Every year, it seems every fly rod company comes out with a
new rod that is not only supposed to cast itself, but is substantially lighter
than its predecessor. As a matter of fact, the average graphite rod today is
probably about 1/3 the weight of the average graphite rod of 30 years ago. And
that difference is far more substantial when you start comparing the weight of
today’s graphite rods to the bamboo and fiberglass rods that your father or
grandfather may have used. But none of this matters if your rod is not properly
balanced by your reel.
It’s a phenomenon called “levered weight.” If you carry two
20lb. buckets of water, one in each hand, it will feel more comfortable than
carrying just one 20lb. bucket of water in one hand. One side balances out the
other. The same concept applies if you have the lightest fly rod on the market
but have a reel on it that is too heavy. It will feel heavier in your hand than
a heavier rod that is properly balanced by its reel.
When it comes to trout fishing and really, most freshwater in general, your reel does not play a very significant role. Unless, you just have to have “the best,” it is not necessary to sink a lot of money into a reel. However, just because it may not be the most important piece of equipment, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some consideration into things like its size. It needs to be big enough to comfortably hold the fly line and appropriate amount of backing, and it needs to balance the rod. In most cases, a rod and reel are balanced if it will self-balance when you set it on one finger positioned near the tip of the cork grip.
In the picture above, the reel is just a little too heavy for the rod. I prefer the balance point to be just a little closer to the tip of the cork. But it’s close enough to not feel uncomfortable.
Most companies will designate specific reel sizes for specific line and rod sizes. If a reel is for 4 – 6 weight lines, it not only means it has the capacity to store those line sizes, but it should balance most 4 – 6 weight rods. Of course, things like the material from which the rod is made and the length of the rod can determine if it actually falls in the “balance range” of that particular reel. If your rod is a short, super light 4-weight, you may want to bump down to the next smaller size. On the other hand, if your rod is a 6-weight bamboo, you may want to bump up to the next larger reel size.
The design of the reel seat on the rod will also be a factor. Almost all modern graphite rods have an uplocking reel seat, which positions the reel just behind the cork grip. Some bamboo rods may have a downlocking reel seat, which puts the reel almost right at the butt of the rod. The latter can help when trying to balance a heavier rod.
As reels become lighter and lighter, it has become far more difficult to find appropriate size reels to balance bamboo rods. However, one reel manufacturer, Ursus, has designed a reel that has removable brass plates on the interior. The weight of the brass plates help to balance heavier bamboo rods. When using the reel on a lighter graphite rod, the plates can be removed. Pretty cool.
In any case, no matter what rod you fish with, keep this in
mind when selecting your reel. It will greatly reduce casting fatigue and
result in much more enjoyable days on the water!
Over approximately 30 years of fly fishing, I have broken
one rod. And that was kind of a fluke. About 25 years ago, I was floating
extremely high water on the Cumberland River in Kentucky when I hung a streamer
on some submerged wood. While trying to dislodge it, the river began pushing
the boat toward a “sweeper” that likely would have capsized the boat. Since I
was in charge of steering the vessel, I had to act quickly and the rod was an
unfortunate casualty in my evasive maneuver.
Some might say I’m lucky to have such a long streak without
breaking a rod. And the fact that I’m putting this in writing all but
guarantees I’ll break one the next time I go fishing! It is certainly possible
as accidents do happen. But in the span of approximately 25 years of guiding,
I’ve seen dozens of rods broken by clients. Dozens… and that’s being
conservative! With that kind of disparity, I can’t help but think there may be
a little more than luck at play.
Yes, accidents are going to happen, but there are a number
of things I see anglers repeatedly do with their fly rods that lead to
breakage. And there are plenty of other things that may not instantly break the
rod but will stress it, leading to a seemingly inexplicable break at a later
time. So here we go… Here are the top 10 ways to prevent breaking your fly rod.
1) Store your rod in a tube.
Many rods get broken or weakened in transit. Folks toss them in the back of a truck or the trunk of a car and then set something on them, a cooler shifts, etc. I’ve never seen a rod break while it was in its tube!
2) Be gentle.
This one should be obvious, but it’s not for many. Set you rod down. Don’t toss it. Few things make me cringe more!
3) Keep the tip up.
When walking with your rod, be mindful to
keep the tip pointing up. I can’t tell you how many times I see people jab the
tip into the ground when walking on a trail. Even if it doesn’t break, you’re
potentially damaging the rod every time that happens.
4) Keep the rod ahead of you when walking through the brush.
There are many who disagree with this and
argue that the rod should be pointing behind you when traveling through the
brush. I’m sure I’ll hear from you! Fly line, leaders or rod guides can easily
get caught on branches when carrying the rod pointing behind you. Because you
don’t see it happen, you continue moving full speed ahead and pull hard against
the branch. I’ve seen guides get completely ripped off and I’ve seen rod tips
snap. I like to see where the rod is going so I can steer it around obstacles
in the woods.
5) Don’t hold the rod by its tip section.
I sometimes see this happen when people are
stringing up the rod at the beginning of the day. However, it mostly occurs on
the stream when the line gets tangled near the tip. To reach the tangle, the
fisherman will hold the rod somewhere between the tip and mid section of the
rod while the heavier butt end causes the rod to bend. Your rod is not designed
to do this and it stresses the graphite tremendously. You don’t want to hold
the rod like this in any circumstance, but it’s even worse in the stream when
the reel is attached. To reach a tangle at the tip of the rod, set the butt end
of the rod on the bank or a rock to support the weight.
6) Don’t pull against the limb with the rod when trying to pull a fly out of a tree.
If the line is wrapped in the limb, you may
end up with a broken rod tip. Instead, point the rod straight at the limb and
pull straight back. Or grab the line and pull it with your hand. You’ll not
only protect your rod tip, but you’ll be more likely to break the line near the
7) Don’t set the rod flat on the ground (or boat bottom).
When taking a break, lean the rod upward
somewhere, like against a tree. Setting the rod flat on the ground is an
invitation for you or a buddy to step on it.
8) When fighting a big fish, use the whole rod.
Many fishermen are taught to put their hand
or finger midway up the rod to apply more pressure on a large fish. Instead,
you are applying more pressure on your rod. Your fly rod is a precision tool
designed to bend in a very specific way. Holding the rod by the handle and not
applying pressure farther up the rod will ensure that your rod is bending where
it should, protecting your tippet and your rod tip from breakage on a big fish.
9) Use the recommended fly line to match your rod.
If you have a 5-weight rod, use a 5-weight line. Sure it’s okay to fudge up one size if you deem it necessary, but routinely overloading a rod with a significantly heavier line can stress the rod over time.
10) Learn how to fall.
I know, I know. This one sounds harsh, but respect the rod! I learned very early on in my fly fishing career to break my fall with my non rod hand. As a matter of fact, when I stumble in the stream, my rod hand immediately goes up!
This should probably go without saying, but the fly rod is the tool used to cast the line when fly fishing. It is also used to manipulate line on the water after the cast, to set the hook on a fish (usually), and to fight the fish after hooking it. It is certainly one of the most important pieces of your equipment and likely the piece of equipment in which you’ll invest the most money. So, what do you need to consider before making this investment? The three most important characteristics of a fly rod are its length, its line weight designation, and its action.
Fly Rod Length While there are specialty sizes on either end, most common fly rods are going to range from 7’ to 10’ in length. Longer rods aid in keeping the line higher off the water. This can be helpful when trying to achieve longer casts or when trying to cast from a lower position, like sitting in a float tube or canoe. Longer rods are also helpful when trying to reach to keep line off of faster currents. If you’re planning to regularly fish from a float tube or canoe, fish open areas like wide rivers or lakes, or fish a lot of pocket water on medium to large mountain streams, you may want to consider a 9’ to 10’ rod.
Shorter rods are most beneficial in small, brushy streams where a longer rod will be hard to maneuver. If you’re planning to spend most of your time on tiny tributaries and backcountry “blue lines,” you may want to consider a rod in the 7’ to 8’ range.
Line Weight The next thing to consider is the line weight. Each rod has a line weight designation like a 5-weight or a 9-weight. That just indicates what size line it is designed to cast. You typically want to match that to the fly line size. For instance, a 5-weight line will properly load a 5-weight rod and make it cast its best in most situations. Using an 8-weight line on a 5-weight rod would over-load it, resulting in an awkward, “clunky” cast. Using a 3-weight line on a 5-weight rod wouldn’t load it enough. The result is little line control and a significant compromise in accuracy and distance.
When you’re choosing the line weight of a rod, you want to consider what you will be fishing for. For trout, you are commonly using a 3 to 5-weight. For largemouth bass, you might use a 7 to 9-weight. The difference has little, if anything, to do with the size of the fish. A largemouth won’t snap a 3-weight rod. It’s more about the necessary fly sizes and the required presentations.
For trout, we are most often fishing with smaller flies on a dead drift. Lighter lines allow for a more delicate presentation and create less drag. On the other hand, when fishing for bass, we are often trying to “punch” flies into tight areas and quickly pull fish out of areas with a lot of woody structure. And we are typically using larger, heavier, wind-resistant flies. Often, there is simply not enough weight in a 4-weight line to effectively “turnover” a larger bass bug. Rather than the line carrying the fly on a level plane during the cast, the fly travels below the line, often catching the rod tip or worse, the back of your head!
When you get into saltwater species and some large freshwater species like salmon, you may be choosing a particular rod and line weight because of the size of the fish more than the size of the fly. Yes, a 13-weight helps to cast bigger flies to tarpon. But mostly the larger butt section on that size rod is necessary to fight a 150 pound fish!
The other thing that can necessitate a rod with a heavier line weight is wind. Saltwater species like bonefish, snook, redfish, etc. often aren’t particularly big and they don’t demand unusually large flies, but you encounter a lot of wind around the coast. In the American West, you tend to encounter more wind and may consequently want a 6-weight rod for trout. The accompanying chart lists appropriate rod/line weights for common game fish.
Compromise So, you really need to consider what you’ll be fishing for and where you’ll be fishing to determine the best rod length and weight for your needs. In this part of the country, most people want to fish for bass and bluegill in streams, ponds and lakes, and they want to fish for trout in the mountains and tailwaters. But if you’re just getting into the sport, you probably don’t want to rush out and buy four different fly rod outfits. Fortunately, there is a middle ground.
If you’re the person described in the paragraph above, your ideal rod lengths might range from 7’ to 10’. Your ideal line weights might range from 4 to 7-weight. While it is impossible to get one rod that is perfect for everything, you can sometimes get one rod that is good enough for a lot of things. An 8 ½’ rod is long enough to get by on bigger water and short enough to manage on smaller streams. A 5-weight is light enough for trout fishing and ideal for bluegill. It’s adequate for bass fishing if you scale down your fly size.
Later, if you get really interested in bass fishing, maybe you add a 9’ 8-weight to your arsenal. Or if hiking into small brook trout streams becomes your thing, maybe you add a 7 ½’ 3-weight. You can certainly get by with one rod, but the more diverse your locations and species become, the more necessary it will be to have multiple rod sizes.
Fly Rod Action Once you’ve narrowed down the rod size, it’s time to consider the action of the rod. The action of a rod is slow, medium, or fast. A slow action rod feels softer and more “noodly” because it flexes closer to the butt of the rod. A fast action fly rod will feel stiffer because it flexes closer to the tip of the rod. And as you might guess, a medium action rod sort of falls in between, flexing more in the middle of the rod.
Fast action rods are capable of generating more line speed and, in the right hands, more easily achieving greater casting distance. With their stiffer butt sections, they also tend to have more “backbone” when it comes to apply pressure when fighting fish. Most fly rods that are 7-weight or heavier will only be available in a fast action.
Slow action rods are more delicate in their delivery of the line and are more ideal for softer presentations. You tend to feel the fish more on a slow action rod and because it flexes much deeper in the rod, it is capable of better protecting very light tippets. Most rods in the 1 to 3-weight range are slower action rods. Typically, rods in the 4 to 6 weight range are available in a number of different actions.
Your own personal casting style will also be a factor in the best rod action for you. People with a more aggressive casting stroke tend to favor a fast action rod. People with a more relaxed casting stroke tend to favor a slow action rod. Experienced fly casters can pretty easily adjust their casting stroke to the rod. If you’re new to fly fishing, you may not have enough experience to even know your preference. In that case, it’s usually safest to stick to the middle and go with a medium action rod.
Fly Rod Material and Price In the old days, fly rods were made from bamboo and their price depended on things like who made them and whether or not they were mass-produced. Some of the rods made by certain independent makers are extremely valuable today. Most of the bamboo rods mass-produced by larger companies have little value. Bamboo rods made today are mostly made by independent makers and have price tags in excess of $1000. This is largely because of the amount of time and craftsmanship that goes into making them.
Today, bamboo rods definitely still have a following much like classic cars have a following. When compared to more “modern” materials, they tend to be a little heavier and almost every bamboo rod will fall into the slow action category. I wouldn’t recommend them to a beginner looking for a rod to get into the sport but for the more seasoned fly fishing enthusiast, they sure are cool!
Fiberglass replaced bamboo in the 50’s as the most common material for fly rods. It was lightweight, and after the trade embargo with China (where rod makers got their bamboo), it was far more available and cheaper to produce. Fiberglass rods have seen a recent return in popularity because of their soft, unique action (slow). Many large rod manufacturers are currently offering select models of fiberglass rods built with more modern components.
Most rods today are made from carbon fiber (graphite) and that has been the case for probably forty years. Carbon fiber is strong and much lighter than fiberglass or bamboo. It can be made in a number of different actions. And it can be made in multiple pieces while still maintaining that action.
Bamboo rods, for instance, had/have metal ferrules (joints). To make a four-piece bamboo rod results not only in a lot of added weight, but “dead spots” at each of those joints. Carbon fiber rods have carbon fiber joints. This is what allows a multi-piece rod to remain light and still maintain its action. Most carbon fiber rods today break down to four sections, allowing for easy storage and travel. Some break down into as many as seven pieces!
The prices of today’s carbon fiber rods are all over the place. Some are mass-produced overseas using less expensive components (guides, reel seat, etc.) and can be found for well under $100. American made rods tend to start around $200. When you bump up to about $400, you’re getting a higher modulus graphite that will feel lighter and crisper. You’ll notice a difference. When you get into the real high-end stuff ($500-$1200), you are getting more technology as well as higher-end components, but most beginner to intermediate fly casters won’t be able to tell the difference.
Keep in mind that many of the things that influence the price of the rod won’t have anything to do with how it casts. For example, a mid to high end rod might have some exotic, $150 piece of wood used for the reel seat. An entry level rod might use a $30 piece of walnut. One might use titanium for the guides while another might use stainless steel.
In other words, if you have the disposable income and want to spend $1200 on a rod, have at it. Just don’t expect it to necessarily cast better or catch more fish! Buy the best rod you can afford. There are some great rods in the $100 – $300 range, many with an unconditional guarantee. That’s right. Some of the major rod manufacturers provide an unconditional guarantee (or variation) on their rods. Orvis, for instance, offers a 25-year guarantee on all but one series of their rods. No matter how it breaks, they’ll fix it or replace it for 25 years! To me, it’s worth spending a little more to get a rod with a good warranty.
Narrow down what size rod you need and what your budget is. After that, it boils down to personal preference. If you decide that an 8 ½’ 5-weight is what you need and you’re willing and able to spend up to $400 on it, go to the fly shop and cast every 8 ½’ 5-weight rod under $400 that they have. Any fly shop worth their salt will have a place for you to cast a rod. And they will gladly let you cast as many as you’d like. And when you do, one of them will just feel right.
Between two evils, choose neither; between two goods, choose both.
– Tryon Edwards
There are few smells in this world that can tell such a story as the aroma that is consumed when opening the tube of a bamboo rod. With every flirtatious breath of varnish and cane, images too elusive for mere words or photos dance through twitching nostrils and settle softly in the mind. It’s a perfume that instantly conjures simultaneous images of classic trout water, sparsely hackled dry flies, fedoras, pipe smoke, fine Kentucky bourbon, and perfect memories of past fishing trips that are not entirely my own. Somehow, there is a connection to fish, streams, mountains, and fishermen who met long before me. Each time the final rotation is made around those metal threads and the cap is removed, it’s as if the Genie has been released from the bottle, and the very spirit of fly fishing has been summoned.
I’m hardly a purist but I do take pride in the fact that my first trout came on a dry fly with a cane rod. This did not happen by design, however, and was certainly not the result of any quest for nostalgic perfection or anti-technology-damn-your-plastic-rod doctrine. It was my granddad’s rod, a worthless old Montague production rod from the 1930’s that’s sentimental value is now priceless, but back then, its only value was that it was better than the rod I had.
The rod it replaced, my first rod, was a K-Mart special that came neatly packaged with a reel, a spool of backing, and a 7-weight, level fly line. A burgundy blank finished out with a black plastic reel seat, black foam handle, and gold tipped, black wraps on the guides; it measured 8-feet in length, probably 3-pounds in weight, and had the casting action of a stiff garden hose.
Somehow, its companion reel was even less impressive. While better suited in capacity for a 4 or 5-weight line, it tightly enveloped the packaged 7-weight line and about 10 yards of 20-pound backing. And as advertised on the package, the reel did have an “adjustable” drag. If you flipped the switch on the back of the reel up, it clicked and provided minimal resistance when pulling out line. If you flipped the switch down, the reel silently exclaimed, “Oh shit!” and the spool rotated at 8700 rpm’s with the slightest tug of line. The result, of course, was a rat’s nest of fly line inside the reel with little knotted loops of plastic peeking out of each port in the spool.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of the physical differences, much less the cultural differences of bamboo and graphite, so neither played a role in my decision to “upgrade” that first rod. The fishermen in my family, including my granddad, were almost exclusively bait and spin guys, so in addition to having no real instruction as a budding fly fisherman, I had no preconceived moral perceptions regarding the material used to construct my rod. Instead, I somehow had it stuck in my head that a rod with a cork handle was better than one with a foam handle, making my granddad’s old Montague the obvious choice over the K-Mart rod.
In no way was I a bamboo fundamentalist and truth be known, I went to bed nearly every night staring at the Orvis catalog and dreaming of a brand new, shiny graphite fly rod. I was a helpless lump of clay in the hands of the fly fishing marketing machine, and I wouldn’t rest until I could secure the funds for the genuine graphite Orvis Superfine fly rod of my dreams.
With an arsenal now obscenely exceeding 25 rods, a time when I hoped, dreamed, scrimped, and saved for one – just one – nice graphite rod seems like a lifetime ago. Even longer go, when I was a kid, it was shoes. If I could just get my feet in a new pair of those Zips, my speed and vertical leap would undoubtedly increase to unprecedented levels. And with an Orvis 7’ 9” 5-weight Far and Fine rod, all of my casting woes would immediately disappear and I would instantly begin catching all of the fish that had been eluding me.
To my disappointment, when I eventually got that rod, my casting and fish catching prowess remained pretty much the same. However, even as a novice, the new, high-end graphite rod’s superiority to my previous rods was undeniable. It was lighter, crisper, and more responsive. It was modern, and cool, and just plain sexy! And it would start a trend lasting more than a decade of graphite addiction. Every year something a little lighter, a little faster, and a little sexier would hit the market and I would be first in line to own one.
Bamboo rod purists would likely equate this to selling my soul to the devil. Aside from the moral and ethical legitimacy of strike indicators, there is rarely a fly fishing topic that incites more passionate debates than trying to determine the superior material for fly rods: good old-fashioned split cane versus the new space-age graphite materials. The proponents on either side possess unshakeable convictions and will argue with a ferocity not seen at even the most heated of presidential debates.
And much like presidential candidates might debate the advantages of change versus experience, the pro graphite contingent will argue that their candidate is stronger and lighter and far more capable of zinging much longer lengths of line in the air, while the bamboo party will claim that graphite has no life – no soul – and has no real connection to the line or fish. They see graphite rods as lifeless, plastic sticks designed for heavingrather than castinga fly line. They think people who fish with graphite rods are communists.
I eventually broke the addiction and my preferences even started to change when I finally had the opportunity to fish with a goodcane rod. My experience had only been with the cheaper production rods of the 30’s and it turns out that there were not only much better quality rods being made back then, but the cane rods being made today are nothing short of fantastic! Passing judgment on all bamboo rods based on my granddad’s Montague was the equivalent of judging all graphite rods by my first K-Mart special. But I still can’t passionately take a stand on one material being superior to another.
I’m not sure if there is a right answer. A big part of it probably has a lot to do with where you fish. For instance, suggesting that a cane rod is the better choice for tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys is a pretty tough sell. If we’re being honest, the real determining factor is more likely personal style. As a teen, I went to school with kids that jumped on every trend from leg warmers to parachute pants. Other kids went the preppy route, while others went with the thrashed denim, rocker look. All of these options served the primary purpose of clothing the kid, but as an individual style allowed the kid to tell the world who he was – or at least who he thought he was. Are we not, in some regard, doing the same thing with our choices of fly rods and gear?
In most situations, a fly rod, whether bamboo or graphite, is quite capable of executing effective casts and catching a lot of fish when in the right hands – it’s the chef, not the skillet. What it should boil down to is which rod brings you the most pleasure. I once heard legendary fly fisherman, Joe Humphreys, tell a story about a debate he had with another legend of the stream, Ed Shenk. Ed liked to fish with very short fly rods. Joe asked him why he fished with such short rods when they put him at such an obvious disadvantage. Ed told him it was because they are fun.
There was an awkward period as a teenager when I was preppy and an even more awkward phase when I wore parachute pants. Now, neither fit my style. As a fly fisherman, there have been periods of graphite obsession, and periods of bamboo obsession. Now, both fit my style. I am at peace with the realization that I don’t have to pick one side or the other because, doggone it, I like them both. Out of the far too many fly rods I own, five of them are bamboo, and for day in, day out fishing, I tend to prefer the versatility I get from good graphite rods and find them to be the most useful, practical choice. But I still fish very frequently with my bamboo rods because they’re not impractical, and well, they’re just plain fun… And there’s just something about that smell.