Good anglers catch more trout. So let’s get that out the way. There is no substitute for your desire to work hard and solve the daily river puzzles. Put in your time, put out some great presentations, and trout will eat the fly — the price tag on your rod doesn’t matter.
Wait. That last part isn’t exactly true . . .
I field more questions about rod choice than all other gear. Waders, packs, boot and fly lines all run a close second, but everyone wants to talk about the rod. That’s fair, because it’s the most tangible piece in our inventory, and it’s literally in our hands all day long.
I still argue that the leader is more important than the fly rod. But the rod matters too. It matters a lot, probably more than anything else, and we all know this.
Buying the right style of rod — one that is suited for the work you want to do — is of critical consideration. (Do not buy a fast seven weight for tight line nymphing or for fishing #26 Tricos.) Let’s say you decide on a ten-foot four weight. But, beyond that, how much difference is there in the wide range of rods offered? Will the most expensive fly rod catch you more trout?
Candidly, I’ll tell you that I had this answer wrong for many years. For most of my life, I simply could not afford high end gear. And I believed that the top-of-the-line tools were unnecessary. That part is still true. They are unnecessary, because you will catch plenty of trout with an entry level fly rod.
But I also believed that a flagship rod would not put more fish in the net by the end of the day. I spoke this to friends many times. And I argued the point emphatically, when given the chance.
What was my basis for that argument? In truth, I didn’t own any top shelf fly rods for a long time. Sure, I had cast a few of my friends’ rods, and I told myself I was unimpressed. I also felt that I caught just as many if not more trout than my friends with their fancy rods. Those were my defenses for the argument, but those were also the flaws in my argument. Of course I was unimpressed when I first picked up those high-end fly rods — because I didn’t have enough time with them. And I might have caught a few more trout than my best fishing buddy, but that’s probably because I covered more water and was focused more obsessively on one-seam drifts.
My formative years were spent with a $225 fly rod that I fished so hard I wore the cork down. I mean it. With about six years of fishing five days a week, I outlasted the cork. It cracked and crumbled where I had pushed into the power stroke with my thumb a million times. I was proud of that, and it would have been hard for me to believe I could have done any better with another rod.
So here’s the question rephrased: Will a thousand-dollar fly rod catch more trout than a two-hundred dollar rod?
My old answer was no. No way. But my new answer — that I now begrudgingly admit — is yes. And here’s why . . .
I’m a grabby guide. There’s an old guide adage that says, “nothing good happens when you touch the client’s rod.” But people come to me to learn. I’m a teaching guide. And as years pass, I’m more apt to say less and cast more. Give me the rod. Because, very often, you need to see the cast to understand it.
The point is, I get just about every decent fly rod in my hands through a season. And my guests seem to like spending money on the good stuff. They have some great rods.
Guiding was truly my first lesson in the differences among fly rods, and this is much better than wiggling things in a fly shop. On the water casting, stripping and even catching teaches you much more than parking lot casting. And while I’d held many of the flagship models in fly shops, I couldn’t appreciate the differences until I fished them.
Before I started guiding, my main tool was a Sage Z-Axis. It was my first high-end rod; it was a great rod and still is. But now, many years later, I have a corner in my office full of amazing rods that cost way too much, and I could never afford them until recently. Being in the industry has brought a lot of gear my way. And what continues to surprise me is how good the expensive rods are.
I didn’t expect that. I figured the big price tag was mostly cosmetic, but I was wrong. A top end rod is worlds different than an intro rod.
What is the extra cost for? I won’t try to speak to graphite modulus, resins and axial resilience, because I’d embarrass myself. I cast like a fisherman. I feel rods like a fisherman, and I evaluate like a fisherman. And I will tell you that they just fish better.
So yes, I now argue that an expensive rod can catch you a few more fish each day. Here’s how . . .
A great fly rod responds to the angler. The slightest motions and refinements in the cast are transmitted to the rod, and it flexes — it responds in kind. The angler’s thoughts and instincts flow through a great rod, so our accuracy and adjustments become effortless.
We can be in tune with a great rod and perfectly connect with its performance. With some time spent fishing a great fly rod, it becomes an extension of our will. The fly hits the target because we want it to. The leader lands with s-curves in the tippet because that’s what we decided. And the rod makes it happen.
A go-to fly rod is like an old dog or a good friend. We know them, and our connection is natural.
Technically . . .
A great fly rod recovers quickly and it’s ready to flex again. Recovery rate is underestimated, but this is one of the most noticeable differences between rods of high or low quality. A great fly rod takes a brief moment to recover from the flex and stop shaking. A lousy rod is still quivering a few seconds later.
A great fly rod is also sensitive. And that means two different things. First, a fly rod should allow a nymph angler, for example, to feel the tick of a 3mm tungsten bead at the head of a fly as it touches bedrock three feet below. But sensitivity can also mean that the angler can feel the rod load through the blank during the cast. Casting sensitivity is one of those intangibles — it’s what people mean when they say a rod has great feel. In a way, this kind of sensitivity makes a rod predictable and accurate.
Falling In Love
Technical qualities aside, a great fly rod is one that you can fall in love with. And that surely does not need to be a most expensive rod. The fly rod that I wore the cork from was one that I truly loved, just because I spent so much meaningful time with it.
I see a similarity with great fly rods and the best acoustic guitars. I owned and played intro and mid-level guitars for a decade. And I loved a couple of them. But I truly could not get a few of the sounds that were in my head to play through the tone woods of those guitars. When I finally played a Martin HD28, I understood this intuitively — and I knew that I’d found what I’d been searching for. I played many, selected one, and made one of the best purchases of my life. My connection with that Martin never leaves me wanting for anything else. It matches me. Whatever I wish to hear, I can get it out through that guitar, or the failing is my own technique and not the tool.
Lastly, that HD28 Martin inspires me to play music, simply because it plays with ease and responds to my creative whims. A great fly rod does the same. It will draw you to the river like a beloved companion. And you’ll go fishing, just for the fulfillment.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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