Traditionally a quiet time for fly anglers, winter offers an excellent opportunity to evaluate your gear in preparation for the coming fishing season—or a trip to the fly shop. Of all the new items you may be tempted to acquire, the most glamorous and seductive is the fly rod. Long, light, elegant and expensive, the right rod feels like an extension of your body. But the wrong one can lead to frustration, wasted time and tendonitis. Whether you’re looking for your first rod or your fifth, here’s how to find the perfect match.
Perversely, picking a rod starts with deciding what weight fly line you need. Ranging from 1 to 14, the line weight actually refers to the fly line’s diameter and power. Smaller, thinner lines are designed to pair with lighter, thinner rods for offering delicate presentations to small or easily spooked fish. Heavier lines let you cast larger flies and longer distances using bigger, more powerful rods. Thus, the number one rule of fly tackle is that you must pair your rod with the correct line (and, less critically, the reel). All rods have their weight printed just above the handle, and this number functions as shorthand to describe the whole set-up (a 5-weight outfit, for example).
Choosing the right line and rod weight is about finding the correct balance between power and delicacy. To do that, you must answer two questions: What are you fishing for and where are you doing it? An outfit that’s too small can’t cast large flies, and tough fish or high winds will overpower it. An outfit that’s too heavy, on the other hand, sucks the fun out of catching little guys and fatigues your arm. There are general rules for selecting a weight, which the experts at your local fly shop should be able to explain (also see “Rod rules” below).
Next in the hierarchy of fly rod needs is the “action,” which describes the flexibility of a rod. This is crucial to the rod’s performance, yet often overlooked. The terminology is a bit obtuse, but actions range from fast (stiff) to slow (very flexible). Rod action generally scales with weight, but there is still wide variation.
Medium-action rods have a flexible top half and a stiffer butt, which favours accuracy over distance. These rods are versatile, easy to cast and the best choice for beginners. Slow-action rods have the noodle-like flexibility of bamboo and are strictly for aficionados. Fast-action rods are the least flexible and most powerful. They excel in windy conditions and for launching large flies, but they require a good casting technique. Splitting the difference, medium-fast rods blend versatility and performance.
Quality manufacturers list the rod’s action among the specs, though typically not on the handle. And no, you can’t determine a fly rod’s action by holding one end and wiggling the middle. As for length, choose a nine-foot rod, or perhaps an 8½-footer, for 4- and 5-weight set-ups. Two-piece rods are lighter, with a marginally smoother flex, but for ease of travel, get a four-piece rod. Choose whatever grip shape feels comfortable, in either cork or one of the new styles akin to a golf club grip.
Modern fly rods have gotten so good that you can now find a quality, high-performance rod between $100 and $150, while spending more than $250 gets you a fantastic rod that will last for decades. You can, of course, spend a lot more. I’ve cast $1,500 rods, and while they’re truly things of beauty, the difference in performance compared with less expensive offerings was near imperceptible. Still, if a 24-karat rod makes you happy, follow your heart. Hey, if all our decisions were driven by logic, we wouldn’t be fly anglers to begin with.
Associate editor Scott Gardner’s favourite fly rod is his medium-fast-action 8-weight.. or maybe his 3-, 5-, 6-, 9- or 10-weight sticks.