Fly rod selection for trout, salmon, pike, bonefish and steelhead fly fishing
Fly rods (article and graphics by Ally Gowans)
What started out a simple question suddenly became something of a dilemma the more that thought about it. The question itself is common, all fly fishers ask it and every tackle dealer in the land has it thrown at him daily day. That question is "What fly fishing rod should I buy?" The quality of the answer given varies tremendously because like it or not, we each bias our answers with personal preferences and just like we choose different clothes to wear at certain times there are usually a number of satisfactory answers. However the underlying reasoning for buying a particular rod can be lost in the simplification or generalization of the answer. Suppose that I go to buy a shirt, does it make any sense to make purchase without ensuring that it fits? Of course not and how do I ensure that it fits? I can check the collar size, the arm length, the chest fitting and then there is the style, the weight or warmth of the material, the colour, buttons and accessories. Finally I might want to try it on just to make sure that it will fit. Thankfully buying a fishing rod is possibly easier than buying a shirt, start with its intended purpose and buy what will suit you best.
A fly rod has two main purposes, to present the fly and play the fish so you need to some idea of the type of fishing intended. Both flies and fish come in a vast range of sizes and no single rod suits all types of fly fishing. The logical place to start is by considering the size of flies that you want to cast because this will determine the basic size (AFTM rating) of the rods that you should consider, equivalent to the collar size on a shirt. Only in this case the size is a number according to the AFTM fly line standard. There is no need here to look at the derivation of the standard, suffice to say that the fly size and the line weight should balance and the higher the AFTM number, the heavier the fly line is. If you wish to use flies in the normal trout fishing sizes, let's say mostly between a size 16 hook and a size 12 hook then an AFTM #6 rod would be a sensible starting point. My chart shows how to select the AFTM rating for a rod against hook sizes for normally dressed flies. Of course if you intend to use heavy flies a larger line size should be selected. You can try to use any size of fly with any line, it's just that delicacy will suffer if you use a tiny fly on a heavy line and casting gets really difficult if you try to use a heavy fly on a light line!
The next consideration is the type of casting that you wish to be doing with the rod. For any given line rating the rod action will change according to the length of the rod and how it bends. Manufacturers describe rod actions in a variety of ways and several of them claim amazing benefits for their pet products, however most rod styles can be pigeonholed into one of three categories.
Through action rods are often described as soft, slow, smooth progressive or the like. What the maker is trying to say is that they bend fairly smoothly from butt to tip. Such rods are generally easier to cast with because there is more "feel" to them and timing is less critical. They load easily with short line lengths and usually roll cast very well and this makes them ideal for short line fishing such as loch style from boats or on small rivers and brooks. Conversely they throw wider loops than faster action types and they are not the type to choose if you want pin point accuracy or maximum distance.
Medium or parabolic rod action is slightly more progressive than a through action and by comparison the butt of the rod is stiffer. This usually means is that for a given rod length the AFTM line rating is higher. Parabolic is a great all-round action and a well designed rod should be capable of good performance for most techniques whilst being comfortable with a decent amount of line out. Timing is a bit more critical but a well designed rod will not overload easily. Parabolic rods suit me best for teaching and demonstrations.
Fast action rods give the ultimate in distance and for those with finely honed timing and casting skills they are the fishing equivalent of a high performance car. Like a high performance car they are not much good off road and so if you are a beginner looking for a general purpose rod my advice is to stay clear of this style unless you intend to fish mostly in situations where distance is paramount and you are prepared to practice your casting techniques to exploit the rod's capabilities. Anglers who want distance and accuracy for bone fishing, reservoirs and the like may well choose a fast action.
As an example of how rod action is inferred by the combination of rod length and line rating nine foot rods rated #5. #6 and #7 may fit respectively into each of the above categories. (Strictly speaking there more to it than that simplified example.) My rule of thumb is that dividing the rod length by 1.5, rounded to the nearest whole number gives a nice general purpose action and produces the following table.
Before leaving the AFTM system and rod ratings I should give a warning. There is a tendency by some manufacturers to underrate their rods with a line rating that is, for most anglers too light. Such a rating may well be OK for an experienced angler who can use hauling techniques with the stated line weight to load a rod, but not for a beginner. Many of the American rods are marked with line sizes smaller than their European counterparts.
The length of rod chosen should be appropriate to the type of fishing. If you wish to fish small streams a nine or ten foot rod will be a handicap so you will choose a much shorter rod somewhere between 6 and 8 feet long perhaps. For general river fishing and small stillwaters rods between 8ft and 9ft 6in are usual and for larger rivers and lochs I suggest something between 9 ft and 11 ft. It is a mistake to imagine that a longer rod will necessarily allow you to cast further. Leverage on your arm increases as the rod length increases and the friction caused by the greater number of rod rings also increases. Neither of these effects is helpful in achieving distance. For a person of average build a 9ft 6in rod is perhaps the best choice for distance casting. Longer single handed rods have their place for working teams of wet flies or for fishing in rivers for sea trout and salmon where the extra length allows better control of the drift. Double handed salmon rods are probably easier to select than single handed rods because the relationship is generally river size vs. rod length and the only observation that I would add to that is that a longer and stronger rod is an advantage for sunk line fishing. For Spey casting a parabolic action is by far the most efficient.
Obviously you expect to get a better quality fly rod if you pay more for it. Generally speaking, up to a certain price that will be the case and even some of the top priced items are good value (if not the best). There are several things to look for in a rod. Joints are there for convenience and are a source of weakness and discontinuity. Ideally a rod should have as few as possible but that is not practical in our international world so the next best thing is to have joints that are properly designed and fitted. If you rotate a perfectly fitting joint close to its gripping point it should feel smooth all the way round. Inspection of the male portion of the joint will indicate how much bearing surface is being used, in an ideal world all of it will mate. Unfortunately that occurrence is rare with certain manufacturers and not always the cheapest ones either! If a rod is to track true each section of it should be aligned into the preferred bending plane and when assembled the joints should be in perfect alignment. Again do not take this for granted, one very famous "top quality" manufacturer makes no attempt to spine their product, they simple align sections until they look straight and build the rod. The result is that their rods are known within the business for bad tracking, i.e. the rod does not move back and forth in exactly the same plane, instead it wobbles from side to side. Nowadays I much prefer rods that break down into convenient carrying lengths and accept that the slight impairment in the action of a well designed rod is well worth the ease of transport. Rod rings are mostly the high stand off chrome snake type which are perfectly suitable. Lined rings are also common and the only problem with them is that if the lining is damaged, the rod is unusable. This is a slight inconvenience when you have another rod to hand, the problem is of totally different magnitude when you are in the middle of nowhere on vacation and you only have one rod. For that reason you should always carry a spare tip ring, any other damaged ring can be removed without causing too much difficulty.
Some manufacturers love to boast about the lightness of their rods and there are two things that a beginner should realize before swallowing the advantages of lightness hook, line and sinker. The first is that many of the weights stated on the rods are incorrect. Often the weight refers to the weight of the blank only and this practice is to say the least misleading. The other thing is that lightness often compromises strength and it is no accident that one of the first manufacturers to offer a lifetime guarantee did so because their reputation was becoming seriously damaged by the breakage rate of their rods, reputedly over 40%! Slightly heavier rods either contain more graphite or some glass fibre that greatly enhances their ability to stand up to some abuse.
Having started off speaking about shirts I suppose that I should finish that way. I have tried to outline the reasoning behind purchasing a fly rod, starting with the size and working through the purpose, styles and quality choices involved. Lastly, like a shirt, it comes down to the fit and it must be comfortable. There are some things that I find instantly objectionable. For instance a badly shaped handle or poor quality cork packed with filler that will soon fall out. I especially hate a handle that is too thick for a comfortable grip (and I have not got small hands). A rod handle should be easily enclosed by your fingers so that you do not have to hold it tightly. Really the only way to assess a fly rod is by casting it on the water and so my final piece of advice is to do that before you buy. Any decent tackle dealer should be willing to lend you two or three rods to test, most professional instructors will have a batch of rods and lines that you can try. Take advantage of them, an independent professional instructor should offer the best advice, if none are available ask a competent fishing friend to accompany you or maybe the tackle dealer will offer his services. If you are a more experienced angler you will be able to make up your own mind and in that case you will most likely have a number of lines that you want to try with any rod. A modern fly rod is a significant investment, choose carefully, choose wisely and you should have chosen a friend and companion that will repay you with many hours of pleasure on the water. Lets fly fish, tight lines.
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