Choosing A Fly Rod (single handed, not Tenkara or Spay)
Choosing a new fly rod is easy if you know your exact needs and constraints. If not, you must lean toward a compromise general purpose rod. Look at five considerations that you should at least understand before saying, “I want that one.” In the end, I will give you my suggestion for that general purpose Colorado fly fishing rod.
Consider the classic fly shop question, “What will you be fishing for, or how?” It’s really the key question. Small streams mean smaller fish, smaller flies, and shorter accurate casts (2, 3, and 4 wt rods). Larger water including lakes get into larger fish and longer casts (5 and 6 wt rods). Then there is fishing for big fish with big flies (7 and 8 wt rods). Drift boat fishing benefits from the 5 and 6 wts because of the extra weight and strike indicators on the line, and the heavy large flies of streamer fishing suggest the 6 and 7 wt rods. Overall, a 5 wt is a good compromise. It’s overkill for the brook trout, and you will loose some of the bass that you can’t pull out of the weeds, but more than 80% of the time you are good to go.
Rod technology: cane (bamboo), fiberglass, graphite
The second consideration is rod technology. Carbon graphite is today’s common choice, but your dad fished fiberglass, and granddad fished cane or bamboo. All are available today. Fiberglass is re-growing in popularity, and cane rods have always lurked in the background. The chart below shows how my 5 wt graphite, fiberglass and cane rods deflect from horizontal with the same weight suspended from the tip.
The graphite rod is a medium action, not fast. The fiberglass and bamboo are slow. As the slow rods bend further under the same weight, it will take longer to complete the cast. In casting terms, bending is loading the rod, and the caster must slow down to load the slower rod.
The slower rod allows more time to control the cast, thus we hear slow rods make more accurate and delicate presentations. At the same time the line is exposed to the wind longer, and we hear fast rods handle the wind better. Increasing the pull on the rod tip by casting bigger and heaver flies, increases the bend of the rod. At some point the rod bends too much to control the line and achieve the cast. It is overloaded. The faster rod can manage more weight before overloading. It is better for long casts because there is more line weight in the air, and it’s faster line speed means less time exposed to air resistance.
It is the person, not the rod that performs, and in the hands of an expert all three rods are capable of delicate and/or long presentations. We are not all experts, but we can match our rod selection to our predominate fishing conditions and expertise. And we can enjoy, if not fully utilize the more relaxed dry fly presentation of a slower rod, or the intense heavy fly and wind defying capability of the fast rod.
Number of sections and rod length
Third, consider transporting and storing the rod. Four piece rods are the most common, but five and seven piece rods are available – think backpacking. Two piece are more traditional, but the rod case will be over four feet long. Today all of these configurations cast equally well. Nine feet has become a standard, but shorter is less troublesome among the trees.
I will mention price range as the fourth consideration, but your budget will peg its priority. Faster light weight rods require more costly materials, and are more expensive. Rod component technology and quality, guides, cork, and reel seats, can drive up cost. Labor always increases cost. Fancy guide wraps and beautiful finishs are expensive. All of these factors, particularly labor drive the cost of custom made rods. Cane rods are very labor intensive, and cost up to $3000. But, and this is big, the fish only sees the fly in the water, and doesn’t know what rod you used to get it there.
Feel in hand, including grip
How the rod performs and feels in your hand is the fifth consideration. It’s tough if you are a beginner. You won’t know what good feels like, and performance will be function of your inexperienced hand, not the rod. Here is where you want to deal with a credible fly shop representative that you trust. But, lets first understand the characteristics and terminology of fly rods.
Look at the tip deflection of three different Elkhorn 9 foot Traveler rods when a 140 gr weight is suspended from the tip. 140 grains is the weight of the first thirty feet of a 5wt line. It flexes the 5 wt rod tip 5 and ¼ inches. The same weight flexes the 4 wt rod more and the 6 wt rod less, as we should expect. Remember the discussion about under-lining and over-lining in the previous article about line selection. The point is, you can modify the performance and feel of your rod with line selection. A heavier line will bend the rod more and make it feel slower and a lighter line will make it feel faster.
Line makers know that rods are becoming faster and faster. They make lines that are a half or even a full weight heavy so that the rod feels slower and is easier for the non-expert to cast.
Finally, lets look at three different model Elkhorn rods, all 9 foot 5 wt rods. The differences are subtle, but significant in your hand. The Namaqua is closest to a progressive taper, a rod with a uniform taper from butt to tip, and a constantly increasing deflection. It will have a more relaxed traditional feel.
The Traveler bends more out to six feet, and then the tip deflects less, a “faster tip.” It has a sense of being slower, but then the fast tip will drive the line forward in the cast. You might say it feels slower, but performs faster.
The Amp rod bends the least in the butt, “fast butt” and has a slower tip. It will easily transfer the force of your cast to the tip, and the slower tip will give a feel of line control.
Recommendation – The All Purpose Colorado Fly Rod
Now, my simple recommendation for the general purpose Colorado fly rod, particularly for the beginner. A 5 weight will meet the broadest need, and 9 foot is standard. Graphite is the practical choice, and four pieces offer the widest selection. Stay between $200 and $400, and under $200 if you are just trying fly fishing. Choose a “medium action” rod. If you are shopping at Elkhorn, try a Traveler 9 foot 5 weight. Then see if a Namaqua or Amp feels better in your hand.