This is the second post in our series on fly fishing gear, where we dissect all the gear you really need for a successful day on the water. To read all the posts in this series, click here.
By Spencer Durrant
I’ve spent the past decade reviewing fly fishing gear, and by my count, I’ve reviewed close to 100 different fly rods. I’ve also worked as a guide during that time. I’ve learned a few key lessons about fly rods that I think all anglers – especially beginners – need to understand.
- Fly rods are only as good as the angler. If your technique isn’t solid, no fly rod will make you a better angler.
- The “best” fly rod is the one you like the most.
- Cost has little to do with how well a fly rod fishes.
If you take nothing else from this post, I hope you keep those three lessons in mind. But, you’re probably here to learn more about fly rods, so I reckon you’ll keep on reading.
The goal with this post is to give you all the information you need to make an informed choice when buying a fly rod. And contrary to how it might appear, picking a great fly rod is pretty easy.
The Fly Rod
So, there are three terms you need to know before we dive into fly rods: action, weight, and length. We use these words to describe how a fly rod feels (action), what line it casts (weight) and how long the rod is (length). That’s a simplified explanation, of course, so I’ve included an in-depth look at those terms below.
Despite their high-dollar price tags – and matching aesthetics – fly rods are a simple piece of gear. They’re designed to cast a weight line (fly line). Conventional fishing gear is designed to cast a weighted lure, which is why spinning and baitcasting rods are so much stiffer than a fly rod.
A fly rod has to bend under the weight of a fly line. That bending action is called “loading,” and that refers to the transfer of energy between the fly line and the rod itself. How quickly a rod loads and unloads energy is what defines a fly rod’s action.
In simpler terms, think of it like this: a fast-action rod will load and unload quickly, which means your casting stroke takes less time than it would on a slow-action rod. So, if you’ve ever heard or seen fly rods classified by their actions – fast, slow, moderate, progressive, and a host of other adjectives – that’s what the action means.
Some anglers love slow-action rods, like fiberglass and bamboo. Most fly rods sold, however, are on the faster end of the spectrum. You’ll quickly learn what action you prefer after casting a few rods. The action doesn’t impact what flies you can fish, what fish you can chase, or what conditions you can fish in.
What’s more confusing than action, though, is the line weight and length rating system used for fly rods. Most of the rods sold these days are 9′ 5-weights. The rod is obviously nine feet long, but what is a 5-weight line?
I could really go into the weeds on this topic, but think of it like this: a fly rod is designed to cast a weighted fly line. So, fly lines come in a variety of weights to tackle different fishing situations. Just like you wouldn’t wear cowboy boots to a black-tie dinner, you wouldn’t take a 2-weight to Jurassic Lake (HUGE Rainbow Trout!).
The smaller the number, the lighter that line is. A 1-weight is exponentially lighter than a 10-weight. A 1-weight is great for small trout or panfish, while 10-weights are regularly used to catch tarpon.
So – lighter line weight directly impacts what size of flies you can effectively fish. 2 or 3-weight rods are designed to fish smaller flies, usually to smaller fish. Think of these rods as perfect for small, high-country trout fishing. As the line weight increases, the size of flies you can comfortably use increases, too. Bear in mind, though, that it’s not backwards-compatible. A 10-weight rod is great for tarpon, but it doesn’t have the delicacy you’d need to fish for trout on a Western tailwater.
It’s also worth remembering that, as line weight increases, so does the size and stiffness of the fly rod itself. A 10-weight fly rod is beefier and stronger than a 5-weight. The rods are built to handle not only the heavier line, but the much larger fish.
Rod length is a topic that’s worth an entire blog post by itself, so I’ll try to keep things simple here.
A 9-foot rod is almost always the perfect length for the majority of fly fishing situations. A 9-foot rod provides the best balance of reach and casting distance, while maintaining accuracy.
Now, there are some circumstances where you’ll want a rod that’s longer or shorter than 9 feet. Some of those include:
- Fishing very small water
- Fishing smaller dry flies
- Euro nymphing
- Spey casting
- Fishing stillwater
- Fishing saltwater
Different rod lengths work well in these situations for a variety of reasons, but usually, you’re picking the length of your rod based on the size of water you plan to fish. There’s no need for a 9-foot rod on a stream that’s 3 feet at its widest, for example. In this case, an 8-foot rod is plenty long enough to reach out and place your flies, while probably keeping you out of the trees and bushes better than a 9-foot rod would.
If you’re Euro nymphing, though, you need that longer rod – usually around 11 feet – to provide extra reach as you manage the drift of your nymphs. That longer rod enables you to reach more water from one position than a shorter rod does, and longer rods are usually better at managing fly line, too. The longer the rod is, the more leverage you have to pick up and mend fly line across various currents. On more technical water, that’s a great advantage to have.
Longer rods are also good on stillwater where accuracy isn’t a huge concern. Throwing streamers at ice-out with a 10-foot rod, for example, will be easier than doing that same task with a 9-footer. A 10-foot rod will cast just a bit farther – with less effort – than a 9-footer. The trade-off is that the 10-foot rod isn’t as accurate as the 9-foot rod, so it’s less ideal to use when fishing dry flies.
To avoid getting further into the weeds, we can probably stop here. Just remember that, with rod length, you really only need to go longer or shorter than 9 feet if you’re doing something outside the “normal” realm of trout fishing, which is loosely defined as casting up to 60 feet with dries, nymphs, or small streamers.
What Fly Rod Does a Beginner Need?
So, taking all that information into consideration, what fly rod should a beginner buy?
It depends on what fishing you’re doing. If you primarily chase trout, panfish and smaller bass, a 9′ 5-weight rod is the go-to for beginners. A 5-weight is middle-of-the-road line weight that’s capable of casting a wide range of flies. From large size 4 streamers to small size 22 dry flies, the 5-weight is a versatile line weight.
If you plan on chasing bigger bass or carp, you’ll probably want to bump up to a 9′ 6-weight rod.
While some folks might argue with me on this, I think it’s generally easier to learn fly casting on a medium-fast action rod. This action is forgiving of mistakes, but still sensitive enough that beginners can easily feel when to move between the forward and back casts.
The Fly Flinger rod here at VFC is a great medium-fast rod that’s excellent for beginners. It’s affordably priced, but what I enjoy the most about it is how well it fishes. It casts like a more expensive rod, and it does everything I need it to. What’s more is that this rod fits seamlessly into my casting stroke. As an example: on a recent trip with the VFC crew, we had a bunch of rods strung up in the drift boat. I switched from my 8’6″ 4-weight dry fly rig, over to a large hopper-dropper rig that was tied onto a Fly Flinger. I didn’t even realize I was casting a different rod because the Fly Flinger fits so well into my casting stroke. Chances are, you’ll have that same experience with this rod.
What About the Reel?
I promise I haven’t forgotten the fly reel. We’ll cover that in the next post in this series. In the meantime, use this guide to help you pick the best fly rod for you, then spend some time on the water.