Fly Rods 101

Yes, the fly rod did begin as a stick. It was a well chosen stick, flexible with butt strength, but that didn’t stop it from being a stick. What passed for line was tied to the end, and off they went. By the late 1400’s, rods were still being built from sticks, but separate stick sections were spliced together, in order to get the action required. The tip came from the center of a tree, for flexibility. They could be anywhere from 10-15 feet long, and were heavy. The line was still tied to the tip.

Rods continued this way until the arrival of Tonkin cane from China. While Tonkin was initially used in its hollow state, craftsmen soon discovered the culms could be split, and the first rods that could actually cast were born. Split cane forced the development of longer lines, reel seats and reels, more permanent handles, ferrules and guides. It was the first modern fly rod. The cane could be planed or sawn to create specific, reproducible tapers and opened up many new vistas for fly fishing.

Yes, some cane rods re worth $1,000’s of dollars. 99.9% are not. Valuable cane rods were hand planed to within 1/1000” tolerance. The vast majority of cane rods were cut with a saw, with much less accuracy. When AFTMA set the standard for fly line weights (Fly Line), they created a deflection chart to help anglers identify the proper new line weight for their rod. Utilizing a wall mounted reel foot and a known weight, the rod was mounted on the reel foot, and the weight clipped to the tip top. The rod would deflect, and the tip would land within a region on the chart, giving a line weight for the rod. The first diagram shows a deflection chart, the second shows a rod deflecting to a 5 weight line.

Cane was the best and preferred material for rod building until 1945 when technology developed before and during the war effort found its way to fly fishing. While fiberglass was introduced earlier as a solid blank, modern rod building began in ‘45 with the advent of the initial hollow fiberglass fly rod. For the first time, rods were tubular, and manufacturers had to develop brand new criteria for building and controlling action and taper.

There are two variables in rod design, the materials resistance to bending, described in terms of modulus in millions, and the diameter of the hollow tube. Fiberglass is a very low modulus material, meaning it has very little resistance to bending. Fiberglass itself is a very flexible material. Diameter is best understood this way. If you took a 9’ long, 1/16 inch steel pipe and shook it, it would bend quite readily. Take that same piece of steel and hammer it out to a 4” diameter, and it would lose most of its flexibility. Now the design conundrum comes in. How much material is needed, and at what diameter is it needed.

The manufacturing process of hollow fly rods evolved this way. The mandrel- a solid rod varying in diameter along the length- is milled, and used to control the inside diameter of the rod. The fiberglass scrim (sheet of fiberglass) is also cut in a taper as well, and then coated with resin or adhesive. The scrim/adhesive is wrapped around the mandrel, then rolled on a rod rolling machine under a lot of pressure to compress, shape and complete the process.

The diagram above is a simplification of the scrim/mandrel interaction. Notice there is less scrim at the top than the bottom, matching to the thinner tip of the mandrel. Less material over a thinner diameter provides flexibility, needed at the tip. As the diameter expands and more material is added, the rod gets stiffer as it goes to the butt section. How the rod will flex- deeply, or very little- is defined by this combination of diameter and material.

The above diagram is a simplification of flex patterns of fly rods. In the terminology of fly fishing- slow action, medium and fast action. There are variations and combinations of this found in every manufacturer of rods in the past and today. It’s important to know about action, so you can decide which action is best for you and your casting. YOUR CASTING. It doesn’t make any difference what anyone else thinks is a good action, if you don’t like it it’s not correct for you. This applies to the oldest cane rods and fiberglass as much as the most modern graphite fly rod available.

In 1973, the Orvis Company introduced the first graphite fly rod, and changed the face of fly fishing. Graphite has a much higher modulus than fiberglass, meaning it’s a stiffer material. Since its advent in the 70’s, graphite technology has continued to advance, and modulus has increased. If I remember correctly, the first graphite rods were about a 25 modulus. Now manufacturers are using graphite with modulus of over 80. This has provided such a wide range of actions, rod weights and strength, along with durability, as to be almost unrecognizable from its origins.

Due to the weight of cane and fiberglass, rods were shorter in their initial design. The modern graphite fly rod can vary in length from 6-15 feet in length, with the industry standard being 9’. Shorter rods are often used on smaller waters, while the longer rods are used to enhance mending and distance, as well as specific casting styles like spey casting. The longer rods often require two hands from the angler, and can attain tremendous distance when casting. Rods are designated by line weight, length and number of pieces. The industry standard for trout today is a 9’, 5 wt, 4-piece fly rod.

Graphite has opened up whole new vistas of fly fishing. 10-15 weight rods are now light enough to be castable, opening up the salt in ways not contemplated previously. Graphite ferrules are so smooth that 4-8 piece rods are not only available, but excellent casting tools. This changed the way we travel with fly rods, as well as opening up the back country and making bicycling with a fly rod much safer.

Graphite also revolutionized the action of fly rods. While modulus can be described as resistance to bending, another description is a more rapid return to straight. This has opened up amazing new avenues of action. As modulus increases, we are leaving simple fly rod actions as shown in the flex pattern diagram and getting into more complex actions. With high modulus graphite, manufacturers can create a deep flexing, relatively fast action fly rod. The higher mod graphite returns to straight more rapidly- so even with a traditional “medium” flex action, the graphite itself is faster. The rod returns to straight faster, creating a relatively fast medium flex rod. This type of compound taper was unachievable without graphite.

As tapers expanded with higher modulus, manufacturers continued to refine their tapers in lower modulus rods as well. Lower modulus graphite is less expensive to use, and as mandrels pay for themselves the creation of high quality, less expensive rods has become the norm, not the exception. With such a disparity in price in rods, even from the same manufacturer, what makes a rod more expensive?

As previously stated, the higher the graphite’s modulus, the more expensive it is. Component quality can vary. Some reel seats are Nickel Silver with exotic wood inserts, some are aluminum. Cork handle quality, rod tube and sock style and other costs vary. The time of build comes into play, with guide style and finish coats adding to costs. But the real cost of a fly rod is unseen.

When I toured the Sage Rod factory, I was amazed at how many pieces I saw broken in the short time I spent in the construction room. They had a machine for crushing unsuitable blank pieces. Look at the diagrams below.

While the rods in the first diagram are both 5 weights, they are going to cast significantly differently. It’s consistency that creates the greatest cost in fly rod manufacture. The second diagram shows how most fly rods are deflected by the manufacturer. There are incremental zones the rod must fall into to become a fly rod. The wider those zones, the more pieces can be used. The narrower the increments, the more consistent the action, and the more pieces are unusable. Once rolled, the graphite can’t be reused. It’s a dead loss, and needs to be paid for. It’s the most expensive part of high end fly rods, the pieces that don’t work and end up crushed and useless in a trash can.

To sum things up, if you buy a rod from a known fly rod manufacturer, it’s almost impossible to find a bad one. It might not be magic, but it won’t be awful. After A River Runs Through It, fly rod manufacturing, graphite construction and taper design went through the roof. Increased sales provided more funding for R&D, with fly rod actions improving exponentially. They continue to improve on a yearly basis. In 1985, when I started selling fly rods, I could say if you don’t spend $400 on a fly rod, it really won’t be any good. Now, it’s a bald faced lie to say if you don’t spend $1200 on a fly rod, it really won’t be any good. We sell fly rods for $89 that outperform any rod available in 1985. We are living in the golden age of fly rod design. Rest easy in your rod selection- it’s all good.

Streamer Brown Trout

Quarantine Checklist

The new normal is here, and with it comes time, time on our hands. The standard daily tasks have been up-ended, and we find ourselves home with much less to do and more time to do it. Think of Henry Ford, and his statement, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably correct.” It’s our choice, to wilt away our time wondering about what we could be doing, or we can use the time to actually do things that may have been put off for a little bit too long. Will make the time pay.

Ask yourself a simple question. When was the last time you cleaned your fly reel? And we don’t mean falling in last year, when everything got a pretty good dunking. How about the last time you took it apart, cleaned the frame and spool with some soapy water, and then re-lubricated it? If you’re like most anglers, the answer varies from never to a while ago. Well, you might have the time to do it now. Don’t completely disassemble the drag, (unless you still have the instructions!)  just get the spindle clean, and a little fresh grease on it. If you can, stay away from WD-40, as it gets gummy over time. Simple 3-in-1 Oil does the trick. You’ll be stunned how much smoother everything works when there’s fresh lubricant on the reel.

Since you have your reel out, clean your fly line. It’s not tricky. Fill a sink with water and a little dishwashing soap, and then stick the last 30-40 feet of line in the soapy water. Use a couple of glasses filled with water to keep it submerged. Swish your hand around (double duty, cleans your fly line and washes your hands at the same time!), and if you get ambitious, run the line through a soapy sponge. You’ll watch the dirt come off. That’s all you need to do if your line is fairly new. If the line is a bit older, dry it and head out to the garage to get your bottle of Armor All for the car. Dab a little on a rag or paper towel, and run the line through it a couple of times. LET IT DRY! Drape it over something and let the Armor All dry. It forms a slick, protective shield over the plastic coating of the fly line, and gives that older line a lot more life.

Grab your vest. Or fanny pack. Or Sling pack. Or boat bag.  Whatever! Pull your fly boxes out and do a little sorting.  You probably don’t need the Purple Haze that lost its hackle. The rusty McGinty that your nephew bought at a gas station for you, well, it might be time to move that along as well. You might have grasshoppers in 4 different boxes, not to mention the 3 plastic cups you got at different fly shops last year? It’s a good time to consolidate and organize. You might find a few glaring holes that need to be filled, or learn that you have enough PMD’s to last the next 4 seasons. Either way, you’re going to have a better handle on what’s what and where it is after a little organization.

If you’re a fly tyer, the options are endless. The first is easy. Fill those glaring holes! The reason you don’t have any size 16 Pheasant Tails is because you used them all. Get some hooks out, and start filling them. But that might get old fairly soon, knocking out the same fly in the same size for hours on end. Useful, but tedious. So now you have the time, let’s do something new and different.

So many people say they can’t spin deer hair. When the pressure is on, and the boxes need to be filled, you don’t want to stumble about on the vise, struggling for one fly when you need 6. Now you have a little time. Grab that piece of deer hair, the one that has three snips cut out of it, and stick a hook in the vise. Find a YouTube video, and start spinning. No, it won’t be any easier! But you also won’t have the pressure of needing flies NOW. Spin the hair on, give it a trim, and slice it off with a razor. Do it again. And again. If you start to feel frustrated, stop. Go back to filling holes. Come back to the deer hair later. Rinse and repeat. You’ll be astonished how quickly a skill you never thought you could master becomes yours. The same goes for setting dry wings or using a dubbing loop. Branch out. Tie some Deceivers for trout. Whip up a spey fly, or go tiny. For good or not, the time is there. Make it count! You’ll only get better, you’ll have more flies, and learn skills that will help you for as long as you tie.

Knowledge is power. Remember when that bug floated by and you had no idea what it was. And couldn’t ID because it got eaten? Well, now’s a good time to do a little honing up on your bug and hatch skills. Not to toot our own horn, but if you go to you will find a wealth of material about Western Montana Hatches, the best flies for Montana hatches and the best tips to fish those flies. The tips have been garnered from some of the best fly fishing guides in Missoula Montana, and are useful to anglers both novice and experienced. If you want to be better informed and more effective on the water, make sure you give our Resources page a hard look.

Unfortunately, many aren’t in a position to put that new knowledge to the test. But there are other ways to experience the joys of being on the water. Fly fishing is blessed with some of the most interesting and arresting authors in any sport. People like John Geirach, Sparse Gray Hackle, Steve Raymond and so many more can bring the joys of fly fishing past the page and into your marrow. We all have treasured memories of time on the water. As these authors share their stories, yours will rise to the surface like a Mahogany on a crisp Fall day. There’s time to read a page and then pause, sitting pretty as we read about our passion, communing with all the fishermen who’ve gone before and will come again. Because it’s going to come again. You can’t keep ‘em down on the farm forever! It’s why we’re cleaning lines and lubing reels, sorting flies and stretching our tying abilities. So when the bell sounds and we emerge from our shelters, we can hit the water running hard, with more flies, knowledge and a sense of why we fish than we ever had before.

Because whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right!