Bob Southwell

Probably the best split cane rod designer and builder that fly fishing has never known.

He is famous for his carp rods. His split cane carp blanks were built for various well known retailers in the 1960’s. Completed rods were also sold at his father’s shop with the ‘Captain Croydon’ inscription. Signed rods are rare and they command very high prices. Consequently, there are lots of unsigned rods attributed to Bob that have no provenance. Wishful thinking or market hype. Collectors glass cabinets contain a lot of Bob’s rods, too rare and expensive to fish with they are hedges against inflation and pension fund supplements. Shame.

I have been unable to find much information about Bob or his family. He lived before the internet was invented.

Bob Southwell fly rods

I am not a collector but I seem to have acquired four of Bob’s fly rods. For fishing, not display. They are very rare, he didn’t make many fly rods compared to his output of MkIV carp rods. I came across the first rod (left) by chance. The gold label above the handle gives the shop address without a STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialing) phone number dating the rod to between 1959 and 1966. The rod is 10′ 6″, 2 piece. The cane is very dark, the nodes are hot pressed and the rod furniture dates from that period. The rod rings are Low Bells and the rod bag looks suspiciously like that of a MkIV !

The rod feels steely in the hand and the compound taper delivers a satisfying kick to the fly line as it unfurls, a characteristic of all four rods. The MkIV carp rod has a compound taper that produces a hinge effect just above the ferrule to aid casting light baits long distances, a requirement defined by Richard Walker who designed the famous carp rod. Bob’s fly rods also have that characteristic.

The second rod (middle left) came to me in a very used condition, in fact it was unusable. ‘The Blagdon Rod’ is 10′, two piece and has all the correct fittings. A light refurbishment enabled me to catch a few trout with it. The rod has the power to fish from the bank of a lake such as Blagdon.

The third rod (middle right) ‘The Chew Valley’ is 9’6″, two piece and is my favourite of the four rods. It is at home on a mature lowland river and a tiny moorland stream. Very versatile.

The fourth rod (right) is unsigned and a bit of an outlier. It has a Pezon et Michel reel fitting, is 9’6″ and was ordered at the shop in Croydon as a custom build by the previous owner’s father. It has hardly been used and is in very good condition.

Bob Southwell visited Peter McVey at the Corbett Lake Country Inn, British Columbia. Peter was the owner of the lodge and was a very accomplished split cane rod builder. Bob was Peter McVey’s mentor. In 1980 Bob built a rod at the Inn, he finished the rod in a weekend. There is a video of Bob Southwell building a rod at Peter’s workshop, just search on YouTube for ‘bob southwell rodmaker‘ (sic).

10 May – Keepers Bridge

This would be a serious day, no mucking about with vintage rods. The trout would be hard work and I needed to be on pole position. Hardy carbon fibre, a long leader and a GRHE nymph sat on the grass beside me as I looked upstream and downstream from the first bend. It was a short wait, a fish splashed just above Keepers Bridge. It was not the rise of a feeding fish but it was somewhere to start.

As I walked downstream towards the rise, I realised that I had left my landing net leaning against the car. By the time I fetched the net and settled into position the fish had departed. I worked the nymph beside the weed beds and along both banks but there was no response. I heard a fish rise upstream but couldn’t see anything. I crept back to the line of alder trees and saw another rise. I sat on the grass and worked the nymph down and across under the trees.

GRHE nymph

While concentrating on the leader, my peripheral vision caught a gentle rise among some floating branches. The target was only a square-foot patch of water in the middle of tangled flood debris. Very risky. I was about to dismiss the temptation but auto-cast kicked in and I flicked the fly about 10 feet to my left. It landed perfectly and a few seconds later a golden flash and an open mouth signalled the start of the battle. I dragged the fish to my right and forced it into snag free water, it was taken by surprise. The trout was about 2lbs and left the landing net with a burst of speed.

Alder beetle

The plan was working and if I could find another fish, I would persevere until it was hooked. I visited all the alder trees and ran the nymph under the branches, close to the roots. As I approached a bend there was a tremendous splash under an alder tree, beside a raft of flood debris. It was such a commotion that I expected to see a moorhen or duck emerge. I waited for a few minutes, impatient to start casting and eventually a fish rose. I wondered if they were taking alder beetles, the trees were full of them and the wind was gusty. I flicked the nymph just upstream and used the long rod to work the leader around a near-bank bush. I induced a take by hanging the fly and lifting occasionally. Another golden flash and thump on the rod had me struggling to stand up while keeping a tight line. I was high above water level and I could watch the fish as it attempted to find refuge in the roots. It was a better fish, about two and a half pounds.

After returning the trout I contemplated a drink and a sandwich. I’d chosen a lightweight Barbour in the early morning drizzle but the overcast had burnt off and in the jacket, I had become hot and dehydrated. Just one more fish. I walked downstream to a favourite pool. A branch on the alder tree hung over the river and a big willow bush forced the current along the far bank. A trick-shot side cast under the branch was required. A flick of the rod tip as the line uncurled would put the fly close to the willow. All or nothing.

As I was summoning courage to cast, a big brown nose surfaced, followed by a brown fin. It looked like a chub or carp. I waited. An alder fly fell into the water and fluttered on the surface. The nose and fin reappeared. I cast the GRHE under the branch and curled it nicely. Not getting snagged in the tree was pleasing. The fish showed no interest and I changed the fly to a wooly brown nymph with a ginger hackle and tail. The back eddy below the willow bush helped me work the fly and inducing a take produced a third satisfying thump on the rod. The fish stayed deep and went for the bushes, a typical chub response. It was another trout, about 2lbs, in extremely good condition.

I walked down to the New Riffle and fished through the fast water but the heat got to me and I lost concentration. Back at the car I felt that I had worked hard for the fish and that persevering with the tactics had paid off.

7 May – Luffs

Saturday, warm and humid with a gentle breeze. Not the best day of the week to go fishing but I ignored the hoards of pensioner Lycramaniacs cluttering up the roads and drove south to the privacy of the Estate where the trout were waiting. The Rother valley landscape looked spectacular, the clouds billowed up over the South Downs and threatened rain.

Pezon et Michell, 1939

I had two vintage split cane rods with me and I decided to use the Pezon et Michel, the Bob Southwell stayed on the bench as substitute. My fascination with the lightly restored French rod centered around the time it was made. The rod was built at Amboise in late summer 1939 just before France declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland. What on earth were the French thinking about ?

Hackle mayfly

Luffs is a mystery, the fish are spooky and despite the rich flora and fauna, the trout are unpredictable and feed sporadically. I sat on the grass in the corner of the lake and flicked a mayfly at a cruising fish which promptly disappeared. I repeated the process with a selection of my best imitations, all of which were rejected. The fish moved away and of course, I followed. I should have waited. The fish returned, downwind, to a corner of the lake where the surface film trapped thousands of flies among the dust and tree debris.

I dropped the quill and badger hackle mayfly pattern infront of a trout which bow-waved towards the fly and grabbed it confidently. Trout 1 was soon released from the landing net. Trout 2 took the same pattern but was much bigger and surged up the lake towing most of my fly line. Trout 3 also liked the imitation. Most of the long, one-sided battle was fought far off in deep water and I expected a 6lb-er. It was foul hooked in the dorsal fin and slid into the net sideways.

Ephemera danica, male spinner resting

I stopped for tea and sat watching the mayfly spinners. When the breeze strengthened they dropped to the ground and rested, fluttering back into the air when the wind eased. I stretched out on the mown grass and looked up, the male and female spinners were pairing.

Male and female spinners pairing

I found a lot of male spinners in the short grass but no females. Presumably they had returned to the water to deposit their eggs leaving the smaller males to expire.

Resting or dead ?

5 May – Mayfly

I was excited, looking forward to a day chasing rainbows and mayfly. The mayfly first appeared at the lakes in late April, the earliest I can remember. I left the house at 11:00am, there was no point in rushing to the water as the main hatch wouldn’t start until lunchtime. How civilised.

It was a bright sunny morning with little cloud cover and the drive south seemed to take longer than usual. I hadn’t fished the main lakes for ages and was impatient to see the glorious landscape of the south downs from the high ground at Stag Park. The uniform matt olive colour of the fields, the neatly trimmed headlands and the lambs, numbered with spray paint, looked a bit too tidy. The cover crops had been ploughed in and the tops of the hedges flayed into perfectly shaped squares. Vintage Britains’ model farm tractors, cows and calves completed the picture. Unreal

The lakes looked beautiful, trout were rising and the water was transparent. I walked slowly around the lower lake turning over the low hanging leaves of the oaks and limes, looking for evidence of mayfly. Nothing. Alder flies filled the air and a bewildering selection of terrestrial beetles decorated the marginal rushes. My circuit of the lake was interrupted by a solitary mayfly dun popping up out of the lake margin and zooming high into a tree, there were no birds to intercept it. The hatch was underway.

I had a cup of tea and chatted for too long. Southwell Two, ‘The Chew Valley’ seemed to suit the situation. Carbon fibre would have been out of place in the vintage time warp. I chose my long serving Hardy Marquis and Rio WF #4 which matched the rod perfectly. I loaded my pockets with fly boxes and started at the top of the lake. A pod of fish were cruising around under the low hanging alder branches, actively seeking out nymphs about a foot under the surface. A long shank pheasant tail nymph with a partridge hackle was seized second cast and battle commenced. I held the old rod low and prepared the long handled landing net to avoid any strain on the tip section. I bullied the fish and it came off ! A very amateurish start to proceedings. Most of the trout had fled into the corner of the lake on my left.

Bob Southwell, The Chew Valley circa 1960

I waited until a feeding fish cruised past and dropped a small dry mayfly in exactly the right position. The trout rose confidently and gulped in the fly. I made no mistakes and a few minutes later, released the fish from the landing net. I retired to the hut and brewed a cup of tea. There was no rush, I wanted to prolong the experience, my self imposed four fish limit looked like a formality.

Ephemera danica, male spinner

Tea and biscuits enabled the hatch to develop and soon the trout were slashing at the emerging duns and zooming around sub-surface mopping up the nymphs as they wiggled towards daylight. The Southwell gave me an edge. The slow action stopped me from casting frantically at passing fish and the compound taper gave the fly line a bit of a kick as the cast unfurled gaining a couple of extra yards. It was a joy to use.

From the corner of the lake, beneath the oak tree, I flicked a dry mayfly towards a trout which didn’t hesitate. It was a good fish and took most of my fly line into the centre of the lake. I nursed it in the landing net for five minutes and watched it dash away. Several other fish inspected my mayfly but were unconvinced. I swapped to a pattern made with a feather stalk and a badger hackle which was immediately grabbed.

With three in the net I went for a walk with the camera, planning to add another fish to my tally in the early evening. I concentrated on a column of spinners, rising and falling above the open ground between the two lakes. I found a couple of suitable subjects and took their portraits by which time the hatch had petered out.

I shall return in a few days.

3 May – Bluebells

The dreary bank holiday rain had petered out overnight and the morning was overcast. The grey sky and high humidity were perfect for fishing. I checked the height of the River Walkham, it had risen less than an inch, Dartmoor had absorbed most of the rain. Land Rover electrickery prevented me from going off road, the battery had drained. Again.

River Plym, Bickleigh

I decided to fish the River Plym, flies would be hatching and no spaniels are allowed in the woods. The flats just above the bridge looked inviting and I spent a while exploring the deep channels and pots with a nymph. No response. There never is but its a good place to warm up. One day I’ll get a fish there.

Olives hatched and midges swirled just above the surface, there was plenty of food for the trout. I walked up to Commando Pool and sat watching the fish rise along the bubble lane. First cast with a GRHE nymph there was a rattle on the rod tip which I missed. I tied on a small dry olive and presented it carefully. The fish ignored it and moved down the pool. I moved down the pool and the fish disappeared.

I found fish rising in most pools and tried small, unweighted spiders, dry olives and GRHE nymphs but nothing took. I think that a lot of the rises were smolts ‘smolting’ on their way downstream.

The bluebells were at their peak and I spent most of my time looking for photo opportunities. The scent of the bluebells mingled with the wild garlic and the musty smell of the river. It will be a few days before I can fish the Dartmoor rivers again, it’s mayfly time in Sussex.