A fellow rodmaker recently dropped me a line with a question about the history of the Leonard “Hunt” and pointed me to a thread on the Classic Fly Rod Forum about it. He wanted to know, specifically, what I knew about the history of the model, how it developed, and whether the “Hunt” designation was simply an aesthetic matter or whether the rod’s design was actually different in some meaningful way.
These days I think most people tend to associate the Hunt model with Tom Maxwell, who reintroduced it in the late 1970’s when he was in charge of the Leonard shop, and where I worked on quite a few of them myself. Odds are, if you come across a Hunt these days, it came out of the Leonard shop during that era or perhaps slightly later. Yet I’ve also noticed over the years that fewer and fewer people seem to be aware of the real history of the model, which actually goes back quite a bit further.
The basic story behind the hunt has nothing to do with “hunting” trout, as some people have speculated, but begins with the rod’s true namesake, Richard Hunt, an avid salmon angler and a man of some means who even published a small book about salmon fishing entitled Salmon in Low Water (1950), which, if memory serves, had a tiny circulation of some several hundred. I read it many years ago and it’s an interesting read, but over the years Hunt probably became known more for writing the introduction to Charlie Phair’s classic book Atlantic Salmon Fishing (1937), which, though a tad dated, is probably the classic book on the subject.
Anyway, the story goes that Mr. Hunt apparently wanted a rod that would lend itself to low visibility on the water and so he approached Leonard to see what they could do. In those days of course, rod shops were typically manned by small teams of craftsmen who were highly capable of accommodating such requests — a far cry from our current era of overseas, high-production manufacturing — and shops like Leonard frequently customized rods at the behest of their better customers.
To meet Mr. Hunt’s request Leonard decided to stain the bamboo to be much darker than the standard blonde that Leonard rods were known for, and they oxidized the ferrules to reduce flashing that could scare fish (or so the theory went). A close look back through the catalogs would probably be able to fix the first year that Leonard introduced these to their general customer base, but I’ve always heard that Mr. Hunt had had Leonard build him the darkened model fairly early, probably even as far back as the early 1920’s.
At the outset then these early Hunts were basically an aesthetic variation, though they weren’t exactly without their problems. Chief among them was the fact that the exterior of the bamboo tended to resist this staining process, especially when there were traces of enamel on the surface and which often resulted in pretty uneven coloring.
So the answer to the question about whether there were performance differences with those early Hunts is basically “no”. If the rod was built with a fast taper then it would be fast, or with a slow taper it would be slow — the staining had little to do with it. In terms of performance it all depended on how the rod was engineered and not what it looked like.
For some reason — and I’ve always been a little puzzled as to why — the Hunt largely disappeared from the Leonard lineup for several decades in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They may have appeared in a catalog or two during that stretch but I’ve seen virtually no actual Hunts from that era. Again, I’m not entirely sure why this was the case, and maybe it was as simple as a basic demand issue, with fewer people interested in darker rods. Leonard certainly wasn’t the only rod shop that struggled through those years, and so it wouldn’t surprise me if they got rid of the Hunt because it was simply more work than it was worth.
All of this changed when Tom Maxwell came to Leonard in the late 1970’s to take over running the shop. Tom seemed to have a particular eye for the look of the Hunt – the dark cane with the red wraps – and he almost immediately set about reprising the model, introducing a new, modern Hunt that was far superior in almost every way.
For starters, the staining process was discarded in favor of flaming the bamboo culms that the rod would eventually be made from. This flaming process wasn’t new of course. Other makers had been doing it for many decades and Tom himself had been flaming rods when we first met at T&T in the early 1970’s. Yet, in contrast to the earlier application of stain that Leonard had used for it’s Hunt model, this “modern” flaming process actually changed the rods performance quite a bit, stiffening it and giving it a quicker, faster action. It was a subtle difference but a significant one.
The rest, as they say, is history and in many ways it’s not surprising that the Hunt has gone on to achieve broad recognition. While it’s now associated less with a particular model and more with a certain look, a number of builders – myself included – have gone on to make their own versions of the Hunt, inspired largely by the Leonard model during that Maxwell period. In fact, when I acquired the Leonard equipment in 1984 I knew that I wanted to make a Hunt-style rod, so I changed the name slightly from “Hunt” to “Hunt Pattern” as a way of paying homage to the Maxwell era Hunt rods. Over the years I also introduced a few subtle innovations to my own version of the model as well, modernizing and tweaking it in a few areas.
That, to the best of my knowledge, is the brief history of the model though there is undoubtedly much of the story that has been lost to history. As with much in the bamboo rodmaking world, over time fact often yields to rumor and speculation and so there are parts of the story that will probably never be known. Nonetheless, it certainly remains one of my all-time favorite rods and whether you want one because of the look of that beautifully flamed cane or because you prefer rods with a little extra quickness, you won’t go wrong with a Hunt Pattern.
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We recently had the pleasure of spending a few minutes with old friend and superb fish carver Mark Bennett.