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It is natural, I believe, to search for better and more balanced equipment as we evolve as fly fishers. This is especially true for those hooked on cane fly rods. Most of us are continuously seeking the lightest, most elegant and best casting bamboo rods available. I guess we could be termed “bamboo addicts.” I cannot tell you how many rods some of my friends have, or had, as their search continued. For example, my friend Frank Mele had rods from Jim Payne, Leonard, Thomas and Thomas, Walt Carpenter, George Halstead and other craftsmen, yet was always on the hunt for the perfect rod. I spent a great deal of time with Frank and he had a profound influence on my search for bamboo. My first was a Thomas and Thomas eight-foot classic for a five line. That rod served me for almost 20 years before it was passed to a friend just getting the cane bug.
When Jim Payne designed the three-piece eight-foot-six-inch model 204, he made one of the best casting and well balanced long cane rods in history—not an easy task. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to cast several 204s at the Somerset fly fishing show in New Jersey and was impressed by how those rods laid out line, worked in close, yet were light in the hand.
My search for a 204 began. It took a while, but I finally found one that was in very good condition, only to discover that it had been refitted with stainless steel guides. Since I wanted a 204 in as close to original condition as possible, I called Walt Carpenter and asked him for a complete restoration. Walt is one of the premier cane rod makers of our time. I knew Walt from his days in Central Valley, NY where Frank Mele and I had visited his rod shop. Walt had worked in the Payne shop and, when it closed, obtained a wealth of original parts. Walt was able to restore my 204 with Payne hardware and windings, restoring it to the beautiful rod shown. While the Payne shop was making Rods in Highland Mills, the folks across the Atlantic at Hardy were making quality fly reels. Since few of us can purchase a new rod without a matching reel, I asked friends what Hardy would work best with my 204. I was told that a 3- and-3/8-inch Hardy Perfect was the reel. I found a Perfect on EBay, added a double taper line and headed for the backyard to lawn cast. My 204 did not disappoint. In fact, it performed as well or better than those I had cast at Somerset months before.
That being said, the ultimate test for any new rod-and-reel combination is how it performs in the field. If I had a disappointment with cane rods in the past, it was their inability to cast a long line when required and land large trout quickly. So it was off to the river. I was lucky when I arrived to find a hatch of mayflies on the water with several trout rising. Soon, I was fortunate enough to hook a very nice brown after a long cast and brought it quickly to net, one of the ultimate tests of cane fly rods.
So as far as bamboo rods go, the Payne 204 is right up there with the very best. It is easy to cast, reaches out when needed and handles large trout with the ease of graphite, without the stigma of a man- made material. With the Hardy Perfect reel providing balance for the 204, I now have the Perfect match.