How To Fly Fish Series: How to choose the right rod for your fishingby Fly Fisherman Magazine | January 3rd, 2017
To get started fly fishing, at the very least you’ll need a rod, reel, line, and a box full of flies. If you are shore fishing for pond panfish or wet wading a small trout stream on a hot summer day, you can be comfortable in sneakers and shorts, but to fully immerse yourself in all trout fishing has to offer you’ll also need waders and boots; a wading jacket; and a vest or chestpack to help carry your flies, leaders, tippet, split-shot, hemostats, and often a water bottle, lunch, and camera.
Choosing a Rod
All rods have several important characteristics—length, line weight, and pieces. This information is usually printed in some abbreviated form on the base of the rod shaft near the cork grip or handle and on the outside of the rod tube.
Line weight. When someone says “I’m using a 4-weight rod,” they are not actually referring to the weight of the rod, they are referring to the weight of the line the rod is best suited for. (The actual weight of the rod in ounces is usually printed on the rod shaft along with the line weight.)
You can purchase fly lines in weights 0 through 15, and fly rods are sold in corresponding “weights” to match these lines. A 5-weight rod is designed for a 5-weight line, a 10-weight rod is designed for a 10-weight line, etc. Expert casters sometimes over- or underline their rods for specific purposes, but if you are a beginner it is important that your line and rod are correctly matched.
The line weight is important for many reasons. A heavier line traveling at the same speed as a light line has more kinetic energy and can more easily deliver larger flies over longer distances and help you overcome obstacles such as wind. Since a rod made for a heavier line is also heavier (in ounces) and stiffer by design, it is a more efficient tool for landing large fish such as steelhead, salmon, or saltwater fish such as tuna and billfish.
The drawbacks of a heavier line weight are obvious. Heavier line weights are more tiring to cast. It’s possible to cast an 8- or 9-weight line and rod all day, but it is physically challenging. A heavier line lands on the water with a splat that can startle trout in calm water, and a rod that is too heavy can take the fun out of landing a small, beautiful native trout.
A common line weight for most trout fishers today—in medium to large rivers and stillwaters—is a 5-weight. It has the heft to cast grasshopper imitations or a nymph and strike indicator rig on a windy Western river, but is still adequate for smaller dry flies and wary trout.
As you develop your fly-fishing preferences you’ll find a need for a lighter rod for especially spooky trout in flat water, small flies, spring creeks, and tiny mountain brooks. A 5-weight is a good rod in a drift boat or wading a large river, but if you get into bass—which sometimes require large flies—or large trout and steelhead on big rivers where long casts are required, you may want a 6-weight or larger.
Rod length. Most trout rods are from 7 to 9½ feet long. Anything shorter or longer than that is a specialized casting tool you may consider later.
Your first 5-weight rod for trout fishing in medium to large rivers should be 8½ to 9 feet long. Ask at your local fly shop what length they use on your home waters.
Long rods give you more line control—you can lift more line from the water and reposition it more easily when you have a longer lever. However, longer rods are a little heavier, more awkward in a boat with two anglers, and more likely to catch on overhanging branches and shrubs while casting. Longer rods up to 10 feet are excellent for stillwater fishing from a float tube where there is no shrubbery and your body is low to the water—the extra length can help maintain your casting distance.
Rod pieces. Twenty years ago, most rods came in two pieces with a ferrule in the middle to join the sections. An 8-foot rod would come in a 4-foot tube that easily fit in the trunk of your car. Four-piece rods were considered travel rods, since the compact size was easy to pack in carry-on airline luggage. Most fly fishers preferred 2-piece rods since 4-piece rods were generally heavier and the extra ferrules acted as “dead spots” on the rod that hampered the rod action.
Today, modern materials and construction techniques have mostly overcome these drawbacks, and most experts agree that the 4-piece models of top brands now cast just as well as their 2-piece counterparts. Due to their convenient size, far more people buy multi-piece rods, and some companies no longer sell 2-piece rods.
Beware of buying rods with too many sections—such as 5- and 7-piece rods—unless you have a specific need. Ferrules can slip and twist and you can break the rod at the ferrule if you seat it incorrectly. A 4-piece rod fits in any backpack, you can strap it to a mountain-bike frame, and you can stow it in an overhead bin on any commercial jet. There’s rarely a need for anything more compact.
How much should you spend? As with a bottle of wine, a high price doesn’t guarantee a great rod, but it’s a reliable indicator. Taste is also an important factor and everyone has different preferences. You can often find a bottle of wine—or a rod you enjoy casting—for a moderate price.
The most important thing you can do is to test cast different rods at your local fly shop. If you don’t have a fly shop where you live, or you haven’t yet learned to cast and can’t tell the difference between a great rod and a broomstick, the next best choices are to rely on the advice of an experienced mentor, or buy an inexpensive rod just to get started and plan to replace it once you refine your skills.
Most fly rod manufacturers have entry-level or value rods for between $100-$275. These are a great way to get started without breaking the bank.
Another great way to learn to cast before you make your fly rod purchase is to enroll in a fly-fishing school. These programs frequently do a wonderful job of immersing new fly fishers in the world of entomology, casting, and presentations, and use of the school’s equipment is a good opportunity to “try before you buy.”
You immediately notice cosmetic differences between a value rod and a $700 premium rod—the cork has more imperfections, the rod guides are chrome—not titanium—the epoxy finish may not be as attractive, the reel seat insert may be graphite instead of exotic hardwood, and the reel seat hardware will be similarly inexpensive.
As you gain expertise, you may notice that these differences are far less important than the performance levels of an entry-level rod compared to a high-end rod that has different design specifications and proprietary materials. These expert-level rods are often lighter (in ounces), have a lighter feel or “swing weight,” and most importantly are designed for specific needs such as long casts, delicate presentations, or lifting heavy sinking lines.
Rod designers vary the graphite in their best rods—and sometimes add other materials like boron or Kevlar—and use high-tech resins, epoxy, and polymers to bind the graphite fibers into a cohesive tube. These advantages are unimportant to a beginning caster but as your skills and knowledge increase, you’re likely to seek the best rods to get the most out of your sport.