This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

April 22nd, 2002

It's a Very Personal Thing

What is your favorite fly rod? What was your favorite a year or two ago? How about ten years ago?

Certainly the technology of producing fly rods has changed, and for some that doesn't mean it has improved. There is a "new" introduction of fly rods which are fiberglass. For those who haven't been around fly fishing very long, fiberglass rods are not new at all. In fact, following World War II, the first fly rods not made of bamboo or metal (can you believe a steel telescopic fly rod?) were taken from the antennas of tanks!

I read very recently an article quoting a rather well-known cane rod maker who claimed the graphite rod manufacturers have very few options on designing a rod. "With graphite, you're really limited because wall thickness and diameter are the only two things you can vary," he said. "In trying to get them more and more sensitive at the tip, graphite rod-makers keep reducing the wall thickness. That's the reason they're so brittle and they break so easily. They're actually more brittle than bamboo."*

Unfortunately his statement is wrong, or at best only partially correct. You can pound a peg of bamboo through a piece of wood, which would indicate bamboo is stronger. Otherwise our cane rod maker is mis-informed. Graphite rods vary widely in the wall thickness. The construction of the fabric in combination with the type of resin used also can vary a great deal. The fabrics themselves can be designed to preform in specific ways, and to put extra strength where the manufacturer feels it is needed. Additionally, the shape of the "wedge" of fabric rolled on the form (mandrill) on which the rod is made can also be varied with more or less fabric in specific spots. This is where the engineering genius of Russ Peak revolutionized the design of fiberglass rods over thirty years ago. When the rod is produced, the manufacturer can also use more than one combination in different parts of the rod. The butt section may be stronger and different by design and content than the tip section, more or less 'modulas.' I own at least one rod which I know was specifically designed that way, and it's a power house without being overly 'fast' or stiff. The best description would be 'strong.'

Add to the graphite/resin mix the chemical compositions which may also be altered. Combinations of titanium, boron, or ceramic are recent examples of what can be added, and in varying combinations and amounts.

Graphite and fiberglass rods can be designed as slow, medium or fast rods in an endless variety of tapers, producing specific actions, not to mention lengths.

For the past several years the trend in graphite rods has been to make 'faster' rods. Rods which throw a tighter loop of line, and sacrifice (in my opinion) finesse and ease of casting. I suspect only a small percentage of the folks who have purchased these 'hot' rods are able to achieve the kind of performance designed into them. Did they buy them because of the marketing hype associated with the new rods which come out each year, or because they were searching for something they have not yet found in a fly rod?

Can you identify what the qualities of your favorite rod are? Does your choice of favorites change by specific uses or places? As your experience in fly fishing expands and your casting ability improves, have your rod preferences changed? If you could design a rod to fit your needs, what would it be?

So what is a person new to fly fishing to do?

My first suggestion is to decide what kind of fishing you want to do. Is it streams? Lakes? Ponds? Big or small water? Freshwater or salt? What is the size of fish you are targeting? What type?

Take a casting class. Seriously, it will cut years off the learning curve and possibly avoid ingraining bad habits. Casting is the doorway to successful fly fishing. I would highly suggest that any instructor be most willing to provide you with references from folks who have taken his class. All instructors are not equal. (No, I'm not going there.)

Ask if the instructor provides a variety of rods for you to try. My husband, JC, and I had 12 different 6 wt rods which we let all of our students cast. They were all the same length, (9 foot) with identical lines, from all kinds of manufactures. It's not really a good comparison to try different weight rods with different lines. Rods and lines are confusing enough for any beginner. Some instructors have connections to a particular rod company and will not have rods from any other source. Be sure to try rods of different price ranges as well. Some of the lower priced rods are made by the same companies which sell to the 'big names' who market those rods at considerably higher prices. If having a 'big name' rod is terribly important to you, you may find you missed some very good rods (and you may be in the wrong sport).

Lacking a good class, get Joan Wulff's Dynamics of Fly Casting, now in both DVD and video. It is the best instructional video available. Frankly, I have not found a book which I think does the job.

To the new folks, cast every rod you can. Hit the local fly shops. you have a fly fishing club, get involved. (This will help you stay focused as well, and the other members will get you pointed in the right direction.) Most have events where you can try rods from other members, and some schedule fishing trips as well. Don't be afraid to ask questions. A rod is a large enough investment to make intelligent choices - and more importantly, you need a rod which works for you - not some salesperson in a fly shop.

Is there a perfect rod? What I may consider perfect may not even come close to one you will like.

Our fishing and our requirements may be totally different. Our casting styles and experience probably are not the same. If you have narrowed your choice down to a couple of rods, I'd be glad to give you my opinion of them, that however is just my opinion.

After all, a fly rod is a very personal thing. ~ LadyFisher

* To read the whole article on the west coast rodmakers, click HERE.

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