Ever since the days of split-bamboo fly rods, anglers have been tinkering with rod tapers, rod actions, flex patterns, materials, components, grips, styles, and more. Experimentation lies at the heart of angling, and anglers have created an impressive array of tools for their enjoyment.
Over the past 20 years or so, there’s been a shift in fly rod design, a trend of which prominent anglers like Blane Chocklett and JT Van Zandt are keenly aware. As technologies and manufacturing techniques improved, the industry entered an arms race to make the “fastest” and lightest fly rods possible. While these improvements may be helpful in certain situations, they may be unhelpful in others. In fact, this trend may be affecting how fly anglers interact with the sport altogether.
“I think as soon as the graphite rod came out, the trend, which continues, is to make them lighter and faster,” Van Zandt told MeatEater. “Somehow the priorities got hijacked and whether it was bravado or simply technology-driven, rods kept getting lighter in the hand and continued to have faster actions. Maybe it was a natural evolution of man and technology.”
While these lightning-fast new rods, which bend primarily in the tip section and bounce back fast, allow elite casters to achieve unprecedented casting distances, they’re definitely not for everybody. Guides like Van Zandt and Chocklett regularly see poor casting performance from the clients with rods they can’t control. Some anglers struggle to use the tools they’ve been promised are the best in the world.
So, the question we should be asking is, the best in the world at what?
Let’s take a quick look at how rod actions have changed over the years, how they affect angler performance, and what type of fly rod you actually need on the water.
Unnatural Evolution There’s no denying that fly rods have gotten better over the past 200 years or so. Just try casting an early model made out of ash or lacewood. It feels like you’re swinging a pool cue. As split bamboo blanks came on the scene in the late 1800s, anglers benefited from lighter weights, more power, more flexibility, and more durability. Then, enter fiberglass in the 1940s, which greatly reduced costs and mimicked what bamboo had been doing successfully for decades.
In the early 1970s, graphite came on board and changed the game. It was a stronger and lighter with infinite potential for fly rod technology. Rods quickly became faster and more powerful, enabling anglers to cast 100-plus feet with accuracy. We were off to the races, figuratively and almost literally.
As we entered the 1980s and 1990s, something else happened. Fly fishing earned a new image. Guides and personalities started hosting their own programs, and companies started mass-marketing their latest and greatest graphite technologies alongside. New publications popped up and high-gloss images of anglers double-hauling shots into their backing were baked into our brains. That’s where the shift began.
“I believe the trend to be faster and lighter was built around a macho concept of throwing a lot of line, which is not realistic or practical in many fishing environments,” Van Zandt said.
The fishing public began to see the pinnacle of what fly anglers—and their fly rods—could do. Throwing line great distances became the thing. Much like a Ferrari on a test track, we wanted to push our rods to their limits in their ideal environment, or at least own a rod that could do that—even if we couldn’t take it there.
What’s the Problem? It’s not all bad. As Chocklett pointed out, by integrating new fibers and designs we’ve been able to increase fly rod power and recovery speed and reduce weight at the same time.
“The biggest change over the years has been the resins they piece all the rods together with,” Chocklett said. “Weaving different fibers keeps rods from ovaling (distorting from their round shape) and increases the recovery speed. That’s really helpful for me, being someone that's usually throwing really large, wide streamers. But, I guess I’m on the extreme side of things.”
By pointing out the benefits, Chocklett also points out the problem. When he says he’s on the “extreme side of things,” he means it. Chocklett earned his acclaim partially by inventing a large, multi-articulated fly pattern called the Game Changer, which he uses to guide for giant muskies in Virginia, as well as numerous other applications. If we’re continuing the racecar analogy, Chockeltt, like Van Zandt, is an F1 driver. In other words, he needs the pinnacle of rod performance and knows how to push it to its limits. Sure, they’re expensive rods, but that’s because they use a great amount of technology to do something very specific—throw big flies through heavy winds at long distances.
And that brings us to a glaring issue: There’s an imbalance in fly rods. Many of us are fishing fly rods that only a few people need. We’re flooding the road with Ferraris when what we really need is a 4Runner. And we’ll get to why that’s an issue in just a minute.
Another problem is represented in cost.
If you look at the high-end fly rod manufacturers—Scott, Orvis, G. Loomis, Sage, Winston, Thomas & Thomas—their most expensive rods outside of bamboo are their fastest-action rods. Now, this isn’t just a money grab. It’s no coincidence that fast-action rods are both more expensive and more difficult to make. But, it does drive the misconception that expensive is always better for everyone. In many markets, that may be true, but in fly fishing, it means something much different. And many anglers don’t seem to know it.
Why You Might Not Need an Expensive Fly Rod “Because a rod is super fast, it may be more expensive, but it doesn't mean it's best for what you're doing, especially because your casting stroke may not allow for that type of rod,” Chocklett explained. “Some people buy those rods just because they’re the most expensive. In reality, it's kind of like golf clubs. A lot of times, a super-stiff shaft is way too much for the average golfer because they don't have the clubhead speed to allow for that shaft to work for them. It's all about how much line speed you're able to generate on your hauls, too. If you don't have a good haul, you're not going to appreciate how fast that rod could be anyway.”
Essentially, Chocklett believes that the majority of anglers will never use their space-age fly rods for the actual intended because they can’t. They’re not getting enough time on the water and don’t have the casting skills to push that rod to its full potential. A common fishing guide saying goes: “You’re getting about 20 bucks out of that thousand-dollar rod.”
Van Zandt takes it a step further: Even if you can push a rod to its full potential, you rarely need to, even in the saltwater environments he calls home.
“I think there are rods out there that have gotten too stiff, especially when you're talking about the tip flex. I hate a rod that I can't make tiny little strokes with a real narrow casting arc, like 11 to one,” Van Zandt said. “With a lot of these rods, you've got to throw 100 feet or try to pick up 60 feet in order to make the rod load, and that feeling is required for us to understand what the fly cast is and how to get better at it. I would say 95% of fish are caught within 40 feet. If we were building rods that threw the right fly line weight at 30 to 50 feet, we’d have a more delicate, elegant experience.”
Generally, fast-action rods are great at picking up a fly line quickly and throwing a fly long distances with few false casts. In other words, they’re great for tarpon, permit, bonefish, and other fast-paced sight-casting environments. But, for fish that require a lot of “prospecting” and casting again and again, like trout, bass, and panfish, fast-action rods can have some detrimental effects.
“A super-fast rod ends up hurting you because the recovery speed is so quick that you feel the shock go through the rod into your arm,” Chocklett said. “And even though it's super-fast, it makes you feel every single load and unload throughout the day, and you get that shock and recoil from a big fly going back and forth.”
Even if you are fishing in conditions where a fast-action rod may make sense, you still need to think about how much you’re casting. The point is, fast-action rods are built for very specific conditions where you need to cast big flies far, quickly, or to individual targets through windy conditions. So, what sort of fly rod do you actually need?
The Right Fly Rod for the Job As Van Zandt pointed out, it’s difficult to fully load a fast-action fly rod. You may need 60 feet of line to get a full bend, which can be incredibly difficult for beginning casters. First things first, if you’re new to the sport, you should consider picking up a slow- to medium-fast action rod because you’ll be able to really experience what a good cast should feel like. You’ll learn to appreciate the finer details of the mechanics of a cast and grow your familiarity with the process. But this definitely isn’t to say that slow- or medium-fast rods are beginner’s rods. They’re just easier to learn on than fast-action rods.
Many highly experienced and talented anglers develop an affinity for “soulful,” deep-bending, slow-action rods, whether they be graphite, fiberglass or bamboo. Such sticks allow for more delicate and finesse presentations to finicky fish like rising trout or redfish tailing in super shallow water–Van Zandt’s specialty. The casting stroke is much slower, springier, and relaxed compared to the fast-action whip-crack.
And that may be all you’ll ever need. It completely depends on the right tool for the job. The good news is that, as we’ve discussed, the most expensive rod isn’t always the best rod for every angler. So, you’ve already saved a few hundred dollars. There are incredible rods out there for a mid-range price that will perform day in and day out for the rest of your life. They’ll have plenty of power, plenty of delicacy, and won’t blow your shoulder out in the process.
Chocklett pointed out that the TFO Axiom II-X, which he helped design, is built with a fast-action but slower recovery speed, making for a powerful rod that has a gentler feel on your arm when casting wads of bucktail at muskies. Van Zandt mentioned the G. Loomis IMX-PRO series is a prime example of a fly rod that may actually be better for many anglers but isn’t the brand’s most expensive model. A few years ago, Sage was promoting their Circa rod as “advanced slow action.” Regardless, it’s important to test out rods in person. There are hundreds of great fly rod designs out there, but the choice is personal. One person may be the perfect fit for a rigid, fast-action graphite shaft, while others may thrive with a slow-action noodle. It depends on casting experience, casting style, pursuit, weather conditions, and several other factors.
Tools Over Trends If there’s one point to take away from all this, it’s that you need to think for yourself when buying a fly rod. Even if it’s not due to nefarious, mustache-twirling plots from the big fly rod brands (it’s probably not), some anglers have been misinformed about what we really need from a fly rod. As many experienced anglers will tell you, you can do a lot with any rod—cheap or expensive, fast or slow. It’s about learning how to use the rod properly and make it an extension of your arm.
For instance, Van Zandt recalled a trip to the Seychelles where he some of the world’s best saltwater fly anglers were using 14-weight bamboo rods from Thomas & Thomas for giant trevally. You read that right. The “F1 drivers” of fly fishing choose to throw a rod with a design that dates back more than 200 years in the Grand Prix event of fly fishing.
There are plenty of anglers who fish with 50-year-old fiberglass rods and will hook more trout than anyone else on the river. Then, there are the gearheads who spend $1,000 on a fast-action rod and get every dollar out it—even if they are driving a supercar when a sedan would suffice.
In the end, fly fishing is fly fishing. If you’re in the market for a new rod, just recognize what you’re being sold and know what you need to catch the next fish. If you can get to this Zen place Van Zandt describes, then it doesn’t really matter what you’re casting:
“The more feel you have in that short cast, the more accurate you can be, and the more reliable that movement is every time if you feel it,” he said. “You're not just throwing a rock off the end of a broomstick, right? You're feeling that flick all the way to the end of the rod. Once you get used to it, you can be as accurate as you can be with a dart in your hand. The fact that we're capable of that as humans is magic.”
Feature image via Tosh Brown.