How to Choose a Fly Rod

To those who are experienced at the ancient art of fly fishing, it may be somewhat difficult to understand that fly rods are all very purpose-specific. Therefore, when choosing a fly rod for any given purpose, it is imperative that you choose the right one. However, to a novice fly fisherman, the many different aspects of choosing the right fly rod can be confusing at best and mind-boggling at worst.

For instance, an appropriate fly rod for any given purpose is chosen first by length, then by line weight and then, by action. Consequently, fly rods range from as short as 5 feet to as long as 15 feet and are designed to cast fly lines ranging from 1 weight to 14 weight. In addition, they are commonly designed to have one of three different types of actions ranging from slow to medium, to fast actions. So, how does a fly fisherman choose the right rod for his intended purpose?

Different rods for different environments

Well, in order to answer that question, a fly fisherman must first answer several other questions by determining what type of environment they will be fishing and as well as the size of the fish species that they intend to pursue. For instance, fly fishermen commonly first divide aquatic environments into freshwater and saltwater environments. Then, both of those environments are further divided into several sub-environments.

Therefore, the first distinction that fly fishermen make when classifying freshwater environments is to distinguish between moving-water and still-water environments. Then, they further divide the moving freshwater environment into small streams, medium-sized streams, large streams, and rivers. In addition, fly fishermen also make a second distinction by recognizing the difference between moving water and still water such as ponds, small lakes, and large lakes.

Thus, a freshwater fly fisherman can choose to pursue small trout in tiny mountain streams or, they can choose to pursue larger trout in medium-sized streams or, they can choose to pursue very large trout and other fish species such as smallmouth bass in truly large streams as well pursuing salmon in smaller and larger rivers. Or, they can also choose to pursue the various fish species such as sunfish, largemouth bass, pike, and muskie that prefer to inhabit ponds and lakes.

In addition, when fly fishing in the saltwater environment, fly fishermen also make similar distinctions. For instance, the saltwater environment can be divided into several different sub-environments such as mangrove swamps, saltwater marshes, estuaries, shorelines, sounds, the surf zone and, offshore waters.

Therefore, the reason that these distinctions are important to consider when choosing a fly rod is because the combination of length, line weight, and action determine both the range over which a fly fisherman is able to cast as well as the size of the fish that the rod is able to handle. Thus, fly rods can be equated to golf clubs in that each combination of length, line weight and, action is akin to a different type of golf club. So, while a golfer could conceivably play eighteen holes of golf with nothing but a putter or a driver, it would not likely be much fun to do so and, the same can be said of fly rods.

For instance, fly fishermen who pursue small trout on the small, mountain, streams commonly cast very small flies over very short ranges and need a very delicate presentation. On the other hand, fly fishermen who fish on large streams or rivers commonly cast much larger flies over much longer ranges and battle much larger fish. Therefore, an appropriate fly rod for any given purpose is chosen according to its length, its line weight and, its action.

Consequently, many experienced fly fishermen who pursue more than one fish species on multiple sized streams and/or types of water often have large collections of fly rods from which they can choose the appropriate rod for the intended purpose just like a golfer chooses an appropriate golf club for the shot that he intends to make.

 

Fly rod length

So, because fly rods are first chosen according to their length, let’s examine that aspect first. As mentioned previously, fly rods range from as short as 5 feet to as long as 15 feet and, the reason that they do so is because the length of a fly rod works in conjunction with its action to determine the range over which it can cast a fly line. Thus, as a general rule, short fly rods are best suited for casting over short ranges while long fly rods are best suited for casting over long ranges.

Thus, in order to better understand this concept, you need to view fly rods through the eyes of a physicist. So, to a physicist, a fly rod is a lever and the fly fisherman’s wrist is a “fulcrum” or, the pivot point. In addition, the length of a fly rod is described as the “moment arm”. Therefore, when a fly rod is moved through its casting arc, the shorter a fly rod is, the shorter the arc described by the tip of the rod will be and thus, the slower it will move through that arc. But, the longer a fly rod is, the longer its casting arc will be and thus, the faster its tip will move through its casting arc.

In addition, the slower the tip of the fly rod moves through its casting arc, less inertia it will impart to the fly line and, the faster it moves through its casting arc, the more inertia it will impart to the fly line. Therefore, fly fishermen choose short fly rods when casting over short ranges and, they choose long fly rods when casting over long ranges.

Furthermore, the amount of room in which a fly fisherman has to cast his fly also needs to be considered. For instance, fly fishermen who fish small, mountain, streams are often surrounded by streamside foliage and thus, they are forced to cast in very tight quarters. On the other hand, fly fishermen who fish large streams and rivers usually have plenty of room in which to cast their flies and thus, experienced fly fishermen commonly choose very short fly rods for fly fishing small streams, longer fly rods for fly fishing larger streams, and very long rods for fly fishing very large streams and rivers.

On the other hand, fly fishermen who fish ponds, lakes, and the various saltwater environments almost always choose fly rods that measure 9 feet in length with the only common exception being fly fishermen who fish offshore waters for pelagic fish species. Thus, they commonly choose 8-foot rods in order to decrease the length of their moment arm and thus, increase the amount of leverage that they can apply to fight large fish species.

Fly rod line weight

Now, the second aspect of choosing an appropriate fly rod for any given purpose is to choose one designed to cast an appropriate fly line weight. But, in order to understand this concept, you first need to be aware that casting an artificial fly is very different from casting a conventional fishing lure because, due to the materials used to construct them, artificial flies have very little weight and a lot of wind resistance. Therefore, rather than depending on the weight of the lure to bend the rod during casting (aka “loading the rod”) as a conventional fisherman does, a fly fisherman instead has to use a weighted fly line to cast his fly.

In addition, it is important to be aware that the smaller the fly is, the less wind resistance it will have and, the larger the fly is, the more wind resistance it will have. Therefore, small flies can be cast with light weight fly lines whereas, large flies require heavier weight fly lines to cast them. Plus, it is also important to be aware that the lighter a fly line is, the shorter the distance over which it will cast and, the heavier a fly line is, the longer the distance over which it will cast. Furthermore, due to the fact that lighter fly lines have less inertia than heavier fly lines, lighter fly lines are more difficult to cast in the wind than heavier fly lines are.

Then, there is another concept that is important to be aware of which is “delicacy of presentation”. For instance, when a weighted fly line lands on the surface of the water, its weight causes it to create a certain amount of disturbance and, this disturbance can be very disconcerting to wary fish that inhabit crystal clear water. On the other hand, fish that inhabit turbulent or turbid water are often far less wary and thus, a less delicate presentation is required when casting flies to these fish.

So, as mentioned previously, fly lines range from 1 weight to 14 weight with one being the lightest and fourteen being the heaviest. Thus, in order to design a fly line with a specific weight, fly line manufactures measure the first thirty feet of the fly line and then weigh that section of the fly line in grains (440 grains = one ounce).

Therefore, because fly lines are designed and manufactured to have different weights in order to both cast different sizes of flies and to provide different degrees of delicacy of presentation, fly rods must also be designed and manufactured to cast different fly line weights. Thus, all fly rods are designated by both their length and the weight of the fly line that they are designed to cast.

Consequently, the single most popular freshwater fly rod is the 9 ft. 5 wt. (although many trout fishermen consider the 8 1/2 ft. 5 wt. to be more versatile) while, the single most popular saltwater fly rod is the 9 ft. 9 wt.

Fly rod action

Yet a third concept that must be considered when choosing an appropriate fly rod is the rod’s action. For those of you who are not familiar with this term, a fly rod’s “action” refers to how limber or stiff it is. Thus, a very limber fly rod is said to have a slow action while, a very stiff fly rod is said to have a fast action and, a fly rod with an action that falls in between these two extremes is said to have a medium action.

  • Full-Flex (slow action) describes a rod that bends all of the ways into the butt section when casting and is best for short to medium range casts because it loads easily with a very little line extended.
  • Mid-Flex (medium action) describes a rod that bends only into the mid-section when casting and provides excellent performance over a wide range of distances.
  • Tip-Flex (fast action) describes a rod that flexes only into the tip section when casting and is best for long distance casts or when casting in windy conditions.

Now, the reason that this concept is important to choose an appropriate fly rod for a given purpose is that a fly rod’s action works in conjunction with its length to determine the range over which it is able to cast a fly line. But, while this concept is relatively simple when applied to fly rod length, it is somewhat more complicated when applied to a fly rod’s action.

Therefore, a good rule of thumb to remember is that a fly rod’s action determines the minimum distance at which it will load while a fly rod’s length determines the maximum distance over which it will cast.

Of course, this raises the question of what is the difference between loading and casting and, the answer to that question is that loading implies storing energy in the rod while 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 fly line by releasing that stored energy.

Thus, because fly rods depend upon a weighted fly line to load them during casting, the less or more fly line that is extended beyond the tip of the rod provides less or more weight to load the rod and thus, slow action fly rods are best suited for casting at close ranges because they require less weight to load them while, fast action fly rods are best suited for casting over long ranges because they require more weight to load them and, medium action fly rods provide a good compromise between these two qualities.

However, it is possible to slow down a fly rod’s action by casting one line weight heavier than the rod is designed for and, to speed up its action by casing one line weight lighter than it is designed for.

Therefore, in order to choose a fly rod with the appropriate length and action for the type of fly fishing you intend to pursue, 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 then choose your rod’s length accordingly. However, if you still find all of this too confusing to make a proper choice, then you may find the following suggestions helpful:

 

  • 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 30 ft. to 45ft. choose an 8 ½ ft. rod.
  • When casting at a range over 45 ft. use a 9 ft. rod.
  • When casting at a range of 5 to 20 feet, choose a full-flex action
  • When casting at a range of 20 to 40 feet, choose a mid-flex action.
  • When casting at a range over 40 feet, choose a tip-flex action.

 

How freshwater and saltwater fly rods compare

As mentioned previously, fly fishermen commonly divide the environments that they fish into two different categories consisting of freshwater and saltwater. Therefore, they also commonly divide fly rods into these two categories as well.

Also as mentioned previously, each fly rod is designed and manufactured to cast a specific fly line weight ranging from 1 to 14 and, the smaller a fly is, the lighter the fly line that can be used to cast it while, the larger a fly is, the heavier the fly line needed to cast it.

Therefore, because of freshwater fly fishermen commonly fish for smaller fish using smaller flies than saltwater fly fishermen do, fly fishermen commonly think of freshwater fly rods as those designed to cast line weights 1 to 6 and, saltwater fly rods as those designed to cast line weights 6 to 14. However, this is simply a general designation since the most common line weight for salmon is a 7 weight, the most common line weight for largemouth bass is an 8 weight and, the most common line weight for muskie is a 10 weight. Conversely, saltwater fly fishermen seldom, if ever, choose a line weight lighter than 6.

But, even experienced fly fishermen have difficulty comprehending how freshwater and saltwater fly line weights equate and thus, the chart displayed below provides that information:

 

 

Freshwater Fly Rods            vs.            Saltwater Fly Rods

 

2 wt.                                        =                  6 wt.

3 wt.                                        =                  7 wt.

4 wt.                                        =                  8 wt.

5 wt.                                        =                  9 wt.

6 wt.                                        =                  10 wt.

 

Conclusion

So, as mentioned previously, all fly rods are purpose-specific and choosing an appropriate fly rod for any given purpose is dependent on choosing one with an appropriate length, an appropriate line weight and, appropriate action for your intended purpose.

Therefore, the first step to choosing the right fly rod is to determine how much room you will have to cast your fly in order to enable you to choose an appropriate rod length. Then, you will next need to choose an appropriate line weight depending on the size of the flies you will be casting, the distance over which you will be casting them, the degree of delicacy you will require in your presentation and, the speed of wind you will be casting in. Last, once you have determined which rod length and line weight will work best for your intended purpose, you will need to choose a fly rod with an appropriate action depending on the range over which you will be casting most often.

But, you should also be aware that there is simply no such thing as an “all around” fly rod and thus, if you plan on fishing in more than one environment or, more than one stream size, then you should also plan on purchasing more than one fly rod. Even then, when fishing on streams, regardless of which fly rod you choose, you will inevitably encounter one or more situations where you really wish that you had either a shorter or longer fly rod or, a lighter or heavier fly rod or, a slower or faster fly rod. Thus, experienced fly fishermen sometimes joke that they need a rod caddy just like a golfer so that they can turn to their caddy and say, “seven foot, four weight please” or, “nine foot, five weight please”.

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