If you’ve set your sights on a new fly rod, or perhaps your first fly rod, dive in and take a few notes. High tech materials, fast actions, slow actions, new actions, line weights, rod lengths, tapers, flex indexes, grips, ferrule designs, finishes,... it all can be overwhelming. Relax. Here are some guidelines to help you choose the right fly-casting tool.
Choose The Correct Line Weight
Before you ever set out to the nearest fly shop, ask yourself a question, “What specie of fish do I want to fish for?” Since fly fishing for different species of fish involves casting flies of various sizes and varying degrees of wind resistance, you should first decide how large (or wind resistant) the flies are that you will need to deliver to catch the fish you are after. That will enable you to determine what line weight would best deliver that type of fly. The “line weight” is a standardized designation given to each fly line by the American Fly Tackle Manufacturer’s Association based on the weight of its front 30 feet. The weight is created by adding PVC coating to a multi-filament or mono-filament core line. The more PVC coating, the heavier the line weight.
Large, heavy flies require more energy to carry them to the target, thus heavier line weights are required. Small, nearly weightless flies require far less energy to carry them through the air to the target, and so require less weight in the front 30 feet. For example, most trout fishing involves using fly sizes that roughly range in size from #20 to #6 (1/4 inch to 1 inch). (Yes, we do use larger and smaller flies from time to time, but the bulk of the hatches that we fish for trout and the corresponding flies really fall within that range.) The line weight that most comfortably delivers flies within that range is a five weight. While the larger end of the spectrum is more easily delivered with a six weight, and the smaller end more delicately with a four weight, a five weight covers the largest group of fly sizes best. This is how one must first begin. So, if you already have a five weight and want another trout rod to better match the fly sizes at either end of that spectrum, you may want to go to a line or two lighter or heavier. Or perhaps you want to do more bass and bluegill fishing. Your five weight will deliver many of the flies you will want to have in your box. But, the fly range for largemouth bass may range from #4 to #2/0. Surely an eight weight will deliver the largest most wind resistant flies more easily than your five weight or a new six weight.
There is one obvious exception to this method of determining rod line weight. Large species of fish such as tarpon may take flies that might require only a five weight line to properly deliver them. However, a five weight rod will lack the backbone to fight an 80 or 100 pound fish. One must also consider how substantial the rod must be to fight the specie you are fishing for.
Match The LIne Weight To The Rod — Then Cast The Rod
Once you have determined the line weight that best suits your needs, you can set your task upon choosing the right rod that casts that line weight. To choose the right rod one must cast the rod. This is the single most important rule of selecting a rod. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of casting several rods of the same line weight to select the right one for you. The latest technology means nothing if you don’t feel comfortable casting the rod, can form good loops and deliver the line where you want it. Also, price is not a good indicator of the action that you will prefer. Just because a rod is expensive or inexpensive does not mean that it suits you. There are several good rod makers that have a wide variety of rods and rod actions in all price ranges. Good casters can cast a good loop on any rod. However, that does not mean that every action suits their casting preference. They will have a preference and so will you.
Most high quality fly rods today are graphite in composition. Yet, you can get lost in the volumes of test technology and jargon that manufacturers employ to market their products. Very simply, there are rods that have very fast actions (i.e. stiff) and very slow actions (i.e. flexible) and every degree of flexibility in between. Only you can determine which suits you best. Somewhere out there, there is an action that you will find easier to form good loops. This is true for all levels of fly casters. And, your preference for stiff of flexible rods will change over time as your casting style evolves over the years. Start with the choices in your selected line weight and price range and cast several. You will cast one better than the others. No question, high modulus graphite bonded to high modulus scrims using thermoplastic resins results in extremely light, durable rod blanks that can be designed at the highest levels of accuracy and power.
Choose The Right Length
Rod lengths can vary greatly as well but there are only a few things to consider when determining length. Rod length is not based on one’s height or strength. Rod length determines how much line an angler is able to lift from the water and mend across the water. Although a nine-foot rod allows a five-foot angler to mend as much line as a six-foot angler with an eight-foot rod, rods between 8 and nine feet are well suited to most trout angling situations. So while length may seem like a crucial decision, any rod with the right line weight between eight and nine feet long which suits your casting preferences is probably the rod for you.
The one exception to rod length choice is when one chooses a rod for very specialized, small creeks (rivers that are no wider than a few feet and have heavy brush along their banks) where a rod longer than seven feet is cumbersome. Very specialized rods designed to load up with five to ten feet of fly line that are six to seven feet are considered “small creek” rods. However, they are not recommended for water other than the very smallest, overgrown creeks.
Where Should You Start?
What you need to do is visit your local fly shop and try several rods of the same line weight that have different actions. If the fly shop won’t let you cast the rods before buying one, find another fly shop. Giving them a “shake” at the rack is sometimes a place to begin, but it is never a true test of the action. Some very fast three weights will feel very flexible compared to a slow action six weight. To really tell, you must line it up and cast it. Cast short casts, long casts, shoot line, and aim at a variety of targets. The rest is easy. It will be obvious to you once you cast the rods that one action or another is easier to cast good loops with. One of the common mistakes that we all make is to buy a rod based on the recommendation of a friend who may have entirely different tastes in rod action. Try them yourself and you will be happier with your decision.
Modern Multi-Piece Rods Are Convenient
Two, four, five or even six pieces is another question to consider. Today’s technology does enable manufacturers to create multi-piece rods that are durable and fine casting tools. Most airlines still allow passengers to carry on rods that are at least four pieces. So if you are beginning a fly rod collection and your budget will allow, choose a rod that is four pieces rather than two.
First Rod? Stick To The Basics
If this is your first rod, here are a few basics that will help you narrow your search. First, rods range in size from one weight to fifteen weight. Trout anglers generally choose five or six weight rods initially. Most fly anglers later add light lines like two or three weights for fishing smaller flies. Salmon are wrestled most easily with an eight or nine weight. Steelhead and bonefish anglers most commonly choose a seven or eight weight. And, big game anglers hunting, large pike, permit, tarpon, or stripers, or even carp on the West Bay or Grand Traverse Bay choose nine or ten weights. Big game species like giant tarpon, sailfish, marlin, muskies, etc. need a ten, eleven or even twelve weight rod to fight them. Other species will require some input from your local fly shop. Most trout rods are between 8 and nine feet long. And, most have a moderate action that is neither very fast or very slow.
Let Your Budget Dictate
Prices for most graphite trout rods range from a low of about $169 to a high of about $900. And yet the price for most mid-range trout rods ranges from $350 to $500. And, all should have a solid warranty for defect or repair. Most high quality rod manufacturers do.
Trust Your Judgement
Choose a line weight that makes sense, then cast several, and choose one that you cast well and suits your budge. You’ll easily determine which stick suits your casting style and stroke.
Dave Leonhard is a master casting instructor for Fly Fishers International, head casting instructor for the Michigan Trout Unlimited Fly Fishing School, director of instruction for the Orvis Michigan Fly Fishing School, and owner of Orvis Streamside in Traverse City, Michigan.
Orvis Michigan Fly Fishing School
223 E. Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684