The original article taken
http://www.interalpha.co.uk/customer/cane-rods/ - click
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The original article taken
http://www.interalpha.co.uk/customer/cane-rods/ - click
here to go directly to the article
If we were talking about real bird-type avocets we’d be into an evolution story
spanning millions of years. Among die-hard traditionalists the B James Avocet
rod is much more famous than the beautiful bird after which it was named, and
the decade and a half of the rod’s manufacture much more important than all the
wading birds in Christendom. It’s one of those rods that every wooden rod
devotee has, or would like to have, is searching for, or saving for, or sadly
perhaps feels will never quite come within his grasp. England’s top rod
restorer, Tim Watson, fits four of the above categories. He’s lovingly restored
a great many wonderful Avocets for their lucky owners, but has never quite
managed to find the one he really wants for himself. Truly this is a case of the
cobbler’s children having no shoes.
I’m realistic enough to admit that debate about fishing rod evolution fits
neatly into the dweeby-nerdy-anorak category of ‘interesting angling areas’ but
I’m accosted on such matters often enough to believe that this one’s actually
worthy of airing.
Avocets of any sort are quite rare. James must have made quite a few over the
years, but they never made the sorts of numbers of Avocets that they made Mk
IV’s. It was always a connoisseurs’ rod. A sort of Wizard-like thing that never
quite sold as well the Allcocks original sold. It’s only in recent years that
we’ve re-discovered that it is a lovely biggish fish rod that has dwelt in the
shadow of its more famous Mk IV stable-mate for too long.
We know now that the Avocet does most things pretty well. It’s light enough for
long trotting for roach, yet it’s also man enough to handle big Barbel, provided
the river isn’t too heavy (it isn’t really appropriate the for the flooded Wye).
The real job in hand for the Avocet is chub fishing, or perhaps miraculous
golden Tench, at dawn on the 16th. There are better all-round heavy barbel rods.
The Company of B James & Son has always been hailed as the originator of the
Avocet taper, but the recent arrival of a Southwell Wallis Wizard has led me to
doubt that ‘fact’. It’s widely known and agreed that up to 1956/7, when James
took delivery of their own beveling machine, Bob Southwell made most, if not
all, of the split cane blanks used in the B. James range. There’s nothing
sinister in this fact. Many reputable rod-making companies bought in blanks made
to their own specification by specialist firms. Southwell’s excellent blanks
were used by many shops and specialist rod-makers, particularly in the London
There’s a certain amount of ‘play’ in all Southwell/James rod dimensions.
Avocets can be a few thou this way or that. But there is a band into which they
all fit. So imagine my surprise when I found that Southwell’s own ‘Wallis
Wizard’ fits right into the middle of that band. Now we must recognise that a
rod is a rod, no matter what it’s called. Here were two rods from the same blank
maker with different names, but obviously the same specification. Interesting, I
thought. And more interesting yet because Southwell’s own version was fitted out
with the sort of 1940’s brass fittings that suggest it might have been made
before the James version (which has always, to my knowledge, been furnished with
aluminium fittings). It may be that The Southwell rod was fitted with some old
stock fittings, but I don’t think so. Southwell Mk IVs from the very early
1950’s were always fitted with aluminium fittings (and usually pretty horrible
ones at that).
Of course, unless someone out there knows more about this than me (entirely
likely, and if so I’d very much like to hear what that person might have to say
on the subject) we shall never know whether the chicken or the egg came first.
The world certainly won’t stop spinning whatever the truth of the matter, but it
would be nice to know. Having seen the Avocet in what appears to be an earlier
form, and made by the same cane-maker, I’m sure enough in my own mind that the
design is Southwell’s, and not James’ (shock, horror, and grown men in paroxysms
of self-doubt). My own gut feeling on this is that as James’ split cane
supplier, Bob Southwell probably offered them a stock blank design for handle
fitting and finishing. James’ used their own name, and the rest is history.
Then, we come to another interesting little fact. The famous old London firm of
Ogden Smith made a lovely rod that was an Avocet in all but name: the Arun. I’ve
measured the Arun, and guess what it really is, under the Ogden Smith varnish.
I’d swear it’s a Southwell-made Avocet blank. Although the whole cane butt is
slightly smaller diameter, making for a more through action in the assembled
rod, the sizes of the split cane middle and top are the same as the Southwell
Wallis Wizard, and the early B. James Avocet. It also has the same distinctive
degree of cane bake, and peculiar Southwell node spacing. None of this is
conclusive evidence, but on a balance of probabilities, I’d say this is out of
the same maker’s blank box.
It’s often been said that Bob Southwell kiln-baked his cane. Recently acquired
information suggests that his cane strips were in fact straightened, nodes
pressed in, and at the same time ‘baked’ in a super-heated metal press:
something like a giant vice. There is no doubt that whatever form this
extraordinary vice thing took, it produced the most wonderful split cane blanks.
They were very steely, although a little brittle. Southwell blanks are much more
powerful for their size than any other make. The on-cost is that they are more
prone to fracture when subjected to nettle bashing, or collision with tree
Southwell blanks are so very distinctive that they are easily identifiable
when the eons-worth of varnish is stripped from rods of many makes. I have no
moral problem with this.
Badge engineering has been a fact of life for
centuries. Ford Mavericks and Nissan Terranos are effectively the same 4x4. And
closer to our subject, Chapman split cane blanks have seen life in more than one
guise. In recent years, the very cleverly designed F.J.Taylor Roach Rod blank
has appeared as a very successful barbel rod. If it works, and that barbel rod
did, this is a perfectly legitimate marketing initiative. I suppose I’d hesitate
a bit if the rod builder proudly boasted that all his cane was made in house,
and was superior, or unique to his company.
What ‘ere its beginnings, the Avocet has proved itself over the years. It’s now
cult enough to codify the features the various incarnations. I’ve been told that
the James Avocet might have been made as early as 1949. I must admit, I’ve been
unable to have that confirmed by any of my sources within the trade. I
understand that there is still one ex apprentice of Southwell’s who may remember
those times. I’m hoping to track him down soon. Anyway, let’s assume that the
rod was born somewhere around that time.
Type 1: VERY RARE . Say, around 1950. Dark Southwell blanks. Modestly sized
whole cane butt, giving quite a through action. 23” shive cork handle, tapered
at the fore-end to a tapered aluminium shoulder collar, external taper on reel
bands. Superb bought-in spiked stock ferrules, with brass female centering
receivers for the spikes, and with thin silvered layer underneath. ‘Built to
Endure’ diamond-shaped transfer over gold, with separate Avocet transfer over
gold. White/grey jasper silk whips (possibly Pearsalls-made-thread) and
intermediates (this looks yellow under aged varnish). Real agate low cradle butt
ring, small graduated intermediate low bells rings, and real agate tip ring.
Type 2: VERY RARE. Possibly 1953. Dark Southwell blanks. Modestly sized whole
cane butt, giving quite a through action. 23” shive cork handle, tapered at the
fore-end to a tapered aluminium shoulder collar, external taper on reel bands.
Superb bought-in spiked stock ferrules, with brass female centering receivers
for the spikes, and with thin silvered layer underneath. Earliest B.James & Son
script label - B. James, Ealing, Lond. Green silk whips and very graduated
intermediates. Real agate low cradle butt ring, small graduated intermediate low
bells rings, and real agate tip ring.
Type 3: Possibly 1954 –56/7. Dark Southwell blanks. Slightly larger sized whole
cane butt, giving still quite a through action. 24” shive cork handle, with very
small trumpet flare, and flat two shoulder aluminium shoulder collar, internal
taper on reel bands. Specially made high quality un-spiked ferrules, with
distinctive concave collar, and again with thin silvered layer underneath. B.
James script label - B.James & Son, Ealing, London. Green (usually) silk whips
and very graduated intermediates. Real agate low cradle butt ring, small
graduated intermediate low bells rings, and real agate tip ring. Small nickel
Type 4: From around 1956/7. Lighter coloured B.James blanks, with a slight
increase in diameter (maybe to make up for the less steely cane resulting from
lower bake temperatures). Slightly larger sized whole cane butt, giving quite a
through action. The rods feels hevier overall, and slightly ‘soggy’ compared to
the early Southwell versions (still very nice rods to use). 24” shive cork
handle, with onion shaped bulge at fore-end, and small aluminium shoulder
collar, internal taper on reel bands. Some variation in ferrules fitted, but
they are un-spiked, and some still have the distinctive concave collar. There is
no silver layer underneath. B. James script label - B.James & Son, London,
England. Red (usually) silk whips and very close ungraduated intermediates.
Agatine low cradle butt ring, small graduated intermediate low bells rings, and
agatine tip ring. Small nickel silver hook-keeper. Some Avocets of this period
are provided with high bells rings.
Type 5: As design four, with detail changes. Label reads B.James & Son, England.
No hook keeper, and no shoulder collar.
Type 6: Split cane all through, and with high bells rings. An Avocet in name
only. This is a notably excellent all-round strong rod, but it is so far from
the original concept that it is hardly an Avocet. Nevertheless, a very fine rod
which serves well for heavy float-fishing. To my mind, it somehow seems more
appropriate for still-waters. The perfect tench rod. Brilliant lead rod when
re-ringed with Low Bells rings.
A few Avocet oddities have cropped up over the years. It is certain that post
1957 James made a few with unserrated butt ferrules that were flared to fit
slightly larger whole cane butt sections. These rods are a bit heavier, but they
are very strong, and therefore make excellent barbel rods. Interestingly, I had
one chap claim that he had a 12’ whole cane Avocet that was said to be otherwise
completely fitted out as standard: name, labels, and all. He sounded perfectly
sane on the phone, but I never actually saw the rod in the flesh. I have seen
one Avocet with no intermediates. This was undoubtedly original, and appeared to
be an early 1960’s rod. These odd-bods were not really production versions, and
probably came about from special requests by valued customers, or from temporary
difficulties in the supply of James’ standard ingredients.
It is unlikely that the evolutionary changes to the Avocet were considered to be
anything of real consequence to its makers. Major changes to the rod’s
appearance are now regarded with some seriousness by Avocet users, and (God help
us) rod collectors. The only real event of interest in this sequence was the
change from Southwell-supplied blanks, to those made by B.James themselves. The
Southwell made versions are profoundly superior. Although the identification
points listed above are pretty accurate, there will almost certainly be some
overlap. Return to home page.
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