A Guide To Fly Rod Guides

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Photos by Louis Cahill

Photos by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

The guides on your fly rod have a lot to do with how it performs.

I was building bamboo fly rods and making my own guides when I first became aware of the many guide options and their effect on fly rod performance. Up to that point I think I took rod guides for granted, as I think many anglers do. Rod designers spend a good bit of time on guides and their placement and while you can cast a rod and catch fish with just about any guides, they have a real impact on how the rod performs.

Guides serve two basic functions. They transition the fly line from its unorganized state into a controlled state during the cast. The guides also serve to distribute the force applied to the line along the blank, during both the cast and the fighting of fish. All fly rods, with the notable exception of tenkara rods, have three types of guides. Each of these guides is designed for a specific purpose and the parameters of that design effect how the rod performs.

Three types of guides

edit-6542Stripping guides are the large guides found closest to the reel. They are usually constructed with a large ring, often having some type of insert, soldered into a sturdy base. These guides are designed to handle the energy of the stiff butt section of the fly rod. Saltwater rods usually have two stripping guides to match their powerful blanks and deliver maximum pressure during the fight. The inserts found in stripping guides are designed to reduce friction, as the line is often coming across these guides at an acute angle. They are most often a polished ceramic but materials vary, including agate and colored glass in some high end rods. It’s never a good idea to hook your fly in these inserts and it can cause them to crack, reducing their performance and damaging your fly line.

edit-3546Snake guides are, most often, the twisted wire guides that are most numerous on your fly rod. These simple but effective guides are designed to distribute force along the rod blank without adding a lot of weight or catching line. They are generally made of stainless steel or titanium. Some rods have single foot guides rather than traditional twisted guides. These guides are lighter weight and produce a faster action in an ultra-light carbon fiber rod. It’s not much weight, but with today’s carbon fiber, there is a difference. The down side to these guides is that they are not as sturdy and can catch loops of line. It’s unlikely that this will happen during casting but can happen in the excitement following a hook up. If you are producing loops inside your guides while casting, you have bigger problems. See a casting instructor.

Tip-tops are the guides fitted to the tip of the rod. It’s easy to take these little guides for granted but they are especially important. They add weight and transfer force at the most delicate part of the rod. This means that if there is a problem with the tip-top, it’s very unforgiving.

Guide size

The most influential aspect of guides, at least on casting performance, is their size. A larger guide will create less friction on the line as it transitions from its unorganized state into a controlled loop, allowing the rod to shoot line more freely. This does not mean that bigger is better and biggest is best. A rod designer must not only consider the weight of the guides but also the control they exert on the line. Think about it this way, if the guides transition the line from an unorganized state to a controlled state, they do so using the friction created as the line passes through a controlled space. The smaller the space, the higher the friction and the control. This means that smaller guides control the line more effectively, producing a cleaner loop and make the rod cast with greater accuracy. The rod designer must strike a balance to achieve the performance they are looking for.

Guide placement

edit-8711-2Where the guides are placed on the rod blank determines how force is translated from the rod to the line. Think about that for a minute. Is there anything more important than how energy is transferred to the line? Not to me. Rod designers spend hours casting prototype rods with guides taped in place, tuning the action of the rod. Some adhere to mathematical progressions while others go by feel. In principle you want as few guides as possible, to minimize weight on the blank, while offering a smooth casting action and even distribution of force while fighting fish. Poor guide placement results in sloppy action and broken rods.

Construction and care

One of the most obvious differences between a budget fly rod and a premium fly rod is the quality of the guides. Their quality and level of polish determine both longevity and performance. Guides take a lot of abuse and if you expect them to perform and last they must be well made from quality materials. They should be of corrosion-resistant materials and polished, especially on rods used in saltwater. Guides should always be cleaned after use in saltwater, but it’s a good idea to clean the guides on your freshwater rods as well. Dirt and chemical buildup on your guides reduces their performance and can damage your fly line. I have gone as far as to use a micro-crystal wax on my guides at times. It’s admittedly obsessive but I think it makes a difference.

I hope you find this information helpful. It will give you a few new things to think about when choosing a fly rod that will best serve your needs. Don’t take your guides for granted, take them fishing!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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7 thoughts on “A Guide To Fly Rod Guides

  1. cool article…One of the reasons i ended up buying an LLBean silver ghost…although this rod will never make it onto anyone’s “must have” or “cool” list, the guides used(REC recoil snake guides) impressed me and have likely saved me from a couple broken guides.

  2. Great and important piece of information, thanks a lot! I haven’t seen a summary on that topic as good as this one. Jusr yesterday I wrapped fourteen guides on my future doublehanded rod.

  3. I have built a few six and eight weight rods using single footed guides where the foot is glued directly onto the rod so no thread wraps. It is also a way to preserve nearly 100% of the blank’s advertised modulus of elasticity. Also have used larger than usual tip guides to combat ice clogging the running line. These are just a couple of benefits derived from building your own rod. No way Sage or Orvis will do it for you!

  4. Pingback: The Stickman P-5 Fly Rod Reviewed  | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

  5. I recently bought a St. Croix Avid 8’6″, 4 weight fly rod. I was wondering about the single foot guides they decided to put on it since reading your article. I know that some manufacturers put a lot of research into how hardware affects performance of rods and I would expect nothing less from St. Croix. But, I am not used to seeing those single foot guides on a fly rod, as this is my first with those. Do you have any opinion and should I be concerned about loop to loop connections or knots passing cleanly through those singly foots? Please email me with any information, thanks.

  6. I am of the Tom Kirkman philosophy of the smallest guides possible. I also really like the addition of a “taming” guide. For example, 2 double foot guides sizes 12 and 8 about 4 inches apart as the first two,, with single foot size 6s until the tip top. Ceramic guides. I also like 10 foot rods. Very little downside and that extra foot just enough to mend over that rock where you know that trout is hiding! I just finished a 4 weight 10 foot med/fast rod with the above guide sizes. I pooled about 30 feet of fly line at my feet and it cast all of it with one cast. It actually pulled on the reel for more. I built a 6 weight fast action 10 foot rod with size 5s on it, An absolute cannon! I Agree with above posts about recoil guides as well as a large tip top for preventing ice build up. I also minimize guide thread use to only enough to cover the feet of the guides, and try to keep my epoxy to a minimum to get as much of the natural action of the blanks and keeping the weight down.. Haven’t been courageous enough to use glue only…

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