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Choosing a Fly Rod by Ally Gowans
© Ally Gowans

What fly fishing rod should I buy? The quality of the answer given varies because we tend to bias our answers with personal preferences and often there are a number of satisfactory answers. However the underlying reasoning for buying a certain type of rod can be lost in the simplification or generalization of the answer. When buying a fishing rod, start with its intended purpose and buy what will suit you best.

A fly rod has two main purposes, to present the fly and play the fish so you need to some idea of the type of fishing intended. Both flies and fish come in a vast range of sizes and no single rod suits all types of fly fishing. The logical place to start is by considering the size of flies that you want to cast because this will determine the basic size (AFTM rating) of the rods that you should consider.

The size is a number according to the AFTM fly line standard. There is no need here to look at the derivation of the standard, suffice to say that the fly size and the line weight should balance and the higher the AFTM number, the heavier the fly line is. If you wish to use flies in the normal trout fishing sizes, let’s say mostly between a size 16 hook and a size 10 hook then an AFTM #6 or #7 rod would be a sensible starting point. Of course if you intend to use heavier flies a larger line size should be selected. You can try to use any size of fly with any line, it’s just that delicacy will suffer if you use a tiny fly on a heavy line and casting really becomes difficult if you try to use a heavy fly on a light line!

The next consideration is the type of casting that you want to do with the rod. For any given line rating the rod action will change according to the length of the rod and how it bends. Manufacturers describe rod actions in a variety of ways and several of them claim amazing benefits for their pet products, however most rod styles can be put into one of three categories.

Through action rods are often described as soft, slow, smooth progressive or the like. What the maker is trying to say is that they bend fairly smoothly from butt to tip. Such rods are generally easier to cast with because there is more “feel” to them and timing is less critical. They load easily with short line lengths and usually roll cast very well and this makes them ideal for short line fishing such as loch style from boats or on small rivers and brooks. Conversely they throw wider loops than faster action types and they are not the type to choose if you want pin point accuracy or maximum distance.

Medium or parabolic rod action is slightly stiffer than a through action and in comparison the butt of the rod is a little stiffer. This usually means is that for a given rod length the AFTM line rating is higher. Parabolic is a great all-round action and a well designed rod should be capable of good performance for most techniques whilst being comfortable with a decent amount of line out. Timing is a bit more critical but a well designed rod will not overload easily. Parabolic rods suit me best for teaching and demonstrations.

Fast action rods give the ultimate in distance and for those with finely honed timing and casting skills they are the fishing equivalent of a high performance car. Like a high performance car they are not much good off road and so if you are a beginner looking for a general purpose rod my advice is to stay clear of this style unless you intend to fish mostly in situations where distance is paramount and you are prepared to practice your casting techniques to exploit the rod’s capabilities. Anglers who want distance and accuracy for bone fishing, reservoirs and the like may well choose a fast action.

As an example of how rod action is inferred by the combination of rod length and line rating nine foot rods rated #5. #6 and #7 may fit respectively into each of the above categories. (Strictly speaking there more to it than that simplified example.) My rule of thumb is that dividing the rod length by 1.5, rounded to the nearest whole number gives a nice general purpose action and produces the following table.

Length (ft)67891011121314151617


Before leaving the AFTM system and rod ratings I should give a warning. There is a tendency by some manufacturers to underrate their rods with a line rating that is, for most anglers too light. Such a rating may well be OK for an experienced angler who can use hauling techniques with the stated line weight to load a rod, but not for a beginner. Many of the American rods are marked with line sizes smaller than their European counterparts.

The length of rod chosen should be appropriate to the type of fishing. If you wish to fish small streams a nine or ten foot rod will be a handicap so you would choose a much shorter rod somewhere between 6 and 8 feet long perhaps. For general river fishing and small stillwaters rods between 8ft and 9ft 6in are usual and for larger rivers and lochs I suggest something between 9 ft and 11 ft. It is a mistake to imagine that a longer rod will necessarily allow you to cast further. Leverage on your arm increases as the rod length increases and the friction caused by the greater number of rod rings also increases. Neither of these effects is helpful in achieving distance. For a person of average build a 9ft 6in rod is perhaps the best choice for distance casting. Longer single handed rods have their place for working teams of wet flies or for fishing in rivers for sea trout and salmon where the extra length allows better control of the drift. Double handed salmon rods are probably easier to select than single handed rods because the relationship is generally river size vs. rod length and the only observation that I would add to that is that a longer and stronger rod is an advantage for sunk line fishing. For Spey casting a parabolic action is by far the most efficient.

Obviously you expect to get a better quality fly rod if you pay more for it. Generally speaking, up to a certain price that will be the case and even some of the top priced items are good value. There are several things to look for in a rod build. Joints are there for convenience and are a source of weakness and discontinuity. Ideally a rod should have as few as possible but that is not practical in our international world so the next best thing is to have joints that are properly designed and fitted. If you rotate a perfectly fitting joint close to its gripping point it should feel smooth all the way round. Inspection of the male portion of the joint will indicate how much bearing surface is being used, in an ideal world all of it will mate. Unfortunately that occurrence is rare with certain manufacturers and not always the cheapest ones either! If a rod is to track true each section of it should be aligned into the preferred bending plane and when assembled the joints should be in perfect alignment. Again do not take this for granted, one very famous “top quality” manufacturer makes no attempt to spine their product, they simple align sections until they are straight and build the rod. The result is that their rods are known within the business for bad tracking, i.e. the rod does not move back and forth in exactly the same plane, instead it wobbles from side to side. Nowadays I much prefer rods that break down into convenient carrying lengths and accept that the slight impairment in the action of a well designed rod is well worth the ease of transport. Rod rings nowadays are mostly the high stand off chrome type which are perfectly suitable. Lined rings are also common and the only problem with them is that if the lining is damaged, the rod is unusable. This is a slight inconvenience when you have another rod to hand, the problem is of totally different magnitude when you are in the middle of nowhere on vacation and you only have one rod. For that reason you should always carry a spare tip ring, any other damaged ring can be removed without causing too much difficulty. An even better idea is to take a spare rod.

Some manufacturers love to boast about the lightness of their rods and there are two things that a beginner should realize before swallowing the advantages of lightness hook, line and sinker. The first is that many of the weights stated on the rods are incorrect. Often the weight refers to the weight of the blank only and this practice is to say the least misleading. The other thing is that lightness often compromises strength and it is no accident that some of the first manufacturers to offer a lifetime guarantee did so because their reputation was becoming seriously damaged by the breakage rate of their rods, reputedly over 40%! Slightly heavier rods either contain more graphite or some glass fibre that greatly enhances their ability to stand up to some abuse.

Professional instructors should be prepared to give unbiased advice on suitable tackle. Take advantage of them, if none are available ask a competent fishing friend to help you or maybe the tackle dealer will offer his services. If you are a more experienced angler you will be able to make up your own mind and in that case you will most likely have a number of lines that you want to try with any rod. A modern fly rod is a significant investment, choose carefully, choose wisely and you should have chosen a friend and companion that will repay you with many hours of pleasure on the water.

Reproduced with kind permission of Ally Gowans ©. Content on this web page may not be reproduced without prior permission.

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