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Fly Rods

by Schmidt Outfitter Staff

Understanding Fly Rod Terminology

Once an angler selects the correct fly line weight and style for the fish to be caught, rod choice is next. High quality rods are “pre-matched” to the fly line weight. For example, a 6-weight rod casts and fishes best with a 6-weight line. Within the line weight categories, however, are some other considerations when selecting a rod. Most fly anglers call the most obvious set of characteristics a rod’s ‘action.’ A rod’s action is simply how the rod flexes when cast or when playing a fish. Even though classified as a 5-weight rod, for example, some rods within that class are very stiff from one end to the other, some are flexible from tip to butt, and some flex more in the tip than the butt. While many fly fishers feel that the action of a rod is simply a matter of personal choice, certain characteristics of a rod’s action are unchangeable and must be considered when choosing a rod for a particular style of fishing. An incredible range of actions is available, but three general categories best describe rod action: slow (soft), medium, or fast (stiff.)

Fly Rod Action

Slow Action Rods

A rod that flexes relatively easy from tip to butt is a slow action rod. The slow action casts a more open dry fly loop but handles weighted nymphs only with more effort on the caster’s part. The rod flexes almost throughout its length, and is considered ‘slow’ to load a fly line for a cast. Still, many fly casters, particularly those who fish dry flies most often, consider this an ideal rod since the more open loop is less apt to ‘overcast’ the leader and fly and cause them to splat on the water. The same softness of flex is also good at handling and landing fish since the flex responds well and quickly to the rapid movements of a hooked fish.

Medium Action Rods

While ‘medium’ might seem like a broad category of all rods that don’t fit into either the slow or fast action classes, there are actually dozens of rods that attempt to combine the best of the slow and fast actions. Most of these rods have a very firm, stiff lower section and a softer, more flexible tip section. Sometimes the soft tip is about half the rod’s length while other rods have less than two feet of soft tip before becoming stiff and inflexible. The idea behind these rods is to offer an all-around rod capable of handling very light dry flies and tippets and also driving weighted nymphs or lines into the wind.

Fast Action Rods

Of the three rod actions, a fast rod has the least flex from tip to butt. In general, a fast action rod can cast a tighter loop in a dry fly cast and handle more weight when being used for casting a weighted nymph or line. While these might be considered positive characteristics, the same rod is not as forgiving when an angler is playing a hooked fish. The rod does not flex as quickly and as easily when a head-shaking fish puts it under pressure. The wise angler chooses each rod’s characteristics in the context that some situations require stiffness and other situations might make the same stiffness a drawback.

Stiff rods are also called ‘fast’ rods because the casting stroke requires little energy on the caster’s part, but the movement is quick and short. Experienced casters who’ve learned the art of timing the quick casting stroke that best fits these rods typically use stiff rods. The rods can throw very ‘tight’ loops and are quite good for casts of longer distances.

Parts of a Fly Rod

Despite the many different actions and characteristics of rods, almost all of them have the same number of parts. The actual design and use of some of the parts vary from rod to rod, but the general purpose and presence of the parts are surprisingly consistent from manufacturer to manufacturer. Primary parts of a rod include: butt and butt cap, handle, reel seat, guides, and ferrules.

Fly Rod Butt and Tip

The butt or “butt section” is the bottom half of the rod, and has the largest diameter. The tip is the top half of the rod, and has the smallest diameter.

Rod Handle

The handle of the rod is where the fly fisher holds it. Without exception, the best fly rods use high quality cork for the handle. Even though many contemporary materials, such as graphite and stainless steel, have found their way into rod manufacturing, nothing has been able to unseat cork as a comfortable, long-lasting handle. Cork even shapes itself somewhat to a user’s hand as the rod is fished. Its tight grain, light color, and smooth, less porous surface characterize high quality cork.

Reel Seat

The reel seat is the section of the rod just below the handle where the reel is attached. In general, two types of reel seat are available: up-locking and down-locking. In each case, the name describes how the reel is attached to the rod. The up-locking seat has a threaded ring on the end of the seat nearest the butt cap. The ring is tightened from the bottom up toward the top of the rod, which locks the reel into a groove at the top of the reel seat and at the lower end of the handle. Thus, the up-locking name.

The down-locking reel seat does just the opposite. The threaded ring is at the top of the end of the reel seat and locks the reel down at the butt end of the rod. The places the reel more toward the butt cap of the rod and slightly further down on the rod from the handle. The down-locking reel seat is not as prevalently used as the up-locking style.

While certainly in the minority, some rods use a different reel seat mechanism, such as a cork reel seat with rings that slip over each end of the reel foot. This type of reel seat holds the reel in place by pressuring the foot of the reel into the cork base of the seat. This type is most often used on light rods, where a big, powerful fish is less likely to yank the reel off the rod.

Rod Guides

The guides on a rod are the ‘rings,’ as the English call them, through which the fly line and leader are threaded. Their purpose is to keep the line close to the rod, and make the most efficient use of the rod’s strength and flexibility. At the same time the guides keep the line from rubbing directly against the rod and causing friction. Friction would prohibit longer casts and add resistance to a fish taking line.

Most of the guides on a rod are called ‘snake’ guides because they are shaped of one piece of metal coiled into that shape. Most often, these guides are made of stainless steel or a similar durable material. The exception to the snake guides include the first guide up from the reel, the stripping guide, and the very top guide on the rod, the tip-top.

The stripping guide and the tip-top handle quite a bit more stress than the rest of the guides. They are designed to handle this stress. The stripping guide is much larger than the other guides on the rod for a reason. As a cast is made, the line undulates at great speed while it shoots through the guides. The job of the stripping guide is to ‘calm’ these undulations without restricting the flow of the line too much, which would shorten casts. So a stripping guide is made oversized to allow for fast-moving line to shoot through, but still force the line into the small spaces of the guides further up the rod. To further facilitate the efficiency of this constriction, most manufacturers add a very smooth, durable ceramic liner to the stripping guide.

The tip-top guide handles stresses of a different nature. Because the fly line is almost always moving at an angle away from the tip-top, it is prone to wear and should be checked periodically. Further, its location on the very end of the rod could be a problem with the rod’s action if the tip-top is not weighted properly for the rod. Because of these characteristics, tip-top guides are almost always a very light, durable material. Some manufacturers have experimented with a ceramic liner for durability, but most such experiments add too much weight to the end of the rod and are abandoned for lighter tip-tops.

Rod Ferrules

Most modern rods are in sections, or pieces. Travel-style rods of four pieces are becoming quite popular. With the increased usage of multi-piece rods, the quality of the ferrules is more critical. Ferrules are the joints that hold multi-piece rods together.

While rod manufacturers use a number of ferrule styles, they all make use of a joint that has a male half and a female half. The means that one section of the rod slides into another section with smoothness of fit and continuity of the rod’s taper being the critical points. The goal is to have a rod that is not so long it is cumbersome for travel and portability but with the smoothness of energy transfer and casting that is similar to a rod of one piece.