The Sensuality of Composite Cork Rod handles
By Mark Bachmann
Fly fishing is a sport steeped in traditions. For the last one hundred years most fly rod handles have been made from cork; the bark of an oak tree native only to western Mediterranean countries. Cork is an impermeable, lightweight material that wears well and feels good to the touch. The usual method is to use cork rings stacked on the rod blank like donuts on a stick. The rings are glued to the blank and each other while being held in place with a press until the glue is dry. Then the rings are are shaped into a handle by using the rod blank as a mandrel in a lathe. In this way the handle is perfectly centered on the rod. Traditionally if one wants to build the best fly rods in the world one of the first moves is to get a monopoly on the best cork for handles. This brings rod manufacturers into direct competition with the wine industry who uses cork for stoppers in bottles. A lot more people drink wine than fly fish. Competition for the best cork is fierce. The best cork is flawless and very expensive. The wholesale cost of the best cork for a Spey rod might be $60 to $100 before the addition of glue and labor to turn it into a handle. This obviously effects the retail price of a finished rod. Many anglers aren't discerning enough to tell the difference between the top grade cork and a couple of grades down the line. So what many manufacturers do is use inferior cork and fill in the defects as the handle is made. This brings the price of a rod way down and the unknowing (or uncaring) angler doesn't figure it out until the rod is used several times and all the filler falls out leaving a handle surface full of pits. Some angles aren't sensitive enough to tell the difference. No harm done. But, angler such as myself find that imperfections in rod handles distracting and annoying. Feel has a lot to do with fly casting and fishing. It should all feel good.
We were given some of the newest TFO Spey rods. They have handles made from rubberized composite cork. They are very much non-traditional. At first the look was unsettling. Then I fished one of them for an extended period of time and it cast so easy that it became a rod of choice for a medium lightweight summer steelhead Skagit rod. By about the twentieth day on the water with it, I noticed something phenomenal about it. There was no change in the handle dimension or surface texture. No mater whether the handle was wet with rain, or dry with summer heat, or covered with fish slime it was perfectly easy to hang onto. Nor had any annoying pits developed where filler had fell out. Nor had ridges developed where cork rings had been attached to each other with glue that was harder than cork. That is because the handle was seamless. Since the handle was denser than cork rings it also transmitted feel of the rod flexing. To me there is nothing wrong with being practical. Durability is good. Higher quality at a lower price is always good.
TFO Pro II Spey Rod