March 22, 2011

A friend recently sent along these two sketches that were done by Tom Maxwell many years ago. Fans of T&T and Leonard will probably recognize the drawing of the angler with the top hat, one of the more memorable and distinct logos in the bamboo world. In fact I can’t think of many others that people would recognize as easily.

When these arrived I have to confess that they made me smile. For one, it shows Tom’s considerable artistic eye, the same which contributed to his great skill as a rodmaker. But it also made me smile for a different reason in that I’ve always thought that these drawings had a sort of mischievous bent to them.

Tom Maxwell’s “Top Hat and Tails” Logo

Tom never said as much, but given that he had a pretty mischievous streak, I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to say that he might have been having a little fun with this at the expense of some of bamboo’s detractors.

You see when Maxwell and Tom Dorsey started T&T together in the early 1970’s (and where I joined them shortly afterward) bamboo rods were more or less seen as a dying craft, a relic from another era. As the latest and sexiest technology on the market, graphite, with it’s cool and vaguely predatory look, was all the rage. Many of the venerable old bamboo shops had fallen on hard times and were forced to either wade into the mass-produced world of graphite themselves or face the prospect of extinction. And in fact even many of the shops that did stay in the bamboo business seemed to be yielding to the general pressure to out-gizmo one another anyway, by adopting “new” impregnation technology like the Orvis bakelite or the Leonard Duracane, rods that while serviceable are not generally thought of as the real high-water mark of the craft.

Of course in such a climate, with even the venerable, well-established shops struggling, the idea of starting a new venture in the bamboo rod market was basically insane, roughly akin to going into the high-end horse-and-buggy business. I know that when I joined T&T in the early 1970’s my friends all thought I was a little nuts, and perhaps I was. But at least I didn’t have a family to provide for or much in the way of responsibilities. The same couldn’t be said for all of the others involved in getting T&T off the ground, and certainly not it’s namesakes. In short, to say that they were flying in the face of conventional wisdom would be a rather charitable gloss – others would have called it a fool’s errand.

Tom Maxwell Top Hat Logo 2

I could be reading a lot into this of course, but I’ve always thought that the Top Hat and Tails logo was sort of poking fun at many of those who thought that this craft was toast.

Looking back on it, what Maxwell and others sensed, I think, was that the move toward greater and more “sophisticated” technology had gone a little too far and started to take on a life of it’s own (go to any major fishing show these days and you’ll see this in full force!). Innovation is a good thing to be sure, but there is definitely a point at which it can stray too far from the reason why we actually enjoy fishing, namely that it’s fun, and if you want to do it in a top hat with a bamboo rod then you jolly well should. To me, the jaunty angler has always symbolized the idea that the old fuddy-duddy with the cane rods and silk lines might not be as gizmoed-out as the rest of the fishing world but you can be sure that he’s having a ball, and has probably been around long enough to fish circles around most others.

Of course I don’t actually know if that’s what Tom had in mind here and I probably never will. But I do know that seeing his little drawings of the man in the top hat always leaves me with a smile. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

-Marc


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