Six of Cane, Six of Graphite
by Gordon Wickstrom, November 19, 1994
The Fly Tackle Dealers' Show was in full swing as I walked happily down the aisles wearing my press pass. It felt wonderful to see on all sides the glamorous utensils of fly fishing. It's surely a golden age of fly tying, rod design and building, angling art, every accoutrement of the sport! And what's more, it's a golden age in which the United States reigns supreme!

I was minding my own business, having a grand time, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted an array of cane rods. They stopped me dead in my tracks. Instantly I wondered how these would stack up against my own life-long treasury of fine bamboo fly rods. But something was not quite right. They looked like cane rods--or did they? Yes, but with a difference. At about the same instant, a couple of guys in the booth showing the rods moved in on me, smiling the happy smile of those who had once again put something over on an innocent. (It turned out that they were part of a clutch of Texas oilmen who had taken up the gospel and sales of these revolutionary rods.)

"No, they aren't cane." was their opening gambit. "But here, try one; see what you think." I reached for the proffered rod, made it move, and felt seriously disoriented. If this was not a cane rod, what the hell then was it! To my hand, which knows cane rods intimately, this strange new stick was a puzzle. "It's graphite," I was told, "a new technology that replicates the structure of a bamboo rod in man-made materials and at a third or fourth of the price." I got a quick lesson in how this thing, called HEXAGRAPH, was made, how a 1/32 inch layer of graphite material is bonded to a sheet of hard, closed-cell foam and then, from this sheet, six splines are milled and subsequently glued up into a section of rod, precisely as are splines of bamboo, only now without the natural variations, or occasional flaws of cane. Now there are none of the weakening nodes present every few inches in bamboo that must be staggered up the rod section according to a particular scheme. There are no weaknesses anywhere in the material. Every rod of its size, for all intents and purposes, is exactly alike.

These owners of the new Texas company introduced me to the venerable Walton Powell himself, who is responsible for the advent of the Hexagraph in the United States. He took me out on the loading dock where I cast two of the rods and was made a believer on the spot. There was lots of power, great delicacy, a living response in the hand, just like the finest cane rods, only lighter in actual weight. Here it seemed was the best of all possible worlds: the incomparable performance and pleasure afforded by bamboo and the radical efficiency of modern technology.

Still, in an interesting way, all's not as modern and new as it might at first appear. I was fascinated with the way a milled strip of the new synthetic material replicates a milled strip of cane. In both materials, the working, power stuff (closely packed cane fibers of graphite) is at the surface and is supported underneath by pithier bamboo or the inert foam of the Hexagraph. In both materials, the inner core gives remarkable stability to the rod, absorbs shock and prevents breakage, and resists deformation (an inherent problem with round or tubular rods is that they must necessarily deform into an oval when flexed and therefore seek to move only in a single plane.) And so, strange to tell, bamboo, "the heavenly grass," has implanted its miraculous gestalt in our synthetics. The claim of Hexagraph is that it will answer the problems of conventional tubular graphite rods: the tendency to breakage, the need to use a fast, stout sock-'em casting stroke, the difficulty of handling fish on fine tippets, the physical problem inherent in self-ferruling; (The Hexagraph boasts fine nickel-silver ferrules built on the principle of the famous Super Z.) and, the harsh look of conventional graphite. It was the Hexagraph's innovative cane-like finish that, along with its classical slower and more open casting stroke, earned these rods their place in the filming of A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1993). This unique finish doesn't seek to imitate bamboo exactly, but to suggest it, to recall it, and is especially handsome in its own right.

Anyhow, I had to find out what these new rods were like on the stream; the sales arena can do strange things to one's judgment. Maybe the Hexagraph wouldn't be as appealing out there casting to real fish in complex waters....but, it was. On the stream, I quickly found that the nine footer in my hand didn't seem to care whether it cast my six-weight line twenty-five feet or fifty. Without a false cast, the difference of twenty-five feet was accomplished with startling ease, almost as though the rod were thinking on its own about what it had to accomplish. I felt like the rod's companion, not its master. We were working together--and all that lightness in the hand to boot! The designers of the rods tell me that this is in good part because of their full flexing construction made possible and just right by their straight, continuous tapers: nothing compound or "progressive" here.

I found that I could, even with the nine footer, spot casts accurately at extremely close ranges, popping the fly now here and now over there, as though the rod and I were in some sort of complicity. The rod was becoming a part of my angler's analysis of the stream, part, even, of my consciousness, like a living thing growing out of me. This may be because the rod has no spine, no one line of greater resistance to flexing, in fact no favored way of bending. Hence, there's improved casting accuracy.

I'm reluctant to say this, but the Hexagraph was as fine in the hand as any of my coveted cane flyrods that I had thought to use in complete satisfaction to the end. And now, here come these Texas guys with their Hexagraphs to make me, at my advanced age, lust for a new rod for the first time in thirty years -- which only goes to show how frail and likely to tumble we are when faced with the charm of new and exciting tackle! I tell myself that if these Hexagraphs are more satisfying than my canes, and maybe they's because they are appreciably lighter in weight than bamboo and so, ounce for ounce, feel more delicate. In performance, I think they're about equal.

Of course, one must handle them like bamboo and not like tubular graphite. One has to slow down the cast, resist using that short, sharp shock of a forward cast needed to make the tube rods perform. The angler must wait for the Hexagraph to load under the burden of the line and generate its own inner energy for the forward, power stroke. One feels that the rod is doing the work, that it's not all coming from the angler's shoulder. Timing is more relaxed, a wider range of casting styles work equally well. Some say that, like bamboo, Hexes are "forgiving."

Often, out on the stream, I stop awhile to watch my wife cast. I love to watch her favorite five-strip rod bending under the weight of the line. I love to watch the line curving and reaching out into the air ahead of her. It's a sight that seems to belong intimately to the total life of the river. What she's doing seems in harmony with the world around her. She looks like she belongs there. When recently she switched to my Hexagraph, the effect was the same - the six sided graphite gently, but powerfully accommodating itself to her sense of the trout's world and the possibility of getting him to rise--just like the bamboo.

The rod, in an adagio of movement, now extends, now absorbs, now restrains, now pushes forward, to left and right, now hangs a cast in the air above a line in order that the leader and fly may drop just right for a drag-free float over the most demanding trout. The next cast may go like a shot to a rise some sixty feet upstream, even against the wind, the rod now aggressive enough to do the job.

It's something like a dance, like all the rest of the expressive movement in the world of the stream. The rod bends as the limbs of the trees, reeds and grasses move with the wind, in like rhythms and, as we say about fly rods, in "action." Everything's graceful, easy, obliging, harmonious. No effort is wasted, nothing uselessly stressed, nothing alien. All's a part of everything else. And the beautiful curving movement of that line in the air! The loop reaching, and still reaching out there before turning over and falling gently to its work. I never cease to wonder at it!

Of course, I might be talking about the performance of one of my bamboo rods. I could say the same of them really. But the remarkable thing is that now it's a Hexagraph, a six-sided graphite rod at work, accomplishing this. It's the complete rod for the complete angler, at a price that might make only a down-payment on the cane rod of one's dreams.

Here in the Hexagraph is the vivid memory, experience, and style of bamboo, acting out bamboo's virtues, providing its pleasures, doing its work in a classical way--all the while promising the dependability of rigorously controlled synthetic materials leading to long life and high performance.

For me, the only worry is in breaking faith (because they are like living things) with my old cane rods. Here I go, chasing after a glamorous, new wonder-product that seems to do all things better. I salve my guilt with the thought that maybe it's a way of departing this disaster of a twentieth century that nevertheless is leaving us this legacy of superb cane flyrods. In exchange, we're getting yet another bunch of great rods that will surely be a bench-mark in the next century looming ahead of us. We may as well start here and now.