Choosing  A Premium Fly Rod

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By James Buice

The waggle. We all do it.

When you walk into a fly shop looking for that new rod (and yes folks, don’t even think about buying a rod before you cast it), the first thing you do after picking a prospective candidate from the rack is the waggle. Shaking the rod to check the flex, or stiffness, or…whatever. Some check the rod by placing the tip on the floor and observing the deflection. Some even hold the rod tip about a foot off the floor and raise the rod upward quickly to see if the tip touches the ground to see if the wand in question is “a fast or slow action.” Really!?!

Bottom line is no matter what you do in the confines of your favorite fly shop, you’re not going to be capable of making an educated rod buying decision until you line it up and “sling some string” as the kids say. But, there is a lot more to it than just casting blindly in a parking lot or casting pond. Have a game plan; a succinct list of criteria you deem necessary based on the rod’s purpose, your casting style, the type of gamefish you’ll be pursuing, and a realistic scenario in which the rod will be put to use.

The Long Ball Does Not Always Win the Game

Having worked in a fly shop for years, I saw the same thing pretty much every time someone took a rod outside to cast. They would strip off all of the flyline at their feet and proceed to cast as much of it as possible. This would inevitably turn into the customer typically throwing tailing loops, snapping back casts, and throwing their arm out in an attempt to get the greatest distance they could muster. More accomplished casters would land the entire line straight, with graceful loops. This would be the extent of the test casting session.

“It threw the whole line.” “Wow, that rod has some power!” or “Feels like it doesn’t want to cast much past eighty feet.” 

Great. These customers, no matter what their casting prowess, just showed their ability in casting a rod in parking lot for distance. Know what this told them about how the rod would fish in an actual, real life scenario? Zero. Zip. Nada. Sure it’s cool to bomb a long 100 footer, but aside from some very limited angling scenarios, simply throwing the entire fly line is about as useful as only practicing basketball shots from center court.

When you’re out shopping around, get the long cast out of your system and then focus on what really matters. Pick out a few spots on the ground at varying distances. If the shop has hula-hoops or something to use as a target, all the better. Place these at various distances ranging from 80’ to 10’. If it’s a trout pole you’re after, back it off to around 50 or 60 feet since you typically cannot control drag and fly line drift much past that in a river due to current breaks and such. This will put you in the ‘realistic’ casting ranges you’re going to encounter 99.9% of the time.

Now, don’t start out false casting and try to hit your targets. Begin each cast the way you would in the fishing scenario you’re buying the rod for. If you’re getting a tarpon rod for instance, start out with the line stripped out at your feet like it would be on the deck of a boat and the leader in your hand with a few feet of line out of the rod tip. Now pick a target and place the fly there as quickly and with as few false casts as possible. If you false cast more than three times, you lose. In a real world scenario the fish has already swum past your window of opportunity or you’ve spooked it flinging line all over the place.

Close shots, under 30 feet, should be one false cast to get the line moving and the second move should be your presentation cast. For those super close, “crap, he’s right here” casts, see how long it takes you to hit the target and how the rod handles a minimal amount of load to deliver the payload. Now, same start position, try for that long target. How did the rod handle that? Did it zip the fly there in three false casts or less or were you laboring trying to get the line moving out of the gate to gain distance? Was it accurate? Repeat this several times with several different rods.

For trout sticks, pretty much do the same test as above, but take into account when trout fishing, big water especially– with the exception of streamer fishing– you’re going to be mending…a lot. A rod that controls line on the water might not be the rod that throws laser beam loops at 100 feet. Consider reach, mending, and fly line control when you’re out there. While this is hard on dry ground, if your shop has a demo rod, get it. Fish it. It’s the only way to really know.

Personally, I like a longer rod for big water. 9 ½’ to 10’ rods in 4-5 weights do about all I need them to do in terms of accuracy, distance, and  more importantly, line control. While these rods do not feel as peppy as the sexy little ‘Aston Martin’ 8 ½’ or 9’ graphite wands, they more than make up for it when it comes time to throw a stack mend across two current seams to that big fish that is rising just far enough away so that you can’t get the perfect angle without filling your waders. Longer rods out of a boat are just a joy to fish as well, mending line becomes a simple flick of the wrist and controlling the drift slips into second nature.

Pretty vs Prettier

If you buy a rod simply because you think the reel seat is pretty or the color of the rod blank matches the color of your favorite sports team…you’re an idiot. Just go play golf or something. Sure, fly rods can be true works of art. Bamboo rods hold a special magic of their own and modern graphite rods have a certain sleek, amatory ambiance with their burl wood reel seats and glossy finishes. Does the paint job or highly figured burl wood insert affect a rod’s performance when casting? No. That said, I would never buy a premium rod with sloppy wraps or epoxy work, cheap components, or a non-corrosive resistant reel seat in saltwater models. Poor workmanship and cheap components on a premium rod ($600+) means the manufacturer is cutting corners and if they are cutting corners on the surface, what lies beneath in the blank that you cannot see?


When you’re trying out a rod, if at all possible, switch out different types of lines during the test casting process. While this is not always possible, it will allow you to see the true performance of the rod. Most shops, unfortunately, have ‘parking lot lines’. It’s just a necessary evil since they cannot feasibly swap lines out to keep ‘fresh’ coatings on every line weight. These lines are usually pretty beat up; scarred from repeatedly being dragged across asphalt, grass, dirt, or whatever. While they will work just fine, they are no match for a new or newish line of your choosing and a line that is applicable to the type of fishing you do.

If you can, find out if the line the shop has you casting is a heavy weight forward, true line weight, or shooting style head. If, for instance, their test 8-weight fly line is a mega heavy weight forward with an aggressive head design and you’re buying a rod for ultra-spooky tailing redfish in the grass, you might want to bring your own line or ask if they have anything in a lighter taper since that is more than likely the type of line you will be fishing in that situation.

Not all lines or tapers are created equal. Numerous times, I’ve had rods that might feel sluggish with a particular line taper/design/manufacturer only to come alive with another line with a different taper. Just because four boxes of flyline are marked floating, weight forward 5, it doesn’t mean all four will cast alike on the same rod. Educating yourself on how various fly line tapers/models correspond with a rod’s action will make you an informed consumer and allow you to better choose a fly rod you will be happy with for years to come.


Dropping serious coin on a premium fly rod should not be a fly by night, passing decision. It should be thought out, planned, researched, and executed in a manner that allows you to get the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t buy a tack hammer to drive a rail road spike and you wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive and a little bit of research. When you’re on the water, you want to know the rod you have chosen is the best tool FOR YOU to do the job with. Happy Hunting.


James Buice
Gink & Gasoline
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11 thoughts on “Choosing  A Premium Fly Rod

  1. Great advice. I have made a couple of very expensive mistakes, which could have been avoided if more shops would offer rentals of their higher end models. It is almost impossible for all but the really experienced casters to get a true feel for a rod and line until they actually fish it.

  2. True. True. True. And do I Need to spend over $1000 for that new rod that I think I Want?

    Will it cast just the leader and tippet? Will it throw my favorite line to the distances that I really fish? Does it feel good when I’m casting in a real situation? Can I cast it comfortably all day?

    This Gods of Marketing play us and our pocketbooks like Pinochio.

    The only real revelation that I have had is that except for very small streams and ponds; a switch or Spey rod suits the demands of my aging body better than my one handed rods, when suitably reeled and lined.

    James has “hit the B square” and made my Monday!

  3. Exactly the information ALL fly fishermen need, but 99,9987% will NOT consider this when they grab a fly rod in the fly shop. In fact most of them can’t cast a nice tight loop to save their wives. How on earth will they be able to judge a fly rod units merits at all?…

    Well, lets forget that most shop owners are just the same.

  4. I like fishing with a good guide who has several different types of rods. I’ve been fortunate that, in this past year I have been able to fish with two separate guides in two different areas of the country.

    Fishing with these guys have helped me narrow my search for the next rod purchase.

  5. Another thing I do James is to take my own reel with my own fly line already on it if I am looking to replace a rod. I will also try casting under and/or through the slats of a nearby bench or chair so I can see if it will give me the desired cast I may need for under bushes, bridges or mangroves. Great article and I especially like the “Pretty vs Prettier” paragraph, oh how true it is!

  6. The best advice I can offer is to pick a rod that fits the geography that you intend to use it on most often.Are there 2,3,4 rivers that you wish this rod to be your “go to” rod?Pick the length,taper and manufacturer that has what you want and remember that spending $700-1000.00 is not going to make you a better caster.If your casting needs help purchase a casting lesson at the same time from the FLY SHOP OWNER if he/she is a certified caster.Only then will you be prepared to make a more knowledgeable decision on spending your hard earned $.Remember that it is “not the arrow but the Indian that matters” Spending huge amts. of money ‘aint making you a better caster.You can get the most out of your purchase if you are ready with your skills!!!!!!!

  7. Great advice. A few years ago, I tested a shop rod (company rod S) and loved it. Shop owner was on vacation at the time. When he returned, he convinced me to “upgrade” to the fancy rod (company rod W) that I did not cast due to special order status. Bought his pitch, hook-line-and-sinker, Big mistake. Twice the cost, less then half the love. That green 5wt. has sat in the safe ever since.

  8. I got a chance to try rods from a bunch of different manufacturers last year on our local casting pond. I tried brand “L” because it scored highest in a famous “shootout”. Surprisingly, brand “W” felt much more comfortable to me, even though it scored fairly low in the famous shootout. It just goes to show how subjective these things can be.

  9. Pingback: Tippets: On the Caddisfly, Choosing a Fly Rod | MidCurrent

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