Sporting Life

Fly Fishing 101: Rod and Reel

There was something magical about putting my very own baseball glove on my hand for the first time. I’ll never forget the moment my father passed down his grandad’s shotgun to me, the Labor Day weekend before third grade. I’ll never forget my first fly rod. Before I bought it, I was a guy that had been fly fishing. After I owned my first rod setup, I bestowed on myself the honorable title: “fly fisherman”. There is something very personal about our gear. I believe we create some of our self identity around our tasks and tools, our hobbies and our gear. There are paintbrushes, chef knives, and even a chainsaw that I have some sentiment for .Bending it on the Snake

You might have picked up by now on the fact that I’m not in the product review business- I’m not particularly in the “how-to instruction guide” business either. In fact, I’m not in any kind of business on Big Haint Blue.  This post is a muse about fly rods. (You start this “101” series be clicking here to follow the muse). There are some great resources-  independent fly shops, guides, and professional product reviews that do an incredible job explaining the nuances of individual products. What I want to do is share my thoughts from over three decades of experience and a pretty long list of fly tackle. Some rods I have loved, others I had regretted buying.  I felt exactly those moments when I knew why the right rod was in my hand in the fishing situation.   I also have had times I just put down my rod and casted a guide’s equipment when they offered and the situation made sense. I had to learn to put pride aside- over time, many of those old rods and reels just became tools.

I have to admit, you still have a sentiment and nostalgia for brands- that ‘I’m a Ford Guy, you’re a Chevy guy’ type of  brand loyalty. You can look at my list of all the stuff I can remember owning- more or less in order and see those types of trends. I have to say that I see a whole bunch of Orvis out there, especially appealing to folks just entering the sport because of their market visibility.  (Don’t mistaken me for saying that all Orvis is beginner stuff- their high end is top end, they are perhaps the first brand someone is acquainted with. ) Orvis is a hashtag that is sometimes placed parallel, synonymous with fly fishing on instagram. That’s were I started. My dearest fishing guide and mentor had a sticker on his Clacka that read “Orvis Sucks”. I’m not in the product review business, like I said.

Rods: Orvis clearwater 7-9–5, Orvis silver 8-6-6, St Croix imperial 9-0-6, Winston WT 8-6-5 (Custom), Custom Made Hook & Hackle Brand IM6 Blanks in: 7-9-3, 8-6-5, 9-0-8; Sage XP 9-0-6 (Custom), Sage XP 9-0-8, Custom Bamboo 7-6-3, Winston LT 8-6-4, Winston LTX 9-0-5, Winston Boron III 8-6-5, Sage Salt 9-0-8, Scott G3 9-0-4, Scott A4 9-0-6, Scott Meridian 8-4-6

Reels: Orvis Clear Water (Starter), Orvis CFO, Ross Cimmaron 4, Ross Colorado 3/4, Ross Evolution LT1, Ross Evolution LT3, Hatch Finatic 4, Hatch Finatic 7, Nautilus FWX 5/6, Nautilus CCFX2-6/8, Abel Super4, Abel SDF 4/6

Lines: I’ve owned Scientific Angler lines, Rio Lines, Orvis Lines and a few I can’t remember. Most of my trout lines are all weight forward tapered. I’ve owned some sink tip lines and special lines for redfish and  bonefish. I’ve owned lines with different colors and textures (and I have a thing for grey rather than bright). Nothing has mattered more than matching the line weight to the flex and speed of each rod. That is very angler specific, rod specific and situation specific.IMG_5900

In the last post in this series, I described what I believe would be the ideal first fly rod setup: an 8’6″, medium fast action , five weight rod and a lightweight and size matched moderately priced reel with the right weight forward tapered line for the rod. A good fly shop might let you put all this together and give it a go in the parking lot (or not).

Why 8’6″? That’s the most common and average size. Shorter is advantageous for small streams, longer is advantageous for boat fishing, high stick nymphing- an 8’6″ can do all of this, perhaps not perfectly– but if you only have one– its average.

Why five weight? Again average. I’d love to fish a lighter three or four weight on smaller streams, even for some bruiser fish. But I need a little more backbone if I only have one rod and need to throw larger flies, weight, or I am fighting wind.

Why Medium- Fast action? Rods come in Traditional (slow), Medium, Medium Fast, Fast, Extra-Fast. This is in regards to stiffness, relates to the cadence of your cast and the force needed to generate a loop with it. If they all cost the same, we’d pick the Ferrari over the Station Wagon, right? When I first started, graphite technology allowed for faster rods. The technology allowed stiffness with “feel”. They were way faster than fiberglass.  I wanted FAST– who wants average? But we can’t all fit in “Magnums”, put a Ferrari in the hands of my sixteen year old and I’ll show you a Ferrari in a ditch. There is a pleasure is slowing down and feeling the line cast.  In the fast range, there are rods that are a little slower, but faster than medium. This is the Goldie Locks zone for a first rod. They have the feel of fly casting–still enough juice to move big flies. Look for ones with a sensitive feel in the tip, too (for strike indication).

So what brand or model? That’s a question broader in scope than this post and there’s no solid single answer. Most brands are regional. Some are big business, but most major brands are really small shops with real people and real employees that wind on every guide by hand. I am very partial to USA made rods, with flesh and bones folks that are stewards to the sport and habitat. Likewise, fly shops become brand loyal- like any business that is trying to sell service, value, and quality they have to curate a product line that works for you and them. There is no magic bullet.

What price range and features? To some degree, the statement, “you get what you pay for”, is true. But there are considerations that divide the “cheap” from a good budget/value rod, likewise, there are considerations that make the leap to premium.  A middle tier exists as well.  Like wine tasting,  a novice might not feel premium, but he would taste crappy, especially after handling mid-quality and premium. My advice is to stay out of the very bottom, big-box-store-combo-pack-made-in-China-by-a-machine-not- a-person CRAP. Buy a rod from a reputable, real person and be honest about your experience, the places you will most likely fish, and your budget. IMG_0157

There is a big leap in price that happens with premium brands regarding warranty against breakage. These guarantees are what allow the R&D, retooling, product development, and profits. There are rods under the life time warranty price point that benefit from the technology of their more expensive brothers in the better manufactures lineups. Some of the budget priced rods have the performance of a generation or so back of tech, which is great. They lack in sparkle. Jewelry-quality metal and exotic wood reel seats will be on the top end rods, but they don’t catch fish any different than the flat black ones on mid priced rods, but they are a reward for investing in the rod company at a higher level. The wraps on a premium rod might be turned slowly by hand with more attention to detail, but the moderately priced rods that were wrapped twice as fast probably won’t have a guide fall off! The bottom line is when you’re getting started get something good enough that you can enjoy using it- maybe forever, at least as a backup when you earn the “next” rod—- maybe you can hand it down to one of your children.

That Orvis Clearwater Beginner rod was a gift to my dad from a business associate. He fished with it long enough to know he was ready to buy his own rod. I fished with it long enough for me to save the money to buy my own rod- it’s now in a closet for sentimentality. I wouldn’t teach my kids to cast on it any more than I would let a Chimpanzee give them a golf lesson. That Orvis Silver, now thirty years old, is still my loaner- it’s at a neighbor’s house that lives on the lake and wanted to practice last summer—- its about time to get it back 🙂

I’d say I have a quiver full of rods.  I use two of them more than all the others- but I use about 5-6 rods regularly,  depending on the river, the flies, and the size trout I think I’ll catch. Just writing this has me resisting the temptation to add a really sweet two weight to my line up for a stream I’ve been visiting a bunch this early summer. I have almost pulled the trigger on a few used Charlton reels- it’s fun to dream. I hope you can have this much fun!

Cheers and Tight Lines,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s