Carry the Fly Rod In Front or Behind? An Eternal Debate Continues

by | Aug 8, 2021 | 35 comments

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.

Joey with a short fluke.

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?

Aiden, checking out the teeth of a snapper

Trailing

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Tip — Don’ Rig Up at the Truck

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.

Aiden and me. Spinning gear. Tips ahead. Hey, whatever works.

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.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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35 Comments

  1. If the path is fairly open, butt first. If the path is choked with Mt. Laurel , My favorite place, I let the rod tip lead to keep it safe, more or less.

    Reply
  2. If you carry it behind you make sure it is strung up. I have lost a tip section when carrying an unstrung rod behind.

    Reply
    • I agree here. I was fortunate, 45 minutes of trail retracing and I found my tip section. I also worry now if I am using a light tippet.

      Reply
    • Chris, Jim and Charles,

      I guess I don’t fully agree here, because there are other ways to keep the sections together. In fact, I prefer to keep the rod unstrung as I walk to the stream.

      https://troutbitten.com/2021/06/30/tip-dont-rig-up-at-the-truck/

      But as I mention in that one and in this article above, I just use an elastic hair tie or a simple rag to tie the sections together. No need to have the rod strung up, really.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • Since I usually pack in a good distance, several miles and often off-trail bushwhacking, I break it down and carry in my pack.

        Reply
  3. I’ve been a rot tip behind me ever since I broke a tip tumbling down the trail. A nasty, maliciously evil root was the cause of the tripping. Not that I’m bitter mind you. It was a good rod!

    My fishing friends were on a different trail and they informed me when we got to the stream to lead with the reel. That was near 50 years ago and I haven’t lost a rod to a mishap since.

    I really enjoy your posts.

    Reply
  4. I’ve done both, and got hung up in both. Now I’m just a tip in front guy. That way I could see what I’m going to get stuck on..;) The best way for bushwhacking like you said Dom is to separate the rod in half. I found that those industrial reusable twist ties work great for keeping the halves together.

    Reply
  5. Trailing. I get lazy sometimes and try to guide the rod through the brush ahead of me, but I invariably jam the rod tip into a tree trunk or some other leafy obstacle and immediately switch to a trailing carry for all the reason you list. Love your blog. Tight lines!

    Reply
  6. I’ve been a rod-tip-behind-me guy too!

    I have to get through and crawl in the dense bush along the Japanese mountain streams.

    Thank you for the many useful tips every time.

    Reply
  7. Dom, Lefty has an additional trick with the reel first carry in his DVD, “The Complete Cast.” After you attach the fly to an upper guide and bring the leader behind the reel and remove most of the slack, you then take the fly line and also put it behind the reel. This removes the space between the fly line and the rod. He then suggests that you wrap both the leader and the fly line around the rod twice and put it behind a guide. This keeps it all close to the rod which minimizes hang ups.

    Reply
    • The fly line behind the reel trick also helps keep multiple rods hanging out together from getting tangled.

      Reply
  8. If I am the lead guy when fishing with a friend I always lead with the rod tip in front. I can see and avoid most obstacles. If the friend leads I always have the rod tip trail. I have seen too many cases where the lead guy stops for whatever reason and the trailing guy sticks his rod tip in his back, butt, or elsewhere. And a broken tip. And if both guys trail their rods and the lead guy stops you can break his rod tip.
    Another reason to fish alone! Just kidding.

    Reply
  9. I’ve got to say I do it both ways. I have also fallen both ways without breakage and of course I get hung up both ways. I guess I lean tip first as to see what’s happening. But there is one thing that happened to me just two weeks ago. While strolling downstream in thigh deep water with modest current helping me rod tip first staff in other hand my boot hit a rock reflex step higher. The problem was it was a large rock current took me down before I knew what was happening. Had to spin around to get my footing and then it hit me my rod was in two pieces. So if I had butt first might have saved it. Thank goodness for Hardy for taking care of my accident

    Reply
    • First of all,how was the shore and where were you fishing?I’m going down to Cape May in the end of Sept. or Oct.I usually have to deal with knot weed.I find it better to break the rod down but carry it either way,tip in front of me or behind.Great reading!

      Reply
      • Hi Pete. We vacation in North Beach Have, LBI. Fishing was a little slower this year, but good.

        Thanks for the kind words.

        Dom

        Reply
  10. I’ve carried both ways until one day, carrying tip forward, I got hung in a brush branch that I did not immediately notice. By the time I did notice, the tip of my rod broke off. My fishing for that day was done. Since that time, it’s reel end first for me.

    Reply
  11. Yup, I carry it behind for all your reasons, Dom. Plus one more reason: I once lost half the rod when one of the snake guides grabbed a branch and pulled the top off without me feeling it. This happened because the leader wasn’t strung up with fly safely parked in the fly holder. Lesson I learned: I ALWAYS make sure the rod is strung up with fly parked in the fly holder before I walk anywhere. Thanks for you do for the sport! Toney

    Reply
  12. I was a rod behind guy until I saw a George Daniel video where he talks about having the rod in front and using the rod tip to “guide the way.”

    I like this way better – mostly because I can see everything. So I’m a take my time and rod tip in front guy. That works best for me.

    Personally, when I’m leading with the rod butt I feel like I’m just crossing my fingers and going for it – and inevitably something gets hung up.

    BTW – Nice fluke and blue! That’s the fishing that’s closest to my home.

    Reply
    • Thanks. We were hoping for a little more size. But it waw a fun trip.

      Reply
  13. The part about breaking the rod down into two pieces when keeping the rod behind you makes sense. Maybe even break it down into 4 pieces. I was walking through some brushy area once with my rod behind and when I got to the river my tip was missing. Now you would think retracing a hundred yards on a path to find the tip would have been easy. Never found it. So I started stringing up the rod prior to walking. That was a pain in the behind because the line snagged on every bush lol. Now I just assemble when I get to the water even though I know on this river in June the morning hatch will be a size 18 caddis hatch. I just get there early so I won’t get rushed seeing the browns whacking the hatching caddis and missing a guide in my rush.

    Reply
    • I find that if I’d break it down in four pieces, I can’t keep the rod strung up. But if unstrung, I suppose four is alright, but it just seems like more trouble.

      Reply
  14. Rod tip in front on open paths, usually behind for bushwhacking.

    Sometimes I’ll put it in front if I’m winding through thick alders with gnarly trunks and open space underneath the canopy, because it’s easier to thread the needle in front of me than to find a path with 9 feet of straight opening directly behind me for the rod.

    One trick I use quite a bit for serious bushwhacking is to grip the rod a couple feet above the butt, while holding the tip behind me… it’s still decently balanced, easy to guide those two feet in front of me, and the rod behind me is a couple feet shorter.

    Reply
  15. Behind me. As you said it snags less. More importantly, if I trip the rod is behind me so I can’t fall on top of the rod.
    Also, if I walk with it strung up, I hook the fly on the guide and around my reel as you normally would. Then take the section of line that is not within the guides and wrap it around the rod twice placing it over one of the guides to keep it from unraveling. This prevents the line from getting caught on branches reducing snags even further.

    Reply
  16. Hey Dom, you are always full of wisdom and invite others to comment. Yup, I started carrying my rod tip trailing. Then I embraced the Joe Humphries’ tactic of “the rod tip will lead you”, which remains in my fishing grounds the most prominent mode. To be sure, climbing up steep deer trail banks over run with briars, I’ll instinctually trail the tip. I fish south central PA waters and the seasonal vegetation and downed trees dictate the lead-to-follow ratio with leading the predominant configuration. To be sure, fish hard and thanks for your generous sharing of fishing info.

    Reply
    • PS Love those pics of you and the boys on LBI. That’s where my first love of fishing was established back in the late 50’s and early 60’s in Harvey Ceaders. Hope the fishing up there is better than down in south Jersey- Sea Isle City, etc. Some runs of bunker and strippers late in the day out of Townsens Inlet up the beach, but otherwise sterile. So it goes.

      Reply
  17. “Never turn your back to danger” works for me.

    Reply
  18. If my rod is NOT broken down, it’s in front of me.

    I snag all the time when it’s behind me because I don’t feel you can control it’s direction, where as you can see exactly where you point it in front of you.

    It’s not perfect though, which is why breaking your rod down in half is the BEST solution. It doesn’t take much time, but you will save that time by not having to strategically aim your rod while bushwhacking or having to unsnag it from the brush.

    Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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