Al Campbell, Field Editor

May 6th, 2002

Learning Curve - How To Destroy a Fly Rod
By Al Campbell

Every now and then, it's nice to add to your collection of new toys. Fly rods seem to be perfect additions to the collection, even if you already have a dozen or more. Unfortunately, a few people have problems with their new toys, breaking them within a few trips to the water. They usually look puzzled when they hear that sickening "snap" that indicates that a new rod has declined the challenge.

I meet a lot of people who seem to feel that the retailer is obligated to replace any fly rod as soon as it breaks, and without questions. Unfortunately, that usually isn't the way the warranty is written, so one unhappy customer growls and complains as their rod is packaged to send it back to the manufacturer for repairs. The groaning increases when they learn that most rod companies charge a small fee for handling or whatever you want to call it. It gets worse when they learn that they will also pay the shipping and insurance required to ship the rod to the manufacturer for repair.

Ok, I didn't break the rod. In fact, I have only broken two fly rods in my lifetime. Compare that with some guys who can break two rods in a day and a couple I know that have busted the same rod four times in a summer. It gets pretty easy to see why any retailer would charge the customer the shipping costs to send his/her rod in for repair.

The sad fact is that most rods break from the actions of the fisherman. Sometimes those actions are obvious, like shutting the rod in a car door or trunk lid. Other times the breakage is less obvious and less predictable, mainly because the fisherman didn't know the risks associated with his/her actions. Here are a few of the more common reasons rods break.

Error 1 - Blast it with a bead-head.

Gary Loomis once told me that the number one reason fly rods break in the hands of customers is slapping the rod with a bead-head fly. He went on to say that a fly travels roughly the speed of a pellet shot from a pellet rifle. Would you shoot the tip of your fly rod with a pellet rifle? We both know how that would turn out. Hitting your rod tip with a bead-head fly produces similar results.

I'm a pretty good fly caster, and I know line control very well. I know how to open up my loop and place my fly line on a different plane than the rod is traveling. However, I rarely fish bead-head flies; and if I do, I always use a rod I think I can do without for a couple of weeks or months. I cast well, but it only takes one gust of wind to send that fly into the rod tip, so I'm very careful to watch how I cast and only use rods I'm not totally in love with if I'm casting a bead-head fly. It just makes sense to be cautious.

Error 2 - Transport the rod uncased.

We all know better than this. We carefully case the rod before we go home, leave it cased until we arrive at the stream next trip, then throw the uncased rod in the vehicle for that short trip to the next fishing spot. Snap. It's a sound that turns the stomach. If the car door or trunk lid don't get the rod, something will fall on it or slide against it at just the right time to cost you some money and time. It'll ruin your trip for sure.

I'm not sure why we get into such a big hurry. We all know why rods come with tubes, but like those kids we get to raise, it can't happen to us. At least that's what we think, until it does happen.

Error 3 - Sticking a partially assembled rod in a rod/reel case.

Have you ever done this? You hook the fly on a guide on the top half of the rod, break it down and shove the two halves into a rod case. Maybe you're just driving a couple of miles and you don't want the rod to go uncased, so you cut just one little corner. It should be safe, right?

According to one rod maker, this is the second most common way to break a fly rod. Usually, the fly catches on the fabric in the rod tube, the tip bends from the stress and something breaks (the rod tip). Does it really take that long to tie the fly back on the tippet? Is it worth the risk? The snapping sound you hear in the rod tube will answer that question.

Error 4 - Bill Dance fish playing course.

If you ever watch Saturday morning fishing shows, you probably watch Bill Dance teach the world how to catch and land fish. I wonder how many rods he breaks in one show? He nearly falls backward out of his boat seat when he sets the hook, then he doubles the rod while applying the least possible pressure on the fish. That doubled rod might be ok if it's an Ugly Stick, but it will break almost every time if it's a quality graphite fly rod. Putting that kind of bend in a fly rod nearly always results in rod failure. The snapping sound will tell you when you overstressed the rod.

Error 5 - The crane lift.

Here's another way to overstress a fly rod. You learned your lesson on setting the hook, so you set the hook and play the fish perfectly until it's time to land Mr. Fish. The fish isn't all that big, so you decide to just lift it out of the water and remove the hook. About the time you get the fish in the air, it starts wiggling and the tip of you rod starts bouncing like a paint shaker. One wiggle, two wiggles, three wiggles, snap.

This time it was the shock of the repeated bouncing and extra weight that broke the rod tip. Overstressing the rod tip will do that sometimes. You paid good money for that net, you should get some use out of it. It might save you some cash and it might keep you out of the repair cycle.

Error 6 - The famous rod-eating willow.

Two rods down and one last backup to go. This time you hooked a willow on the far side of the stream and you decide to break the fly off so you won't disturb the fish. Do you lay the rod down and grab the line to break the fly off? No, that takes too much time and effort.

Most people in this predicament use the rod and varying degrees of pulling to try to break the fly off. If the rod doesn't break from the stress, it'll probably shatter when the tippet breaks and shoots the line back into your face.

It's far less costly to lay the rod down and break the fly off with your hands rather than using the rod to break the line. Of course, if you don't mind being separated from your fly rod for a few weeks, just continue trying to break the fly off with that jerking motion.

Error 7 - Creepy crawler hands.

What's the first thing you do when a big fish is near the shore or the boat and you want to apply more pressure on the fish? If you place your hand on the rod blank just up from the handle, expect that snapping sound. Handles distribute the stress of a bent rod evenly. Grabbing the rod anywhere else will overstress the rod at the location of your hand. Since the rod can't handle the stress, it will break right where your hand is placed.

Error 8 - The boat oar bandit.

You're moving from point A to point B, so you rest the rod on the side of the boat and look for a snack while the guide rows. That snapping sound is a familiar sound, so you look at your rod and discover how well quality rods handle a chance meeting with an oarlock and oar.

Error 9 - The javelin thrust.

You're walking along the path with your rod leading the way. The day is nice and the birds are singing. You look away for a moment and the rod tip catches on a twig or the ground. Snap. It wouldn't have happened if you had turned the rod around and let the tip follow you down the path.

Error 10 - The rock raven.

Graphite is strong in its own way, but it can't handle impact from a hard, sharp object. If you drop your fly rod on a rock or similar hard object, expect the fibers in the rod to break. Your rod might not break with the first fish, but eventually it will break down and snap at the point of impact. Remember that rod tube? There's a reason to protect the rod from impact.

Error 11 - The science project.

You made it through the day without breaking anything, so you put the rod in its tube and leave it that way until the next time you need it. Unfortunately, the rod was wet when you put it away and something mysterious is growing in that rod tube. Mold and mildew smell bad. Delaminated handles don't look good and don't feel right. Leave the science projects in school. Open that rod tube and let the fly rod and sock dry thoroughly before you put it away.

Like the earlier columns in this series, other things can be added to this list. An ounce of common sense will go a long way towards preventing rod breakage. Taking the time to do things right should handle the rest.

Tight lines. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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