We walk a narrow footpath that weaves and dips near the stream. We travel long miles on return to the truck, kicking down a dusty road after sunset. And we bushwhack through tightening brush, laced with vines that merge with flexible saplings, presenting an ever-deepening and challenging maze. We wade. We walk everywhere. And for a fishing partner, we carry a long stick strung with thin line that always seems hungry for the next branch, leaf or thorn bush.
Hiking through the woods with a fly rod isn’t easy. And how you choose to carry it either costs you time or conserves it.
I just returned from another fishing trip disguised as a family beach vacation. My boys and I fished the surf, mostly for fluke. And the endless expanse of free space is strikingly different from the narrow green canyons that I frequent back home. Carrying a rod beachside is easily done in 360 degrees. Whatever direction, whatever angle — it doesn’t matter much.
I prefer to sling the extended butt section of a surf rod over my shoulder and cart the whole thing behind me, with the tip high in the air. But that’s not possible on most trout waters, because the limbs above are sure to catch hold of your rod at some point. So we keep the rod tip low and mostly parallel to the ground. Look around at other anglers and you’ll notice that this part is mostly agreed upon. But should we carry the fly rod in front of us or behind us? That’s an unsettled debate with a split opinion. And the more I bring this up with fellow anglers, the more I encounter strong opinions and open resistance to doing it the other way.
What? Fishermen staunchly defending their choices? Of course. Could it be any other way?
I’m gonna show my cards quickly on this one. I’m a rod-tip-behind-me guy. But I didn’t grow up that way. The spinning rods of my youth were about six feet long. So, navigating the brush and guiding that rod tip ahead of me wasn’t much of a chore. But when I switched to the flies and the long rod, I had a new problem on my hands. Suddenly, seeing ahead far enough through the shady underbrush and navigating an extra three or four feet around the next obstacle was a tougher challenge. (It’s a rough life, isn’t it?)
One of my early influences was Lefty Kreh’s book, Presenting the Fly. And somewhere in that text, Lefty laid it out directly. Carry the rod behind you, he said, because it just makes sense. You’re less apt to fall on the rod and break it if it’s behind you, and the rod tends to glide through the brush as you walk forward.
I recall making that switch on a backcountry brook trout stream the next time out. Surprisingly, it was more comfortable and easier to navigate without as much thought. Since that day, I’ve been a rod-tip-behind-me guy, and I’ve never looked back (. . . except for all the times I’ve had to turn around and free the line that indeed did catch the nearby branch after I walked past. Yup. It still happens, and nothing’s perfect.)
Rod-tip-ahead -of-you is fine for the road or the open trails. But Lefty was right — when you do stumble, you’re much more likely to break a rod that’s in front of you. Add to that this fact: a rod tip will jam in the dirt ahead the moment you relax too much and the rod dips. The tip sticks, the rod flexes and . . . Come on. You’ve done this before and thought to yourself, “Whew, that was close!” Carrying the rod behind you avoids all of this.
While bushwhacking, I separate my rod in two pieces and hold them together with a hair tie or a small rag. It’s worth thirty seconds of preparation to do this, because there’s no good way to carry a strung-up ten-foot rod through tight brush. But when I try it anyway, or when conditions are borderline for breaking the rod down, keeping the tip behind me results in far fewer hang ups.
Sure, I know that this makes no sense to all of the rod-tip-ahead-of-you guys. Because how can you keep the tip from bumping into things when you can’t see it? Right? Well, we’re not dragging the rod behind us without intention here. It does take spatial awareness and some thought to keep the rod coming along, but not as much as guiding the tip ahead through upcoming obstacles. Truly, the rod tends to glide along easier through places you’ve already been.
There is one caveat to the rod-tip-behind-you approach. It can be hell on single foot guides. It took a few trips to my local rod builder, having him replace loose or missing rod guides over the years, before we finally figured out what was happening. The branches and briers can grab and pull on the guides while bushwhacking, eventually tugging out and loosening single foot guides. But these days, most of my rods have snake guides, and I probably don’t crawl through the brush as much as I used to either.
But You’ll Lose the Tip!?
This article received a bunch of comments in the first few day (good stuff). And one of the most pressing concerns for people was losing a rod section if the rod is angled behind. I agree. DO NOT walk to, from or around the river without the rod either strung up or separated and bound together, or you’ll eventually lose part of your fly rod.
In the article linked above, I detailed my preference for waiting until I’m on the water before rigging my rod. And I described how I transport the fly rod separated into two pieces and bound together with an elastic hair tie or a simple rag. You can also leave the rod strung up and follow this process too. That trick might need a video.
My Way | Your Way
So that’s my argument for carrying the fly rod behind you while navigating the trails streamside. Maybe this is something you’ve never given any thought to. And maybe you’re tired of cursing the limbs and brush while untangling and undoing unintended knots. Maybe not.
What’s your game? What’s your preference? And what’s your reason? Let’s hear about it in the comments section below.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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