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Choosing a new fly rod

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Choosing a new fly rod is an intensely personal and somewhat subjective exercise, a bit like choosing a new car. It is not possible to lay down a set of rigid rules to follow, neither is there one rod that is 'best' for everything. There are, however certain things to be aware of which should help you to make the right decision and I have attempted to set out those things in this article.


The first thing to identify when choosing a new rod is the type of fly fishing it is going to be used for and the size, weight and numbers of flies which will be cast. Because the fly is carried out to the fish by the fly line it is important to match the weight of line to the size and number of flies being cast. Therefore casting large and wind resistant flies to pike will require a considerably heavier fly line than casting a single size 16 dry fly to trout on small rivers and streams. Below is guidance for matching line weight to fly size.

  1. Very small flies of size 16 and under (midge fishing) - lines of AFTM 4 and below.
  2. Dry flies, nymphs and wet flies of size 10 to 18 - lines of AFTM 4 to 6
  3. Flies of size 8 to 14, flies which are heavily weighted, and bushy wind- resistant flies - lines of AFTM 6 to 8
  4. Large flies and lures of size 2 to 8 - lines of AFTM 7 to 9
  5.  Very large flies such as those used in fly fishing for pike - lines of AFTM 9 to 11.

The above information is intended only for guidance and there is considerable overlapping of fly size and line size. The size of fly that can be comfortably cast on any given line will also depend to a large extent on the casting skill of the angler using it. It is also necessary to take into account the number of flies on the leader; so whilst a single size 14 nymph may be cast comfortably on a line size AFTM 4, a team of three size 14 nymphs will be handled with considerably less aplomb. If you are a novice or an average caster, I would strongly advise that you select a heavier rather than lighter weight line because not only will this handle the larger flies more easily, it will also deal better with fishing in windy conditions.


As well as taking fly size into consideration when selecting what line weight to go for, account should also be taken of the species of fish to be caught and the likely size to be encountered. So, for example, whilst most tarpon flies can be comfortably cast on an 8 weight rod and line this tackle would not be adequate if large fish are expected, so a heavier 11 or 12 weight rod and line should be selected.

Having made the decision as to the line weight best for your needs you need then to look at various rods designed to cast that particular weight of line.


Next I think that the length of the rod and the effect that has on fishing and casting with it should be considered. As a general rule shorter rods are better for accurate casting but lack power and stiffness in the butt section and longer rods give more control over the drift of the line and are better for line 'mending'. The extra length also means that they have more power or stiffness in the butt section for any given line weight. For instance, a seven foot rod rated for a 4 weight line will have very little power or stiffness in its butt section and so will only be suitable for catching fairly small fish, but a 9 foot rod rated for a 4 weight line will have much more power and stiffness in the butt section in order to support the weight of the tip, so it can be used successfully to catch quite large fish.

Fly fishing often means that the rod is cast many times throughout the course of a day and the rod is almost always held in the hand, not placed in rod rests, so it is important that the rod is neither too heavy or so long that it puts excessive strain on the muscles of the casting hand, wrist and arm. It is a fairly popular belief that a longer rod will allow the user to cast further but this isn't necessarily the case because the longer the rod, the more the weight of the line at the tip of the rod is felt at the casting hand. This is easily demonstrated by taking a house brick (or similar weight) and holding it in your hand and feeling how heavy it feels, then tie the brick (or similar weight) to the end of a long pole, such as a broom handle, and try lifting it off the ground whilst holding the other end of the pole and feel how much heavier the brick seems; the leverage is acting against the angler. To cast well you must have good control over the rod and be able to rotate it quickly enough to give sufficient speed through the air, a rod that is too long will feel heavy and sluggish. A rod that is too short will rob you of some distance and make controlling the drift of the line, and the runs of a hooked fish more difficult. Here are suggested rod lengths for various situations:

  1. For fishing tiny rivers and brooks - 7' to 7' 6''
  2. For average sized rivers - 8' to 9'
  3. For small still waters and larger rivers 8' 6'' to 9' 6''
  4. For large still waters and reservoirs 9' to 10'
  5. For pike and salt water flats fishing 9' to 9' 6''

Again this is a rough guide and personal choice and special conditions and methods have to be taken into account, as in the following examples:

  1. For traditional upstream wet fly on rivers such as the Eden, or Czech nymphing a 10' rod may well be chosen because of the added control this allows over the drift of the flies.
  2. For traditional 'over the front' fly fishing from a boat, on lochs and reservoirs a longer rod of 10' or 11' may well be chosen because of the added control this gives over the action of the flies (and especially the top dropper) in the water.
  3. For still water fly fishing from the banks of reservoirs a fit strong man may well choose a 9' 6'' or 10' rod but a very young, or elderly person, or a lady may find this too much to cope with and will be much more comfortable with a rod of 9' or even 8' 6''.
  4. In any situation where very large flies and very heavy lines are called for a shorter rod of 8' 6'' to 9' will be more manageable than anything longer.
  5. For fly fishing off beaches where there is surf a longer rod is sometimes an advantage so something of 9' to 10' is usually required.


I see rod action as falling into one of the following three categories.

  1. Fast Action - this action is apparent in rods in which the butt section is very stiff and bends only a little whilst the flexible tip does most of the bending and unbending during casting and fishing. This is sometimes also called 'tip action' or 'tip flex'.
  2. Slow Action - this describes rods in which the butt section flexes quite obviously and actively, even during short casts and the tip is relatively stiff in order to drive the action, or bend, further down the rod. This is sometimes also called 'butt action' or 'full flex'.
  3. Moderate Action - this lies somewhere between fast and slow and the butt section is neither obviously stiff, nor flexible. This is sometimes described as 'middle to tip', 'tip to middle' or mid flex action.

Which action you eventually choose will be influenced by the type of fishing you do, your individual casting style and your personality. If you have a more aggressive, shorter, compact casting stroke you may well prefer the tip action rod, but if you prefer a more relaxed, slower style of casting and a longer casting stroke, then the easier action of the fuller flex rods may suit you better. The only way to find out is through experience but for a beginner, novice or average caster I strongly recommend that any of the extremes of rod action are avoided and a 'moderate', 'middle to tip' or 'mid flex' action rod is bought.

No matter what action you decide upon, it is essential that it is fully progressive. That is to say, the bend must move progressively further down the rod as more load is applied, with no 'flat spots' and no evidence of the blank 'locking-up' and becoming rigid at any point. For example, some of the more poorly designed tip action rods have tips which are too flexible compared to the very stiff butt and consequently the tip of the rod can overload or 'fold under' when a powerful casting force is applied which, often leads to a tailing loop in the line.

Another very important characteristic to consider is that of 'feel'. Some rods, whilst they cast adequately well, have a somewhat 'dead' or 'vague' feel to them and don't communicate the feeling of the cast to the angler, this makes it more difficult to get the timing and the correct application of force right. In my view these rods are also less pleasurable to cast and fish with because the sense of the rod loading and unloading is part of the fun of fly casting; a rod that 'speaks' to you is a much nicer fishing companion than one that remains 'silent'. The only way to assess whether or not a rod has this 'feel' is to try it out and cast with it.


This, again, is another subjective area and each individual must decide if the rod looks 'good' or not, but here are a few of my thoughts on the matter.

  1. Glossy finishes on carbon fibre rods add only cost and dead weight in as well as the excellent fish scaring capabilities of a demented heliograph as they are cast and fished with, so I like a plain matt grey carbon finish on my fly rods.
  2. I think it is an advantage if all rings and fittings are as light as reasonably possible. For example on a light trout rod I see no need for anything other than a simple butt cap and ring for holding the reel in place. For a salt water rod all fittings will need to be resistant to the corrosive effects of salt water.
  3. The shape of the handle is not critical, but it mustn't be too thick especially where smaller hands are concerned.
  4. Rings or eyes - as a rule of thumb look for one ring for each foot of rod length plus one or two, plus the tip ring. The ring nearest the reel, or 'stripping ring' should be a robust lined ring of fairly large diameter. In the case of heavy duty rods at least the first two rings should be lined.
  5. Wrappings should be neat and without excessive amounts of epoxy sealer creating what I call 'rugby balls' around each wrapping.


If I were forced to fish with only one fly rod for the rest of my fishing life what sort of rod would it be? Accepting that most of my fishing will be for trout in still waters and on rivers I would most probably decide on a 4-piece rod (so much easier and more convenient to transport), of 9 feet in length (long enough to deal with most situations but not so long that it is too restrictive on smaller rivers and streams) rated for a 5 weight or 6 weight line. If most of my fishing were on still waters with only an occasional foray onto rivers, it would probably be the 6 weight, which could also be used for light salt water work, but if most of my fishing were on rivers with only a few trips to the reservoir then the 5 weight would make more sense.

With fly rods, as with most things in life, you tend to get what you pay for but there are many rods at the budget price end of things which are very good, just as there are one or two more expensive rods which are, perhaps, not as good as they should be and there is absolutely no substitute for a 'test drive'. When testing a rod try to use the line you intend fishing with, and make sure that it is clean, slick and in good condition. Always 'try before you buy' is the maxim, by all means read the opinion of others in rod tests and seek the opinions of fly fishing friends but remember that you are the one who has to use the rod so you must be happy with it. Trust your own judgement, and remember there isn't a rod yet built that will turn a mediocre caster into a good caster and I would always recommend that money and time is spent perfecting casting skills before large sums are spent on rods or other items of equipment.

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