas and he stated, “tubular steel casting rods are far more popular…a great majority of plug casters use them.” In the same article, he went on to advise on solid steel rods saying, “for rugged fishing and rough treatment, a solid steel rod is best….but few will like a solid-steel rod of over four and a half feet, since the longer ones will either have very slow action or be top-heavy.”
I remember another steel rod from my boyhood. My neighbor was moving and throwing out a bunch of stuff including an old steel rod and asked me if I wanted it. It was a tubular rod with a rubber handle and one of the guides was missing. It was beat up when I got it, but I didn’t have a lot of gear in those days so it was a nice addition to my meager supply of fishing equipment. Even with all the chipped paint, I was still able to make out the name Heddon on the rod. I found an old reel to put on it and used it for bait fishing. Somehow it survived my childhood and I still have it. It was sitting in my parent’s basement when, one day long after I left home, my father asked me if I still wanted it. I said, “Hell ya.” If for nothing else, it was a nice reminder from my youth.
It sat for a number of years on the hearth of my fireplace in the family room, but a few years ago I decided I wanted to fish it again. I found an old metal reel at another junk shop, which still had the camouflage braided line that was popular in the 1950s. I took it out one fall on the Mississippi River and fished with it again. It hadn’t been used in perhaps 40 years. I caught a couple of sauger and white bass with it and then hit a bigger fish. It put up a heck of a fight and I now wished I had reconsidered using something else beside that old braided line. The line held and so did the rod; even with the missing eye. The fish turned out to be a 30-inch sturgeon. With that fish, I retired the rod back to the family room.
That experience ignited a renewed interest for me in those old steel rods. And from there I started to look for them when I was browsing through antique stores, junk shops and flea markets. I picked up one for $6 in an antique shop in my hometown of Hudson. It was a solid steel rod made by the American Fork and Hoe Company in Geneva, Ohio. It has a unique reel lock with a spring-loaded sliding bar, which locked on the reel. It intrigued me since I had never seen that before. The name was Speedlock, which was on the handle, and in its day must have been a relatively new innovation since there is a patent number on the reel handle. A Google search indicates the rod was made between 1910 and 1930. As an interesting side note, the American Fork and Hoe Company also manufactured bayonets for M1 rifles during World War II.
A couple months later, I found a four piece solid steel rod with a cloth bag. When assembled, it was a five foot casting rod. The rod was made by the Union Hardware Company, in Torrington, Connecticut. I have not been able to find much out about this rod, but from what I pieced together, indicates the Union Hardware Company made ice skates and hacksaws in addition to fishing rods. I am sure it was a great pack or traveling rod in its time.
When spring came, I started fishing the Mississippi River and threw the four piece casting rod with an old reel, made by the Pennell Real Company in Philadelphia, into the rod locker. The reel was old enough it didn’t have a level wind. The reel was a trademark for another company, which used several different companies to actually make their reels. My best guess is the reel was made in the first quarter of the 20th Century. It seemed ideal to fish today on the Mississippi.
The fish were hitting when I told my buddy, “I got to try this.” Most of my fishing buddies are used to my various experiments, so he didn’t blink an eye as I drug the cloth sack out of the rod locker, put the rod together and put on that old reel. The rod was fairly stiff, but I could feel strikes and within a few minutes I had my first fish with it. It was small sauger. I released that fish and a few minutes later caught a keeper sauger, which I put in the livewell. It worked, although as stiff as the casting rod was, I didn’t get much fight out of the fish. But, it was fun to fish with a rod and reel that probably hadn’t been used since World War II.
I picked up another solid steel rod at a junk shop and it was a considerably lighter, suppler rod than the first couple solid steel casting rods I found, or the one my grandfather gave me. It had the Speedlock reel seat like the American Fork and Hoe Company rod I picked up a few years earlier. However, this rod was a True Temper rod, so either the American Fork and Hoe Company was incorporated into True Temper or they made the rod for True Temper. This steel rod is four and a half feet long and I matched it with a Pflueger Trump reel. I went “old school” with the line, using 50 yards of heavy black fishing line, like the line I remembered my grandfather using when I was a kid.
I was all set. I took this rig on the Mississippi River one fall day when I was fishing for walleye and sauger. I used a 3-way rig with a jig on one leader and a hook with beads on another leader, attached to a 3-way swivel. It is basically a modification of the famed Wolf River Rig everyone fished with when I was growing up. My intention was to catch a couple of fish with it and then switch back to my regular gear. The first fish hit and, although it was solid steel rod, the fish bent the rod in half as it raced off. A few minutes later, I had the fish alongside the boat and pulled it in. It was a keeper sauger and went into the livewell. A few minutes later, I caught another fish and, although it was too small to keep, it put up a good fight on the steel rod. By late afternoon my buddy and I were one fish shy of our combined 12 fish limit and I had used that steel rod all day. It was exciting to think I was fishing with a rod that probably hadn’t been used in at least 50 years or more.
At an antique store in Stillwater, Minnesota, I found a pair of Heddon tubular steel casting rods. My guess is they were made sometime in the 1940s and were in very good shape. One was five feet long and the other four and half feet. The shorter one I put with the rest of my collection of old vintage gear. I decided I was going to fish with the other one.
Almost all of those old metal casting reels that were used in the days when these metal rods were new, were difficult to cast. Any of us growing up in the 1950s can well remember how frustrating it was for our fathers and grandfathers trying to teach us how to cast with those old reels. Today, they are almost impossible to use. So, I rummaged around in the basement and found an old Ryobi casting reel I had from when I first started bass fishing in the 1980’s. The reel is no longer made, so I guess it sort of qualifies as an antique. It might have been 40 years newer than the rod, but it still was an old reel. The Ryobi still casts well, so it made a good match. I will admit I used monofilament on the reel.
A month later I was fishing Shell Lake, in northern Wisconsin, for smallmouth bass. I purchased an odd looking jig that had the line coming through the lead head, tying off to a hook. I added a plastic crawdad to the jig. As an outdoor writer, I like to experiment with different baits. Who knows what you might find? Within a few minutes I had my first strike, and when I set the hook I found the steel rod was so soft it was hard to get a good hook set. I had the fish on for a moment before I lost it. The next time a fish hit, I reeled up all the slack and had the fish coming my way when I set the hook. This one was on solidly. The fish rocketed out of the water but the hook held and a moment or two later I landed it. I felt very satisfied with the old rod and Ryobi reel.
Later in the season I was on Deer Lake, in Polk County, fishing for largemouth bass. This time I was casting a plug. When I was a kid, all hardwood or plastic baits were called plugs. I was using a frog colored Lazy Ike. This Lazy Ike is still being made, but I remembered seeing ones like it when I was kid, so it seemed old enough to use with my steel Heddon rod and Ryobi reel. I used it while fishing a rocky bank where the water dropped off quickly. This time when a fish hit the bait they hit it hard enough to make it easier to set the hook. That old steel casting rod came alive as a fish raced off, doubling over the rod. I caught four or five bass by the time I quit for the day and, once again, I found myself wondering when was the last time a fisherman caught a bass on that Heddon rod.
Some months later, I discovered a 9-foot telescopic tubular steel fly rod in the basement of a junk shop in central Wisconsin. I had never seen one before, finding it hard to believe a fly rod could be made out of metal, so I had to buy it. A couple months later, I was back at the same junk shop and found an old single action fly reel that looked to be a perfect fit. Although there were no markings on the reel, the rod had Sport King Model 70 stamped on the metal reel seat. I couldn’t find much information about the rod, even with a Google search, but I did read Sport King rods were sold by Montgomery Ward. Sport King made a number of styles of metal rods, both telescopic and four piece fly and casting rods. My best guess is that telescopic fly rod was probably sold before World War II.
On a recent early spring crappie fishing trip, I took my Sport King telescopic fly rod along to test it out. The rod was a bit heavy and awkward to use. It was tough to use with the traditional casting methods, but I did manage to get a fly out with it. I was using a nymph a couple of feet below a strike indicator. It barely hit the water when the strike indicator went down and I set the hook. The fish pulled back and that fly rod bent like any other fly rod I had ever used. The fish came splashing to the surface, fighting against the rod. It was a hand-sized bluegill. I played around with it for the next half an hour, catching half a dozen bluegill. I was amazed at how sensitive that fly rod was. Although we caught about four dozen panfish, the highlight of the day was catching those bluegill on a metal fly rod, which is older than me.
With the fishing rods we have today, it is hard to believe there was a day rods were made from metal. Those days are long gone, but not forgotten, and it still is as much fun to catch a fish on one of those rods today as it must have been half a century or longer ago.