The beauty of fishing is that you can make it whatever you want it to be. It’s called style. Do you want to be a largemouth aficionado or someone who only throws bait into the surf? Or, are you casting ultralight rods for wild, 6-inch brook trout in alpine creeks or tossing 9-inch swimbaits for muskies? It’s all fishing, but there are wildly different applications depending on your style, target, and goals.
A huge part of mastering any type of angling pursuit comes down to understanding rod action and power and how to properly employ them. On paper it may seem like a dull subject, but you’ll be glad you took this crash course when a tarpon is spinning line off your reel or you need to detect a super-subtle crappie strike. A solid grasp of these measurement systems will help you get the most of your existing tackle and make informed purchases of new gear to improve your abilities further. Fly fishing rods follow a slightly different set of parameters, so we’ll cover that in a separate article.
Anyway, here's how fishing rod action and power categories work.
Fishing Rod Action “Rod action” refers to where the rod bends along its length. The categories are: extra-fast, fast, moderate, and slow action. For example, a fast-action rod will bend most in the upper third of the rod blank, while a slow-action rod will bend consistently down into the handle.
In general, “fast” and “slow” refer to how quickly the blank recovers to its original position. Fast-action rods will quickly snap back to their form, whereas slow-action rods will return, as the name suggests, more slowly because there is a longer bend to straighten.
Fishing Rod Power Separately but related we have “rod power,” which refers to the pressure needed to bend the rod, or the "power" the rod can exert. This usually refers directly to the thickness of the rod as well. Conventional rod power is categorized as follows: ultra-light, light, medium-light, medium, medium-heavy, heavy, and extra heavy.
An ultra-light rod will be thin and easy to bend, usually intended for casting light lures and fighting small trout and panfish. An extra-heavy rod will be very thick and rigid, meant for fighting large fish like halibut or tuna, and/or casting or jigging very heavy baits.
How Action and Power Interact Now that we’ve tackled their definitions, we can cover how they correspond. Think of power and action as your X and Y axis on a graph—they both operate on a sliding scale and create a relatively linear line, but there can be exceptions. A heavy-power rod, for instance, is likely to be fast action because you can't get much bend when you're afer a lot of strength. A slow-action rod, on the other hand, will generally fall into medium-light, light, and ultra-light rod power. As I mentioned above, there are exceptions, too. Surf rods come in both slow- and fast-action styles but are both usually heavy power rods.
Lunker Lures As you select your rod, you first need to think about the type of fish you’ll be targeting and the lures needed to catch them. A heavier power rod will be able to throw heavy jigs and plugs for bass, but won’t be able to effectively cast a ⅜-ounce panfish jig. With a medium-action rod, you could throw lures ranging from ¼ ounce to maybe 1 ounce, depending on conditions. Here’s a quick reference:
In many cases, rods will even list the optimal weight range at the base of the blank, just above the handle. When in doubt, though, test them out. If a heavy rod is struggling to cast a lure through air resistance and wind, then your lure is probably too light. Or, if your rod is overbending or flailing at the tip, you may want to take the weight down a notch.
Go the Distance In general, the heavier the rod, the more weight you can throw, and the more distance you can achieve. You’re also going to sacrifice some delicacy as well, which may or may not matter. If you’re fishing the surf for redfish, a heavy or extra-heavy power, fast-action rod will get you the distance you need when a delicate approach doesn’t matter. While bass or trout fishing, however, you need to achieve more balance. You may need distance but you want to be able to drop a lure delicately and precisely as possible, so a medium- or light-power rod with a moderate action may be best.
Sensitivity and Hooksets Lastly, how you fish will also determine the type of rod action and power you need. If you’re using soft plastics along the bottom and need to detect subtle strikes, such as while walleye fishing, then you’ll want a medium-light or medium-power rod that can cast larger lures and set big hooks but still has some sensitivity. On the other hand, an ultralight-power rod is great for soft bluegill strikes close to the boat in submerged timber and will do fine setting the hook on panfish and other small fish with delicate mouths.
If you’re throwing poppers or plugs and need to cause a ruckus, then a medium-heavy or heavy rod will help you yank hard. You’ll also want a fast action to get the most movement from your lure and not wear your arm out. If you need a hard hookset on hard-mouthed fish like pike, muskie, or tarpon, you may want to up the rod power and action to offer some extra backbone. Fast-action rods are also great for pitching lures under under structure because the quick recovery allows for accurate delivery. Fast actions are also helpful in spots where your casting radius or back-cast options are limited on banks with dense cover or tight streams.
A lot of folks who spend time trolling for salmon, walleye, or other big-water species love slow action rods for the shock absorption they provide. A deep bend can assit with hooksets under power and dull the vibration of rattling plugs or spinners.
Wrapping Up It’s important to remember that rod power and action are not scientific measurements. They’re subjective categories set by each manufacturer based on a common understanding of anglers’ needs. That also means there’s a lot of inconsistency and overlap. In other words, you can get away with quite a bit by using a medium-power rod but may miss some subtle strikes or struggle to cast a light jig. Alternatively, an ultralight rod can awkwardly throw some bigger lures, but it won’t be able to do so with much accuracy. As your experience and rod arsenal grow, you’ll be able to learn the intricacies of each rod and use their action and power to your advantage.
Feature image via Sam Lungren