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Home Fly Fishing Gear How to Choose a Fly Rod



How to Choose a Fly Rod



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     Let me start by saying that finding a fly rod that you really like and that suites your personal casting style is very important. So, before you purchase a fly rod or fly rods, you should first visit as many fly shops as possible and cast as many fly rods as possible to get a feel for what you like best.

     Next, we need to talk about fish species. First, there many different species of fish out there that will strike a fly so the fly angler is not limited to only fishing for trout. Therefore, the General Consensus of Fly Fishermen Everywhere has wisely divided fly fishing into two categories: Fresh Water and Salt Water. Then, these two main categories are further divided into many sub-categories. Thus, the species of fish that you choose to pursue, their relative size, and the type of environment that you choose to pursue them in will all work together to determine what range of rod lengths and line weights are appropriate for the type of fly fishing that you wish to pursue.

     In addition, you need to consider the rod's action. For instance, you need to understand that since artificial flies have very little weight and a lot of wind resistance, we can’t cast a fly in the same manner that we would cast a spinning lure or a bass plug. Instead, we have to use a weighted line and fly lines range in weight from 1 to 14 with one being the lightest and fourteen being the heaviest (this is determined by weighing the first thirty feet in grains and 440 grains = 1 oz.).  So, in order to cast an artificial fly, we need to attach it to a weighted line which we then use to store energy in the fly rod by bending it. Thus, this bending of the fly rod to store energy is called “loading” the rod and releasing or “unloading” this stored energy causes the line and our fly to soar through the air toward our intended target (although it sometimes ends up where we don't intend for it to go despite our best efforts). In addition, I consider fly rod action to be slightly more important than fly rod length and thus I believe that the proper action should be chosen first. Also, I believe that a fly rod’s action should be chosen according to purpose and not according to the caster’s personal style because, given time, the human body is capable of adapting to any fly rod action but, the rod’s action is fixed and thus, a fly rod is not capable of adapting. Now, I am well aware that this is contrary to conventional wisdom but in this case, I believe that the Conventionalist are wrong in this respect.

     Also, all fly rod blanks can be mentally divided into three zones called the Butt section, the Middle section, and the Tip section and different rods are specifically designed to load into one of these three different zones. Thus, a rod that “loads” into the butt section during a cast is said to have a “slow” or "full-flex" action, a rod that “loads” into the middle section during a cast is said to have a "medium" or "mid-flex" action, and a rod that “loads” only into the tip section during a cast is said to have a "fast" or "tip-flex" action. Thankfully, Orvis has greatly simplified the discussion of action types for us by assigning a numerical system to describe their particular fly rod actions with low numbers representing slow actions and high numbers representing fast actions. Then, they have further divided the numerical range into three categories; Full Flex (2.5-5.5), Mid-Flex (6.0-9.0), and Tip-Flex (9.5-12.5) and their definition of each is as follows:

  • Full-Flex describes a rod that bends all of the way into the butt section when casting (slow action) and is best for short to 

            medium range casts because it loads easily with very little line extended.

  • Mid-Flex describes a rod that bends only into the mid-section when casting (medium action) and provides excellent performance over a wide range of distances.
  • Tip-Flex describes a rod that flexes only into the tip section when casting (fast action) and is best for long distance casts with large or heavy flies or when casting in windy conditions.




     Therefore, you should consider using a full-flex action for short casts ranging from 10 to 30ft., a mid-flex action for medium casts ranging from 25 to 40 ft. and, a tip-flex action for longer casts such as when fishing on rivers, ponds, lakes, and saltwater. The reason for this is that when fishing at short ranges, you often have very little line out past the tip-top guide and thus you have very little line weight with which to load the rod. So, when fly fishing on small streams, you need a rod that will load easily at short ranges with very little line out past the tip-top guide (full-flex). However, when you are fishing at medium ranges, you have more line out past the tip-top guide and thus you have more line weight available to load the rod. Therefore you need the rod to be a little stiffer so that it will not load quite as easily and thus will be able to carry more weight and hold more fly line in the air for casting at longer ranges.

     Now, let’s talk about rod length. You see, fly rods are a lot like golf clubs in that they are designed to operate at different distances and thus, regardless of how carefully you choose your rod, there will ALWAYS be a situation in which you will wish that you had a different rod in your hand. Consequently, I have a long-standing joke with my fly fishing buddies that all fly fishermen need to hire a rod caddy to follow them along the stream. Then, all we would have to do is turn to our caddy and say “seven-foot, five weight, please” or “seven-nine, three weight, please” and thus we would always have the perfect rod at hand for every hole!

     Therefore, it is extremely important to choose a fly rod with a length and action that is appropriate for the size of stream that you intend to fish. For instance, short rods and slow actions are best suited for short casts and provide pinpoint accuracy at shorter ranges whereas long rods and medium actions are best suited for longer casts and they provide superior line control at longer ranges which is helpful when mending you fly line. However, to the inexperienced fly fisherman, a slight variation in the length of a fly rod may not seem significant. But, I assure you that once you gain some casting experience, a mere three inches difference in the length of the rod becomes VERY significant and can dramatically change the feel and performance of a fly rod! Thus, since trout streams vary greatly in size with differing types and densities of streamside foliage, you need to choose your rod length and action very carefully.

     Consequently, I am often asked how to choose a fly rod and, my answer to that question is that since fly rods are like golf clubs in that they are designed to provide optimal performance at different ranges under varying conditions, serious fly fishermen need to consider purchasing more than one fly rod. After all, imagine trying to play eighteen holes of golf with nothing but a  driver or a putter in your golf  bag! Thus, like a golf club, there is no one, single, fly rod that will work for all situations. However, a good rule of thumb to remember is that the action of a fly rod determines the minimum distance at which it will load and the length of a fly rod determines the maximum distance over which it will cast. Now at this point, you may be wondering what is the difference between loading and casting? Well, loading implies storing energy in the rod and casting implies releasing the energy stored in the loaded rod. So, once again, the action of a fly rod determines the minimum distance at which it will store energy and the length of a fly rod determines the maximum distance over which it will cast a line by releasing that stored energy. Thus, a full-flex rod will load at much closer ranges than a tip-flex rod and a long rod will cast much farther than a short rod if all other variables such as line weight and line taper are held equal.

     Thus, in order to choose the proper size fly rod for the type of water that you like to fish, you need to choose an action that loads easily over the range at which you will be fishing and that is short or long enough to cast the fly line over the appropriate distance at which you will be fishing most often. Consequently, when choosing a fly rod, first ask yourself “what is the shortest cast that I am likely to have to make on a regular basis?” and then choose your rod's action accordingly. Then, ask yourself what is the longest cast that I am likely to have to make on a regular basis and choose your rod's length accordingly. Now obviously, this leads us to a discussion of what action and length is appropriate for a particular size stream and, while the choice is ultimately up to the angler, I would like to make the following suggestions: for casting at a range of 10 to 30 feet, choose a full-flex action; for casting at a range of 25 to 40 feet, choose a mid-flex action. Also, when casting at a range of 5 to 15 feet use a 5 ½ to 6 ½ ft. rod, when casting at a range of 10 to 25 feet use a 7 ft. rod, when casting at a range of 20 to 35 feet choose a 7ft. 9in. rod, when casting at a range of 25 ft. to 40ft. choose an 8 ½ ft. rod, and for any cast over 40 ft. use a 9 ft. rod.

     Also, it is particularly important to note that when fly fishing on a small stream, it is far easier to make precision casts at short range with a short rod having a slow to medium action. Plus, an added bonus is that short rods are easier to maneuver through and cast underneath any streamside foliage. However, as with everything, there is a trade off when using a short rod. You see, the longer a rod is, the longer its moment arm (lever) and thus, the faster the tip of the rod moves through its arc when casting. This results in progressively longer rods imparting more momentum to the fly line during casting so that consequently, a long rod will cast a fly line of the same brand, model, and weight farther than a short rod with the same action will. In addition, longer rods also provide greater line control at longer ranges and they also provide you with better reach when nymph fishing. But, longer rods also require more overhead room to cast and are more difficult to maneuver through streamside foliage. So, as I mentioned previously, the ideal solution is to acquire more than one fly rod and tailor your selection of each one to a particular size stream and/or purpose.

     In addition, when shopping for a new fly rod, you will be confronted with rods made from many different materials such as bamboo, fiberglass, graphite, and boron in a wide range of prices. However, do not automatically assume that the most expensive fly rod will be the best choice for your particular application. Also, be aware that it is the fisherman that that catches the fish and not the fly rod since the fly rod is merely a tool. Thus, a relatively cheap fly rod in the hands of an expert fly fisherman will always out fish a very expensive fly rod in the hands of a novice. But, having said that, the reason that fly rods vary so greatly in price range because of the materials they are made from and the amount of labor that goes into making them.

     Consequently, my idea of the ultimate quiver of small-stream fly rods would be a full-flex 6 ft. 4 wt, a full-flex 7 ft. 5 wt, a full-flex 7 ft. 9 in. 5 wt., and a full-flex 8 ½ ft. 5 wt. to serve as dedicated dry fly rods along with a mid-flex 8 ½ ft. 5 wt. to serve as a dedicated nymph and streamer rod combined with appropriate specailty taper fly lines. Whereas, when fishing "big water" I prefer a  fast action 9 ft. 5 wt. or a 9 ft. 6 wt. or, even 10 ft. 6 wt. Of course, I realize that this sounds like a lot of rods but, if I go ahead and list them all here, then you can use me as an excuse when your wife asks why you have so many fly rods by saying “See honey, this is what the man told me to buy!”

     Last, be forewarned that fly rods are very much like political opinions or religious ideals and different people have a wide range of different preferences for the brand, length, and type of action that they choose for a particular purpose. In fact, your wet dream, all-time favorite, best-ever-made, couldn’t pry it loose with dynamite fly rod might be a living nightmare for another fly caster because you have different preferences than they do. So, be careful when expounding on the virtues of your latest acquisition because, if everybody liked the same thing, there would only be one fly rod company with only one model of rod (God forbid it ever be so!). Thus, I would strongly suggest that you visit a good fly shop or three and cast as many rods as they will let you. In doing so, you will soon discover that you have a particular preference for one brand of rod over all of the others. Then, you can sit down and identify the type and size of the water you intend to fish most often and narrow your choices accordingly.





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Bill Bernhardt

Guide & Instructor

Harper Creek Fly Fishing Company