I have friends who just have "their fishing rod," which ends up in applications from bluegill to coho salmon. I know other folks who might not be able to quantify their collection within a confidence interval of 100 (I'm looking at you, Cermele).
Unless you're some sort of diehard panfish purist, you pretty much need to have a few rigs. But that selection doesn't need to be enormous. With these six rods you could probably land just about every scaled species in and around North America.
7-foot Medium-Light Spinning
From flicking little Panther Martin spinners for brookies to flipping wacky-rigged Senkos for bass under docks, a quality , accurate, light spinning rig might be the most useful and versatile tool for freshwater fishing. You can be using it on crappie one minute then turn around and jig for walleye the next.
Most serious anglers I know have several of these to choose from, but only one ride-or-die. Mine's an Omen Black split-grip from 13 Fishing. It lives behind the head rests on the back seat of my truck, ready for multi-day excursions or quick roadside sessions.
7-foot-6 Medium Baitcasting
It's always a good idea to have a few rigs at the ready. While the above spinning setup is for finesse, this baitcaster is for brawn. Swinging spoons in heavy current. Muscling pike out of the logs. Trolling heavy bottom-bouncers. Ripping wide-wobbling crankbaits or launching a full-size spinnerbait without fear for your rod's safety.
With those applications in mind, stiffness and strength are at a higher premium than sensitivity. You can have both, but think first about what you're trying to accomplish. Crankbait bites are rarely subtle. This rod is for throwing heavy stuff to heavy fish. It's for trolling or retrieving lures and baits that pull back. I'm currently using a couple different 13 Fate Black rods for those purposes.
8-foot Heavy Baitcasting
This rig bats cleanup. It's ready to take on the fish that none of your other rods can handle. Flathead catfish. Alligator gar. Muskie. Chinook. Lingcod. Grouper. Tarpon. My dad and godfather landed a 175-pound halibut on a heavy salmon setup like this. My buddy Oliver Ngy uses them to blast unreasonably large swimbaits for unreasonably large largemouth.
Paired with a 6500-series baitcasting reel with a wide arbor to hold a mile of line, you can run this rig to launch lures from the beach to the horizon or plunk heavy bait rigs to soak. But it might be at its finest for deep jigging, where a little bit of flexion in the rod can actually help pop that Scampi or butterfly jig off the bottom with a little flourish. You'd be excused for wanting a spinning rod for this category and many people go that way for surfcasting and heavy inshore, but personally I like to have my reel on top for the big-time fishes.
9-foot 4-weight Fly
Conventional wisdom holds the 5-weight as the standard fly rod, the entry point and the catch-all. I find that 4-weights are generally more practical. You may not be able to chuck big streamers and heavy nymph rigs, but the whole point of owning an array of fishing rods is having a specific rig for specific situations. For dry fly fishing trout, 4s are where it's at. Same for twitching buggers to crappie and perch. When presentation and accuracy are on the line, a 5-weight will feel like a broomstick once you've fished a decent 4.
I have several rods in this category, but the one I'm most often reaching for these days is the XLS series from CD Fishing, a New Zealand company that's gaining traction in the American market. Disclaimer: the super-fast tip might be a struggle for novice fly anglers to control. If that's you, seek a slower action rod to nail your timing.
9-foot 8-weight Fly
This is the larger-game feather stick. Bass, carp, pike, striper, redfish, salmon, steelhead. If you need something bigger, you'll know it when you get there and will welcome the purchase. But for the sake of simplicity, a good 8 is an incredibly versatile tool.
These days, you could easily blow an entire $1,400 stimulus check on an ocho with a big game reel without skipping a beat. You can, but you don't have to. I recently found nothing short of pure delight casting to and fighting big Belizean bonefish on the Waterworks-Lamson Saltwater 8-weight, which is currently selling for $225. You should put more money into your reel for this rig anyway.
30-inch Medium-Light Ice
Apologies to my friends in the South who are already shrugging off this entry—but I think the storm that froze Texas this winter may have a lot more folks interested in hardwater angling. It's fun, challenging, and mandatory knowledge for anyone who considers themselves an all-around angler.
Ice fishing does not, however, require a forest of rods (despite what you might see in my sled). One good rig can cover the lion's share of your needs. I helped a buddy land a 12-pound brown trout on a light perch rod last winter, so I know it can be done. The trick is to find one with a soft, sensitive tip that still carries enough backbone that you're not bent to the cork on any fish over three pounds. For my money, there's nothing better than the 13 Omen Ice in medium-light power. Even with a grip of ice sticks, that's the one I grab for prospecting and jigging about 90% of the time. This season it handled everything from one-pound perch to 7-pound pike.
Ice season is rapidly melting away, but that means we're only weeks from open boat launches. Get your rod arsenal dialed now to be ready for any species you might encounter this year.