February 5th, 2001

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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How Good a Fly Rod Do I Need?

Rick Rappe

I'm always put off by the word "expert." Whatever that word might mean to you, it ain't me. I place myself firmly in the category of, "The more I learn, the less I know," when it comes to fly rods and fishing. But I will share some points and experiences about rod value and let you make up your own mind.

First, let me get out of an uncomfortable position. I don't wish any of my FAOL articles to be an advertisement for my e-business selling fly rod building kits. But the nature of this article makes it impossible not to talk about rods I'm familiar with and naturally most come from my inventory. Also, it is no secret that there are really only a few actual graphite rod manufacturers, and that who really builds name brand X rods is closely held information. Even as a buyer of rods from these makers, I'm given no specifics, and if I do know that a blank is the same as a name brand model from company Y, I am barred from "going public" because I'd lose my sources of supply. I really am trying to make objective arguments, so cut me a bit of slack. Fair enough?

Next, I'd like to recommend that the reader click on the rod building tab here on FAOL. Al Campbell has written a series of "how to" articles and in the first installment where he writes about picking a graphite fly rod blank, he does a great job of explaining features and what the terms mean in describing the makeup of a blank.

My difficulty isn't with Mr. Campbell's definitions. It's just that not all rod descriptions live up to the standards he outlines while others exceed the specifications. For example, I recently added a new line of rod blanks that the maker called IM6 and so I used this designation on my web page. But by the Al Campbell's description at 43 million modulus construction, the rods fall between IM7 and IM8. And the name brand maker who uses rods from this source label theirs with a propriety designation suggesting even more unique technology. I guess I could live with that, as delivering more than you promise is good business. But what about the rod buyer comparing my IM6 rod to a similarly labeled one from a competitor who fudges his ratings in the other direction? With nothing else to go on the buyer gets a false sense of value. There isn't much I can do about this lack of consistency within the industry, except to arm you with the knowledge that not all GenX, IM whatever, "high modulus" designations you encounter mean the same from rod to rod. (Detailing that the graphite content of a rod blank is only a part of what makes a good rod, is best left to an article of its own.)

Consider this:

Very few casters are good enough to get maximum performance out of any fly rod no matter what price or action type. The large majority of fishers are better served with a more moderate action rod that is easier to cast and more versatile.

Higher graphite content costs more and generally means stiffer and lighter. Ergo, the less costly rods with mid-range levels of graphite tend to have more user friendly actions.

There are no consistent standards by which to compare the stated action of a rod from maker to maker or even sometimes between models in the same maker's line.

Once a graphite rod attains a balance of a percent of graphite power fibers and a suitable taper, increasing the power fiber percentage creates a large increase in cost for increasingly smaller improvements in performance. (This is why I am skeptical at present of the value of the new rods infused with a titanium powder in the resins or the carbon fiber scrim models I expect we'll start to see in a season or two. Both are being touted as lighter and faster than straight graphite but I argue most of us don't need or even really like too light rods with too fast actions.)

Did I just imply that some rods are overpriced? Not exactly. Excluding cost items that have nothing to do with how a rod casts such as fancier hardware or "paying for a name," my point is that some rods cost more than the fisher needs to pay to get a rod that will exceed his or her casting ability. Let me try again: Stiffer, lighter, faster and so more costly does not necessarily mean a better rod to cast comfortably and catch fish. Campbell also writes about how too high a percentage of graphite makes a rod more fragile and mentions how some makers have backed off to lower percentages for a more fishable and durable rod.

I disagree when Mr. Campbell counsels to buy the best (i.e. costly) blank you can afford for the reasons I've outlined. The most expensive ones aren't necessarily the best value, nor have the action the caster needs.

To help make my case, let me share the results of a rod casting test session I had by meeting up with a group of fly fishing friends on the river just last week.

Seven very experienced fly fishers including the manager of a local fly shop were given 14 rods to wring out and report their impressions. Mostly light trout models, a few medium sizes and heavyweights were included. These rods were made from blanks I sell beginning with my proprietary Cabin Fever line of "high modulus" blanks with prices starting at $29.95. One heavyweight from my IM6 line at $50 was tested and blanks from all three St. Croix lines and modulus levels ranging in price from under $50 to $130 rounded out the mix.

Virtually ALL the testers liked all the more moderate medium to medium fast actions the best. There was not a single exception. (Sure, its possible I'd get a different set of responses if this was a group of fishers with an orientation different than stream trout fishing, but I doubt it.)

Only two casters out of seven liked the faster rated and more expensive two-piece rods.

There was more acceptance of the more expensive rods if they were in a multi-piece configuration, which I attribute to the fact that more ferrules add weight and make a rod cataloged as fast, less so. But there was no difference in enthusiasm whether the multi-piece rod was of lesser or greater percentage of graphite.

Multi-piece rods cast differently than their two-piece counterparts but there was not enough evidence or consistency in the test to define "different." That is, some blanks were described as slower in multi-piece and some faster. Others seemed to want to cast better with a line heavier than the manufacturer's recommendation.

(A discussion of the merits and different casting characteristics of two piece vs. multi-piece rods is a discussion worthy of it's own article.)

Among smaller rods of the same length and line size, the testers ALL picked the heavier blank as preferable over the lighter and usually more expensive ones. While I allow for some bias because most of this group fishes bamboo, it re-enforced my belief that a too light rod is actually less comfortable to cast because there isn't enough mass to create inertia and help the rod load. (In perspective, the weight spread between the heaviest and lightest 3-4wt. 7 1/2' two piece blank that I sell is 1/3 of an ounce. So we aren't talking about much difference, but it was enough that several testers commented on it.)

I was confident ahead of time that I would hear some comment that rods marketed as having a specific action, didn't match what the tester called it, and realized by watching different casting styles, that a good deal of the variation was because of the individual using the rod. And in giving this more thought, came to realize how really inadequate it is to just describe a particular rod as having a slow, medium or fast action.

So while the evidence is empirical and subjective, as it must be; the test supports my points. For most of us mortals, rods in the middle action and price range is where we should be shopping. ~ Rick Rappe

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