How to Select a Fly Rod for Freshwater or Saltwater
"If you know how many fly rods you have, you don't have enough," was the simple, telling comment Dick Sherwood, my fly-fishing mentor, made as he helped me pick out my first real fly rod in early 2007. At the time, this statement's truth (and warning) went in one ear and out the other. After all, a fly rod has a few primary purposes - casting, line control, landing fish – so how complex could this be? Rather than try to explain the intricacies of action, length, construction, and line weight, he got to the bottom line for the local trout streams, and I walked out with a four-weight, medium action, nine-foot rod for around $100. Ouch. Painfully expensive compared to good, inexpensive rods like the Piscifun Sword Fly Fishing Rod for $50, available today. It's okay to rely on a trusted friend for your first rod when unenlightened or uncertain about your commitment to fly fishing but get educated before purchasing your second fly rod.
Here are the common questions to answer before spending anything:
- Which fly rod should you get?
- What fly rod is best for beginners?
- What fly rod weight to choose?
- What fly rod for bass?
- What fly rod for trout?
- Why fiberglass fly rods?
- Why bamboo fly rods?
The variables to consider are action, length, construction (material, hardware, and weight), and price – customized to the target fish, whether bass or trout in freshwater or redfish and sea trout in saltwater. Once you understand these, you will know which fly rod to buy.
The "action" of a rod influences ease of casting, distance, accuracy, and landing fish, making it the most critical aspect of the purchase. Action is the legacy term used to describe flexibility. The word "action" is slowly going out of favor and being replaced by more descriptive language such as "mid-flex" or "fast tip" – more understandable since these labels identify precisely where the rod bends. To translate, the closer to the handle the rod bends, the slower the action. Hence, "full flex, butt flex" = slow action; "mid flex" = medium action; "tip flex, fast tip" = fast action.
Nothing beats a flexible (slow action/full flex) rod for short, accurate casts and working a hard-fighting fish. A slow action rod loads quickly with only a short section of line in the air, resulting in a decent cast to a close-in target (think trout in a stream) and flexes easily to absorb the shock of a lunging fish. For wider streams/rivers/saltwater marshes, a tip flex/fast action rod allows more line to be in play, storing the energy to provide the punch required for distance or overcoming wind resistance. The right rod must effectively control short and long casts, with "short" and "long" defined by where you fish. Granted, a full flex/slow action is the most accurate in close quarters, but harder to control since casting requires patience to allow the rod to load fully. Beginners may become frustrated with a tip flex/fast action as they boom out long casts to random endpoints… usually trees. Given the unknowns (skill, fish, location), the right decision is often to start with a mid-flex/medium-action rod. A mid-flex is more manageable for beginners to cast accurately for an acceptable distance.
Rod length is a factor in both casting and line control. Every action/length combination has a built-in minimum and maximum distance. The flex/action determines the minimum distance (ability to load quickly with a small amount of line). In contrast, length determines the total energy stored to propel the line and achieve the maximum distance. Use a 9-foot rod for longer casts, 8.5 feet for general use, and a seven-footer for precision or to dodge obstacles. For saltwater, go a bit larger to ten feet. The main advantages of longer rods include more effortless roll casts, better mending for line control, more distance, and power to punch through the wind. If overcoming tight vegetation on a small stream is critical, carefully select a short rod – be sure to get a full flex/slow action.
Choices do not end with action and length. The material makes a difference in "feel" and durability. Most modern rods, like the Piscifun Sword, use graphite. It is light, feels good, supports accurate casting, and is available in the full range of flex/actions. The principal drawback is brittleness, making it sensitive to whacks on streamside rocks and tip breaks when, not if, you trip on a root. The traditional choice, bamboo, is slow and great for small trout streams. However, bamboo rods require maintenance, and anglers must wipe, wax, and store them correctly (temperature and humidity control) after use. The third choice, fiberglass, is making a comeback. Noted for being almost indestructible, a fiberglass rod is typically slower, lacks the sensitivity of graphite in detecting a strike, and may vibrate/wobble a bit at the end of the forward casting stroke. Some anglers prefer the smooth feel of fiberglass.
While obsessed fly anglers may argue for hours about the action, length, and rod material, do not forget the hardware! Look for a cork grip with a robust reel-locking mechanism. There are three basic styles of grips - cigar, half well, and full well. A cigar grip shows up on lighter-weight rods and tapers to a point where the rod meets the handle. Half and full well grips turn up at the junction with the rod to provide a push point for the thumb, providing greater leverage for landing fish. Being able to push against the slight upward angle makes it easier to add power to the cast. The full well grip on larger rods has more taper than a half well for additional leverage. Some manufacturers, like Piscifun, automatically change out their grip from a half well to full well for their higher weight rods. Finally, look for ceramic stripping inserts and chrome guides for durability and smooth casting.
These core questions drive the "weight (wt)" issue. What kind of fish are you going to pursue, and where are you going to do it? Big fish such as bass or redfish require a higher weight line to throw larger flies and a rod with the backbone to handle the subsequent fight. Big water implies long-distance casts needing heavier line pushed by a more powerful rod. Manufacturers design every rod for a specific weight fly line. Given the variety of fish and locations, you can quickly fill your basement with the specific rod/line/reel combinations required… hence the caution from Dick Sherwood at the start of the article.
As a beginner, ignore the opportunity to spend yourself into homelessness. If you primarily fish for stocked trout, buy a nine-foot, 3/4 wt (one designed to cast either 3 or 4 wt line), mid-flex/medium action rod and put four wt line on it. That classic combination works fine on streams and rivers using normal-sized flies. Go with a slow action like the Piscifun Sword 4 wt for small streams. If you need more power/distance or use larger flies, pick up a 5/6 wt medium action rod with a six-wt line. The 5/6 wt is perfect for smallmouth, especially later in the summer when rivers run slower and catching requires stealth.
Now to the final and most onerous variable – price. In most cases, you will pay more in a big box store for the same thing you can get at half price direct from the manufacturer on the internet. Here's an interesting point to understand. Many rod blanks come from the same place with each manufacturer putting their unique spin with handle and hardware additions. Given that, read the reviews, talk to friends who may already have the rod, and save some money.
To summarize, consider these questions and discuss the answers with experienced anglers (key parameter in parenthesis):
What kind of fish do I want to catch? (Weight)
Where am I going to fish? Small streams? Rivers? Ponds? (Action, Length)
What is the shortest cast I will make? (Action)
What is the longest cast I will make? (Action, Length)
What size flies match the hatch on the targeted rivers/streams/ponds? (Action, Length, Weight)
How much can I spend? (Spouse)
Pay extra attention to the last question.