The first four strip split cane rod was made around 1846 by Samuel Phillippe, a gunmaker and prize-winning violinmaker from Easton. He was skillful with all kinds of tools, and could make or repair almost anything. Born August 9, 1809, in Reading, Phillippe moved to Easton when he was about sixteen years old. There he would learn the gunsmith trade from Peter Young. Phillippe would receive a silver medal for one of his violins from the Franklin Institute Fair, in Philadelphia. He made the first “Kinsey” fishing hooks from patterns furnished by Phineus Kinsey, of Easton. He was also a good trout fisherman, who fished with Thaddeus Norris from time to time. Norris was a tackle shop owner in Philadelphia who was widely hailed as America’s greatest angler. But Phillippe’s passion was to make a fishing rod that was lighter than anything else available.
In the 1830’s, an epidemic of “trout mania” spread across the state. In Philadelphia, most local streams had been fished out, so new waters were sought. Located at the juncture of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers, Easton lay along the route that the sportsmen of Philadelphia would travel to get to the great fishing streams of the Poconos.
In 1865, Norris published The American Angler’s Book: Embracing the Natural History of Sporting Fishing, and the Art of Taking Them, a detailed and amusing book on fly and bait fishing that was also the first comprehensive book on angling in America. Phillippe and Norris had fished together on streams in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey which flowed into the Delaware River above the Delaware Water Gap. Phillippe also visited a number of places with Norris, who was seeking a location for a trout hatchery, which would be finally located near Bloomsbury, NJ.
In the 1840’s, Phillippe began to make special hooks, but soon turned his attention to the rod. At the time, the best rods came from England. These combined a wood handle and bamboo tips, whose lightness and flexibility gave a better cast than the one-piece wood or bamboo poles. Phillippe found them too heavy, so he began to experiment. English rods weighed about an ounce a foot. Phillippe made an all-bamboo eleven-foot rod in three sections that weighed only eight ounces, but it still didn’t cast true. So he added a fourth section, made of cane. Where the British made their rods by slicing, fitting and then gluing together three strips of bamboo, Phillippe tried three, then four and finally six to produce an American rod that was lighter, more flexible and better than anything made in England.
The first six strip split cane rods were built by Phillippe in either 1848, or 1849. He sold them to Andrew Clerk & Co., in New York, who was Phillippe’s source of bamboo. It was a great deal for Clerk, because the firm subsequently became the patrons of the rod-makers Leonard, Green, and Murphy. Of these three, Hiram Leonard was the one who would build the best rods and gain the greatest reputation.
“Old Sam Phillippe knew just what a trout fly rod should be in its action,” fishing historian James Henshall would write in his Book of the Black Bass, “both in casting a fly and in playing a trout; and it is on these qualities of a rod that its merits should be judged, rather than the style or its constructions or fine appearance.”
As interest in fly fishing increased, every American angler wanted a split-cane bamboo rod, a rod based on Sam Phillippe’s design. Pennsylvania’s trout and bass streams became so famous that thousands of anglers visited them from other states each year. By the late 1800’s, nearly half the revenue in some Pennsylvania counties was derived directly or indirectly from its trout and bass anglers. Phillippe died in Easton, on May 25, 1877.