It was bound to happen. The scientific community cannot develop a new material like graphite & not have a fly fishing scientist experiment with it in order to improve fly tackle. This is exactly what happened when, in 1971 Don Phillips, an aerospace engineer & life long fly angler, began experimenting with fly rods made from boron fibers & epoxy resins during his free time. Mr. Phillips, employed by United Technology Corp, was both knowledgeable about the new high-tech materials & an expert angler. He was the right person to develop new fly rods.
At first Phillips began making rods by laying fine strips of boron fiber / epoxy resin tape onto permanent mandrels of balsa wood. Philips reported catching the first trout on these new & experimentally designed rods in April of 1972. Keep in mind that these are the days when fiberglass was king. No angler would have seen or heard of a boron fly rod back then.
Unfortunately, the balsa cores of Phillips’ new rods were too fragile to hold up to prolonged fishing. So he began making solid boron / epoxy fly rods. Looking to improve these rods further, Phillips began putting an outer layer of graphite & epoxy on his new rods in 1973. This outer layer both improved the rod’s appearance & slightly helped to soften the rod, as boron is a stiff material by its nature. However, experiments & new improvements in material technology allowed Phillips to go back to making all boron / epoxy rods by 1977. Throughout this time, Phillips has been running his own synthetic rod company, “Flycraft Associates”. When Phillips closed his business in 1985, he had made well over 700 new synthetic fly rods.
By the middle of the 1980’s graphite fibers has lowered in cost so much as to make boron uncompetitive as a rod material. Plus, the developments by the rod industry had made graphite rods perform better than boron. Phillips, who was focused more on boron, probably couldn’t compete with both the cost-effective, cheaper graphite material & an entire industry focusing on developing graphite rods. Be that as it may, Phillips’ work & creativity is the reason the rod industry had new, space-age materials to work with as his rods were an inspiration to all rod manufacturers. If you fish with a graphite fly rod, you owe this to Don Phillips. Without his inspiration, the rod industry would probably not have developed graphite rods as they did or when they did. Don Phillips is truly an important figure in the development of the modern fly rod.
Of course, graphite & other synthetic materials continue to develop & be improved. The fishing tackle industry always seems quick to adapt to these improvements. Throughout the 1970’s, rod manufacturers had to overcome several problems, especially as the materials were changed & improved. Some of those problems concerned designing a ferrule that was not bulky & would not interrupt the rod’s action. A look back at different rods throughout this period will show many different approaches by the different rod companies to solve the ferrule problems. Not to mention that rod materials were constantly changing, make rod design a challenge to incorporate the new properties of the material in fly rods. This could all make marketing, pricing, & costs of new fly rods difficult. I can well remember some anglers in the 1980’s not trusting the newer graphite rods. Some of these anglers never did own a graphite fly rod.
As the technology we use everyday continues to develop, be sure that rod manufacturers will continue to examine the newer technologies to see how they ca adapt then for use by the angler. Rod companies are always concerned with rod efficiency, lessening rod weights, etc. As the scientific community continues to develop new ideas & materials - & the new “nanotechnology" looks especially promising – we can be sure that we’ll see these new technologies along the stream.