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 thereís 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 donít 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 founded.
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 8í 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 anglersí 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. Donít be stingy with yourself. If you canít 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 Ďsetí, 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 sit 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. Itís 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 itís that which puts pressure on the fish.
Among traditionalist anglers the early B. Jamesí whole cane butt Avocet has, for many years, been considered the perfect barbel rod. Itís 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 collectorís showcases, there are very few to be had, and the odd good one that emerges seems to fetch a Kingís 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 Jamesí 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 whole-cane-butt barbel rods. I believe that several of these makersí 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 ĎSenior Wizardí 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 split-cane maker.
If you can find a Southwell-made rod, you canít 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. I could be wrong, I suppose, but 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 Iíve seen were certainly not Southwell-made: I wish they were. A Senior Wizard taper made by Southwell would rank alongside the Holy Grail. Letís hope they didnít 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, Ďbecause it steadies the actioní 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 10í6" 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 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 itís 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 Ďtraditionalist tackleí 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 sharp plane, and that somehow makes it right: itís nature within nature. I just sit with my happy partnership established, understood, appreciated, and valued.
Nice, isnít it.