The Lowdown on Long Rods
Fly Fishing by Craig Riendeau
Every time I meet someone who is interested in starting to fly fish for smallies, one of the first questions out of their mouths is which rod should I use? I hope they weren't looking for a quick one-line answer, because you know you're in for an ear full when I start with,"it depends".
It';s sort of like seeing a golfer about to start the back nine of the course and asking, "What club are you going to use to play these holes?" It depends on where and when you ask and what he';s trying to do with the ball at that given point in the round. It's the same for fly-casting.
Ideally, I would like to have several different weight rods, with different actions to cast different lines (floating vs. sinking) to carry different types of flies (floater, divers or sinkers) to fish different locations (moving water, still water, deep or shallow) in different weather (windy or calm).
Have I scared you out of fly-fishing yet? I hope not. It's really not that complicated or much different than trying to pick one and only one spinning rod to fish with for an entire day. You try to find the one that best fits the most of your requirements and has the fewest drawbacks for the job at hand.
Before we look at what different rods can do for you, lets understand what makes a fly cast in the first place. Unlike spin fishing where it's the weight of the lure that pulls the line out through the guides, in fly-fishing you throw the weighted line that carries the fly with it. In fact, you're using the weight of the fly line along with the speed of the cast to flex the rod so it (the rod) throws the fly line. If you're using a lot of arm motion in an attempt to throw the line, you're doing it improperly. The rod, not your arm, should be doing most of the work.
What you are trying to accomplish is called "loading the rod". That';s where you have enough fly line (your casting weight) out side the rod guides to flex the rod, creating a tension not unlike a taunt bowstring. This in turn propels the fly line forward taking the fly with it.
Most fly lines come with a number designation of 3through 12. These numbers correspond to a certain amount of weight for the first 30 feet of the fly line. Fly rods also come with this number designation, which means it takes "x" amount of weight to properly flex this rod to cast most efficiently. If a number 8 fly line weighs "x" amount of weight, then we should be using it on a #8 rod to match. The higher the number, the heavier the line. The more weight in the line, the larger and more wind resistant fly you can throw.
Small mouth flies run the gamut in sizes, from a small#12 nymph to a 1/0 top water hair bug. The average flies are usually #8-#4. Flies of these sizes can be cast with a rod of five weight or more. Any rod heavier than a nine weight would be overkill. Lets save the five weight for the skilled caster and the #9 for really windy days and that leaves us #6-7-8. The #6 would be great for small streams, smaller flies and the need for a delicate presentation. The #8 can throw larger flies, also cut into a wind better, turn a large fish from cover and get a better hook set. If you had to settle on just one, take the #7, it's a good compromise of the 6 and 8.
How about rod length? You can buy fly rods in an incredible array of lengths, but most are between 7 and 10 feet long. Short rods are great in small streams where short casts (less than 25 feet) are typical. They're also good in locations where you have lots of overhead brush and you need to keep your casts low, or don't have room to maneuver a long rod.
On the other hand, long rods make long casts. They keep back casts over stream side vegetation; they mend a fly line better and can hold more line off the water for a drag free drift. For these last two reasons alone, I';d prefer a somewhat longer rod over a short one. I have a preference for nine footers.
Then there's the matter of rod action, fast, medium or slow. A fast rod uses the top 15% of thread to do most of the work. The tip is real soft action while 85% of the rod is stiff. This means tit takes less weight (a shorter fly line) to properly load the rod. Fast rods make short, quick casts very well and have the butt strength to make very long casts. They are also very strike sensitive, have muscle to horse on a fish and get good hook sets. Unlike small trout flies, you have to "set" the hook with bass bugs. Because they're quick, they are less forgiving to casting mistakes, and beginners can find them difficult to cast. Because of the fast line speed, they are very good at overcoming winds. This quickness lends itself to being excellent for sinking lines. The first 30 feet of a sinking line is no heavier than the 30 feet of a similar weight floating line. The difference is it';s thinner or denser making it cut through the water and the air faster. Sinking lines have no so called "hang time" in the air, they drop like rocks, and so your casting speed must be faster to keep it airborne. Hence a fast action rod keeps the pace, where a slower rod would not be done flexing with the forward cast before the line starts to fall and you need to start your back cast, making for some sloppy casting. Also if you line shooting headlines, this is your cannon.
A medium action rod uses the top 30% of the rod to do most of the work. It takes having a little more line out of the guides to feel like it's casting correctly. To overcome this, don';t retrieve your fly all the way to the rod tip; leave 15 feet of the line beyond the tip to start off with some weight to flex this rod. This rod works relatively well at close range and can still fire a cast longer than you usually need to. It can overcome moderate breeze; yet lay down a delicate cast. Because more of the rod is flexing, you have more time to judge when to begin your forward and back casts, making casting easier and smoother. This rod can handle sinking and sink-tip lines well in most conditions. Only a strong headwind will make casts difficult. These rods are a little soft for shooting heads, especially the high-speed sinkers. Then these are specialty type lines that most fly fishers never use. They're mostly used for long casts and deep or very fast water.
A slow action rod flexes all the way to the butt of the rod. Again, with more rod flex, the more fly line you need beyond the rod tip to feel it';s casting correctly. I find this type of rod best for casting flies that I'm not retrieving, but only drifting. You make a cast of a specific length, let it drift in the current, then pick up the entire line length and cast it out again in one motion, keeping the rod fully loaded and not shortening the line. Besides drifting flies, soft rods are good for hair bugs because or their wind resistant nature. Casting hair bugs is like throwing cotton balls into the wind. They move really slow. With the extensive flex of a slow rod, it too seems to move in slow motion, keeping the rod, the line and the fly all moving together. With hair bugs, I also fish on a long line, not retrieving them to the rod. Cast them to cover, the "pop" them 3 or 4 times, if you don't get a hit, pick up the full line in one motion and cast the bug to the next target. The downside of a soft rod is that any wind can do terrible things to a slow moving cast. Also hook sets at long range are an iffy thing. Soft rods are miserable with sinking lines. They flex too slow to cast them well, lack butt strength to pull the line out of the water to start anew cast and will never get you a good hook set with all the water tension on the submerged line.
Soft rods do excel when you are using very small hook sizes because they keep line tension while having a lot of give in the rod to not pull the hook out. This is also helpful with fish with tender mouths like crappie.
OK, so these are the pros and cons of different rod types. I'll admit that there are ways around some of the "problems" by over weighting a rod, or weight forward line, but that's fodder for another article, we'll stick with the basics here.
As you can probably see, one rod doesn't cover all the bases, you have to consider what methods and where you fish most. Let me take that confused look off you face by suggesting a rod type to start with. Use this one to get your feet wet and when you become an addict, add to the collection. Here in the middle of the middle west, do what comes natural, pick the middle. A #7 weight rod of nine feet in length, with a medium fast taper will do nicely. This rod will be either perfect or adequate in about 90% of all situations you may encounter.
Which brand is good and do you need to spend hundreds of dollars on a rod? Unless you're an accomplished caster, do not spend big bucks on a rod, even if you can. Until you get good at casting, you'll have no idea of why this rod is better and the heavy price alone won't help you catch any fish, unless you beat them with it.
The best rod for the bus is a ST. Croix. They have three levels; the Imperial, the Avid, and the Legend Ultra. They go from $150 to $300 and are as good as rods twice the price. Yes fly rods get that expensive and $300 is considered the middle of the road.
More moderate are L.L. Beans Quest Series. From $130 to $220 you get a rod, reel, fly line, pre-strung leader and a rod case.
Even easier on the billfold are Bass Pro Shops White River Series of rods. You can get a decent rod/reel/line combo from $60 to $150. Doesn't get much better. Good rods, just minus the frills.
Then the unbelievable. Recently a fly fishing magazine did a blind rod casting test. The testers were not allowed to know whose rod they were casting, but judged them by cost categories. A runaway winner was Cabalas'; Stowaway Series of 5 pc. Travel rods. Rod, reel, fly line and travel case for about $120. This is a real steal.
Well that's the lowdown on fly rods. I told you that you'd get an ear full. You know what, just borrow one from someone you know and give it a try. Or just give me a call and we can do some lessons. You may surprise yourself and find out that you're a natural, maybe the next Harry Murry. Billy Westmoreland with a fly rod. I heard he fishes with flies, doesn't he?