I field a lot of questions about leaders and fly rods. Those two pieces of gear, along with fly choice, seem to make the top of the list for every angler.
We all have our terms and conditions for comparing things like a fly rod. And one of the descriptions I find most curious is sensitivity. What makes a fly rod more sensitive than the next? What does that word even mean, and is sensitivity actually important in presenting the fly?
Here are some thoughts . . .
You’ll Know It
I can’t tell you much about the latest resins, about IM6 vs IM8 graphite or tensile strength ratings. All of it matters, of course, but what fishermen notice are the results of that research and development. In our hands, we feel the technology, we feel quality versus mediocrity. And there is no doubt that some rods transmit subtle ticks, hits and vibrations better than others.
Is that sensitivity? Yes, that’s half of it.
I think the consequential sensitivity of a fly rod appears at two different times — during the cast and during the drift. Some rods may be great casters but poor drifters, and then the opposite can be true.
Sensitivity is most commonly thought of in the following way: How much can we feel the fly at the end of the line? This is especially prized in fly rods used for underwater presentations. Because, with the fly out of sight and underneath, we want as much data about that invisible fly as we can possibly gather.
“Was that a fish? I don’t know, but that felt like a fish.” — Every Nymphing Angler Ever
Feeling what a fly touches is a big deal. Did it tick a rock, graze the tops of elodea or enter a trout’s mouth? With the most sensitive rods in the hands of an experienced and keen angler, knowing that difference is absolutely possible.
But another way a fly rod can be sensitive is in transmitting the load of the tip to the hand of the angler. You know this feeling. Because without looking, you can feel when the unfolding loop of your fly line has nearly reached the end of your backcast. You can feel the load on the tip through the flex of the fly rod, and it all but speaks to you, signaling the timing for the forward cast. That’s great rod sensitivity too.
Also, in the same way we feel this flex during the cast, we may feel something similar while fishing underneath. With the fly traveling through the river, we sense the load of a cross current that a fly might swing through, because the rod flexes and pulses in response to those currents. That too is a big deal.
Many anglers boil all of this down to “feel,” and that’s a fine description.
I’ve highlighted two different kinds of sensitivity above, and there’s certainly some misunderstanding and unintended crossover between the two types. Anglers tend to confuse and conflate the term sensitivity — a term with at least a couple different meanings for a fly rod — into one description.
Do you want the kind of rod that is extra sensitive during the cast? Then you might love the way a fiberglass rod performs — how it loads slower and transmits the feeling of flex to the angler. It doesn’t have to be glass or be ultra-slow, either. Plenty of graphite, medium-fast rods have a ton of feel in this way.
There’s a lot more to finding what suits you than a simple power rating. How will you fish the rod most? With dry flies? Small ones or big and bushy? Will you throw light nymphs on a tight line or bigger steamers with built in weight? All of it figures into how the rod will flex and how the angler will feel that flex.
Maybe instead, you want the kind of fly rod that transmits the tap of a drop shot on the river rocks below, or the tick of a tungsten beadhead at the end of a long, light leader. The rod choice for sensitivity here is not the same as the one for sensing the flex of the rod. In fact, they are quite opposite.
For feeling what your weight is doing below, a faster rod that flexes less is a far better tool. It’s true.
In a recent podcast for the Newb and the Knower, Lance Egan walked through his frequent experience with anglers who perceive this kind of sensitivity quite the opposite of what it is. What Lance said caught my ear, as I’ve had the same discussion with people asking me about fly rods many times.
Vibrations, ticks, bumps and eats are better transmitted by a rod that does not flex as much. Because the bend or flex in a fly rod acts as a shock absorber. A stiffer tip does not dampen the vibration of weight hitting rocks or grazing over a weed bed — instead, that vibration is more efficiently transmitted down the rod blank and to the angler’s hand.
I first learned of this from my friend, Steve Sawyer, who explained that his most sensitive gear rods for bass fishing were often quite stiff. It’s a common understanding among the gear fishing world, and with fly rods, it should be no different.
Imagine a flexible, eleven foot, two weight fly rod marketed for euro nymphing. It is surely sensitive in the first way — the softer tip and longer rod will flex easily under the light load of a thin leader and small nymphs. But once the fly is in the water, it will not transmit vibrations nearly as well as its four weight and shorter counterpart.
Find Your Way
So if you want true sensitivity underneath, bite detection that is felt as much as seen, and discrimination between bedrock or a sandy bottom, then a thicker and stiffer rod is your best choice.
And if you want more sensitivity in the cast, or if you want to feel the load of the currents against the flies in cross currents, then a lighter and softer rod might be your best choice.
I know what works for me. I have my preferences. But more importantly, what works for you? What is most important in your fly rod? It might well start with understanding the two different ways that a fly rod can be sensitive.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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