The June 2004 issue of Fly Rod and Reel Magazine
has an interesting article called "Straight From
the Source", written by Ted Leeson. It is an
extensive interview with eight famous rod designers,
from eight of the major rod-building companies.
The article is both informative and interesting
and it provides a good bit of background about
the current state of the fly-rod designing business.
Reading and re-reading it however, has set me to
thinking that it may reveal as much about "us"
(as consumers) as it does about fly rod construction.
Mr. Leeson hints at that fact in his introductory
paragraphs when he suggests that, "... some of
what they (the designers) offer is practical advice,
but much of it is simply interesting (as) people at
the top of their craft talk about what they know."
Now, even though I own a fly-rod business of my own,
please don't take my comments here to be critical of
either the article, or of the opinions of those
interviewed folks whose comments formed the basis
of the piece. These thoughts are not intended as
criticisms. Those are all good guys and they all
make good products. My thoughts here are just
observations, maybe a little food for your own
The introductory section of the piece is called
"On Rod Actions," and really sets the stage. I
re-read it three times just to be sure of what I
thought I was understanding. Finally I took a
felt-tip marker, and went through it again in
an attempt to sort out and clarify the swarm of
apparent contradictions of terms and meanings.
That's not because the piece was poorly
written - it's because it has become so "complicated".
Allow me just a few (quotes directly from the
article) - rods bend according to their tapers,
but "taper" is (now) a "multidimensional" concept.
There are "internal tapers" and there are "external
tapers," a "fast" taper is not necessarily fast,
and "slow" sometimes can be fast, but then it can
also be slow. Some rods can be fast and slow at
the same time depending on exactly what you are
referring to. "'Action' is an umbrella term"
and its definition depends on who you talk to.
"Stiffness is a particularly slippery concept"
that can be "measured in different terms and is
difficult to talk about in any useful way" and
it is replete with "common misconceptions ...".
In addition to designs and tapers, materials of
varying modulus(ii) can create "fast action rods
that are soft" and soft actions that are fast.
"Recovery rates" are critical, for instance;
"Speed of recovery is the time component of
action" (that one is almost poetic). "Performance
is the ability of a rod to unload" - sometimes.
"Efficiency" is defined in terms of line speed
and loop size (but says nothing of delivering a
fly to a target). "As a general rule, stiffer
rods recover more quickly...but that...doesn't
always hold (true)." Three different definitions
of just what "fast" means are presented, and then
"power" and "latent" power are identified as
concepts that frequently lie unrecognized by
the underdeveloped skills of the caster.
As confusing as all that sounds, the truth is
it all pretty much made sense, but that's when
I got to wondering about "us." The article
almost burst with the enthusiasm of the
rod-designers as they struggle to conquer each
of these "multidimensional concepts" and produce
the "ultimate" fly rod. Stepping back from that
idea for a moment...
One might suppose, in rod-building, there might
be an over-riding objective out there, and that,
in non-scientific terms, might be to build a rod
that "fishes" better. It seems though, that such
a seemingly simple objective has been overshadowed
by our own technical prowess, and that, almost by
definition,..."If we can do it, then we should do
it." A lot of what we build and foist in one
another's directions for sales and consumption
today is built on that credo. It's almost an
edict today that "if anything can be changed
(improved?), then it should be changed," and,
it should be changed every year! Is there an
element of over-engineering creeping into our
world? Did it start to creep in about 15 years
ago? What really, is the point? What is all
of this ability and understanding leading to?
If a "new and improved" rod is to come out every
year, what does that say about the one you sold me
"this" year? Can "this" really help me improve my
catching - my enjoyment? Or, like the government
bureaucracies, have we just grown to such a level
of inertial complication that we are headed down
an endless highway? I know that the "reviewers"
who make their way around the Fly Tackle Dealer's
Show every year are asking (almost only), "What
have you got that's new this year?" That makes
sense, they're writers, they've got magazines,
they've got to provide something for the readers,
but an element of the impression is that "if it
isn't new, it isn't interesting." I digress...
The following "chapters" of the article deal with
rod actions and ratings. These passages are
educational for sure, but in fact, they are chock
full of snippets from the author and the various
contributors, each "accidentally" (in my judgment)
revealing a bit more of the "truth". I may be just
a tad bit unfair in my conclusion here, but bear
with me. It seemed to me that the designers and
the engineers love designing fast-action rods.
The ultimate achievement, it seems to me, is to
design the ultimate distance rod. Unfortunately
for them, "we" (fishermen, customers, casters)
just can't really keep up with what they are
building. As a whole, we aren't good enough
casters to get the maximum out of what they
design for us, and that's a real shame because
there is so much room yet to "go." Mr. Leeson
even states, "Indeed, I got the sense from virtually
all these designers that most modern fly rods, on
the performance curve, are ahead of most modern
fishermen." Pity. We could only hope to be a
That said, the sections on "medium" and "slow" rods,
do extol the virtues of these ("inferior") options,
and they do (grudgingly) point out a lot of the
pleasure and versatility that comes from using
them. In fact, they are "almost" (but not quite)
recommended as the "best" (??) choice for many
anglers. There was even a reference to a "wistful"
sense of "loss" that these rods were not more in
favor. In fact, "nearly all" felt that "slow actions
were under-appreciated and underutilized by most
anglers". Now, I haven't done a scientific survey
of all of the rod ads I see, but I don't think that's
the primary tone of the marketing most of the time.
What does that say about "us"? We all want Ferraris?
Surely market research has these rod-builders
targeting that which we "want", doesn't it? I do
know this, as it comes to golf, for instance. Any
infomercial that promises a longer drive will sell
drivers - forget the fact that driving only accounts
for about 12 strokes in the average round. When we
go to the driving range we spend most of our time
with the driver, rather than chipping and putting
where our score could be improved; (and brother
Callaway is always very anxious to show us the
newest option in drivers). And $500 drivers abound
out there. Can you really buy a better game? They
are snapped up furiously as they reach the stores -
and six months later they appear on ebay, having
themselves been replaced by the next generation
I rather think the objective of a good fly-rod
might be to "lay the fly down gently and on target
at whatever distance that target may be." And agreed,
one single rod does not accomplish that objective for
all situations. Beyond that, good fishing, for me
at least translates to a good "feel," a good "joy,"
a good "satisfaction," a good "pleasure," a good
"confidence," and a good "value." Those might
really be the things we want,...aren't they?
Walton Powell once told me, "Sure, you should
practice to be a better caster, you'll enjoy it
more, but let me tell you something, 'The trout
doesn't give a damn about what your loop looks
If you ask most guides to describe the most common
mistake that fly-fishermen make, it is that they
look past the most-productive water, close in to
their feet, and pick targets that are too far away.
They spend their time fishing well beyond where
they should, and frequently beyond the limits of
their own casting ability. (I know that the
biggest trout I ever caught was taken by accident
on an "afterthought" cast of about 15 feet). If
you ask most fly-shop owners to describe the first
thing most prospective rod-purchasers do on a
casting ground, it is that they immediately attempt
to see how far they can cast, and they nod approvingly
or disapprovingly at the rod they have just "tested."
These are two very well known realities, probably
practiced by most of us (come on, admit it). Neither
of these approaches often adds to our fish-catching
success. What that may say is that most of us are
not "in it" for the fishing. We may think we are,
but that's not how we behave. The last line in the
article quotes Tom Dorsey, "...when we talk about
rods we try to get scientific. But fly rods are
probably closer to violins and wine than they are
to rocket ships." Heaven forbid that most of us
select rocket ships for our fly-casting, and we
forget that fly-fishing is what we came for.
~ Harry J. Briscoe
President, Hexagraph Fly Rods
April 21, 2004