Sensitivity in a Fly Rod — Two Very Different Ways

by | Sep 26, 2022 | 7 comments

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.

Two Ways

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.

Riverdog

Choices

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.

READ: Troutbitten | The Best Fly Rods for the Mono Rig and Euro Nymphing — My Favorite Rods

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.
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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7 Comments

  1. Hi Dom,
    This is an interesting discussion. Since being turned on to the Troutbitten project, I’ve begun using my 9 foot 4 weight a lot more with a mono rig set up for tightline nymphing. I used to think of this rod as my “dry fly rod.” Prior to that I was using a 10 foot 3 weight “euro nymphing rod.” Although my range with the 9 foot rod is shorter, I have discovered I feel a lot more takes than I do with my euro set up. Do you think that may have anything to do with using mono over the euro line? Given the choice between the two, I’ll sacrifice the range over the versatility of the 9 footer, as it casts a dry so well when I need it to.

    I still think the most important part of all of this is to learn to see the take, but I was struck by how many takes I feel with the mono-rig set up.

    Reply
  2. Hi Don! I started nymphing with the mono rig using an older 2 piece 9’ 5 wt fast action rod. What I noticed was I could feel all the ticks an bumps of the river with a high degree of sensitivity. What I also noticed was during the fight, how many times a fish would break me off. It was way more often than I expected. I since transitioned to an 11’ 5 wt medium fast action rod. With this rod, I can easily feel my back cast tug at the end of its stroke; however, I don’t feel as much river sensitivity as I did with my fast action rod. The one thing I notice the most is since switching to the 11 footer, I have not had any fish break me off, including a couple of namers. I sometimes think the softer tip action has contributed to this, or else, I’ve just gotten better at fighting fish.

    Reply
  3. Hi Dom,

    I really appreciated the article and the comments from Jeff and Frank above. I currently am going to be fishing the mono rig with a 9’ 5wt rod because I am really uncertain about which rod would be the best upgrade for me. After reading your gear reviews I am looking at the Cortland 10’ 4wt as fitting my budget and being a good all rounder. Is that a fast action rod in your mind?

    Thanks,
    Mike

    Reply
  4. So, what about protecting fine tippet? How does that come into play in this discussion? Is that faster, stiffer rod going to protect fine tippet as well as a more moderate action rod with a softer tip? Or can you have both–fast, stiff with a soft tip?

    Reply
    • Hi Brad,

      I think you can have both, yes. My favorite rods are fast or moderate fast, yet I never feel like I’m breaking off fish because the tip doesn’t flex enough. For me, way too much is made of protecting light tippets on a fly rod. And the consequences of a soft tip outweigh whatever tippet protection I may gain.

      I feel like tippet protection is MUCH more a function of how we fight a fish, with rod positioning, direction and angle strategy more than the it’s the rod’s job.

      https://troutbitten.com/category/fighting-fish/

      Thanks for the question.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      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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