What Size Fly Rod Do You Need?

Learn how to properly size a fly rod’s weight and length for your specific fishing area and target species with Fly Fishing Expert, Marshall McDougal!

Four fly rods lie in a row.

Photo by Marshall McDougal

Anyone that walks into a fly shop and looks at the rod section might feel overwhelmed with the number of options. No worries! I am about to break down what you should be looking for in a fly rod and how to correctly pick the length and weight you need to best suit your fishing style and target species.

Fly Rod Action

Before we dive into the weights and lengths of certain fly rods, let’s explore some of the different actions available on the market. A fly rod’s action is determined by where the rod bends when it is loaded, and this has to do with the rod’s overall stiffness. Rod action is classified into three categories: fast, medium, and slow.

Graphic showing different fly rod action types.

Graphic by Curated Expert Joe Price

Fast Action Rods

Fast-action rods bend mostly in the tip section and have strong butt sections that lead to the rod feeling stiff. This action type does not absorb mistakes as well as a slower action would, which makes it difficult for beginner anglers to cast. The benefits of a fast action rod are that you will get more distance out of your casts as well as be able to cut through the wind. Fast action rods also allow anglers to make more technical casts such as the roll cast or build up line speed quicker while double hauling.

Medium Action Rods

Medium action rods are also referred to as moderate action and can be split into moderate-fast and moderate. These rods are less stiff and they bend further down the rod which helps absorb casting mistakes. These are ideal actions for beginner to intermediate anglers.

Slow Action Rods

Slow action rods flex throughout the majority of the rod and can sometimes feel like casting a noodle. The slow nature of these rods is a huge benefit for delicate dry fly presentations, and they do well in small creeks but will struggle when trying to cast long distances or cut through the wind. A lot of slower action rods are made of fiberglass instead of graphite and appeal to anglers that are looking for that certain “feel” in a rod.

Fly Rod Selection by Weight

Weight by Target Species

I would say that the majority of the time when you are looking for the right fly rod to suit your needs, it will come down to your target species. Why? Because the size of fly will vary from a musky to a rainbow trout, and the backbone you need to fight a roosterfish looks a lot different than that of a high-altitude brook trout. So, what fish require which rod weight? This is another very generic and somewhat loaded question if you ask me. Not only will multiple combinations of rod weights and lengths work for the same species of fish, but you can also get away with using the same rod for multiple species. Have I answered your question yet? Probably not, but I promise I will get there. Generally speaking, the rod chart below should narrow your search down somewhat, but it will still leave you with multiple combinations to consider.

Chart showing rod sizing for a fly rod by target species.

Chart by Marshall McDougal

Weight by Fly Size

Now that you know the species you are after and have some different weight combinations to look at, here is where we can really narrow your search. The next sizing category comes down to what you are slinging on the end of that stick! Big flies that create a lot of drag in the wind need a bit extra backbone to cast with accuracy and distance. Small dry flies don’t need a lot to get them out to distance and still be accurate because you are mainly casting the weight of the line you pair with the rod. The bigger the fly you want to cast, the heavier the rod weight you need. The other thing you want to consider is air resistance on the fly when you are casting. Small flies produce less drag when being whipped around, while larger streamers produce more drag. Wind will amplify the drag so you will always want to go up a weight when you are fishing an area with high winds.

Fly Rod Selection by Length

Length by Fishing Style

Fishing style will be the best way to determine the length of rod you need. Spey casting requires a long two-handed rod, while throwing large streamers in the ocean will be better suited for a short stick. Looking at the area you are fishing is also key in selecting a rod length. Is the stream you’re fishing super tight with lots of overhanging branches? Consider getting a shorter rod to cast in those tight spaces. Large river and need extra help mending your line in the current? Look at getting something a little longer than a standard 9-foot rod.

Fly Rod Selection by Feel

Weight

When you are considering the fly rod’s weight, find something that you will be able to cast all day. The “feel” in this rod should be light and not overbearing. Think about your day on the water and how many casts you are going to make. For most trout rods, this is an easy selection as you can cast most of those weight range rods all day long without any arm fatigue. When you start looking at the heavier freshwater and get into the saltwater rods, this is when you really need to assess the rod weight. Throwing an 11wt rod all day long will leave your arm exhausted and sore the next day. Most heavier weighted rods will be able to handle those big fish just fine, and there is no need to tire your arm out by stepping up in weight if you don’t have to.

Length

Start at 9 feet as this is the most common rod length on the market. From there, work your way in both directions and find a length that fits your casting style and the type of fishing you want to do. Euro nymphing and need a longer rod? Try a 10-foot 6-inch or 11-foot rod. Make sure it rolls casts the way you want it to and has enough sensitivity to feel bites. Chucking big streamers all day? Look into an 8-foot 6-inch rod that has less feel in the tip but more power in the butt section. Spey casting? A standard spey or even switch rod starts at 10 feet and can get as long as 15 feet. Find what feels good in your hands and something you can cast well.

That Sweet Spot!

Two fly rods lie next to each other.

Photo by Marshall McDougal

At the end of the day, there will be one weight and length that feels exceptional compared to the other—to each their own! The most common fly rods in any angler’s quiver are a 9-foot 5wt and a 9-foot 8wt. These two rods are the pillars that will set you up for success in any fishing situation.

The 5wt is perfect for any trout stream and will be able to handle any fly from nymphs to small streamers. This rod’s length and weight has the backbone to land large fish but is also delicate enough to cast to spooky trout.

The 8wt is built for the saltwater and lakes. Rods in this weight have the power to cast larger streamers and sink tip lines. They are made to fight larger fish and will handle anything from a personal best largemouth bass to a redfish that fights you into your backing. Finding two rods of different weights that are easy for you to cast is the best starting point for any angler looking to get into the sport of fly fishing. These will be the sticks you always find yourself reaching for on a big fishing trip!

If you still have questions about what rod you need for your specific fishing scenario, reach out to me or another Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated.

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Written By
I picked up a fly rod at the age of 10 and have never been able to put it down. Fly tying started shortly after and I have chased fish all over the US and Mexico. I now own a small fly tying company as well as run guided trips. My favorite area to fish is the Bitteroot River in Missoula, MT and my f...

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