Though often overshadowed by fishing lures and reels, fishing rods are the source of the word "angler," so they deserve our respect. That’s because in medieval England, fishing rods were known as "angles." Back then, before fiberglass and graphite composites, fishing rods were often made of light, tough, and pliable bamboo or ash, with maple butts and grips of cork.
In 19th-century America, a gunsmith from Easton, Pennsylvania named Samuel Phillippi is generally credited with making the first split bamboo rod in about 1845. In 1854, Charles De Saxe was issued a patent for a rod, and Thomas Chubb, Henry Pritchard, and many others won scores of patents throughout the rest of the century for tips, guides, seats, and ferrules.
Most of these early American rods were made of bamboo, but hickory and ash were also favored. Rod makers had to choose their wood carefully, though, taking care to cut their rods from the part of the tree between the heart and the bark.
Of course, even the early antique fishing rods had numerous components beyond the wood itself. There were the fishing-line guides, which ranged from the Pritchard guides (patented in 1859, they consisted of a ring soldered to a metal collar wrapped around the rod) to bell guides that were lashed to the rod with brightly colored thread or fine twine. The ferrules, which were the sleeves used to connect a rod’s sections, were often made of metal. Finally there were the rod’s grip and reel seat, which, by the late 1880s, was often braided in cord or celluloid.
Late-19th-century rod makers like John Krider of Philadelphia, Charles Orvis of Manchester, Vermont, and Benjamin Nichols of Boston would often engrave their initials, name, city of manufacture, or even the date of manufacture on the rod’s butt cap.
For rods that lack such information, you can date a rod in a number of ways. First, if there is a "wedding band" around the rod just above the handgrip, that signals a rod that is post Civil War. Ferrules without raised trim bands indicate a rod from before the 1860s (Orvis rods did not feature raised bands on its ferrules until about 1907).
The length of an antique 19th-century rod can also be an indication of its age. For example, in 1859, Frank Forester writes in Fish and Fishing of the United States and British Provinces of North America that 12 feet is the ideal length for a trout rod, and that it can be made of "hickory, lancewood, or bamboo, with a solid butt of ash." But in 1885, in Fly-rods and Fly-tackle, Henry P. Wells advises that "ten feet, or ten feet six inches, I believe to be quite sufficient to give to any single handed fly-rod."...
Charles Wheeler rods from 1876 were made of bamboo and had cork grips. His rod won an award at that year’s Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Also causing a stir at that event was a split bamboo rod with solid gold mountings, a solid gold reel, and topaz jewels embedded in the handle. It cost an astonishing $2,500 (a small fortune at the time), but it’s likely that retailer Abbey & Imbrie had it manufactured simply to call attention to itself (the gambit appears to have worked).
Thomas Chubb fly rods from the late 1800s are particularly handsome and collectible. Often made of lancewood, they can be indentified by the distinctive Chubb star trademark, a black-and-ivory-celluloid grip, and bands of red used for both decoration and to secure the rod’s ring guides. More idiosyncratic is the 1888 Abraham Coates rod with a reel integrated into its handle.
Most collectors of antique fishing rods focus on these 19th-century rods and the early 20th-century split bamboo fly rods made by Orvis and others. Lately, though, other types of rods have been getting attention, including the earliest fiberglass Wonderrods by Shakespeare, split bamboo casting and spinning rods, and even some early steel casting rods.
Bamboo rod names to look for include Granger, Young, Dickerson, Phillipson, Devine, Edwards, Thomas, Payne, Leonard, and Hardy, as well as rods made for Abercrombie and Fitch, Heddon, South Bend, and Abbey & Imbrie. As is the case with many types of collectibles, condition is everything. And having an antique rod’s original cloth bag and rod tube will add to its value.