What Is Fly Rod Action and Why Does it Matter?
Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith explains what rod action means in a fly rod and how it should affect your decision when choosing your next rod!
Anglers new to the sport of fly fishing can easily be overwhelmed with the technology, especially when it comes to fly rods. Each fly rod manufacturer has proprietary lingo that a marketing genius used to convince anglers that they “need” their specific fly rod. Often, though, as the novice becomes more skilled and perhaps branches into specific styles of fly fishing, this lingo becomes important.
Having the right fly rod for your type of fishing may make the difference between having a good time and being frustrated. Although the rod’s length and other aesthetics such as cork grips, reel seats, and guide material are important, the action matters the most regarding functionality. In this article, I will attempt to separate the marketing from the pertinent information and explain fly rods to help you understand what truly is essential.
Before I break down different fly rod actions, explaining some of the lingo that gets thrown around might be best.
Action is how much the rod bends when you put pressure on the tip. A fast-action fly rod will only bend near the tip or the top one-third of the rod. Slow action rods bend closer to the butt in the lower one-third of the rod. Sometimes slow action rods are called parabolic, meaning the bend is similar throughout the rod. Medium or moderate action rods bend in the top half somewhere between fast and slow action rods. As we will discuss later in this article, there are pros and cons to each type of action, and where one may be ideal for one type of fishing, it will also be less than ideal for others.
Taper is often used synonymously with action. Taper describes the thickness of the rod blank and, more importantly, the wall of the blank and where along the blank less material is used, thereby allowing for more bend.
The rod’s power is the lifting ability of the rod. Occasionally, this term is used as people talk about the rod's backbone or ability to stop fish. However, this is the power they are talking about. You will often hear of medium or heavy power rods. “Power” is often more important in conventional fishing with a bait caster or spinning rod than in fly fishing because the monofilament or braided line is often matched to the rod's power.
Responsiveness is related to the modulus of the blank and is another way to talk about action. The responsiveness is the ability of the rod to flex under load and then release this stored energy into the cast (i.e., converting potential energy into kinetic energy). A finished rod’s responsiveness is often the result of all the layers of components used in building it. The lighter the rod, the more responsive it will be, and the higher the modulus, the more efficient it will store and release energy.
Graphite is the most common material used in building rods today and requires a two-step process. Heating the material in a hot furnace creates tensile strength. A second heating creates stiffness. The hotter the furnace is, the greater the fibers' tensile strength and stiffness. With high tensile strength and stiffness, fewer fibers will be needed for the rod blank, resulting in a lighter, more sensitive rod. Often, less expensive rods skip one of these heatings, and you might end up with a stiff rod that is too brittle to do anything.
Therefore, you should not buy that less expensive fly rod. In higher-end rods, other materials are often layered with graphite to develop different desired properties.
Rods have been made from fiberglass well before graphite rods were around, and fiberglass is currently undergoing a renaissance. Fiberglass is known for creating softer actions while maintaining toughness and is often layered with graphite.
IM6, IM7, etc.
These are just the names of certain graphite produced by the Hexcel Corporation. They are not based on industry standards or an indicator of quality. Since there is such variability, they are of limited comparability between rods made by different manufacturers. At best, you can use the names to compare rods made by the same manufacturer in that an IM7 blank would be better than an IM6, but only if the company made the blanks with the same process.
Modulus refers to the graphite’s stiffness. It is not dependent on the number of graphite fibers as the stiffness is a function of the temperature during the manufacturing process. Although this term gets used quite a bit, it is not the sole indicator of a quality rod. Many other factors go into making the rod blank that will affect its overall performance.
When anglers discuss rod actions, they are talking about the rod’s flex pattern, stiffness, and ability to stop moving or recover at the end of a cast. Fishing rod action can either be fast, medium, or slow. Since there are no discrete definitions of what constitutes each of these actions, rod makers are free to call their rods whatever they like.
As a buyer, one simple way to compare actions across different manufacturers is to flex the rod against the ground. Make sure the guides are facing upwards, touch the end of your fishing rod to the ground, and apply some pressure, but not too much pressure.
By noting where the rod flexes, you will have a rough estimate of the rod’s action without running the risk of breaking it. In addition, by understanding the pros and cons of the different actions, you will get a good sense of whether that rod will meet your needs.
Fast action rods bend near the tip and are sometimes referred to as tip flex or fast tip rods. They are typically made from a graphite and boron mix. Although fast action rods flex near the tip, the rest of the rod tends to remain stiff and powerful down near the butt. It gives anglers the ability to fight large, powerful fish.
Because the casting stroke is faster, the rods load quicker, but since the rods are stiffer, they are less forgiving of casting errors and are difficult for beginners to cast well. However, hook sets are easier and quicker because the rod is stiffer. These rods are great for generating the power needed to cast long distances and punching flies through the wind. For these reasons, these rods are great in saltwater conditions. Some examples of fast-action rods include the Orvis Helios, Sage R8, and Douglas SKY.
These rods are typically made from graphite and fiberglass. They tend to bend from the tip to a quarter of the distance down the rod and are commonly referred to as mid-flex. Medium action rods offer a great combination of performance and versatility. They might feel like a fast rod, but they have the flexibility that allows for some casting errors.
Most beginners start with a medium-action rod of some sort. Trout anglers seeking to do it all gravitate toward this style as it can delicately deliver a dry fly and still has the heft to cast streamers or nymph rigs. Examples of medium action rods include the Temple Fork Outfitters Blue Ribbon, Orvis Clearwater, Sage Trout LL, and Redington Path II.
These rods are typically made from fiberglass or bamboo. Often these rods are referred to as full flex. Slow action rods bend from the tip to three-quarters of the way down. Because of the slow recovery phase, these rods are great for short, delicate dry fly casts and are often the preferred action for ultra-light angling and anglers who fish small streams and creeks for small trout or panfish. However, these rods lack the casting distance of faster action fly rods. Some slow-action rods include the Orvis Bamboo Adirondack, Douglas Upstream, Moonshine Revival, and Orvis Bamboo 1856.
Choosing Your Rod
Choosing your rod is a matter of personal taste. Do not be fooled into thinking that you need the new extra fast rod. Although a medium-action rod will work for most trout and bass fishing situations, maybe you prefer fishing small alpine streams, and a slow-action fly rod would be better for you. Even the smallest crappie will feel like a leviathan with a slow-action rod. Likewise, maybe you are addicted to casting to bonefish on salt flats. A quick loading rod that can deliver a cast quickly into a headwind and then put the brakes on a running fish may require you to seek a fast action rod. Many steelhead anglers use medium-action Spey rods because a slower casting stroke is more enjoyable.
The bottom line is we are long past the days of only having bamboo rods at our disposal. Manufacturers now make rods finely tuned in action and length for just about any fishing condition you can imagine. Pick the rod that matches best with what you will be doing. No one-rod type or style will cover all possible fishing conditions. If you have any questions or need help selecting your next rod, please reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated. We would love to help you. Tight Lines!