Al Campbell, Field Editor

April 22nd, 2002

Learning Curve - Fly Rods
By Al Campbell

Have you ever decided it would be nice to do something, bought all the best materials to do it right, then didn't like the end results? I recently did that with a birdhouse and a birdfeeder. My first examples of each were promptly passed on to in-laws who really couldn't turn me down, but placed them in places that the public couldn't see. I have built several of each now, and although they are nice enough to be shown in public, I still find things I would do differently on each one I create. I call it a learning curve.

The same principal applies to building fly rods and tying flies. I don't know a single person who was totally satisfied with the first fly he/she tied, and I don't know anyone who was totally satisfied with the first fly rod he/she built. There is a learning curve with projects like that, even with the best instructions, and you'll change the way you did it a little each time you build a new one until you're satisfied that it's the best you can produce. Good instructions will help shorten the curve, and there are some common mistakes that you should be able to avoid if someone is willing to share them with you. That stuff will help, but you'll still have to deal with the curve.

I'll start with fly rods this week, and progress to flies and maybe more later. Every rod builder I know will have other things to add to this list. By the time it appears in print, I'll probably think of a few more to add myself, but for now, these are the most common errors I have seen in the first few fly rods beginner builders have shown me. The words that usually exit my mouth are something like "Gee, that's nice Jack. I bet it casts like a dream," but the words in my head are often akin to this "Holy Smokes! That is one ugly rod, and it weighs so much I'll bet it casts like a lump of lead."

There isn't any point in hurting feelings if I don't have to. I'm not terribly fond of fibbing, but I do what I must to keep things civil. I guess that's why I quickly agreed to write a few columns on common errors. A few of us are growing older han we care to admit, and don't want to suddenly find ourselves trying to justify falsehoods to our maker.

If you remind yourself of these common errors when you build that first rod, you might avoid a few errors that will cause you grief in the future.

Error 1 - Not mixing the finish right.

I think this is probably the most common error committed on a first rod. The usual cause is not mixing enough finish to get a good, equal mix. First time rod builders will take all the pains to mix just the right amount of finish to barely cover the wraps with one coat. When the finish won't dry I get an e-mail, or someone else they trust gets a call for help.

Two-part finishes and epoxies must be mixed right or they won't cure or set up properly. This applies to mixing the epoxy for a handle or reel seat as much as it applies to rod finishes. The problem is that you don't have an equal ratio because you didn't mix enough of the finish to adjust for slight irregularities in the measuring tools you used to measure the parts. If you would double the mix, that slight irregularity just became half as critical, and that is usually all the adjustment you'll need to correct the problem. Saving nickels and dimes has cost a lot of people hundreds of dollars, and it will continue to do so in the future.

Error 2 - Over-wrapping guides.

What I'm talking about here is using way too much thread on each guide. I have actually seen rods that had over an inch of thread wrapped on each side of the guide. The builders didn't want the guides to work loose.

All the thread does is hold the guide in place. Any thread that isn't on the guide foot is just extra weight. It doesn't serve any structural purpose. Granted, most of us take a few extra wraps off the guide foot for looks, but if the guide is wrapped properly, these extra wraps are purely cosmetic. Think hard, when have you ever seen a fly rod you thought was good looking and felt great, that had more than minimal thread wraps on the guides?

Error 3 - Using too much finish on the thread wraps.

The finish you apply over the thread wraps has two functions. It seals and bonds the thread to the rod, and the other is cosmetic. If you just want to perform the structural function, a single, thin coat is all you need. Since most of us want a smooth finish over our thread wraps, we usually apply a second, thin coat to level things out.

Many first time rod builders apply way too much finish over the thread wraps. They don't want the guides to work loose and more is better, right? Wrong! I have seen a few rods I swear had 6 coats of finish on the extra long wraps. They were heavy and ugly.

Finish adds weight to the rod and weight always detracts from the rod's performance. Another bad thing about excess finish is that it doesn't flex as easily as thin finish so you usually end up with ugly cracks in the finish where the guide foot meets the rod blank. Less is best, so use only enough to achieve the cosmetic look you need.

Error 4 - Improper guide spacing and guides that aren't straight.

There is no excuse for this one, but it is a common problem. It comes from getting in a hurry to get your new rod done so you can cast it. You won't treasure it for long though, because it will be ugly and probably cast poorly. The kid next door needed a fly rod, right? Did you really want to buy the stuff twice?

Error 5 - Bubbles in the finish.

This is easily corrected with a drinking straw or alcohol lamp if you don't wait too long. Gently blowing air on the bubbles will pop most of them, but if a straw doesn't work, applying heat to the bubble may be the only cure. If the finish is dry before you notice the bubble, it's too late.

When you're mixing that finish, you're not beating eggs. Aggressive mixing adds air bubbles to the finish that might not occur if you just gently stir the mix. Pouring the finish onto a wide surface before you apply it to the rod wraps will allow it to get thin enough to force most bubbles to pop on their own. I pour my finish into an extra-wide breakfast bowl after I mix it.

Error 6 - Thread wraps that are too loose or too tight.

We don't want that guide to work loose, right? So, we crank down on the thread to just short of the breaking point and wonder why the rod broke the first time we tried to land a fish on it. Too much tension creates a shear zone at the edge of the wrap that can destroy the structural integrity of the rod blank.

The other extreme (usually after we sheared the first rod) is too little tension on the thread wraps. Your thread wraps should hold the guide in place but allow a very slight amount of movement before you apply the finish. If you can spin that guide around the blank after the thread is applied, you need to re-wrap with more tension. If you can't budge it at all, and if you didn't glue it down like I often do, you probably need to re-wrap with less tension.

Error 7 - Using real expensive components on that first rod.

This could rate as number 1. Like I said earlier, your first attempt at a project of this sort will probably result in a lot of changes you plan to do on the next rod, birdhouse, birdfeeder, etc. The neighbor's kid or your kid needs a rod right? Use that rod as a first project to work out many of the things you need to correct before you build a rod you'll want to show off. You could always build a rod you don't plan to use a lot because it is a seldom-used size or weight. But, if your first attempt at building a fly rod involves real expensive components, you better make sure you have some good experience looking over your shoulder and coaching you as you go along. If you don't, odds are pretty good that you won't fish that expensive rod for long.

Error 8 - Going too cheap.

I know this sounds like a direct contradiction to my advice in #7, but really, it isn't. There are some real junky components on the market that should be avoided. There is nothing wrong with buying lower end components for a first rod, but everything wrong with buying cheap and poorly made components. You'll find quality components from inexpensive to very expensive by browsing the Sponsor's pages here on FAOL. Joe Bob's mail order stink bait catalog might sell fly rod blanks, but do you really believe they are going to be decent quality at $19.99? Shop with the guys who do fly rods for a living and you'll be a lot more pleased with the results.

Like I said earlier, there will be other things that could be added to the list. Maybe a string on the bulletin board would be a good idea to cover what I missed.

Good luck on that first rod. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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