Choosing a Fly Rod that Works for You
What fly fishing rod is best? Fly fishing expert Jesi Scott lays out the basics to help you make an educated decision.
The most common question we get asked here at Curated Fly Fishing is what fly rod is the best? Like many things in fly fishing, there are so many options out there that it can be quite overwhelming but if we can look at and understand the basics, maybe the options won’t bog us down so much. My goal in this article is to give you some foundation so you can hopefully make a more educated decision when purchasing your next fly rod.
There are a lot of things to consider when you are trying to pick out a fly rod. Will you have one rod that “does it all” or will you have a few rods to cover different fishing scenarios? What length is best? What weight is best? What action is best? Those are basically the main things we want to think about when picking a rod.
Simple right, only three things? Unfortunately… there’s a lot of things to consider within those three things. If you are just getting started - it might make more sense to go with the most versatile and affordable option for the fishing you are going to do, and I support that! I don’t think anyone needs to start out fly fishing with five specialty rods, but I do want you to understand how a rod loads, how the line shoots, etc. so that if you can keep all of this in mind when you test your buddy’s rod out or when you go to buy your second or fifth rod of your quiver!
What about weight?
So, determining the weight of the rod and the reel is quite simple - just match them to the weight of the fly line you have chosen! I personally think that choosing your line weight is the best place to start.
If you know what weight line you are going with… fish on…I mean, read on. Like the weight of a fly line, the weight of fly rods are pretty specialized as you get towards the lighter and heavier ends of the spectrum and the middle is about is more standard and more commonly fished.
0-3 weight fly rods
- designed for small high mountain streams
- best when targeting small trout or other small species
- provide delicate presentations with small flies
- do not perform well in windy conditions
- performs well casting short distances
- lightweight rods will typically have a slower action
4-6 weight fly rods
- performs well at casting longer distances; 50+ feet
- performs better than 0-3 weight in windy conditions
- designed for medium to large rivers or lakes
- typically targeting fish around the 20 inches
- ability to present a wide range of flies
7-8 weight fly rods
- designed for targeting larger fish; steelhead, salmon, large trout
- often designed for casting long distances; 75+ feet
- handles windy conditions well
- switch and spey rods are often in this weight range
- lighter weight saltwater rods; good for bonefish
9-12 weight rods
- designed for targeting the big species; permit, tarpon, barracuda
- typically come in very long lengths but short lengths are available
- performs well casting really long distances; 100+ feet
- usually these will be two-handed rods
- good for large rivers or casting from the shore
Let’s talk about length, shall we?
“What is the best length fly rod?” seems like a very straightforward answer and we can definitely keep it as simple as possible, but again, the endless options on the market do make it a little hard not to complicate things - and new things are popping up every day!
The length options in fly rods range from as short as 6 feet to as long as 15 feet (talk about a spread!) with 9 foot rods being the “standard” length. The 9 foot fly rod length is considered to be the most standard option because it will be effective in a good range of casting distances and maintains line control in lots of different conditions. Not too short - not too long - it’s juuuuust right.
What’s up with a short-length fly rod?
Shorter-length fly rods are known to have better accuracy and greater leverage. You will typically see short rods built in light weights intended for small streams where the casting room may be limited and smaller size fish are being targeted. However, with the rise in saltwater fly fishing, manufacturers are pumping out more short-length rods in heavy weights for those powerful fish in tight spots who love big flies. These short and heavy rods are designed to target largemouth bass, snook, and juvenile tarpon.
What’s good with a long-length fly rod?
The longer-length rods, in the 10 to 12 foot range, are appealing for lake anglers who may be sitting and casting and the nymph gang definitely appreciates some extra length - especially the Euro nymph guys! Having that extra length helps you get that distance in the still water and when nymphing it helps you maintain line control and reducing drag is more manageable with a little extra rod tip out there!
Now just a little bit longer now... and we are looking at rod lengths in the range of 11 feet to 15 feet long. We are back to a specialized end of the spectrum. Typically in these lengths you’ll be looking at spey rods or two-handed rods. Distance is really the motive behind all of the extra feet on these bad boys. If it is mandatory for you to chuck a lot of fly line, we’re talking like, 50 to 100 feet, then this is the direction you ought to be going in. Plus, casting these babies is a blast! These rod lengths are most suitable for fishing large rivers targeting salmon, steelhead and big ol’ trout or for beach anglers needing to cast a decent distance into the surf.
Weight. Length. ACTION!
The action of the fly rod is another element that you’ll want to take into consideration when choosing your fly rod. The rod action is determined by how it flexes when the fly line weight is transferred during a cast, how it releases the energy built up, and what the recovery time is like after the load is released. Slow action rods are less stiff than the fast action rods. Fly rods are designed to build momentum in a fly line and control the line direction and distance. Think of it this way: the fly line is the superstar and the fly rod is the stage!
Fast Action, or Tip Flex
- the rod flexes from the tip; limited flexibility with supple tip and stiff lower
- assists in accuracy
- good for windy conditions
- performs well casting long distances
- loads, unloads and recovers the fastest of the three
- generates fast line speed
- helps with line control
- better for an experienced angler with good technique & timing
- not very suitable for beginning anglers
- typically 8 weight + are going to be fast action rods
Moderate/Intermediate Action, or Mid Flex
- the rod flexes mostly from the center
- less powerful than fast action
- more flexible than fast action
- loads, unloads and recovers more slowly than fast action
- generates intermediate line speed
- extra flex is smoother and provides extra time
- the most learner friendly and forgiving action for beginning anglers
- suitable option for a wide range of waters
Slow Action, or Full Flex
- the rod flexes along its full shaft; very flexible
- not powerful
- providing the most gentle and delicate presentations
- generates slow line speed
- slower line speed is forgiving
- load, unloads and recovers the slowest of the three
- assists in accuracy
- helps with line control
- performs well casting short distances
- typically 3 weight or smaller will be slow action rods
When someone is just starting out with fly fishing the ideal action of a fly rod would be intermediate action or moderate action or mid-flex - whatever you want to call it! However, the slow-action rod isn’t totally out of the question as everything is slowed down a bit, a beginning angler would have the chance to feel the load of the rod and get their timing down well.
The construction of your fly rod is another thing you might find yourself deciding between. There are three main materials used for making fly rods these days; carbon graphite fiber, fiberglass, and bamboo.
Carbon Graphite Fiber
- most commonly used
- super versatile and manufacturers can make most any type style of rod
- lightweight, sensitive, flexible and incredibly strong
- lightest strongest and highest performance rods on the market
- can be brittle and fragile - even with epoxy resin layers - you have to be mindful
- a bit heavier and less sensitive than graphite
- flexible and durable
- in general designed for 1 to 5 weight
- slow action / full flex
Fiberglass rods are often designed for small streams and lakes targeting small to medium fish. Although the strength and flexibility of glass rods in the 8-12 wt range are also appealing for targeting large powerful fish. My biggest bull trouts have been caught on a glass rod!
- if you value craftsmanship you will appreciate a bamboo rod
- lighter, slower, more classic casting style
- bamboo has a natural full flex
- one of the best natural materials found in rod manufacturing
Bamboo rods are often more expensive than graphite and glass. More often than not you are paying for the rod builder’s skills rather than the materials and the performance of the rod.
Another thing (yes, there’s more) you'll see when shopping for fly rods is how many pieces it breaks down to. They range from two to six pieces. If you find the perfect rod for you I wouldn't necessarily let this make or break your decision but in some circumstances it will matter. If you will be traveling or backpacking with your rod you'll want it to break down because dealing with a two-piece would be obnoxious. If you prefer to leave your rod setup all the time then a two-piece might be worth considering.
Finding a Balance
Many of us fly fish to find a balance in life and finding a balance with your rod, reel and line is just as crucial for these items to perform to their best ability. You might be thinking, but isn’t it as simple as matching the numbers on the line, rod and reel. In general - yep - it is! There are some odd exceptions but the manufacturers usually clearly state that for us. Ideally we want the weights to line up but sometimes you can go up or down a weight and your setup will still be fishing. If you stray too far in weight your outfit won’t be balanced, nothing will load properly, yeah you might be getting a fly out there, but I bet it isn’t as pretty as it could be!
The options are almost exhaustive and with all of these things to consider it can be a challenge to find an “overall” rod - but we can get pretty close and at least find one versatile enough for you. Alternatively, these days there are so many specialized rods you can find one designed with just about any fishing scenario(s) you’re into. As with most things fly fishing - cost will play a critical role in how you go about your decision. You will want to ask yourself what you are comfortable paying. I also think it is worth considering the manufacturers warranties; these days most are pretty good, but definitely worth a thought if you’re spending so much on a product that you’ll hopefully be using a lot! If you can only afford one setup - we’ll get you something as versatile as possible. If you do lots of different types of fishing and need a couple different setups - that’s the best way to go if you can afford it. No matter what you are looking for or if you have no idea what you are looking for I hope that you were able to learn something from this article. Let’s get you a new rod!
Fly Rod Weight Chart
- 7’ 1-3 wt: small stream trout
- 8’ 4 wt: trout and panfish in ponds and lakes
- 10’ 3-4 wt: specialty nymph fishing for trout
- 9’ 5wt: general purpose fishing for trout, bass, and panfish in lakes and streams
- 9’ 6wt: lake or stream fishing for smallmouth bass and trout
- 9’6” 6 wt: specialty nymph and streamer fishing for trout in large rivers
- 9’ 7wt: medium duty freshwater fishing for bass, large trout, steelhead
- 11’ 7wt: steelhead fishing in small to medium sized rivers
- 9’ 8wt: medium duty fish and light saltwater fishing
- 11’ 8wt: beach fishing for striped bass or other surf species
- 13’ 8-9wt: steelhead and salmon in large rivers
- 9’ 9wt: large freshwater or medium duty saltwater fishing
- 9’ 10-12wt: large saltwater fish
- 8’6” 14wt: big game saltwater fish