Some guidance on buying fishing tackle
by Terry Lawton
Over recent weeks and months it has become obvious that many beginners and newcomers to fly fishing are having difficulty in deciding what tackle to buy, particularly rods, reels and lines. It would seem that advice available in product reviews and tackle shops is not always that helpful or, perhaps, worse, often out of date and plain wrong. I don't say that everything in this article is not open to challenge - and anglers do have different ideas on the best rod or line for a particular use - but it is based on commonsense and practical experience and I look forward to receiving any legitimate challenges.
One of the first things to be said is that there is great pleasure to be had in owning and using quality fishing tackle. Such tackle can be expensive but it is not necessary to spend vast sums of money on an outfit for a beginner. Indeed it would be a waste of money and might even be counter-productive because a high-end, fast action rod might be almost impossible for a beginner to cast. So start off with tackle suitable for your level of competence, learn the good and bad points and when you are more knowledgeable, go and buy yourself a better outfit. You can always keep your first outfit as a spare, or even hand it on to another beginner.
I am sure that most anglers would like to have the latest items of tackle so that they can show them off to their friends, but it is not essential. And it is worth remembering that some so-called advances in rod design or manufacturing and materials do not always work. The use of Boron fibres in rod blanks is an example of a development that did not work initially but is now back on the market again.
Although it is possible to cast a flyline without a rod, it is not a very practical way to fish. So a rod is an essential piece of equipment. Unless you are going to be fishing very big rivers, the most important thing about a rod for river fishing is that it will cast well and accurately at short to medium distances. So when trying a rod don't immediately try to cast the whole line. This will tell you nothing about how the rod will perform for casts of 30 to 40 feet. Even stillwater fishermen should remember that there are always plenty of fish to be caught close inshore or close to the bank.
The number of sections of a rod is becoming less of an issue. When multi-piece travel rods were first introduced, there was concern that their casting action and weight would be compromised by the extra ferrules and sections. The design and manufacture of multi-piece rods has advanced so much that for all practical purposes it is very hard to tell the difference between a two-piece rod and one of three, four or even five pieces. The great thing about travel rods is that they are so much more convenient than traditional two piece rods. I would certainly buy a three-piece rod in preference to a two-piece and a four-piece in preference to a three-piece rod.
Another potential nightmare for the tyro fly-fisher is the wide range of material specifications offered by rodmakers and inconsistency in the way materials are described. The main driver here seems to be ever higher modulus carbon cloth to produce stiffer and faster rods. Look in a catalogue and you will find rods made from 42 ton high-modulus graphite, 'the strongest and most advanced materials on the market today', Graphite IIIe, 46 ton graphite, 44 million modulus graphite: to know what they all mean you need to have access to some pretty technical knowledge. Some of the words used are brand names of carbon fibre (or graphite) such as IM6 and the use of different units of measurement of the modulus of elasticity of the carbon fibres simply adds to the confusion. Many rodmakers don't bother to describe the materials they use. Some companies, Orvis for example, are using the latest materials and manufacturing processes to build rods that are smaller in diameter and therefore easier to cast as they offer less wind resistance. What materials are used to make a rod are of very little importance compared with how the rod casts and fishes.
Rod or casting action
In very simple terms a fast rod will be (very) stiff and a slow rod will be (very) flexible. The fast-action rod will bend very little and what bend there is will tend to be towards the tip of the rod, whereas the slow rod will bend more and from tip to handle. A medium action will be somewhere in the middle. Don't go into a tackle shop - or even when buying by mail order - and think that you have got to buy the fastest rod available. Highly competent casters or people who fish all the time at long distances may well benefit from a fast action rod. For more enjoyable fishing and casting over a wide ranges of distances, from a few feet to most of the line, a medium (or mid) to medium/fast action rod will be a better buy. Something that is described as middle to tip. One problem here, particularly for newcomers, is that there is no consistent designation of rod action and no standard for measuring rod action, as there is for flyline weights (although the line weight system has it flaws, it is, in general, understood and accepted internationally).
Progressive through-tapers and middle or middle to tip tapers tend to be more forgiving to cast with than a rod with a fast or tip-action. The greater flexibility of progressive through-action rods is good for protecting fine tippets and is popular with anglers who prefer a more traditional action. Such rods will please the angler who prefers a slower casting stroke and who fishes at close range. A progressive action rod will bend and provide plenty of feel when playing a fish.
A medium action will provide excellent performance over a wide range of fishing conditions and casting styles. Such a rod is ideal for the angler who regularly fishes a range of conditions. It will load with a shorter line which is important for casting and fishing at close range.
A fast or tip action is good for high speed casting as it will create high line speeds, tight loops and good accuracy and range. Such rods can take some getting used to as you have to get the timing absolutely spot-on and they will demand a shorter casting stroke. These rods will have plenty of butt strength for fighting big, powerful fish.
If you buy a rod from a reputable maker, it should be made from the best - or at least the right - materials for its use, using appropriate manufacturing methods.
Before starting to research this article, I received the following comment from a visitor to Fish & Fly: 'I read recently one authoritative source stating that the weight of the reel should be heavy enough to balance that of the rod or you will get undue vibration. Then I read another commentator stating categorically the ideal reel would weigh nothing - any weight at all causing undue vibration!! How could anyone come to an informed judgement with so many conflicting opinions stated as fact?'. How indeed.
I think that the business of reel weight and whether or not it balances a rod is thoroughly out of date. Years ago when rods had significant weight - Victorian split cane rods often weighed as much as an ounce per foot - then the weight of the reel would have been significant and balance would also have been an issue. Today, carbon rods are, in practical terms, almost weightless so it makes sense to use the lightest possible reel, in my opinion. A light 8 foot 3# or 4# rod which you would use for fishing small rivers and streams is going to be ruined if used with a large reel weighing perhaps six ounces - twice as much as the rod. No, the right reel is the lightest that you can find, or afford, and one at about 3 ounces, about the same weight as the rod, will be right. A heavy reel will make casting harder and more tiring.
Vibration will be caused by bad rod design or manufacture or bad casting: overloading the rod or perhaps applying too much power at the wrong time. A heavy reel on a light rod will feel wrong and if that rod has a tendency to vibrate, then the weight of the reel will make it even more unpleasant to use.
Reels for fishing on big lakes and reservoirs, rivers where big fish may be caught, including sea trout, should be large enough to hold up to 100m (or yards) of backing. Any of these fish could easily run far enough to take all the line off the reel and even much of the backing. It is not difficult to buy a reel for the right size of line that will have plenty of capacity for the backing.
As an example of the different backing capacities for reels, the Loop Traditional is an interesting example. The Midge and Nymph reels, for 5# and 4# lines respectively, hold only 50 yards of backing and the Dry Fly with 6# line holds 75 yards. The 2W and 3W models, which are nearly twice as heavy as the ones just mentioned, both hold 150 yards of backing. So they are obviously bigger reels for fishing bigger waters and catching bigger fish. It will not be until you start thinking about saltwater fly fishing for tarpon and the like that you will need more backing (up to 300 yards) and a disc drag that will stop a runaway train.
A reel's drag system becomes more important the bigger the fish likely to be caught. Big trout in, for example, the USA , Scandinavia or New Zealand, are very likely to be big enough to justify buying a reel with a good drag system (as well as capacity for plenty of backing). Choose a system that is smooth and easy to adjust.
Lines do effect the way a rod casts and some are definitely easier than others to cast. Most manufacturers of fly lines have realised this and now make special beginners' fly lines. Rods are marked just above the handle with the right weight of line. Start by following the maker's recommendation for weight of line. While it may not always be completely accurate, it won't be too far wrong to start with.
What is the best taper to choose: weight forward or double taper? Chose the one that you can cast best. For many years the double taper line was the line of choice for river fishing and accurate, delicate presentation. Weight forward lines were only for stillwater anglers who wanted to be able to cast enormous distances. I think that the developments that have been made in the design and manufacture of fly lines and particularly the design of line tapers, mean that there are now weight forward lines available that will present a fly just as delicately as a double taper line. And they have the advantage of being easier to cast and better when you need to make a longer than average cast. If you can cast a weight forward line better than a double taper, then I am sure that you will make better casts. Good presentation and accurate casting are what you want and if you can do this better with a weight forward line, stick to it, whatever your fellow anglers may say.
For rivers and streams, rod of between eight and nine feet in length and for a 4# line will be ideal. Bigger rivers rod should be 8' 6' to nine feet, or perhaps 9' 6', for a 5# or 6# or even 7# line.
Nine foot 6# rods will make a useful small to medium stillwater rod or even light sea trout outfit. Bigger reservoir rods of up to 10 feet and for 7# or 8# lines can also be used for sea trout, pike and even fishing summer salmon spate rivers, as well as bank or boat fishing lochs and reservoirs.
Fishing, like any other sport, is subject to market trends and manufacturers are always looking to produce new and better rods, reels, lines etc. Some are improvements and advances, others are not. If you have got a rod, reel and line that works for you and that you enjoy casting, then stick with them. As you build-up experience and knowledge, you will/may realise that your rod, for example, has short-comings. When you know what they are - it might lack accuracy for short casts - then you can start looking for a rod which is very accurate at short range.
Balance is important in making sure that your complete outfit is balanced, or in balance. This means that the rod length, reel, line size, leader, tippet and size of fly are all in harmony. To explain what this means, start at the business end: the fly and tippet. A fine, small diameter tippet will not turn-over and present properly a large or bushy fly. Equally a thicket, strong tippet will not let a tiny size 16 dry fly float as though it was not attached to anything. The same goes for the fly line: it is wrong to use a 7# or 8# line on a small stream where short accurate casts are the order of the day.
Although it is not necessary to spend a fortune buying all the tackle that you need, some cheap tackle is not nice and can make life difficult for the less experienced. One of the pleasures of fly fishing is owning and enjoying use good quality equipment. But spend your money only when you really know what you want to buy and so can buy with confidence. Even then mistakes are still made!
Fish with tackle and flies in which you have confidence, present them well and, above all enjoy your fishing!
Terry Lawton is a passionate nymph fisherman who caught his biggest wild brown trout (in the UK) - 4lb 2oz - on a home-tied variant of a goldhead, Sawyer-style pheasant tail nymph.
Articles by the same author
- Essential Skills - Dry Fly and Mayfly with Oliver Edwards
- New Canadian Beaver report spells doom for Scottish salmon
- Fly Fishing for Atlantic Bass - new book reviewed
- The Streamside Guide - Road Trips
- Wet Fly Fishing on Rivers - Essential Skills with Oliver Edwards
- Venezuelan smorgasbord at Los Roques
- Pope of the Madison
- The principles of layering - the base layer
- Game Fishing by Bob Church
- The Streamside Guide - Planning the Trip