This is the latest installment in April Vokey’s Fly Fishing 101 series. If you missed it, check out her previous article, Your Fly Shop and You.
Choosing your first fly fishing rod can be intimidating. Fly rods aren’t cheap, so pressure to make the right purchase often deters new anglers. Rod manufacturers add new models to their lineup faster than Victoria Secret comes out with bra styles, causing potential customers to question what was wrong with the company’s previous versions. Factor in the hoopla about action, wraps, tapers, epoxy, weight and warranty, and the basic spinning rod chalks up points as Ol’ Faithful.
The truth is that choosing a fly rod can be as in-depth or as simple as you’d like it to be. Casting aficionados and tackle junkies can talk for hours about the complexities of today’s modern fly rods, their history, evolution, anatomy and applications. Beginners, however, are usually just looking for something that will help them enjoy time out on the water. Here are some things to know about choosing your first fly rod.
Where to Start?
When choosing a rod, the first step is to identify your primary target fish species. Chances are you already know where you want to go and what you want to catch, but if you’re unsure what is available you can always stop into your local fly shop to ask for some guidance. I suggest you start at the fish and work your way back. This will help you determine the strength and length of the rod you’ll need, the size of the flies you’ll be using, the weight of the fly line and the type of reel.
Fly rods are categorised by a somewhat arbitrary system of strength and flexibility called “weights,” ranging from 0 up to 16. For example, 0- or 2-weight rods are ideal for small-stream brook trout or panfish, whereas a 14-weight can handle large sharks or marlin. Simply put, the bigger the fish, the bigger the weight number. This can be an exhausting revelation for new anglers if they assume they’ll need an assortment of rods, so it’s best to just decide on the first species you’re most likely to target—chances are you’ll be able to use the same rod on other species as well.
The majority of fly rods sold worldwide are 5-weights. This is a great generalist size for most freshwater applications, from tiny sunfish to larger trout and bass. It’s the first size most new anglers choose for starting their arsenal. If you’re primarily going to be fishing in saltwater, however, the 8-weight is the common go-to for everything from striped bass and redfish to salmon and steelhead. Most new anglers don’t choose mako sharks as their first foray into fly fishing, so you can save the 14-weight for down the road, if ever.
Length and Pieces
Rods come in different lengths, but the average fly rod is 9 feet long. There are scenarios when a longer or shorter rod may be advantageous, but most fishing scenarios are perfectly suited to a 9-footer.
Rods are available in one, two, three, four, five and even six-piece options. The end of every rod segment has a male and female ferrule so that the pieces can be joined together. But ferrules often mean weakness. This makes a one-piece rod ideal for strength, yet horrible for travel. Just as inconvenient are the three-piece rods that can fit in your suitcase but are difficult to leave strung together during car rides between fishing spots. Or the six-piece rod, which may be the perfect tool for backcountry hikers, but is prone to breakages. Nowadays, four-piece rods are the standard.
Lengthy discussions about rod action are a quick way to lose the interest of someone looking to buy their first fly rod. Imagine a new driver who is excited to buy her first car so that she can drive to the mall—she doesn’t care about anything beyond four wheels and color. But when she gets to the dealership, she’s thrown into a whirlwind of explanation about engine mechanics, horsepower and speed. Even if she leaves in a Ferrari, she’s driving that thing as though it’s a Tercel. While there are exceptions, the fly rod is a similar—albeit cheaper—beast. Without diving into the complexities of how graphite rods are designed to store and release energy, in a nutshell, rods are categorised as either slow, medium or fast action.
These categorisations refer to the flex of the rod. In the simplest explanation, a slow rod typically bends throughout 90% of the rod’s length (if measured from tip to cork). A medium-action rod flexes through the top 60%. A fast-action rod is more tip-focused, bending mostly in the top 30%. Generally, mid- to fast-action rods are easier to cast because they require less time between casting strokes. A slow-action rod requires a longer, slower and more deliberate stroke, meaning more room for error. Beginners (who are notorious for casting in haste) are often encouraged to purchase mid- to fast-action rods which accommodate this casting error. To be fair though, accomplished casters often prefer a “tippy,” fast-action rod for wind, sight fishing and other fast-paced situations. Slow- and mid-flex rods also have their own advantages, but we’ll save that discussion for a later date.
With fly rods, it’s not always the size of the fish that determines the ideal rod weight. Bonefish, for example, may be a similar size to trout but they live in the ocean where wind presents a near-constant challenge for fly casting. They also run like torpedoes, reaching top speeds twice what trout can attain. This is why many saltwater anglers use a heavier rod. The extra grunt helps punch the fly into wind, and handle the brute force of hard-pulling fish.
Also consider fly size. While a 5-weight may have the power to fight and land a largemouth bass, it may not have the backbone to cast the wind-resistant, heavy flies often employed for bassing. Thus, many anglers prefer 7- and 8-weight rods for bones and bass.
How Much Is This Going to Cost Me?
Over the last few years, the fly fishing industry has made a concerted effort to become more accessible. The days when fly fishing was reserved for royalty are ancient history, but not so long ago only affluent people and DIY rod builders could enjoy the pastime. Options for first time buyers once seemed limited to either $1000-plus combos or Walmart specials. When several manufacturers moved their operations overseas, a wave of good, beginner-quality rod/reel/line combos with sub-$200 price tags followed.
As mentioned in my previous article about developing a relationship with your fly shop, remember that most shops are happy to let customers try out rods without any obligation to buy. Fishing clubs and organisations can also be excellent sources when it comes to learning accessible fisheries in your area.
Choosing a fly rod should be an enjoyable experience and part of the fun is learning what gear works best for you. You can’t foresee what skills you’ll learn or which fishing styles you’ll favour, so keep it within your budget, choose whichever rod works best for you right now, and know that you’ll learn to dance with whatever model you bring home. The two of you might move awkwardly at first, but eventually you’ll figure one another out.
Feature image via Tim Romano.