Of Rods and Reels

Choosing a Fly Rod


Do not confuse fly rod actions with those described on spinning rods— they are two different things. The action of a fly rod refers to how it bends along the blank (its foundation), not the classification of line it is designed to handle, as with many spinning and bait casting rods.

Tip - Flex (Fast Action)
A tip-flex fly rod has a high degree of stiffness and tip action, meaning it bends in the cast only about one-third of the way down the blank. (There are also very fast action rods that bend only about one-quarter of the way down the rod.) A tip-flex rod is able to cast a fly line farther with less effort than mid-flex and full-flex rods because the rod's modulus (degree of stiffness) is greater. However, it is not as accurate as its slower brethren. Tip-flex rods are best employed by more experienced casters, since they aren't very forgiving when it comes to mistakes made during the cast, i.e., reduced efficiency.

Mid - Flex (Medium Action )
The mid-flex fly rod splits the difference between tip-flex and full-flex rods by loading to about the middle of the blank during casting. This action does forgive more than fast action and is therefore used frequently in fly casting instruction for beginners. It is more accurate than the fast action, too, but does not generate the power of the tip-flex rod.

Full - Flex (Progressive Action)
The full-flex rod easily bends just about to the butt when casting. This is the action favored by fly-fishers who target spooky trout in small, tight streams where long casts aren't called for but great accuracy is. Full-flex, also known as parabolic or slow action, is demonstrated by a rod bending progressively more from tip to butt as the load is increased. (When we speak of"loading" the rod we refer to the power of the cast and the weight of the fly line that is in the air beyond the rod's tiptop, plus the weight of the leader, tippet, and fly. So, a full-flex rod will bend more and more as load is increased and power is applied.)


A note here on damping, which is how quickly the fly rod's tip stops vibrating after a quick movement; inertia, bend, rod stiffness, and drag are all part of this equation. Damping has been the bane of rod engineers ever since they realized that the longer it takes for the tip's wiggle to stop, the more wiggles form in the line; this results in lost casting efficiency.

All this has led engineers to search like mad for a way to get the rod tip to stop wiggling more quickly after a cast or mend. It now appears that The Orvis Company won the race by turning out their 1995 Trident Series of fly rods, which substantially increases the rate at which wiggle dies out. No doubt other manufacturers are developing construction techniques of their own to follow suit. Orvis intends to work this new technology into all their rods eventually, and they have already begun refining the Tridents.


Rod lengths run from 5 1/2 feet to 16 feet, with 8 1/2 feet or so being most common. The smallest fly rod I have ever come across was a tiny 5 1/2-foot rod owned by my friend John Kingsley-Heath, a retired professional hunter who enjoyed a 30-year career running safaris and doing control work in East Africa. In front of a pleasant fire in a 400-year-old hearth bracketed by two massive tusks of ivory, I slid the dainty travel rod from its cloth and put it together. Sipping a glass of fine, single malt scotch (the British are hoarding all the good stuff, you know), I admired the little rod and assumed it was crafted many years ago to fish narrow streams, most of which are now too filled with pesticides and other run-off poisons from the farms that dot the countryside to hold any trout. Studying the rod in the glow of the fire, I wondered if it would ever feel the weight of a trout again.

Generally speaking and all other things being equal, short rods are less efficient during casting because they are not capable of loading properly in order to throw the line. Seven feet is about as short as I like to go, and I use such short rods only when fishing the smallest of flies in tight quarters, such as fishing a size 20 Pheasant Tail nymph on the West Branch of Maine's Nash Stream (though there are places along this stream where I have desperately wished for a 6-footer). Nor do I like casting a rod longer than 10 feet; I find annoying and frustrating the added weight and wind resistance, regardless of the grade of graphite in the rod's construction. Nevertheless, the bottom line is to use the rod you like best for the situation, not what some outdoor writer says you should like.


When selecting a rod weight, consider the size and strength of the fish you intend to catch, what types and sizes of flies you will use, and the conditions you will fish under (tight mountain streams, broad Western rivers, flats, offshore, farm ponds, big lakes, etc.). For smallish trout on small waters that require delicate presentation, a 1-weight rod will do. Fly-fishing for typical trout or bream, or fishing on mid-sized streams and other waters suggests a 5-weight rod, while a 7-weight is a fine, classic bass rod. A 10-weight rod is great for light tarpon or false albacore, and a 15-weight rod is meant for tuna and billfish. It is fairly easy to pick the right weight; simply remember to choose a rod that can perform properly. Too heavy a rod and the fight will not be enjoyed; too light a rod and the fish will overpower you, resulting in too long a fight and an exhausted fish that may not survive release.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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