Fly Rod Basics
It’s a simple tool: a cork handle, a seat where the reel attaches and a series of guides through which the line is strung. But the precise taper of a modern fly rod is the product of many decades’ worth of experience. Cast properly, a good rod almost seems to know where you want your line and fly to go, and drops them in place smoothly and efficiently.
A fly rod must be flexible enough to “load” from just the weight of a fly line, with no heavy lure or sinker, but also stiff enough to subdue a strong fish; substantial enough to make long casts, but light enough for hours of repeated casting.
Fly rods (and lines) are rated on a numerical system, with 1 being the thinnest and lightest and the heaviest big-game models around 15. The standard fly rod for all-around trout fishing is a 5-weight. Larger fish like striped bass or salmon call for an 8- or 9-weight.
If you find yourself on the open ocean trying for mako sharks, you’ll need a 14-weight to heave the big flies; if you’re fishing a remote mountain stream for small brook trout, a 2-weight would make a very delicate presentation, and even a little brookie would put a good bend in the rod. But not many people fly fish for sharks, and your regular trout rod would be just fine on the mountain stream. The vast majority of fly fishing is done on rods with weights between 5 and 9.
These days, most fly rods come in three or four sections, which are carried in a light aluminum or PVC tube.
The two biggest names in the fly rod market are Sage and Orvis. You can’t go wrong with anything from either company; it’s just a question of selecting the rod that suits your needs.
There are a number of smaller brands that produce exquisite, high-end rods, such as Winston, Scott and Thomas & Thomas, and they have fiercely loyal customers.
Modern fly fishers have a wide array of choices in the low- and mid-price ranges. Most of these rods are manufactured in China or South Korea, but don’t let that deter you; these days, Asian rod factories make very good products. Established mid-price rod labels include St. Croix, Redington and Temple Fork Outfitters. In recent years, a number of new companies have started up, producing moderately priced ($300 to $400), popular and well-regarded rods, such as Beulah, Albright, Echo and Rise.
In addition, major brands like Orvis and Sage offer less-expensive rod lines for beginners.
Before the mid-20th century, fly rods were made of bamboo. Today, bamboo rods are specialty items, usually costing a few thousand dollars because they’re hand-made by highly skilled craftsmen. There’s nothing quite like the pleasure of casting a top-quality bamboo fly rod.
When modern manufacturing enabled mass production of fishing rods after World War II, the material of choice was fiberglass. It was almost completely replaced in the 1970s and ‘80s by lighter, stronger graphite. But in recent years, some anglers have rediscovered fiberglass, with its soft, forgiving action, and several companies are making modern versions of ‘glass rods.
Most modern fly rods are made of graphite. It's light, strong and versatile. The ones with the best construction and design are superb, and their price tags reflect it. They're a delight to fish, and as Tom Dorsey of Thomas & Thomas once told me, "There's still such a thing as pride of ownership."
But again, today's mid-priced rods are terrific. And after all, it's not the rod that counts, but how you use it.
Buy the best rod you can afford. But don’t worry if you need to stick to the lower price points; you’ll still have a fine casting tool that will bring you many hours of enjoyment.