Friday, March 20, 2015

Fly Fishing Rods: Action?

Classic Split Cane Bamboo Rods

By now you understand how fly lines, and matching leader-tippet to hook size are extremely important.  In my opinion, the next most important step  is your purchasing your fly rod.  Where to start?  I will approach this as though you are a beginner and you are looking for a well balanced 'starter' rod. 

Modern Graphite Rods and Reels

Design: Each fly rod has been designed to cast a specific line weight.  For example: a six weight fly rod has been designed to cast a six weight fly line.  The chart below is a guideline, not a rule, for balancing rod-weight, and fly size.  

Rod/Line Weight
Fly Size Range
1/0 - 12
2/0 - 10
3/0 - 8
4/0 - 6
6/0 - 4

Length:  Single hand fly rods range from 6ft to 10ft.  Two handed rods (commonly called switch and spey) range from +/- 11ft to +/- 15ft.  A typical starter, all purpose single hand rod, designed to fish for trout or bass, is a 9 ft 5 or 6 weight.  For local New England waters, I would pick a 9ft 5wt.  Now what 'Action or Flex," do you pick?

Action: Not all rods are the same.  Each material (bamboo, fiberglass, graphite, boron) possesses physical properties which, along with proprietary manufactured tapered designs, determines the characteristics of a fly rod performance.  Plus, there are entry level rods, and high end rods with both fast, medium, and slow actions.  Each manufacturer has their own action indexing system and as a result, there is no set standard for measurement.  For Example: An Orvis 9 ft 5 wt Helios fast action rod will feel and perform differently than a Scott S4 9ft 5wt fast action rod. Before I dive deeper into this discussion, just what are I am talking about when I use the word 'Action,' or "Flex.'

In the fly rod industry, when we use of the word 'Action or Flex,' we are referring to the bend of the rod. Technically, 'action' is defined as the relative resistance to bending as you move down the length of the fly rod shaft. The below picture clearly shows the 'bend' of a fly rod designed to be fast, medium or slow.

Let's take a closer look at the available 9ft 5wt actions:

Fast Action or Tip-Flex: due to the specific tapered design of the blank, these rods bend less, and are stiffer. Plus, they don't call them 'tip-flex' for nothing.  In other words, the rod is designed to flex only from the tip-top to about 1/3 down the rod.  As a result, when you catch a fish, the rod's butt and mid-section do the work for you, and your ability to feel and play the fish is entirely different from medium and slow actions rods. However, fast action rods tend to cast farther and have become the most popular action-type rod on the market today (both with beginners and advance fly fisherman). The stiffness of these rods will help you mend and pick up line easier, create tight loops with ease, create higher line speeds allowing you to punch line through strong winds, make longer cast in almost all situations with greater ease, and significantly increase your ability to cast larger flies and heavier weighted fly lines.  In other words, with moderately correct casting form, the rod does much of the work for you. In Patagonia Argentina, where sustained winds of 25mph are the norm, a fast action rod, such as a 9.6ft 6wt, is a MUST have!        

Medium Action or Mid-Flex: these rods bend more than fast action rods, and generally flex from the tip-top to the middle portion of the rod, or generally the 2/3 mark down the rod.The remaining 1/3 of the rod, from about +/- the middle of the rod to the rod butt, will provide the angler with a stiff feel which aides in casting and fighting fish. Despite fast action rods being the most popular, the medium action rod, in my opinion are the most versatile fly rods on the market. In the hands of a competent caster, you can do everything a fast action rod can do. If you prefer slower line speed for subtle dry-fly presentations, and a forgiving tip which allows you to play the fish and avoid tippet breaks, then I would highly recommend a medium action rod.     

Slow Action or Full-Flex:  Though manufacturers make slow action graphite rods, historically, when it comes to slow action rods, we tend to think bamboo and fiberglass. Now think very slow line speed and ultra sensitive tip-top protective action.  A sensitive tip-top action will absorb strikes and prevent fine tippet, such as 8X, from breaking. A slow action rod is used by many small stream dry-fly fisherman who prefer delicate short distance casts looking to feel the action of a fighting fish from the tip-top of the rod, to his/her hands. However, there are a handful of old school purist who will, for example, purposely use a 9ft 9wt slow action rod (mostly for saltwater fishing because when you use heavier lines and flies, your casting stroke changes and a slower action rod enhances performance).

Note:  Learning on a slow action rod, in my opinion, can be very challenging for a beginner.  Why? To obtain optimal fly line and fly rod performance, an angler must be consistently patient and develop timing (as seen in a River Runs Through It).  Personally, I grew up fishing a 9ft 6wt slow action fiberglass rod.  As a youth, I hated it...I wanted instant gratification.  But, it was the only fly rod I had, so I stuck with it. Now, as an adult, after learning how to use this tool, I cherish every moment I cast with this rod! 

Final Word 

As a beginner, as you develop your casting stroke, it could take you several years to finally determine which flex style you prefer. To accelerate your understanding of fly rod performance, I would ask your local fly shop to provide you with a variety of rod-reel-line set-ups. Just make sure the set-ups are balanced; otherwise you are wasting your time. Or, don't be afraid to ask a friend to try his/her well balanced rod-reel-line.  For me,  I tend to favor the following actions: medium-fast, medium, and medium-slow. I also tend to line-up my rod/reel. In other words, if I am using a 9ft/5wt, I will add 6wt line to my reel and adjust the amount of backing so I don't over spool my reel (I no longer follow Mfg's guidelines for line-reel-backing amounts).

Thanks for reading and best of luck.