We would like to offer three pieces of wisdom at the top of this article:
1) Fly fishing is not a sport of necessities. It is a sport of preferences, opinions, credos and mystique. There are no right and wrong choices. If a fly rod does not make you happy, choose another fly rod.
2) All of these rods are better than what 80% of the world’s fly fishers use. Your preferences will grow and change over time, but at first, your goal should be to find some high percentage equipment to get you started.
3) You are building a fly rod collection. Even if you go years between rods, you can build a collection that consists not only of different line weights, but also different lengths, actions and fly rod brands. Wherever you start, you can make adjustments down the road.
This article offers a practical fly rod selection process for your first all-around rod with an explanation of the most important design variables: rod length, rod action and line weight.
Fly Rod Selection Process
1) Consider your budget, then buy the best rod you can afford. You should spend approximately twice as much on your rod as your reel. Your fly rod should help you develop your skills. We run an instruction-oriented guide service in the resort town of Telluride and commonly encounter anglers who are fighting their gear, often because the fly rod was underprioritized in the equipment acquisition process. Beginners and experts alike benefit from a high quality fly rod. This is your physical connection to the sport. All Scott and Sage fly rods are covered by an Unconditional Lifetime Warranty, lending confidence to your initial purchase.
2) Where will you fish most? Your first rod should be versatile, but also appropriate for the water you’ll fish most often. Virtually all fly fishing guides agree that a 9’ rod for 5-weight line is the most versatile trout rod in the world. If you’re likely to fish a mix of lakes, creeks and rivers, a 9’ 5-weight is a no brainer first rod. If you have no idea where you are going to fish, buy a 9’ 5-weight. If you fish mostly smaller water, like here in Telluride, consider an 8 ½’ 5-weight or a 9’ 4-weight. 8 ½’ 4 and 5-weight rods are popular first rods for anglers in the Appalachian Mountains who have lots of creeks near home. The most popular first saltwater rod is a 9’ 8-weight, which is perfectly suited for bonefish, redfish, sea trout and small striped bass.
3) Choose a fly rod with a medium, medium-fast, or fast action. Don’t choose a slow action rod (like a Scott Fibertouch) or an ultra-fast rod (like a Sage Method) for your all-arounder. Rods with medium, medium-fast, or fast actions are toward the middle of the action spectrum: not to stiff, not too soft. Medium-fast rods, like the Scott G-Series and Loomis NRX Trout LP, are universally easy to cast and a joy to fish. If you are going to fish a lot on larger, windy rivers, choose a fast action rod. If you are going to primarily fish smaller rivers, let’s say 20-50 feet across, choose a medium action rod, which flexes more deeply with less line in use. As long as you stay away from the extremes, you can’t go wrong with a medium, medium-fast, or fast-action rod.
4) Buy a 4-piece rod, rather than a 2-piece model. Scott, Sage, Loomis and the other manufacturers have put a ton of R&D into building 4-piece rods that feel just as good as 2-piece rods. You’ll never regret choosing a 4-piece model. The travel benefits are real.
5) Build an arsenal. For your first 3-4 fly rods, consider skipping line weights as you add heavier and lighter rods to your quiver. Also, vary the lengths and actions so you have some interesting choices. A sensible 3-rod collection for trout might look something like this:
9’ 5-weight (medium fast action)
8’ 3-weight (medium action for dry flies)
9’ 6” 6-weight (longer, fast action for heavy nymphs and streamers on big water)
9’ 4-weight (medium fast action)
7’7” 3-weight (medium action for dry flies)
9’0” 6-weight (all-around nymph and streamer rod)
6) Love your fly rod. Your rod should inspire you to want to go fishing. If it doesn’t, you don’t own the right rod, yet.
Fly Rod Design Variables
Longer rods are better roll casters, better casters with long leaders, better for line mending and steering your fly through long drifts, and generally better for nymphing. However, longer rods are harder to cast in the wind and tend to be heavier than their shorter equivalents. Longer rods are better shock absorbers for protecting tippet, but offer less leverage on heavy fish.
Shorter rods cut nicely through the wind and have a lovely weightlessness, but are limited when it comes to casting long leaders and working with nymphing rigs. Shorter rods are generally better pure casters, but not as adept at line mending and roll casting. Short rods offer superior leverage for turning, lifting and landing heavy fish (like tarpon).
The “action” is the relative rate at which a rod recovers from flex. “Fast action” rods recover quickly and require an up-tempo casting stroke. “Slow action” rods bend deeper and recover more slowly, requiring a more patient casting stroke. We associate “fast action” with power and “slow action” with touch.
Faster action rods cast better in the wind and are easier to cast for distance. Fast action rods respond well to power, but also require power from your casting arm to cast properly. Fast action rods generate high line speed for turning over long leaders and throwing beautiful, tight loops. Many fast action rods offer more power for landing heavy fish in situations where breaking the tippet is not a risk.
Slower action rods cast easier at short distances, because the rods naturally flex more with less line in play. Slower action rods respond well to a relaxed casting stroke. A fast or powerful casting stroke may overpower a medium or slow action fly rod, resulting in a poor fly cast. Slower action rods offer superior loop control, because the caster has greater control over how deeply the rod flexes. It is easier to feel the rod and line working together with a rod that flexes and recoils more slowly. Slower action rods are superior shock absorbers, better for protecting light tippets.
Higher line weight fly rods offer more power and are superior for casting larger flies in the wind. They are also generally superior for landing heavy fish. Lower line weight fly rods offer greater touch and stealth. They offer advantages in catching spooky fish and are generally less fatiguing to cast.