The Magic Ritual of Fly Rod Waggling

By Rick Rappe

We've all seen the "expert" who can pick up any fly rod, and with the appropriate serious facial expression give it a wave or two and pronounce what action and line the rod simply must have and whether it is a worthwhile fishing pole. And then, we also hear or read that any test short of actually fishing a rod before buying it is mostly a waste of time.

So which is it? Is there a magic waggle that tells you all you need to know about a rod and if a particular model is "the one for you?" Well, based on my experience, let me provide the ultimate definitive answer: Maybe, maybe not.

On the one hand with more years of experience than I will willingly admit to, I do think I can pick up just about any rod and make a few magic waggles and have a pretty good idea what the rod is suited for and a feel for how it will perform. But then I have rods that I've fished regularly for years and I still fiddle with line sizes and types and am often pleasantly surprised. I also have lawn cast a rod and liked it a lot; but after fishing with it, often just once, lose my enthusiasm.

I do think that a thoughtful approach to rod testing short of actual time on the water can tell a great deal about how a rod will perform. But I also believe that very few go about it the right way and so miss the "magic."

Despite so much written about choosing the first fly rod, a newbe really does have it easy today. Even the most inexperienced clerk will be able to point you to the popular line sizes and flies for the type of fly fishing you intend. And because you are just learning, and haven't yet formed precise opinions, any moderate action rod in the line size you need, will serve well. It is a nice coincidence too that many of the moderately priced rod models introduced in the last few years do feature more forgiving casting actions.

No, its that second or third or 10th rod where the decision process gets more difficult and an understanding of the magic waggle gains importance.

First, let's agree to avoid what might be fun topics about what you went through to convince yourself a new fly rod is in order. Neither will we discuss buying name brands, house brands, kit rods or how thick is your wallet. We will assume all those issues are in order. But long before you head for the rod shop; open that catalog or dial up that web page; spend some time thinking.

    1. What do you want the new rod to do that what you now have doesn't?

    2. Think about where you fish. Do you need more delicacy? More distance?

    3. Do you need a longer rod to keep the back cast out of the weeds?

    4. What is the largest fly you expect to use and so what line size?

    5. Realistically assess your casting skills. Not one caster in 100 can get the maximum performance out of any rod regardless of action, and the more medium to medium fast rods will fish out as far as practical plus being more enjoyable and forgiving to cast. These are NOT beginners rods, although easier for the less experienced to master. If anything they are the rod actions often preferred by the real "experts" because they catch more fish.

Once you have thought through what you are looking for, you have to be able to articulate what you want and recognize it when you see/feel it. If you are buying remotely, a discussion and trust in the dealer along with a reasonable return policy should be expected. If you opt for a local sporting goods emporium or fly shop the same applies except that we now can at least perform the magic waggle.

The secret to successfully making a worthwhile assessment of a new rod short of going fishing is to have a rod of known characteristics to compare it to.

Consider bringing your old rod to the shop and be prepared to explain what you like and don't like about it, and then waggle it along side the new candidate. This will tell you a great deal if you go about it right. You'll get a sense whether it is faster or slower. Stringing up the rod and putting a load on the line will show where the flex points are, how much comparative power one vs. the other has and so forth. As you perform these several comparisons, be thinking about how the old rod fishes and how the new rod differs. If a side by side comparison isn't practical, at least waggle the old rod at home first until the characteristics and feel are temporarily burned into your memory.

This comparative method will have even better results if you can test cast the rods side by side. In fact I'll go out on a limb and say that unless you are experienced with many many rods, a comparison test cast session is the only way to make lawn casting reveal very much at all.

Start with the old rod. Cast it short and see how much line out is needed before it begins to load properly. Is the back cast drooping? Pick imaginary spots ahead of you and try casting to them, making mental notes about your success. Again, think about fishing with the old rod. Where did it fail you? Was it too fast and you were bullwhippng off flies? Was it too slow and not able to push a big Wulff fly into any breeze? What ever answers you come up with, only when you know what this familiar rod is doing at that moment on that parking lot or lawn; should you then pick up the new rod and go through the same drills.

If the clouds part and the sun shines because the new candidate rod answers your pre-thought out requirements, then buy it. If not, assess why not and try again.

In the end, the secret to the magic waggle isn't magic at all. Just have a purpose to your waggle madness by knowing ahead of time what abilities you seek and a rod with known characteristics by which to judge. Do that, and the risk of an unsatisfactory purchase just about disappears. ~ Rick Rappe

Publishers note:

If you have any tips or techniques, send them along! Help out your fellow rodmakers! ~ Publisher, FAOL

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