The fly fishing industry changes and grows. Advancing techniques and angler trends encourage companies to adapt and build new gear that suits those needs. Improvements in materials, like high modulus graphite, allow for the building of fly rods that were not possible a few years ago.
In my own decades of angling, average fly rods have gotten lighter and longer. Aside from our preferences for fast or flexy, anglers now have fly rod choices of eleven feet or more. These extra-long rods are now reasonable options for trout fishing. But years ago, a rod that long was unwieldy. It was too heavy and too flexible at the tip. Driven by the popularity of euro nymphing and tight line techniques, extra-long rods are offered in two through five weight options. Ten footers are now quite standard. And many of them are excellent tools that fish well. Most of the two weights that I handle are built with a stiff enough butt section to handle the largest trout you’re likely to encounter, and the long rods in four and five weights are light enough to cast all day. It’s a good time to be alive.
In short, we’re in the golden age of fly rods. And if you want something extra long in your hands, you have many viable options.
However, just because you can buy a great rod that’s ten-and-a-half or eleven feet long doesn’t mean that you should. I’ve had friends who bought a long rod and have regretted their decision immediately. Likewise, I’ve met anglers who wish they’d chosen a longer rod.
So if you’re thinking about a new fly rod (and who isn’t), it’s helpful to understand the upside and downside of that extra length. Whether your intentions for the new rod are tight line tactics, streamers, dries, or a versatile tool that can easily tackle all of these, the advantages and disadvantages of extra length in a fly rod are important to understand.
Let’s talk about it . . .
The Good Stuff
There’s really one reason to buy a longer rod. Every viable advantage boils down to extra reach. Longer rods allow us to hold more line off the water. And whether that’s a fly line or a Mono Rig, keeping material off the water allows for more contact and more control over our flies.
Remember, anything that touches the water drags. And anything that goes under the water drags even more. So if your goal is a dead drift, above or below the surface, the extra reach that a longer rod provides is always welcome.
Understand that an extra foot of fly rod allows us to reach further than just twelve inches. When you do the geometry, an extra foot of fly rod provides about three feet of extra reach at thirty feet. Devin Olsen did the math on this a few years ago, and it’s still one of my favorite head-scratching facts.
So, it’s the reach. That’s the benefit of a longer rod. And there really is no other reason that doesn’t come down to the distance gained by fishing a longer rod. It’s easier to pick up a dry line for the next cast, because of the extra reach. It’s easier to unbutton snagged nymphs, because of the extra reach. And it’s easier to guide our flies downstream with that extra reach.
Some argue that a longer rod protects light tippets. And that’s fair, but many shorter rods are also made with soft tips for protecting light tippets. That’s been done for decades.
Keeping line off the water with the extra reach is helpful for drifting nymphs and dries, but it isn’t as important with streamers, because we aren’t concerned with a dead drift (usually). And it may not be so beneficial when using tactics that employ a lot of mending. In both of these situations, it might be helpful to have the rod tip closer to us and have that tip be a little more responsive.
Let’s get to that next . . .
The Not So Good Stuff
While I listed just one main advantage of a longer rod (more reach), I’m about to list numerous disadvantages of extra rod length. But none of these downsides necessarily outweighs the upside of the extra reach gained with a long rod. Not at all. Because keeping line off the water is a very big deal.
Ideally, each angler finds her own points of compromise. Most of us want a rod that’s as long as possible but still short enough to mitigate the following disadvantages.
Shorter rods are more accurate. That’s a tough one to admit or even understand for some people, but it’s true. I know — you’re deadly accurate with your favorite fly rod. Right? If you’ve learned the nuances of your favorite tool, and your technique is solid, then you likely have the necessary accuracy. But you’d be even more accurate with a shorter rod.
With the tip of the fly rod further from your hand, that tip is more difficult to control. And where the tip goes, so goes the line, leader and fly.
The small movements we make with our rod hand — the slight twists and pushes of the wrist — are amplified through the length of the rod. And when the energy of those motions reaches the tip, the short, crisp motion we made with our casting hand results in a much larger movement at the tip.
You can demonstrate this easily with a visible test. Stand in casting position, and move the rod-hand just one foot through its casting V. Now look up and watch the rod tip. It moves a lot more than twelve inches. Doesn’t it? And the longer the rod, the greater is that distance.
So our rod hand movements are amplified with longer rods. That’s not always a bad thing. But for the discussion of accuracy, shorter rods lend you more.
Rod Recovery Takes Longer
Fly rods are designed to flex and recover to a resting state. The best rods flex in all the right ways and then crisply return to straight, where they’re ready to flex again. That’s rod recovery, and it’s the number one difference that I see in high-end rods vs low-end options.
Longer rods take longer to recover because, well . . . there’s more rod that has to stop moving. And in my experience, you’ll pay a lot to find an extra-long rod that recovers fast enough to be any good.
Rod recovery is also a big factor in the casting accuracy for any style of fly.
And it’s even more critical while tight line nymphing. When we are in contact with the nymph, then everything our rod tip does is transmitted to the fly. At the end of our tight line cast, the nymph enters the water, and we gain contact with the fly. If it takes a few seconds for the rod tip to stop bouncing and fully recover, then that’s three seconds of wasted drift (possibly more, if the trout are picky enough to reject the fly at distance).
Some of the worst rods on the market are cheaper offerings in the long range of ten or eleven feet or more. The soft tips on these rods take forever to recover, and they are whippy, flexy sticks, good only for lobbing and not casting.
In the Trees
This disadvantage is probably obvious. But if not, a broken rod tip thwacked on a tree limb will make it so. I’ve ruined a few days this way for myself.
Long rods can be difficult to cast in tight cover. When I blue-line the backcountry, mountain streams, I prefer to fish dry flies. And my choice for thick cover is a seven-and-a-half or an eight-foot rod. If I do plan for underwater presentations in the mountains, I usually choose an eight-and-a-half or nine-foot option, for the extra reach and added ability to keep line off the water.
If you know where your rod tip is, you can cast any length of rod in any cover. But that’s overstating the point. The reality is, in a mountain-laurel-choked brookie stream, swing distance for a fly rod is at a premium. And long rods can be a liability. Even on my home stream in the valley, which averages fifty to sixty feet across and is bordered by trees for most of its length, I prefer a rod slightly less than ten feet.
Casting a long rod in tight cover can be uncomfortable. And you might have to force your elbow tight to the body to get the rod tip in the right place.
Likewise, when fishing streamers, extra-long rods can be a liability. With streamers, we use the rod tip to lead the line and the fly on a path. With the rod tip further away, our options for the fly’s path are more limited.
Imagine this: Cast up and across-stream to the bank. Now try to lead the streamer directly back to you. If the rod is eleven feet, then holding the rod to your right makes the fly track eleven feet to the right instead of back to your position. But if the rod is eight feet, then the fly tracks three feet closer to you. Extending this principle into real-world fishing quickly reveals the handicap of a longer rod for streamers.
Of course, for many anglers, a long rod is just part of their streamer fishing style. And any tool used well can be the perfect match. But when I’m fishing longer rods with streamers, I feel jammed up too often. My angles are too wide, and I want quicker, tighter control over the path of my fly through the water.
Load Time and Loss of Power
Long rods generally take longer to load on the backcast than their shorter brothers. Likewise, some power is lost with the extra length. Now, of course, you will find examples where one company’s eleven-foot three weight loads faster and is more powerful than the next company’s ten-foot three weight. But usually, longer roads have longer load times, and they feel less powerful.
For a good comparison, take one company’s nine-foot four weight for a spin, and then try the same company’s rod in a ten footer. The difference is noticeable, and the contrast grows larger in rods over ten feet.
Versatile or Specialized?
I choose versatile fly rods because I’m a versatile angler. Fish what works and be ready for anything — that’s a Troutbitten theme. It’s impractical to carry multiple rods every day, so my favorite tools are the ones that perform many tasks well.
There’s a compromise, of course. And my own point of compromise leans toward tight line, Mono Rig, nymphing tactics, because that’s what I spend much of my time doing. But my favorite rods are also ready to cast small dries, big nymphs, indicator setups, and streamers large or small.
For me, anything longer than ten feet is too limiting for streamers, and I don’t like the way ten-plus feet of a fly rod loads with an attached indy. All of these rods can perform the necessary functions, but how well do they do it? How long does it take for the rod to recover, so it’s ready to make the next quick movement? Honestly, I feel handicapped with a specialized rod on the river.
On the other hand, I have friends who spend all their river time just tight lining nymphs. And they have no interest in streamers or dries. So a specialized rod of eleven feet makes sense to them. (I still prefer the crisp action of a shorter rod.)
It’s a personal choice. So consider your goals, understand the pros and cons of a longer rod, and then find your point of compromise. Have fun out there.
Fly rods are such an individual decision that I, and the Troutbitten readers, would love to hear your thoughts and preferences. Why do you like or dislike the length of your rod? Please share in the comments section below.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N