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Fly Gear 101 - Rods

Fly Gear 101 - Rods

Written by: Mike Duffy

Yes, it is true that there is a wide price range for rods, reels and lines.

There are rods and reels on the market that do go for over a thousand dollars. Fly lines can go for anywhere between 30–100 bucks. This is some serious cash no doubt, but fortunately companies are putting out some great gear for much, much cheaper. It is true that you get what you pay for but gear has come a long way; so keep in mind that yesterdays top line items have become today’s budget items. There really isn’t a horrible graphite fly rod, let’s say…

All rods work as long as they are in one piece and they flex as you wave your arm back and forth. All reels work as long as you can retrieve line or strip out line. Any fly line will work as long as it is weighted appropriately to flex the rod. Any fly will work as long as the fish feels like eating it! What I am getting at here is that you don’t have to spend much money to experience fly fishing. You will get used to whatever you are using…

My biggest recommendation to newcomers is to head out with a buddy who has some experience with the sport. Also, if it is an option, hiring a fishing guide for a day is truly invaluable. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that fly fishing is a process and that appreciation comes from noticing, discovering and learning. The highs, the lows, the big payoffs – it’s all part of it.

Which Fly Rod is Best for Me?

So let’s talk about how rods are sized and which size you might need for a particular fish species. Rod sizes are determined by the term "weight” or WT. They also come in different lengths. Ok, say we have a fly rod that is an 8 weight. It is also 9 foot long. It is also a four piece – meaning that it breaks down into four separate pieces for storage. Many manufacturers will call this rod 890-4 fly rod. 8 denotes the size or strength. 90 denotes the length (9’0”). -4 denotes the number of pieces.

What weight rod do we need? Well that all depends on the species and the size of the water that we spend our time on. How about a table displaying some of the most popular game fish:

  • Trout: 1 wt – 7 wt. 7’ – 9’6”
  • Bass: 3wt - 7 wt. 8’ - 9’6”
  • Salmon: 7wt – 10wt. 8’6” – 10’
  • Steelhead: 7wt – 9wt 8’6” – 9 ‘
  • Bonefish: 6wt – 8wt 9’ – 9’6”
  • Tarpon: 8wt – 12 wt 9’ – 9’6” (Not a good target for beginners!)
  • Permit: 9wt – 10wt 9’ – 9’6” (Not a good target for beginners!)

Most folks choose to jump in the sport by going out in search of trout. This is a great starting point because trout streams are often accessible and trout live in so many places throughout the globe. Also the movie, A River Runs Through It might have something to do with this…The most popular size fly rod for trout is a 9 foot 5 weight. Why? Well because it is very versatile. A 5wt is not too big for smallish to medium sized streams and it has the backbone to throw a lot of line for good sized fish on larger streams and lakes. At nine feet, there is plenty of rod to help with longer casts. Of special note: the longer a fly rod is, the easier it is to cast more line. You essentially have more rod that is able to flex and work for you.

For people who spend their time hiking into small creeks that often times have overhanging vegetation, a shorter rod would be better. Casts do not have to be as long and the fish in these places are typically on the small side. For many, this type of fishing can be very rewarding as anglers are dealing with intimate, precise presentations. Furthermore, the flies will typically be light and easy to cast. For these scenarios a rod that is between 7’6 and 8’6” might be ideal in weight ranges from 1wt – 4wt. If I had my choice I would probably lean towards a 3wt for small creeks, just in case you needed to throw some heavier fly patterns. Of special note: There are some spring creeks that contain some very big fish. If these are swimming in your backyard, I would think more along the lines of a 4wt at least.

The key when choosing a rod, is you want to avoid being "overgunned” or "undergunned”. You want a rod that will allow you to feel the fish during a fight. You want a rod that will cast the distance you need. Additionally, you want a stick that will handle certain fly patterns. Many folks, who prefer to fish medium to large rivers and who like to cast big, heavy fly patterns for healthy sized trout will go for a 6wt or 7wt in lengths between 9’ – 9’6”. Using a 7wt for trout is on the large side, so chances are that the fish, the water or the fly patterns that you are using are BIG.

For someone just starting out, I would recommend a 9’ 5wt. It is long enough to aid the cast and it is sized so that you can use it on most water. Most rods geared for the beginner have a slow to medium action. Action? What is this?

Fly Rod Action

You might hear folks discussing the "action” of a particular rod. One guy might say, "It’s pretty fast” or "It’s medium to medium fast”. Huh? Ok, action describes how a fly rod flexes. On your casting stroke, a softer rod will flex much easier than a stiff fly rod. When a rod flexes, it comes under what we call, "load”. You can think of "load” as energy that gets absorbed into your fly rod to be used to send the line out on the forward stroke. So, when a rod flexes, it comes under load and thereby stores energy. The deeper the flex, the deeper the load – meaning more stored energy. A really soft rod is considered to have a slow action. A really stiff fly rod is considered to have a fast action. And rods in between are considered to have a medium action. Construction wise, fly rod action is determined by how the density of materials is tapered from rod tip to rod butt. So it is not surprising that the term "taper” is also used to describe rod action. In fact, the terms are synonymous. A fast taper = a fast action and vice versa. Slow rods flex easily all the way to the cork. Conversely fast rods will only flex easily near the tip of the rod.

Which Action is best for me?

Most folks starting out should opt for a medium action fly rod. Well, to put it in other words, the beginner should not purchase a stick that is stiffer than a medium/fast taper. Why? Well, it is easier to store energy in an easy-flexing rod. It will bend with less effort from the caster. Basically, the weight of the fly line will better flex the rod and the caster will be able to really feel the rod come under load. Also, during the cast, timing can be a very important issue to consider. For the typical cast, the angler pulls the line up off the water and gradually accelerates into a back stroke. The back cast should send the line behind the angler and when the line straightens all the way out, the forward stroke should begin. The transition between the two strokes is very important! If the angler starts the forward stroke too soon, the rod fails to fully load and the angler fails to let the end of the fly line fall into a 180 degree plane to the forward target. Conversely, if the angler waits too long before starting the forward stroke, the load will be lost and the line will fall behind the angler, again drifting away from the 180 degree relationship to the target. So there is the issue of timing between the forward and backstroke! A softer rod is more "forgiving”, which means that if your timing is not 100 percent accurate the line should still shoot out on the forward stroke. Essentially it "forgives” your inadequacies! A softer rod is easier to load and it maintains load for a longer period of time. It has a wider flex range that will compensate for shabby technique.

Fast vs Slow Action

If it’s easier to cast a soft/medium tapered rod, why would I want anything else? Well, as you progress and your ability reaches new heights, a faster rod can bring you more distance. One will find that with a fast tapered rod, you must put more, what we call, line speed into the stroke. It takes more effort to get the rod to flex so we must put more energy into our arm movements on the stroke. Also, the timing window is smaller because it is harder to flex and it loses its load more quickly. Ok, but once we get this all down, the added stiffness will aid in distance because it has a stouter foundation. "More backbone” let’s say… Also, if casted properly a fast action rod encourages tighter loops on the forward stroke. Loops? Ok, yet another common term in the world of fly fishing! On the forward stroke the line should sail out over the water resembling a horizontal U so I guess it would look like: C. At the beginning of the stroke the loop will be uneven with more line at the top of the loop. As the line unfurls, there will be a moment when the loop is even, with equal amounts on top and bottom. Then at the end of the cast, the loop vanishes into a straight line as it lays down to the water. The tighter the loop (the shorter the distance between the top and bottom part of the loop), the more it is able to cut through the air. This becomes really important especially if there is any amount to wind around. "Tight loops” will cut the breeze! And, stiffer rods often build more line speed. This means that the line travels quickly to the target. The reaction is faster from hand to rod tip. Building tighter, faster loops really comes down to adding more energy to solid mechanics. Tighter loops are better able to keep stored energy on target; meaning that less energy is lost in the process!

But, even expert casters may prefer a slow/medium action rod in certain conditions. Why? Well, put yourself on a stream where there is little back casting room. And let’s say that we are fishing for strong, educated fish. This is where I want a softer rod, but first, I want to explain one more thing about the cast: During the backstroke the amount of line that remains out of the rod tip plays a crucial role in determining how much the rod flexes or loads. More line equates to more flex right? Basically, more weight means more bend in the rod (Of course, there is a limit to the amount of line that we are able to pick up for a practical backcast…) So, if I am in tight conditions, I want a rod that is going to flex more easily. If I am not afforded room to have much line outside of the rod tip on the back cast, it will be difficult to load up a fast action rod. Furthermore, if I am fishing to smart, weary fish, I will need to use very thin, light leader (leader is a clear monofilament line that connects your fly to your fly line). Educated fish can be real keen to leader size. So, if I’m using real light leader that more liable to break, I want a rod that is going to flex properly so as to better absorb abrupt movements from the fish.

One other thing to consider is the type of fly pattern(s) that we are using. Sometimes, we don’t want to have real tight loops when we are casting. This becomes a concern when we are using more than one fly attached to the leader and possibly some added weight for subsurface presentations. If we can get the rod to flex deeply down close to the cork handle (Easier to do with softer rods), and deliver the forward cast in more of an arc trajectory, we can deliver the patterns with a taller, more "open” loop. This will keep multiple patterns from getting tangled or dinging the rod tip on the delivery. The same goes for using a single heavy fly, such as a "streamer pattern” that are often bulky and weighted. Fast, tight loops when streamer fishing can result in a shattered fly rod if you’re not careful! But, that said, expert casters can often find the balance between line speed and loop size.

What Seperates an $800 Fly Rod From a $100 Fly Rod?

First, let me be perfectly clear. If you are just starting out, you will not be able to tell the difference between the two, other than maybe weight in hand and/or aesthetics. You will not catch more fish because you shattered the piggy bank.

Ok, with that out of the way, rod price, like anything else, depends on the quality of materials and the technology involved in the building process. Most of the rods that are built today for commercial sale are made out of graphite. There are different levels of graphite technology and this is where price can get inflated.

Most rod manufactures consider a certain Modulus level of graphite when building a rod. The Modulus level is displayed via number typically in the millions. Standard graphite has a modulus of 33 million. Refining the graphite can boost this number and ultimately the performance level of the rod. Modulus is a number that is the result of a ratio between stiffness of the graphite and weight of the graphite. The higher the number, the more you will pay, usually. Higher quality graphite basically stores and releases more energy during the casting stroke. To put it another way, it is a measure of a rod’s responsiveness. It stores energy more efficiently and it rebounds more efficiently. Higher modulus rods are usually lighter and they typically have a slimmer profile.

Although folks typically think of higher modulus rods as being fast action, this is not always the case. You can have a high modulus rod but taper the construction to soften the action and or play with the action from tip to butt. So although slower action rods cannot consistently build the line speed that fast action rods can, slower sticks using high modulus construction will have the same degree of responsiveness but with a fuller flex. The arc is broader on these so they don’t actually uncork as quickly. One thing to keep in mind is high modulus rods are typically lighter and more brittle, so beginners take note: They will break more often than their lower modulus counterparts if they are used inappropriately.

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Gorge Fly Shop, Inc - 3200 Lower Mill Dr., Hood River, OR 97031, US