I’m about to give opinions and use layman’s terms that might make rod designers squirm. Anyone who holds both a fly rod and a degree in physics would certainly describe this topic with more eloquence and accuracy than me. I have a fisherman’s understanding of how rod tip flex and recovery affects both the cast and the drift. I fish hard. And I think a lot. Maybe that’s enough.
Let’s talk about it . . .
Gear Junkies Anonymous
I was never a gear guy. My friend, Sawyer, marveled at how little I cared about fly rods and reels. For leaders, tippets, and tools like hemostats and split shot: Yes, all of that mattered a lot. But the means for delivery (the rods) and the means for recovery (the reels) were near the bottom of my list. This drove Sawyer crazy. How could I not care about the amazing sensitivity of the latest graphite composite in his new rod? And couldn’t I feel the smoothness of this drag compared to my one-hundred dollar reel?
In truth, I was never a gear guy, because I couldn’t afford to be. I sunk my money into waders and wading boots. Because those items kept me on the water, day after day. I always had a good vest, too, because it was important to be efficient — right from the start.
But the fly rod itself? Meh. I had what I needed. Two rods: a Redington 7.5 foot 4 weight, and a St. Croix Avid 8.5 foot 5 weight. I caught so many trout on those rods that I laughed at the notion that a more expensive rod would put more fish in the net.
My first taste of high-end gear was a Sage Z-Axis 9.5 foot 4 weight. I bought it from a (very generous) friend for a couple-hundred dollars. And I was immediately impressed — stunned, really — by the performance. The extra length and reach was one thing. But there was something intangible about the Z-Axis that made casting an intuitive experience. I knew where the line and the fly would go. My connection from cork to tip to fly was complete.
Back then, it was indescribable. But now, many years later, I can put my finger on it. The tip of the Z-Axis is what worked for me.
Good fly rods are all about the tip. I guess bad ones are too. And now, after casting almost every trout rod on the market, it seems, I can feel the differences almost immediately.
I played acoustic guitar as a career for sixteen years. And if you put a six-string in my hands and blindfolded me, I could tell you a lot about the quality of the guitar after playing five chords. It doesn’t take many more casts than that to get a sense for a fly rod. Quality is immediately apparent. And understanding what the rod is all about — whether it’s built for power, sensitivity or something else — is revealed just as easily.
But let’s get back to the tip for a minute. Assuming the fly rod has enough backbone in the butt section, then fly rod evaluation usually comes down to how much the tip flexes and how quickly it recovers. The latter is more important than the former.
Flex matters, of course. But a lot of it comes down to preference.
I like a fast or medium-fast tip, because I just don’t want to wait the extra milliseconds for a slower rod to load — I have things to do, man.
I cast with speed and crisp stops, because I turn everything over before it hits the water, ninety-five percent of the time. I also learned to fly fish on brookie streams choked with mountain laurel. And without a fast and tight stroke, I was toast.
But, setting my preference for faster action aside, I can make a slow rod work just fine. It takes a few minutes to find the new rhythm. And while I don’t necessarily like it, I can slow myself down. There’s nothing wrong with slower rods.
But rod tip recovery is another matter. A poorly designed rod is a liability on the stream. A tip that shakes and shudders for too long after the cast makes for an inaccurate rod. It’s also a horrible choice for contact techniques such as euro nymphing or tight lining.
I define rod tip recovery as how fast or slow a rod tip comes back to a standstill after the cast. (I don’t know how the rod builders define it.)
Cast the rod and watch it flex. Now see how long it takes for the rod tip to stop shaking. Watch for a complete stop, all the way to a standstill — not just the big motions, but the minor shuddering at the end too.
Good rods recover quickly. They may be fast or slow. They may be built for power or subtlety, but they recover quickly. They return to their original form in short order.
Why Does It Matter?
For me, there are two main reasons why rod recovery is paramount.
First, rod recovery is a big factor in accuracy. Casting is the process of flexing and unflexing the rod. There are changes of direction. And when the tip returns to straight quickly, that tip is ready to do the next thing. By contrast, a poorly designed rod is still recovering when the next direction is set in motion. So accuracy suffers, because our intuition for where the line goes is gone. Such a rod is unpredictable. It’s a struggle to cast well.
Second, a rod with poor recovery shakes after the cast. So, as the drift begins, the rod tip is still settling — sometimes for as long as a few seconds.
This is harmful in any style, but it’s most detrimental in a contact system. Watch your sighter in a tight line nymphing rig. A good dead drift happens only if the sighter is stable, with no wobble or shake — because everything the sighter does is translated to the nymphs. You might assume that it’s your hand or arm that dictates the stability of the sighter, but the rod tip recovery has a lot to do with a good drift, especially in the first few seconds.
The best rods flex, unflex and return to the original shape — lickety split. So the sighter and the nymphs drift without influence from any bouncing, because the rod tip recovers quickly.
There are a handful of rod companies that have cropped up in the last few years. They offer lower price points, clever model names and a big social media presence. They also come with poor rod tip recovery times. They are inaccurate and unpredictable. And these rods make riding with a stable sighter a much greater challenge than it should be.
Sawyer was right. There’s a lot more to good gear than I ever thought. Luckily, the lower end tools that I learned on were good pieces. (I had solid advice from the local fly shop owner.) These days, I’m in a position to have my hands on a ton of great rods. And oh my, the differences are far greater than I ever imagined.
Rod tip recovery is the defining characteristic of a quality fly rod versus a mediocre one.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N