“I just want to say one word to you, just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes I am.”
In 1967 The Graduate—funny script by Buck Henry brought to life with the fresh direction of Mike Nichols—was the highest-grossing film of the year. It won the Oscar for best picture. It also featured the most memorable single-word reply in any movie of its era. But by the time the kid was given that advice poolside, it was stale. Old news.
For imaginative teenage boys and girls, at least the capricious Hollywood Ratings System, not imposed until 1968, didn’t deprive them of the artful scenes of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) between the sheets with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Plastics, indeed.
To see the nascent influence of synthetics in fly fishing, we can go back at least two decades earlier, to 1947, when Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Shakespeare sold its first signature, milky-white casting and fly rods made of fiberglass fabric.
Arthur Mark Howald grew up fishing and hunting on a farm in the Ozarks of Missouri. He was second-generation Swiss who had received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. He found work during the Depression at the Mellon Institute, in the new field of synthetic plastics. Times were tough. He and his family moved to Ohio where he worked for the prominent Toledo Scale Company.
On a trout-fishing trip in 1944 Howald broke the tip of his bamboo fly rod. The natural material from China, actually a grass, was impossible to get. So the chemical engineer—an innovator who would go on to create and own 50 patents—used materials he was working on for the War effort to wrap around the broken tip. It worked. He soon realized that the remnant broken cane strip inside wasn’t serving any purpose. He tried wrapping the fiberglass sheeting around lightweight balsa, but the balsa swelled and cracked. That step, too, was eliminated.
Howald next developed the ingenious removable-steel-mandrel technique that changed how fishing rods were made, eventually leading to the graphite revolution, Bainbridge Island to Equinox Mountain.
The Modern Fly Line
At roughly the same time, on a parallel path, over on the east coast of Michigan, across the lower peninsula from Kalamazoo, the modern fly line was being invented. Leon Martuch was an avid angler. He quit his blue-collar job at a local printer to conduct home-science experiments on his kitchen stove, in partnership with Dow Chemical magnesium expert Clare Harris. Together they figured out how to trap microscopic air bubbles in the plastic coating of a tapered floating line. They called their project Scientific Anglers.
These and other fascinating origin stories about the invention and development of modern tackle have been tirelessly chased down and documented by a man I’ve come to know named Victor R. Johnson, Jr., from Vallejo, California.
Vic self-published the results of his decades of research in a series of simple, softbound books: Fiberglass Fly Rods—The Evolution of the Modern Fly Rod From Bamboo to Graphite; America’s Fly Lines—The Evolution of the Modern Fly Line From Its Horsehair and Silk Beginnings; and America’s Fishing Waders—The Evolution of Modern Fishing Waders (Hodgman, 1838 to Date).
All are illustrated with authentic black-and-white images of everything from drawings of fly-line patents to charming advertisements from long ago. Montana State University thinks so highly of the Johnson research that they have asked for his original materials for their permanent Trout and Salmonid Collection, including historic papers and artifacts from, among others, Dan Bailey, George Grant, Bud Lilly and Norman Maclean. That’s some heady company.
Ordered Your Signed Copies
Wild River Press has arranged to have the author sign copies of the last remaining his books; he doesn’t plan to print more. We are offering these books in sets of three (fly lines, fly rods and waders) for only $90—a special bargain given the meticulous work Vic Johnson invested in telling these illuminating tales of how our modern arsenal of fly tackle was created.
These unique books are, in my opinion, essential reading for every serious fly fisher. This is history, the real history of our sport—way more interesting than the latest slam-bam, surefire, killer fly pattern for your next float down the Madison, or the suddenly rediscovered technique of Transylvanian nymphing with werewolves.
Fan Mail To Author Victor Johnson
Hi Vic: Just a note to update my reading of your history of fly lines, birth and death of Fenwick, fly rods, and more. Your research on all these subjects is the best ever written on the broad histories of our sport. I wish I had read them 40 years ago when I began my Editor/Publisher work at Fly Fisherman magazine. No one has done a better job in this area of research/writing on our sport. I’m still reading, taking notes, and writing about your work. I’ll keep you updated. Stay well and fish more.
John D. Randolph