Nothing in the sporting world conjures more history, nostalgia, and mystique than the fly rod. Perhaps only fine double guns carry the gravitas of the long rod, demanding skill and reverence to the quarry being pursued. When one thinks fly rod, the mind’s eye goes immediately to images of antique bamboo, wicker creels, and ornate flies along an English chalk stream.
This is only the start of the story, as fly rods have evolved into highly technical space-age tools that are capable of catching any size fish, fresh or saltwater, around the globe. In order to understand what makes fly rods so special, you need to understand where they came from.
So what separates a fly rod from other fishing rods? Fly rods are, first and foremost, designed to cast while all other rods are designed to fight fish. Experienced flyrodders know that is a bit of an understatement, so let’s dive deeper.
Fly rods are designed to cast flies. Flies are lightweight artificial lures made to imitate smaller insects and fish food items — as seen in CMM’s June 2016 issue. These flies are so light in fact that they cannot be cast like traditional lures or bait. In all other forms of angling, the weight of the lure or bait carries the thin fishing line to the target. Diminutive flies do not have the mass to carry line to a target, and yet many fish, especially trout, will become selective and only eat the tiny aquatic insects that can be so prolific. When a hatch of insects is in full swing, a trout may well ignore a worm and focus on the tiny insects that are even more abundant. Imagine watching a trout ignore your juicy worm only to sip a tiny gnat no larger than a mosquito. Something had to be done!
You can’t spear a housefly on a hook and try to sling it out; it’s just too fragile. However, fur and feather can be lashed to a hook to represent all manner of insects and small prey. Our angling forefathers in Europe figured out that they could cast a heavy line that would carry the tiny weightless fly out on the water. Early lines were made of horsehair or silk. Specialized casting strokes evolved to throw the line and deliver the fly in a natural presentation.
This became the basis for the modern fly line system. These days fly lines are made of PVC type materials and feature a variety of styles, or tapers, to throw any size fly and to float or sink as needed. Tapered mono leaders were developed to connect between fly line and fly. Again, these systems have advanced to be able to cast the smallest dry fly for mountain trout to stiff, heavy leaders that can cast 90 feet in saltwater to huge tarpon.
To put it another way, fly fishing is fly casting. Therefore, fly rods are first and foremost casting tools. Almost everything in the design of the rod is done first to enhance the casting of the fly line for that particular fishing application. Fighting the fish is a secondary criterion. Even someone who has never fished before knows that fishing rods have a thicker handle that tapers down to the tip. This tapering down provides the spring action to cast the lures and to better absorb the shock of the fight of the fish. You could not cast a lure with a two-by-four piece of lumber; it’s too stiff to bend (load) and efficiently cast any lure. A pool cue is tapered, but it is also too stiff. Neither one cast or fight fish because they lack action. Regardless of material, all fishing rods, including fly rods, can be made as short or as long as need be. Once length is determined, the designer then can devise how limp, springy, or stiff the rod needs to be for the intended fishing scenario.
A longer, whippier fly rod was quickly found to provide the necessary action to cast even the very crude first fly lines. Early rods were made of cane or long sticks that had natural tapers to them. They worked but not well. They were much too brittle and broke easily. They broke when casting and they broke once a fish was hooked. Bamboo from the East proved much better. It was tapered and much stronger. Very early on the fly line was just attached to the tip of the rod. Later, designers figured out how to affix line “guides” to the rod and developed reels to hold more line.
Bamboo was still heavy and was limited to whatever a person could go hack down. It was often bent or would warp over time from exposure. Through trial and error, the discovery was made that bamboo could be split into thinner sections from the outer walls. These thinner sections could be glued and lashed together to create an actual fishing rod. Now the possibilities were endless!
A split bamboo fly rod was akin to the advent of the wheel for all things fishing. All fishing rods, especially fly rods, could be designed and purpose built for very specific applications. Even more so, the taper and action of the rod could be customized for a specific type of casting style. Handcrafted fly rods are truly one-of-a-kind works of art. They represent hundreds of hours of painstaking work. Names like Payne, Lenard, T&T, and Orvis became collectible masterpieces that were too valuable to fish.
Typical fishing line is labeled for its breaking strength. Fishing line can be 8-pound test or 100-pound test. You would not put 100-pound test line on a rod designed for 8 or vice versa. In the golf world, a 5 iron doesn’t mean anything other than it’s a 5. Think in terms, however, of the fact that golf clubs have different lengths and tapers, stiffness and speeds. Some are designed to hit the ball far; others are designed for shorter and softer strikes. There are drivers, 5-irons, and pitching wedges. A golf club set ranges from a driver down to a wedge and putter. A 5-iron is somewhere in the middle.
The same is true for fly lines. Fly lines range in size from fairly thin to very thick, based on the size flies they are designed to cast. A rating system has been established to identify line size from 1 to 12 weight. Again, this has nothing to do with breaking strength but instead with diameter and overall size and weight. As mentioned, it takes a much smaller line to cast a smaller fly and a thicker fly line to cast a bigger, heavier, more wind-resistant fly longer distances. One weight lines are ultralight, and 12 weight lines represent the top end of the big stuff. If there is an industry standard, all 5 weight lines, for example, are supposed to weigh about the same mass weight.
Why does this matter? Because the fly rod is designed to cast the fly line, the fly rods will have different characteristics to cast the different weight lines. It’s the mass weight of the line that flexes the rod during the casting stroke while the fly and leader go along for the ride. All fly rods now feature the same standardized ratings. For example, a 9-foot fly rod will be designed to cast a very specific line weight. A 9-foot 4 wt. fly rod is designed to cast smaller flies while a 9-foot 10 wt. fly rod will cast bigger flies longer distances and battle bigger fish.
When we watch Tiger Woods crush a tee shot, we are drawn to the fluid motion and power and the arc of the ball, not the technology that went into the golf club. So let’s focus on the fly cast for a moment. Again, fly fishing is fly casting. It is the grace, artistry, and magic of the casting stroke that draws so many to the sport. We don’t get a young Brad Pitt standing in the Bitterroot River doing the Shadow Cast without, well, the cast! Note to Millennial Ladies — see the classic movie A River Runs Through It for the Brad reference. You’re welcome.
I, for one, don’t have the patience to sit and watch a bobber all day. I want my fishing to be active. I want to read the water and figure out where the fish are lurking. I want to make precise casts, realistic presentations, and perfect drifts. Huge numbers of people consider the art of casting as important, if not more so, than the catching of said fish. Don’t believe me? Spey Casters, especially those looney Steelheaders, are perfectly happy to bang out 100 foot casts all day long in icy water in search of the perfect loop and perhaps one boil. Dry fly fishermen would rather work on tighter loops and dead drifts than tie on a submerged nymph and actually catch fish.
That is because magic happens. Just as with the perfect golf drive or tennis backhand, when the fly cast is well-executed it provides instant tactile sensory feedback. Every cell in your body knows you did it right even before the shot or cast lands on target. The rod becomes an extension of your body; no — it actually becomes an extension of your soul. Catch a fish on a fly rod and you’ll be the one that’s hooked … for life.
All fishing rods have developed with advances in technology. While the split bamboo rods of yesteryear provide nostalgia and were the best at the time, they still had major flaws. We have already mentioned warping. They were still relatively heavy. There was no good way of joining the sections of multiple piece rods. A metal ferrule would create a junction, but it would not flex like the wood and create a dead spot in the action of the rod. The more sections a rod had, the more dead spots. A 9-foot rod would typically have four sections so that meant three ferrules and three dead spots. Metal rods were too heavy. Fiberglass hit the scene and significantly changed the game yet again. It was lightweight and the sections did not require a metal ferrule so the action was more consistent throughout the blank. Fiberglass fishing rods sent bamboo to the museum almost overnight.
Then carbon fibers were incorporated into fishing rods. Graphite is super light and extremely strong. It can be woven into a mesh sheet and rolled into a rod blank. These mesh sheets can be computer engineered to create very precise actions. Rods can be made to be very stiff and flex only at the tip in what is known as fast action, or they can be designed to flex well into the midsection and butt of the rod, or mid-flex and slow action, while still being lightweight and strong.
The different tapers and actions accomplish two needs. First, we all have a different casting stroke. So just as one golf club may fit you better than someone else based on your personal swing speed, so it is with the fly rod action. One is simply going to feel better to your casting stoke. The other is the actual fishing application. Fishing long distances usually works better with a faster action rod for more line speed and power. Using big, wind-resistant flies or casting short distances usually does better with a slower action rod that loads better with less line weight.
Then the rod itself can be tricked out with rod guides, specialty reel seats, fighting butts, and custom grips, all designed to make your experience more efficient and enjoyable. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a classic bamboo or new carbon rocket — pride of ownership is a huge part of the sport. Fly rods, like cars and all other sporting equipment, come in a variety of price points. You can own a Camry or a Lamborghini. By and large, you get what you pay for, but at the end of the day they both get you to work and you may not need all those bells and whistles. Today it is easy for a new fly rodder to purchase a very nice first rod setup for about the same as any quality spinning or bait casting outfit.
The seasoned angler may have a half dozen rods or more to work in a variety of fishing applications. I need a shorter and lighter small stream trout rod. I need a longer and stiffer western big river rod. I need a bass rod, and I need at least one saltwater rod. The classic Facebook meme sums it up best: “If Billy has 6 fly rods and buys two more, what does Billy have? Happiness! Billy has Happiness!” (Billy may also have a problem when he gets home ...)
If you like to fish, chances are you will eventually end up with a fly rod. It represents the pinnacle of the angling world. We all go through a natural progression as a fisherman. We want to first catch fish, then we want to catch lots of fish, then we want to catch big fish, and then finally we want to add more challenge and skill to the endeavor. Furthermore, fly fishing is the single most effective way to catch fish in shallow water or when selectively feeding on smaller food items. Finally, fly casting, while full of mystery, is not hard. I can teach a 5-year-old how to cast in about 20 minutes. After all, it’s just a stick and string; no bails or backlashes are involved. Tweed to tarpon, nostalgic bamboo to state of the art, nothing makes the heart of the angler soar like the magic and beauty of the fly rod.