Who doesn’t like a good mystery? The world of vintage and antique fly fishing gear has plenty of them, it seems. So many now-defunct manufacturers, so many so-called “trade rods” that were built for specific retailers– Sears was a big distributor of low-end fly rods prior to World War II– and many without any sort of identification of their origins.
And then there’s some mysteries that are, well… still mysterious.
Case in point: the Conqueror Double-Built 9′ fly rod built by Horrocks-Ibbottson. I bought it on the Auction Site that Shall Remain Nameless about a year ago when I got the itch to build a bamboo rod but did not suddenly acquire the massive bank account needed to start one from scratch. There are plenty of inexpensive, low-end bamboo rods out there that may no longer be fishable but have serviceable “blanks” of bamboo that can be rebuilt.
(Note: I understand that the majority of these rods are still LOW END bamboo rods, built by the thousands in the first half of the 20th Century and will never match an Orvis Impregnated trout rod in terms of their quality. That being said, they’re fun as Hell for smallmouth. Read on…)
The rod was missing numerous guides, the remaining wraps were pretty hairy, and the cork handle looked a little grody… but otherwise this rod looked nice. What really caught my eye was the logo, which not only was not only nearly fully intact but of a design that I’ve never seen before: a gold-and red logo centered around a pissed-off-looking rooster. If you grew up in the Milwaukee, WI area it may give you some nostalgia for some Golden Chicken.
“Conqueror: a Horrocks-Ibbottson Product.” A few questions immediately spring to mind: What’s a Conqueror? Who’s Horrocks-Ibbottson? What does any of this have to do with chickens?
Horrocks-Ibbotson (H-I) is a name that is probably unfamiliar to anyone today, so you might be surprised to find that 50 years ago H-I was one of the largest tackle manufacturers in the world. The philosophy of quantity over quality applies here: being a high volume manufacturer, H-I was not known for producing a high quality product. By the late 60s H-I was dead and gone, and they left behind a catalog of hundreds of different models of fishing rods, reels, and accessories, including a healthy assortment of bamboo fly rods.
However, no H-I catalog advertises a model called a “Conqueror.” In fact, the chicken logo is unknown among the standard line of H-I rods. H-I was known for its jumping trout logo (more on that in a later blog post), not a rooster head. No doubt H-I made this rod, but it seems it was not part of their normal line-up. My best guess is that it was essentially a “trade rod”: that is, it was manufactured by H-I for a third party. Department stores like Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery Wards, back when such places still had sporting goods departments, would sometimes re-brand products to make them exclusive to their stores. Heck, even some larger hardware stores or fly shops might sell H-I or Montague (another early bamboo rod manufacturer) fly rods under their own brand name. The Conqueror is likely one such example.
As far as age goes… it is likely not older than the mid-50s, since most rod manufacturers moved away from bamboo at this time because the Korean War made it difficult to import bamboo. The reel seat is solid red (you can see it in the photo below) which was more common on pre-WWII H-I rods (after WWII they began using marbled Bakelite for the reel seat). So short answer… who knows, really?
(As for the chicken? Well, some mysteries may never be solved.)
Did I mention it’s heavy? This is a “double built” rod, which means two layers of split bamboo are used in the construction of the butt section. It was likely built for bass or steelhead, possibly even saltwater. While this stiffens the rod near the handle and adds to its strength, it also increases bulk: this old codger sits at a hearty 8 ounces! On the plus side it doubles as a club in defensive situations.
I finished re-wrapping and re-varnishing this old rod near the end of the trout season, 2013. (It’s not technically “restored”, since I didn’t use original hardware or wrap patterns). I did use it ONCE at Hornby Hollow, for about two hours, and my shoulder nearly fell off: when you add in the reel (a vintage Ocean City silent check) the whole outfit comes in just under 1 pound. You can imagine how that feels in hand.
However, all is not lost, since this rod is a BLAST when fishing smallmouth on the Wisconsin River. It comes in at about a 6-7 weight (I’m using a 6.5 weight floating line with it right now), it has a very slow, noodly action, and feisty smallmouth make it come alive like nothing else.
White bass, too.
Right after catching that smallmouth, I watched as something followed my bucktail streamer to within ten feet of my position, leaving a large “V” wake on the water’s surface. I still wonder if the rod would’ve handled that critter.