Get a Handle on Fly Rod Grips

Published on 07/13/2022 · 9 min readFly rod grips make a huge difference in comfort when casting or holding a rod! Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith deep dives into the different kinds of fly rod grips!
Joseph Smith, Fly Fishing Expert
By Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Have you ever picked up a fly rod and wondered why you liked holding it so much? Is it the way you could cast it? Maybe. Or was it because it just felt comfortable in your hand? Most fly rods feel good in your hand because of the grip. The grip is often the overlooked piece of the rod that makes the difference. The way you hold your hand often affects the accuracy of your cast. The traditional way to cast is to hold your thumb along the spine of the grip. More competitive anglers hold their index finger along the spine. Ultimately, how you hold it is often a function of the grip.

Unlike other fishing poles that have grips made of various materials, such as EVA foam grips or Winn grips, fly fishing rod grips are mostly traditional cork. Cork has been the traditional grip for fishing rods for a long time. Cork is a natural material that comes from an inner bark layer of cork oak trees (Quercus suber). Every ten years, the outer bark can be stripped away, and the cork harvested without harming the tree. Although cork is a renewable resource, it takes a long time to produce and is variable based on the tree’s growing conditions. It is light and buoyant (but your rod will still sink if dropped in the water). It is impermeable and hydrophobic, meaning it will not absorb liquids, such as sweat or rain. It is also very elastic and the more you use it, the more it will conform to your hand and the more comfortable it will become.

Based on these properties, it was only natural that cork was chosen as fly rod grips. Over time, as fly rods evolved to serve specific functions, so too did the shape of the grip. Unless you are making a custom rod, it is likely the grip shape will already be chosen for you. Occasionally, you will have some options, but typically, the grip shape is a function of the fly rod’s purpose. Likewise, just as there are different styles of grips, there are different grades of cork and cork material that are used. They often have exciting marketing names. These are some of the differences between budget fly rods and premium fly rods.

In this article, I will explain the different grips, why they are used, and the differences in cork material so that you can understand what you are looking at next time you purchase a fly rod.

Cork Grades

Often, cork grips will be described as AAA, Special, or Flor. Unfortunately, although these epitaphs imply quality cork, you really cannot compare them against each other. There is no industry standard. Likewise, there is no internal consistency. For example, one batch of Flor cork could differ from the next, even if obtained from the same supplier. The nomenclature and what constitutes that grade of cork really is capricious. Having said that, unless you are a rod builder looking to make a consistently high-end product, this probably does not matter that much to the end consumer. AAA, Special, and Flor cork typically are of better quality than other corks. If you have the opportunity to see the rod before your purchase, here are some attributes of quality cork:

  • Free of Pits and Blemishes: Quality cork will not have pits in it. This is rare, and most rod grips are made with slightly less perfect cork. However, the pits should be few and no larger than the diameter of a shirt pin. Larger than that, and you have inferior cork.
  • Uniformity in Color: The cork should be uniform in color. Occasionally, you will see some tan or brown blemishes, but they should be very small.

Lesser quality cork tends to have filler placed in the pits to make up for these imperfections. Filler often breaks down, and then you are left with an unsightly cork grip, or worse, an uncomfortable grip that requires you to change your grip and ultimately the efficacy of your casts. Just like there are reasons to buy the more expensive fly rod instead of the bargain rod, there are reasons that quality cork grips are desired.

Cork Grip Materials

Half-Wells Cork Grip. Photo by Joseph Smith

  • Standard Traditional Cork Grip: These handles are made the traditional way. Typically, premium cork material is selected, but the overall quality will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer based on cost and availability. Often, high-quality cork handles are paired with hard burl accents in the reel seat for a distinctive and refined look.
  • Composite Cork Handle: This is comprised of cork and rubber chunks pressed into rings. As cork is a resource that takes years to grow, this gets quality material quicker. These handles do not have the pitting or split rings that can afflict traditional cork handles. Likewise, these grips tend to hold better when wet or in grimy conditions. Many times, these grips will be finished with EVA foam accents to increase durability. Due to the manufacturing process, these can be just as expensive as cork, if not more so.
  • Reconstituted Cork Handle: This takes refurbished cork rings, ground-down, and glued-into rings. Depending on the process, durability can be an issue with this. After use and abuse, often the filler will fall out, exposing the pits in the cork. If pitting happens, these grips can become very uncomfortable. These grips are frequently seen on entry-level rods.

Fly Rod Grip Types

There are many different types of grips. Some anglers have favorites, but most of these grips are designed with casting and fighting fish in mind. These grips are specifically tuned to the function of the fly rod. Here are some of the more commonly encountered grips.

  • Cigar: Cigar grips look exactly like the name implies. These grips have a classic look and feel. They have a slight swell (the area of the grip for the palm of the hand) and a narrow profile. These allow the fly caster to comfortably place the index finger on the spine for more accurate casts. These grips are common on lightweight and ultra-light rods. Although traditionally, this grip did not have an inlet and was paired with a downlocking reel seat, as uplocking reel sets have become more popular, this can be paired with an uplocking seat as well.

Cigar Cork Grip. Photo by Joseph Smith

  • Ritz: These grips are making a resurgence. Great for just about any rod, these grips feature a slight taper that runs the entire length of the grip. This allows anglers to position their hand up and down the handle to reduce fatigue when fishing for long periods of time. An uplocking reel seat is typically used with these grips as well.
  • Half-Wells: The half-wells grip is a classic style that is frequently found on trout rods. These are sometimes called Western or reverse half-wells grips. This grip has a swell in the middle for the palm, and then it tapers all the way down in the front. By placing the swell in the palm, the grip has increased comfort. Most of these grips are paired with uplocking reel seats.
  • Full-Wells: The full-wells grip is typically used for 6wt fly rods and up. These have a balanced swell in the center for the palm with a flair in front and behind. This grip is designed so that the thumb, when placed on top of the casting grip, rests in the dip between the swell and forward flair. This facilitates force being applied by the thumb and casting hand for faster casting strokes and fighting larger fish. If you are an index finger on the top kind of caster, this will be an uncomfortable grip.

Full-Wells Grip with Fighting Butt. Photo by Joseph Smith

  • Snub-Nosed: This is a “mini” variant of the full-wells grip popularized with Sage fly rods. The medium profile fits a wide range of hand sizes and casting styles. It has clean, modern lines.
  • Fighting Butt: These are exactly what the name implies. They are an extension of the rod and are designed to give the angler leverage to lift heavy fly lines and larger flies or fight large fish. Often, these will be capped with EVA for appearance and durability. Larger rods of 7wt and above typically come with these, and 6wt fly rods often will have this as an option.
  • Extended Fore Grip: This is an option that will often be on larger fly rods and spey rods. This is also to give the angler better leverage when fighting larger fish. It also provides another place to rest aching muscles during a long fight with these bruisers.
  • Extended Rear Grip: This is another grip seen on larger fly rods and spey or switch rods. This allows for two-handed casting. This also allows for bracing the rod against the angler’s arm when fighting large fish.
  • Split Grip: The split grip is essentially an extended fore grip that has a break in it. Typically found on rods used for very large fish, such as pelagics, this grip allows anglers better leverage when fighting these leviathans.

Clean and Maintain Your Cork Grip

There is debate as to how to maintain the grip handle. Some would argue to not take the patina off. I would submit that taking care of the cork grip will extend the life of your equipment and your investment. Most people use a few drops of mild dish soap and water. Lightly using a sponge will get most of the grime and oils off the grip. Try not to soak the grip and definitely do not use sandpaper on it. With a little TLC, your cork grips will look new and last a long time.

Final Thoughts

Full-Wells Cork Grip with Fighting Butts (notice the difference in cork quality between the two reels). Photo by Joseph Smith

Grips are an underrated part of the fly rod, but they really play an important function. The grip is the interface between the angler and the rod. The grip affects casting style and accuracy, and often the sensitivity of the rod is transmitted through the grip. The type and style of a grip is frequently a distinguishing feature between a premium and budget fly rod. Next time you pick up a rod to cast, pay attention to the grip. I bet you will have a new appreciation for the cork you hold. If you have any questions or need help picking out your next fly rod, contact a Fly Fishing Expert here at Curated. We would love to help you plan your next adventure. Tight lines!

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