Let's make the point right up front: The usual designations
of slow, medium or fast actions used to describe fly rods
are incomplete, not to mention often inaccurate in describing
how a rod will perform. Slow, medium or fast actioned
compared to what? Well, compared to the other models in
that maker's line - sometimes, but seldom identical to
the same designations given rods from another source.
It isn't hard to imagine the frustration of the rod designer.
After creating a well thought out and tested rod action that
matched the graphite content of the rod with sophisticated
compound tapers, he must now describe his design in one
word so it will fit into one or the other of these categories.
I wanted to begin this essay with some comment about how the
fly rod industry would be better served by having a standard
and more thorough set of criteria by which to describe the
action of each particular fly rod marketed. Before I even
had the sentence formed, I realized it will never happen
for at least three reasons.
I applaud rod houses such as Orvis who use proprietary flex
ratings to describe their rods, or the one large mail order
sporting goods chain that shows a flex graph along side
their various models. My real problem with the latter
though is that whoever creates the catalog copy seems
to rely on the maker's description of slow, medium, fast,
and the rods when actually tested often don't match the graph.
1. The decisions as to where a particular specimen
"fit" would be too subjective as different casters have
styles that change how a rod performs depending on who
is using it.
2. The categories would get too complex for anyone
other than a dedicated student to figure out.
3. Manufacturers would resist because buyers would
likely realize how many similar if not identical performing
models there are that are differentiated only by marketing.
Let's see if we can explain to the next level of detail
what the variables in rod actions are by defining some terms:
First, lets agree to ignore for a moment that there are
different levels of graphite content and accept that all
raw graphite material in rods is the same. This will
make the explanations more simple.
Slow, Medium, Fast Actions
A slow rod is defined as one in which the rod flexes more
evenly along most of its length (see Progressive Taper below).
A medium rod has a greater percentage of its flex in the upper
1/2 of the rod while the lower 1/2 is more stiff. A fast
action has more flex in the upper 1/4 to 1/3 of the rod
and begins to stiffen sooner along it's length. Pretty
vague isn't it?
A rod design that starts with a small diameter at the tip
and has a smooth and even increase in the thickness of a
rod all the way back through the grip. It is easy to
imagine that a rod with a smooth progression of the
increase in diameter will get gradually stiffer as
the diameter increases.
Early rod makers in the solid wood days before the use
of split bamboo, did indeed begin with a smooth progressive
taper and created rods with machines not unlike a pencil
sharpener. But they were immediately up against the problem
that in order to stiffen a wooden rod's rate of flex much,
the rate of taper increase would have to be more rapid and
the butt of the rod would get to large to be useable.
Thus virtually all early rods were very whippy (slow)
or were pool cue thick. In either case, rods were not
cast as we do it today.
A progressive taper in which the rate of increase in diameter
is varied along the length of the rod to alter the flex
An early factor the rod design "thinker" came up against
was that unless the rod was in one piece, the introduction
of the ferrule interrupted the smooth flex progression.
It didn't take the thinker long to realize that by speeding
up or slowing down the rate of increase along the length
of a rod, the "action" of a rod could be altered. But
it wasn't until a material with great power fiber
tructure was discovered (split bamboo), that at last
the rod maker could invent more complex progressive
tapers and the modern casting fly rod was born.
Inexpensive bamboo rods were built by the perhaps
millions based on simple progressive/compound tapers.
But a few masters and small production shops took
this new material and experimented with taper variables
until marvelous casting tools were created with patience
and much hand work. Rods some would call works of great
craftsmanship if not art were built.
What if we decided to get radical and design the taper
so that the middle of the rod had less flex, and we put
a bend or flex point down near the grip? The result
would be an action not unlike a catapult.
Parabolic was the term adopted to describe this type
of action. The first Parabolic rods were said to be capable
of casting great lengths of line. But they were also said
to be poor at casting short and with delicacy. So it took
rod builders only a sort time to begin to use compound
tapers in combination with the parabolic action to add
short casting ability and the term semi-parabolic came
into use. Never mind that mathematically a parabola is
a term to describe a smooth curve, and is inaccurate when
applied to a compound taper. Nor is there any such thing
as a semi-parabola. But the name stuck.
Today, the rod designer has two other variables to work
with that the earlier generations using Bamboo did not.
He can vary the percentage of graphite fibers within a
rod to alter the stiffness and recovery rate (how fast
the rod returns to its original position when flexed)
in combination with compound progressive tapers to
achieve casting characteristics never before possible.
And because of graphite's great strength to weight ratio,
the designer can build rods longer and lighter than ever
Because using a material such as graphite that is so light
for the power it can provide, many graphite rod makers
reverted back from complex compound tapers to those closer
to the original progressive design which simplifies manufacture.
And in that context, a rod can be made in any flex from slow
to fast. But from that base, very many (and typically the
more expensive models) are tweaked with various compound
taper adjustments, and graphite thickness (power) variables
to alter the actions just as the bamboo masters did in times past.
For example, I have two 8 1/2 foot 4wt. rods from the same
manufacturer. One is of their excellent mid-price line
that the company calls a "moderate" action. With my
casting style, it throws tight loops with great accuracy
and power at all distances. The second rod is from the
company's top line and is rated as a fast action. While
the graphite content is somewhat higher, when cast side
by side, the fast rated rod throws the same line the same
distances, but by paying close attention the caster can
see that the maker used compound tapers to give the rod
subtle performance improvements. The loop is more open,
making the rod more suitable for casting nymphs, yet
the quicker recovery of more graphite content gives
both rods the same power. Rod two has a compound taper
step near the tip that adds a bit of flex there that
might theoretically protect a light tippet better as
well as swim a streamer with a bit more motion. And
there is a second more Parabolic-like taper step in
the lower third of the rod that makes casting short
a bit more forgiving.
While both rods cast well and are excellent rods, the
expensive model, which costs 60% more, has performance
improvements that are the result. And in fact, the
"moderate" action rod is actually faster than the
rod labeled fast.
Two points. I cast and test a lot of rods as a part of
my business selling fly rod building kits. Still, I had
to cast these rods side by side to detect the subtle
differences. So I believe the average caster would be
just as pleased with the mid-priced rod and would not be
able to notice or effectively use the improvements found
by paying 60% more.
Point two is that the medium rod cast faster than the fast
model and that it is clear that such simple descriptions
as medium and fast tell the buyer next to nothing about
Is there a solution? Well yes, several actually. The
first is to stop worrying about it. Either rod is great
and will make a first rate fishing rod. The second is
to understand the limitations of simple rod action
descriptions plus one's own casting limitations and
test cast a variety of rods before making a buying
decision. I seldom recommend the third, but see it
happen a lot.
If the choice is between an expensive rod you like and
a less expensive one you like; buy the more expensive
one under the fisher's optimism that if your casting
ever does improve, you have a tool you won't outgrow.
~ Rick Rappe
If you have any tips or techniques, send them
along! Help out your fellow rodmakers!
~ Publisher, FAOL