Fly Rod Selection…..a biased point of view
By Paul Prentiss

The fly rod is the primary tool and defining component of your fishing gear.  It delivers the fly, sets the hook, and lands the fish. It is also a flash point for heated debates.  Recently I overheard a discussion between several fishermen.  The topic, the value of premium rods ($300 to $600) verses less expensive products.  Each individual had an opinion that was passionately defended.  While sorely tempted, I didn't wade in to the fray, but decided to assemble a few of my thoughts in writing.

Numerous books, periodicals, catalogs, or internet resources deal at length with the classic "how to" on rod selection.  Consequently, I have no intention of creating yet another beginners guide.  This is simply my opinion on what matters.  One additional point, this discussion will not deal with bamboo fly rods – this is a separate topic which I leave to those more qualified to deal with it.  When I was young I had hand-me-down cane rods which were quickly relinquished with the arrival of fiberglass..  By the time I figured out bamboo rods were desirable, they had become too expensive.

Forget the idea that one rod is all you will ever need - this is absurd.  It might be possible if you only fish for one species in a restricted area using limited techniques.  Further, there is no such thing as the perfect ‘all-around’ rod.  The real question is "how many rods am I likely to secure over my fishing career."  So far, I've probably owned 100 rods over the last 50 years.  My advise is buy rods as needed for water, species, technique, and environment.  By environment I mean if you fish in areas where wind is constant problem a 2-weight outfit should not be your first choice.

The recommendation that beginners should always buy something inexpensive is poor advice.  Buy the best rod you can afford after talking with someone knowledgeable.  This is not the clerk in the discount store or the friend who has been fishing for a couple of years.  Find someone who really knows rods and is an acknowledged casting expert.

Buying a rods via the internet based on some gear review is a recipe for dissatisfaction.  This only works if you know exactly what you want and are familiar with the rod maker and the action of his products.  Keep firmly in mind that not all rods from the same manufacturer perform the same. 

Selecting a rod requires answering questions only you can answer.  Having someone else pick out a rod for you should be avoided.  In general, what "feels best” to you is apt to be the right choice.  This may sound a little strange, but it’s absolutely true

Higher prices do not always translate into higher quality.  On the other hand, it’s a pretty good indicator with the top suppliers.  If you're not sure what you’re doing, never buy the "great deal" from an unknown manufacturer. 

Premium rod manufacturers have spent considerable money field testing and refining the action of their rods to fit many different angling situations.  In general you'll get better components - guides, reel seats handles.  Better finish and more accessories - bags and tubes.  Find out about the company that makes the rod.  Understand the warranty and how problems will be handled. 

The fly fish speak language is particularly evident when fishermen and rod companies talk about products.  Unlike lines which adhere to standards, “fast-flex” “power-matrix” “progressive taper”, other descriptive adjectives mean nothing beyond the confines of a specific manufacturer. Reduced to its simplest terms, there are really only three-rod actions: slow, moderate, and fast

Most experts agree that beginners are better off with a fast or medium fast action rod because they are more forgiving with casting strokes that are not well executed.  However, building a good fast action rod is not a simple and inexpensive process.  There are few things worse than a poorly designed fast action rod.  Cheap fast action rods are heavier and often have a very stiff tip - caused by the mandrel and the amount of material applied. Consequently, loop control is far more difficult.

When looking at rods I always scrutinize the components and finish, I want to know about the weight and diameter, I look for muted colors and, depending on the rod size, I like smaller grips that are comfortable in my hand.  I have a thing for small rods (7 to 8-foot) for dry fly fishing.  They have some negatives in the arena of line control and can be more difficult to cast (in very short lengths).  On the other hand, they can be far less tiring to use and easier to maneuver in tight quarters.  A few ounces can mean a lot during the course of a full day of casting.  If you can throw a variety of mending casts, the line control issue is nominal.  If you think about it, the standard 9-foot really took center stage in the 1990’s. For those of you who think short rods are not effective I would point to Lee Wulff, the undisputed champion of the short rod, who proved conclusively, a long rod offered no advantage as he cast 80-feet or more to Atlantic Salmon using 7-foot rods.

I'm always fascinated by folks who decide to try out a rod on the sidewalk in front of a fly shop.  I never quite sure what they are trying to accomplish besides ruining the fly line.  If you want to try a rod, rent or borrow it (most shops can accommodate you) and take it to the local park for a couple of hours.  Anglers trying out a rod have a tendency to see how far the rod will cast rather than how well it will load at normal fishing distances.  Guess what, 90% of the time trout are caught within 40 feet of an angler.  Try to cast different loops with the rod, like the tight loop you'd use casting into the wind.  Then open the loop up to see how the rod handles line at a lower line speed.  A comment made some years ago by Tom Morgan of the Winston Rod Company was something to the effect that a rod that can throw lots of line is not always a good fishing rod.  “When you are fishing a great rod, it becomes an extension of your body and the fly simply goes where you direct it.”

How many sections should your rod have?  Buy 2-piece rod when you have no other choice.  Today there is virtually no difference in performance.  If you think giving a $600 rod protected by a carrying case to the airline baggage attendant is a smart move, think again.

Last, I’ve got a couple of comments on rod size.  Buy even or odd sizes - 4, 6, and 8-weight or 3, 5, 7-weights. Steer clear of the very small sizes 0 to 2-weight unless you are buying them for special use and have the skill to make them perform.  I have such rods and I use them occasionally but they are not well suited for the average angler.

After all of this, what’s my favorite setup for 90% of my trout fishing?  I like a 7 ½ to 8 ½-foot 4-piece for a 4-weight line.  For larger streamers and heavy nymphing I’ll turn to a 9-foot 6-weight outfit.