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Eastern Philosophy -

A Profile of Mike McFarland and the McFarland Rod Co.

 

"Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."
                                                                                                    
Oscar Wilde

 

Article by Joe Cornwall

Photographs by Joe Cornwall and Jim Stuard

 

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Mike McFarland is a soft spoken man with the sharp stare of a hunter. Bright, focused and humble, Mike carries the subtle expression of a man who is looking beyond the place and time where he's standing, as though he were looking for the road signs to some indefinable place only found in his dreams. Since 1997 McFarland has been quietly building fly rods in his small shop in south central Pennsylvania. Surrounded by family (his parents own the house just down the street from his) and some of the finest trout streams in eastern North America, Mike has made a name for himself working in a material that many had given up as hopelessly dated. Nine out of ten rods built by Mike today are fiberglass.


It seems as though it's always been Mike's destiny to be a rod builder. A member of a fishing family, McFarland started his angling career under the tutelage of his father, brother and uncle. In 1991 he built his first fly rod, an 8-foot 3-weight constructed on a Fisher graphite blank. A trout fanatic by both nature and nurture, Mike was naturally drawn towards softer, more accurate rods that can drop diminutive flies on teacup-sized targets from 15 to 50 feet away. The pressured brown trout of Pennsylvania limestone streams are not tolerant of crass presentations. Mike keeps his fishing legacy alive and confided to me that he occasionally let's his kids skip school to fish the fabled grannom caddis hatches of central Pennsylvania's ancient mountains.

 

Mike sold his first custom fly rod, an 8 ½ foot 5-weight graphite stick, in 1994. In a strange twist of fate, that first rod would come back to find him. Two years after it left Mike's hands, his wife's sister started dating a fellow who was reputed to be a fisherman. When Mike finally had a chance to meet and fish with his sister-in-law's new beau, he was astounded to find that the rod the gentleman was carrying was none other than the one he'd built. It's been said that serendipity accounts for one percent of the blessings we receive in life, work and love. It's been proven that the other 99 percent is due to hard work. If this was Mike's brush with serendipity it was also his invitation to begin the hard work of making a name for himself as one of the top custom rod builders in the sport today.

 

Mike started seriously working with fiberglass in 2004. Although he admits he's had very little hands-on experience with the classic glass rods of the golden age, his current production seems to channel the feel and performance of the legendary sticks. While not building his own blanks per se, he does specify and control every aspect of the blanks he uses. Working with a manufacturer who understands his needs for particular designs, Mike will specify the thickness of the blank walls, adjust the curve of the taper and even define the manner in which the glass cloth should be cut and rolled. By taking a piece from this blank and matching to a piece from that, he blends the personalities of an assortment of these custom tubes to create the specific action that he's envisioned. His technique works, his rods are invariably lauded and the current waiting list can be measured in months. You won't see too many “used” McFarland rods for sales. Owners simply don't give them up.

 

In 2007 Mike released his first limited edition fly rod. Billed as his Tenth Anniversary rod and limited to a run of just 10 rods, it's a 6-foot 9-inch 3-weight glass rod with staggered nickel silver ferrules and a hand-turned spalted maple reel seat. Breathtaking is the only adjective that can properly describe the delicacy and attention to detail lavished upon a rod I call “the fairy wand.” It's magical. It's also a highly specialized tool designed to fish small flies to wary trout in intimate waters. Yes, I purchased one. No, it's not for sale. Ever.

 

Most of Mike McFarland's custom rods are far more utilitarian than the fairy wand. And a fair step less expensive, too. Mike's Spruce Creek series of glass rods sell for anywhere from $400 to $600. Not cheap, but certainly not expensive by production graphite standards. And unlike rods from Sage, Orvis or Scott, Mike will build a rod that is designed for you and for your specific needs. Custom is as custom does.

 

What is it like to fish a McFarland Spruce Creek? I managed to get an 8-foot 6-weight to test. This is the size and weight rod that I think is the perfect compromise for the modern warmwater angler. I prefer to fish the freestone creeks of the Midwest for smallmouth bass. Flies can range from a dainty size 14 elk hair caddis to a bulky size 2 Clouser minnow, often in the course of the same day. While the occasional cast of 60 to 70-feet is demanded, typically fishing conditions dictate accuracy at half that range. And the rod needs the guts to turn a feisty fish away from the dark tangles of dead timber or sharp rocks. Once in a while a thick shouldered carp will take hold; I've seen graphite explode when the screws are put to that test of wills. Our rivers may look tame, but underneath that thin veneer of civility lies the soul of a wild and uncontrollable place. Brown-lining indeed...

I paired the McFarland Spruce Creek with a prototype TL Johnson fly reel. Designed for 3 to 6-weight lines, the reel is a stealth black and sports a seriously designed drag system. The weight was perfect, the match ideal. The line, on the other hand, took some experimentation to find.

 

The McFarland rod is unlike any graphite 6-weight of contemporary origin. In fact it felt far more like bamboo in my hands. Maybe that hackneyed comparison isn't even right. The Spruce Creek is far lighter than any bamboo rod built. Because it's lighter it doesn't exhibit the inertia and momentum of bamboo. But it does provide a similar level of feel and flex. Mike can build just about any action you'd want into a rod, but the magic happens when the action demanded mirrors the natural ability of the material. In the case of the Spruce Creek rods, that deep-flexing action is nimble and powerful, but also measured and controlled. If I may be permitted to draw an analogy with motorcars, the McFarland is more like a Mercedes Benz SLK350 than a BMW Z-4 Si. That is, once you get the right line.  Sometimes a 6-weight is more than a 6-weight...

 

I started fishing the McFarland with the same Orvis Wonderline I use on most of my 6-weight arsenal. A bass bug taper, this line features an abrupt weight-forward design with a moderate rear taper. The two worked together, but it was easy to tell it was a strained relationship. A Scientific Anglers Headstart line gave similar results. It's important to know both of these lines exceed AFFTA line standards by as much as a half of a line weight. The Spruce Creek was uncomfortable with the extra weight.

 

A Rio Classic double taper made a much better match. Aerial mends and curve casts came easier. The delicacy of the delivery was much improved. I should have seen this coming, Mike told me this rod was “more of a trout six than a bass six.” It's an apt description. This is the antithesis of a "western" rod action. This is an eastern philosophy.

 

Real magic happened when I partnered the Spruce Creek rod with the new Rio Gold weight forward line, though. (Read the review of the Rio Gold here) In a 5-weight the Rio Gold, like so many of the new high performance tapers, seems on the heavy side of its line rating. The McFarland rod and 5-weight Rio Gold line were love at first cast. Shooting line was effortless. Roll cast pickups took the fly off the surface of the water as though it had been launched, Polaris missile-like, from a tiny submarine. Roll casts were good (though better still with the double taper, as can be expected) and short distance accuracy was superb. This is the combination I'll fish from now on!

 

The casting rhythm of the Spruce Creek is decidedly slow.  It's easy to shock the rod if you're an impatient sort of angler.  Glass rods, and especially this glass rod, demand a certain level of self control and physical situational awareness.  When casting, wait to feel the rod load and focus on that moment of maximum rearward inertia.  The Spruce Creek, in this configuration and with this fly line, is easily capable of firing a healthy streamer 70-feet and more.  There is a well of power the springs up slowly, deliberately.  Close in, the stick is responsive, light and confident.  Accelerate smoothly to a sudden stop and you'll find, as I did, that you can have accuracy, delicacy and more than sufficient raw horsepower all wrapped in one pretty package.

 

Mike's rods are a work of art. The epoxy work and wraps are first rate. It's obvious this isn't a production rod. And the spigot style ferrules, with their unique white glass construction, are something of a signature look for McFarland's multi-piece rods. There isn't any indication I'm fishing a 4-piece rod, so seamless is the action. The cork is near perfect. Everything about this package speaks of Quality.

 

With a fish on the McFarland rod shows its true strength. The rod can easily bend all the way to the cork, softening the sudden rush of a green fish. Tippets won't break, at least not because of the rod. And even with this amazing ability to absorb the sudden release of energy, of which any good bass or trout is capable, the rod has plenty of reserve power. Clamp down tight and the rod will bend till it bends no more. Then you have a stiff lever capable of turning the head of even the most rambunctious fish. Glass has its own unique attributes, and one of these strengths is, in many ways, hoop strength.  It's a parameter the graphite guys simply won't mention and is the reason rod companies must offer lifetime warranties on new carbon sticks.

 

You won't have to worry about this rod exploding before the leader parts or the fish gets into the junk. The battle field is even, its just you and the fish with a conduit of perfect clarity transmitting all the latest updates to the fight.

 

What about the fairy wand? Well I haven't fished that one yet. Conditions haven't been favorable for finesse so far. I certainly intend to give that little jewel it's due, though. And soon, too!  Stay tuned for a complete review and a bit of "fly rod porn" as we photograph the heck out of it. 

 

Mike McFarland isn't done yet. When I asked him “what's next, what do you want to build that you haven't built yet?” his reaction was proceeded by a sly smile. “A 12-foot glass Spey and a series of 8 and 9-weight glass salmon rods” were his answer. Already Mike has a prototype 7-weight floating around. I hope to get my hands on it. And on the Spey and bigger rods, too, when they become available. One thing is certain. My days of fishing McFarland fly rods are far from over. If you've ever thought what it might be like to own and fish a classic, to possess a piece of unique artistry and consummate craftsmanship, then perhaps this is your chance. I think that in ten or twenty years we'll be talking about Mike McFarland's rods with the same hushed tones of reverence currently reserved for the likes of Russ Peak, Ferdinand Claudio and Hiram Leonard.  For more information or to inquire about ordering one of Mike McFarland's custom fly rods, visit the McFarland Rod Company on the web.

 

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