The Evolution of the Ideal Fly Rod

When I was a youngster getting started in fly fishing (early 1970s) “graphite” fly rods were still nascent technology. The bulk of the fly fishing community was still using either fiberglass or bamboo. And, while the ongoing advances in materials were significant in their own right, they drove other changes that had greater far-reaching consequences.

The most basic advantage of fiberglass, and then graphite (graphite is used here as a generic reference to carbon fiber) was that designers could make rods longer and lighter than ever before. The advantages in casting distance and line-handling characteristics were immediately recognized. Whereas cane rods of nine feet were usually cumbersome critters relegated to reservoir or lake fishing, the new graphite rods could be built to this length and remain light in the hand and crisp in action. In the graphite era, anglers began wielding nine-foot rods on larger trout streams and enjoyed the benefits of improved mending. The changeover to graphite was more dramatic than when fiberglass began to supersede cane, as the recovery (stopping of the tip bounce, or damping) of glass was closer to cane than to graphite, and the fiberglass rods were very similar to their bamboo kin in feel. In truth, the great fiberglass rods were almost always of eight feet or less. But, with the new graphite materials driving things, sales of rods – and the perception of what the ideal rod was – began to change.

In the cane era, most anglers would advise a new-comer to select a rod of 7 ½’ in a five-weight. This was the standard for American trout fishing from the 1930s until at least the mid-1960s. Serious anglers would also likely have a seven-foot four weight in their arsenal, too. After fiberglass took hold in the early 1960s, that ideal held to a degree, as Fenwick turned out amazing rods in the 7 ½’ lengths and were copied by many others. But, they also began to dabble in heavier, longer rods that greatly expanded the sport of fly fishing – opening up bass fishing in a way heretofore unseen, and also allowing longer rods to become a practical tool on larger trout streams. The FF80 is still regarded as one of the finest all-around rods ever made. Its eight-foot length made it a powerful casting and line-handling tool, and its action was impeccable – medium to medium-fast in its flex, with a smooth delivery of power with almost any passable casting stroke. It could handle a six or a seven line, making it ideal for heavier trout fishing and smallmouth bass.

Once the HMG rods (the first mass-produced, mass-marketed graphite rods) came online, the game would never be the same. The original 33-million-modulus carbon fiber cloth used to construct the blanks of this era made rods of over eight feet the norm and sticks of nine feet quickly overtook all others. From the 1980s onward, the “standard” fly rod became the 9’ x 5 that has dominated sales for over three decades. It is still the flagship of most manufacturers’ lines and the rod most often tested in “shootouts.”

The march of materials also affected the other rods in the lineup, too. The iconic four-weight of small streams everywhere went from seven or 7 ½ feet in the cane era to eight and 8 ½ feet in the modern era, with most considering the Winston Tom Morgan Favorite at eight feet as close to ideal. Sage also crowded this territory with Jim Green’s Light Line series; their 389 (eight-foot, nine-inch three-weight) is still the apex of light-line rods in many anglers’ minds. And, the only reason nine-foot rods haven’t overtaken shorter sticks in the tiny weights (0 – 4) is that the venues themselves dictate a shorter rod. The creeks and small streams that call for such light fare tend to be tight-canopied and the advantage of a longer rod for line handling and casting efficiency is negated by its impractical stance when working through the brush and dealing with a low ceiling. In these settings, cane, glass and low-modulus graphite still have a huge following – the weight advantage of modern materials is almost nil at these rod lengths, and the superior line-feel and tip-loading capabilities of the more-limber materials is a plus.

So, what does the future hold? With ever-lighter materials on the horizon, will rod length again move upward? We are seeing more and more 10-foot rods for the specialty nymphing game, and of course switch and spey, which have always demanded longer tools. However, I think for the average fisherman, the standard will remain at nine feet. While longer rods will allow longer casts and even better line-mending, the problem of leverage will kick in. When the angler fights a fish, the fish is using the same lever the angler is – depending on where the fulcrum is located, the advantage can quickly change to favor the fish. We put up with this in switch and spey, because the casting simply demands a longer rod (and these rods tend to have heavier line weights and thus are more robust in general), but in the single-hand world, the balance of essential ingredients – casting, line-handling and fish-fighting – tend to get out of whack after nine feet. So, for the foreseeable future, it is likely that the 9 x 5 will remain the most dominant tool in the quiver of most anglers. It has survived the onslaught of ultra-light fishing that filled the popular media pages in the 90s and the advent of huge articulated flies that favored much-heavier rods, and, it will likely survive the temptation to go with longer and longer rods, too.

Let me know what you think!

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