July 01 2011
When it comes to innovation in the fishing world, not much is truly new under the sun. The first fly-fishers from ancient Macedonia would still recognise the basic principle of floating an imitation fly, faked up from a mixture of fur and feathers, over a waiting fish. Cromwellian chef Thomas Barker would instantly deduce that reels haven’t moved on much since he sketched one for his The Art of Angling in 1651. And every new rod on the market today offers the same reel-attachment mechanism, give or take a sliding or screw-threaded ring or two, to hang the foot of the reel off the thick end of the rod.
In fact, most of today’s innovations revolve around new kinds of nano-engineering for ever-lighter graphite rods, or differently-calculated specialist tapers on fly-lines.
But just occasionally there’s something genuinely new. For a few years around the turn of the millennium, American tackle company Sage collaborated with Swedish designer Lamson to engineer a totally novel idea: the Center Axis rod and reel combination (pictured), balanced to align the centre of the reel’s mass with the centre axis of the rod, and offset the casting torque and pendulum effect you get when the reel hangs off the reel seat in the conventional fly-rod set-up.
And here’s the aesthetic bonus that comes with great design. Because the Center Axis in-line reel screws into the end of the rod handle, there’s no need for a separate reel seat and butt, so the whole outfit ends with the smoothly-aerated caging of the large-arbour reel, creating a lovely highwayman’s-pistol-grip curve that’s nothing short of beautiful. It’s the perfect fusion of form and function, performance and purpose: fly-rod and reel integrated and pushed to their limits. It’s fly-fishing tackle as modern art, fit to hang on the wall of a museum.
So what’s it like, finding and fishing a masterpiece? Not many of these rigs were made in the first place, and even fewer of those ever made it across the full width of America and the big pond. In the end, tracking down my own Center Axis outfit, from Salt Lake City via the internet, took the kind of glacial patience and stealth you’d normally associate with stalking a big trout.
But a month ago I finally chose my favourite West Country stream for the christening of my new/old/retro Sage SPLCA 282-3, and discovered, as I’d hoped, that it fished like a dream: roll-casting smoothly under hanging alders with an ultralight two-weight line, bending gracefully (but not too far) into feisty foot-long brownies on dry flies and fine tippet. It’s so delicately balanced that you do forget the reel is there, and the whole outfit feels like an eight-foot extension of your arm. You point and shoot, and the fly lands, just like the man said, as if it were placed by the hand of God.
In the meantime, while waiting for my precious cargo to clear customs en route from Utah, I’d already written to Marc Bale, long-time CEO of Sage, for a few insights into why this idea went out of production, and if it will ever be revived.
“This was a very interesting product,” Marc emailed me back. “It had a very passionate following among a relatively small coterie of avid users, but it never found volume acceptance, likely because of the high combined price of the rod and reel. We still do get inquiries about it, and we speak from time to time of resurrecting it, but if so we’d probably alter its form and try to make it even more cutting edge than it was at the time.”
So, no real plans, which means I’m fishing with angling history: like Concorde or the Space Shuttle, one of those watersheds where the wave of design development hesitated, broke and started rolling back onto itself.
But I think I’ve also found a fellow-traveller. “For what it’s worth,” Marc continued, “I still have one and use it all the time on small, mostly local, waters. In fact, last weekend I took my first steelhead of the season on it while fishing for small trout. It was also on the first cast of the season, which makes it particularly sweet.”
Way to go, Marc. Choosing my own rig for the opening of the Wandle’s season just got sweeter and easier too…