How to Select a Fly Rod

Before jumping too far into the gory details about fly rods, let's talk about the function of a fly rod. A fly rod, at the end of the day, has three purposes. These are:

  1. Casting - Like a spin rod, the fly rod allows for the fly line to be cast with power and accuracy. A good fly rod, in combination with good fly casting skills, also allows the fly and fly line to be presented properly - thus avoiding spooking the fish.
  2. Line Control - Once the fly is floating on the water, the next function of a fly rod is to provide line control. A fly rod allows for control over the line that is out on the water - at least once the angler learns how to do it.
  3. Striking and Landing Fish - The fly rod is used to both set the hook on a fish and to fight and land the fish. As such, the fly rod needs to be flexible and strong enough to bend, sometimes under great pressure, without breaking or snapping.

In an effort to break free of the confusion that often accompanies the purchase of a fly rod, I've prepared this buyers guide. Hopefully this article will allow an angler to walk away with a better idea of what kind of fly rod to get, and why.

For a quick summary of what an angler needs to know, visit the previous page of this article.

This article covers the following topics:

First Step - Determine What You Fish For

Now that we know what the purpose of the fly rod is, it is time to be honest and ask yourself a question - exactly what types of fish will I be fishing for? You must answer this question honestly since the answer to this question determines everything else that follows.

For example, you need a different type of fly rod to fish for trout than you do for huge bass or small panfish. Likewise, a freshwater fly rod is a lousy choice for saltwater fishing.

Thus, think things through and decide what fish species you will actually be going for the most. If you plan on coming to Montana, that answer is most likely trout with some bass thrown in for good measure.

Understanding Fly Rod Action

There are few things more confusing in the sport of fly fishing than fly rod action. So let's explain things - its actually quite simple.

The action of a fly rod refers to how flexible the fly rod is. If you forget everything else, try to remember this. The action of a fly rod is simply a fancy measure of how flexible the fly rod is.

With that in mind, essentially, there are three different types of fly rods that a beginning angler should concern themselves with. The three different types of fly rods are differentiated by the amount of flex in the fly rod (or the action if you just forgot).

So, how is the amount of flex in a fly rod measured? Simple, it is measured on the backcast. The more the rod bends on the backcast, the more flexible the fly rod is.

The Three Types of Fly Rod Action

All fly rods will have one of three types of "action." Fly rod action, as explained above, is just a fancy term that expresses how flexible a fly rod is. The three types of fly rod action are fast-action, medium-action and slow-action. Each of these types of action have their benefits and drawbacks. It is important to match up the type of fly rod action with the type of fishing you will be doing.

Fast Action or Tip-Flex Fly Rods

A fast-action or tip-flex fly rod is just what the name implies. At the end of the backcast, the tip of the fly rod is slightly bent but the rest of the rod is virtually straight as an arrow. This has benefits in the following circumstances:

  • Long Casts - The stiffness of the rod allows for more power in the cast.
  • Fishing on windy days - The stiffness of the rod allows easier casting on windy days since the rod is more powerful.
  • Somewhat less physically demanding - Due to the power inherent in fast action fly rods, the angler works less to cast the same distance compared to using a slower, more flexible rod.

Disadvantages of fast-action/tip-flex fly rods include :

  • Difficult for Beginners - Beginners might struggle learning how to cast with a fast-action rod. The sheer power in the rods makes "getting a feel" for the fly and fly line difficult. Precise casts in particular will be difficult for new anglers.
  • Not ideal for short casts - Not the best rod to be used where short casts are necessary - such as spring creeks. For short casts, a more flexible rod provides greater accuracy and a "smoother touch." For small stream fishing, a fast-action rod has a substantially greater likelihood of leading to the fly and fly line being slammed into the water - making the fish you're stalking head for the hills.

Medium-Action of Mid-Flex Fly Rods

Medium action fly rods are the most versatile of the rods available. They perform well in a wide variety of conditions. They are also easier to learn with than with a fast-action rod. On the backcast with a medium action fly rod, the rod will be bent beginning from about halfway down the rod - thus falling in-between fast and slow action rods.

Overall, if an angler will only own one fly rod for freshwater trout fishing, then it should be a medium action fly rod unless the fishing situation falls into one of the other categories above or below.

Slow-Action or Full-Flex Fly Rods

Slow action fly rods are very flexible. On the backcast, a slow action fly rod will bend beginning about 1/4 of the way down the fly rod - and at full backcast will almost be arched into a shallow, graceful 90 angle.

The ideal use for a slow action fly rod is to fish small streams. The flexible nature of the rod makes it easier to cast and have perfect presentation. Additionally, slow action fly rods are very forgiving and easy to learn on - although they lack the utility that a medium action fly rod possesses. Finally, anglers who primarily fish for small fish (such as brook trout, small rainbows, panfish) might want to go with a slow-action fly rod since smaller fish are more fun to catch on a flexibile fly rod.

Fly Rods & Line Weight

So, what the heck is fly line weight? And why should you care?

Simple. Today, the weight of a fly line is measured in a tiny unit called grains. Rather helpfully, the fly line manufacturers came up with a numbering system that labels how heavy or light a particular fly line is. This numbering system runs from 1 (ultralight) to 14 and beyond (heavy).

Well, that's nice, but so what? Actually, it's important to understand this concept. Remember, in fly fishing, it is the weight of the fly line that casts the fly. If an angler chooses the wrong weight fly line for the types of flies they use, then many problems develop with casting precision and control.

For example, if you attach a tiny size 14 dry fly to a fly line that has a weight of 7, control will be lost and the fly will hit the water with a splash due to the heavy weight of the line (which pulls the fly down harder). Conversely, attach a heavy fly to a fly line that has a light weight - and the fly will develop a destination of its own. Control will be difficult and, once again, the fly may crash into the water.

Because of this, it is crucial - repeat crucial - to make sure whatever fly rod you get has been designed to "mate up" with the fly line and the size of flies you plan to use.

How to know what weight of fly line to use? That, happily, is simple. Just match up what you'll be fishing for with the chart below.

  • Fly Line Weight 1-3 : Use this weight if you plan on fishing for tiny fish, such as small trout (brook trout, for example) or most panfish.
  • Fly Line Weight 4 : A good all-around fly line weight for all small fish species such as panfish, as well as small to medium-sized trout.
  • Fly Line Weight 5 : Another good all-around fly line weight. Works ok for small fish, but some of the fun goes out of it. On the other hand, works ok for average sized bass and virtually all trout.
  • Fly line Weight 6 : Not much fun to use for small fish. But ideal for all trout fishing. Works well for bass, small salmon and similar sized fish.
  • Fly Line Weight 7 : Use this line weight for all bass fishing if you want no worries. Also works well for monster trout fishing. Hopeless overkill for average trout and panfish. This line weight is also popular for steelhead and small to medium sized salmon.
  • Fly Line Weight 8 and Above : These line weights are used for ever larger and stronger fish, particular saltwater species. If you'll be in Montana or plan on fishing for trout, there is no need for anything this high.

Matching Everything Up

Now you know why its' so important to determine what you plan to fish for before doing anything else. By knowing what you plan for allows you to choose the right fly line weight to use. And by knowing what fly line weight to use, that then determines what fly rod weight (as well as fly reel weight) to use.

Thus, the rule is as follows:

Fly Line Weight = Fly Rod Weight = Fly Reel Weight

Just be sure to match everything up exactly. While death won't befall you by failing to match everything, your fishing experience will definitely be better - especially for a beginner - by following this simple formula.

Thus, if you are going to use a 5-weight fly line, you will be best served using a 5-weight fly rod and 5-weight fly reel too.

In theory, neither you nor your gear will be damaged by going "up or down" one level. However, there IS a performance drop. Thus, there is no reason to "invite" degrading performance unless you have no choice.

Fly Rod Length

Figuring out what fly rod length to get is simple. Depending on what you plan on fishing for and where you plan on doing it, get something from 8 feet to 9 feet in length.

  • Get 9 feet if you need to make long casts, use a heavy fly line or fish frequently in the wind.
  • Get 8.5 feet for general, all-around fly fishing in a wide variety of conditions.
  • Get 8 feet or less for the precise and short casts needed when small stream fishing. Or for chasing after panfish with a light fly line.

Other Fly Rod Considerations

Here's some other considerations to think about when you are shopping for a fly rod.

  • How Many Pieces? : If you plan to frequently travel, carting along a long fly rod that only breaks down into two pieces can pose difficulty. For frequent travelers, especially those who travel by airplane, consider getting a "travel rod" that breaks down into four or more pieces. This allows the rod to slip easily into a small suitcase or into one of the many fly fishing luggage pieces designed for airline travel.
  • Fly Rod Construction : While they are becoming as rare as dinosaurs, fiberglass fly rods still exist - usually found at the big box stores. Unless you need a fly rod for the kids, I suggest avoiding them and getting what virtually all other fly rods are made of today - graphite. Graphite is lighter than fiberglass and is stronger, too.
  • Consider Getting a Fly Rod Combo : Fly Rod combos are nice. A fly rod combo includes the fly rod, the fly reel and the fly line (already put on the spool). These combos not only save money but also guarantee that the whole fly rod outfit (rod/reel/line) is balanced. For beginners, I think this is the way to go if you don't already have one or more pieces of the fly rod outfit.

Where to Buy Fly Rods

  • Orvis Fly Rods at Backcountry.Com - Orvis has an excellent selection of fly rods for all budgets. One nice thing about Orvis, even their entry level line of fly rods (the Clearwater Series) are excellent rods and come with a 25 year guarantee. In short, you won't find a junky fly rod made by Orvis.
  • Fish West - One of the leading online retailers for fly fishing gear, they have excellent prices and a huge selection.
  • Cabela's - Cabela's sells both their own brand of quality rods, along with brands from Sage, Redington, Hardy and others.
  • Trout's Fly Fishing - High quality fly fishing shop in Denver that has a great online store. Sells rods from Thomas & Thomas, Sage, Winston, St. Croix, Scott & Redington.
  • The Rivers Edge - A respected fly shop in Bozeman that also has a nice online store. Sells rods from Sage, Winston & Scott.
  • Front Range Angler - Sells high quality fly rods. A local fly shop that happens to have an online store, too.
  • Telluride Angler - Another local fly shop with an online store.