Jun 12

Flyfishing 101: The Rod

So, back in my post on the differences between spin (i.e. bait) fishing and fly-fishing, one of the things I noted was that the for spin fishing, the mechanical wonder of the spin reel was important, while for fly-fishing the rod’s characteristics are more complex, and the reel is just there to store your line so you don’t trip over it.

As one of my instructors (Chuck Prather) once said “Call it a rod, call it a stick, just don’t call it a pole”.

In this post, we’ll talk about fly rods, and try to characterize them.

Basic Characteristics

Fresh/Salt Water:

Salt Water Fly rods (sometimes called ‘spey’ rods) are heavy duty, and often have two cork handles, so that you can easily hold on with two hands.  Obviously, if you are going after a Bonefish or a Tarpon, you will need a bigger rod than if you are going after Trout.  We’re assuming you don’t live near the ocean, so you are going for a Freshwater rod.

Fly Rod Materials:

There are two main materials used to construct fly rods these days.  Bamboo (the traditional, and expensive option), and Graphite.  At one time, there were fiberglass fly rods, although they are not terribly common any more.  Bamboo is really only an option if you are rich, and nostalgia is more important to you than price.  So we’ll assume you are going with a Graphite rod.

Fly Rod Pieces:

The next main categorization of fly rods is “how many sections”.  The more sections the rod breaks down into, the more portable it is.  However more sections means more possible points of failure longer set-up time, and some people believe, poorer performance.  The main types are 2-piece (‘basic’ rods), 4/5-piece (‘travel’ rods), and 7-piece (‘backpacker’ rods).  A 2-piece rod case is 4-5 feet long.  That will fit in the trunk of most cars, but barely.  And it’s really a pain in the butt on airplanes.  I have a 4-section Sage and a 7-piece Cabela’s rod.  I think 4/5 section is the way to go.  The case is 2.5-3 ft. long, which fits just about anywhere.  The 7-section just isn’t that much smaller, takes longer to set up and is typically more expensive.

Fly Rod Weight:

This is where you start getting down to the brass tacks of what you will be fishing for, and where.  If you are going to be on a tiny stream in the mountains, a huge deep river, or a lake.  Weight is a function of how heavy a fly line your rod can throw.  The higher the number, the heavier a fly line you can throw with the rod.  Heavier line = bigger fish.

I fondly recall fishing the tiny Onahu Creek in RMNP, for trout that were 6-8″ long, and maybe weighed 1-2 pounds.  The first time I set the hook on one of those little guys with my 5-weight rod, I jerked it right out of the water and smacked myself in the head with the fish.

You can fish for little fish with a medium rod (assuming you are willing to risk fish-to-the-head), but you can snap your rod and/or line fishing for big, or even medium fish with a little rod.  So, most people recommend a 5-weight (which is in the middle) rod for most freshwater fishing purposes (assuming you aren’t fishing for pike or something).  My Cabela’s rod is a 3-weight, and I just find it too light and hard to cast with.

Remember, if you have a 5-weight rod, you can run 3,4,5,6, or 7 weight line in it.  It will cast differently with different weight line in it, but depending on the conditions, it may be that you need the snap of a 5-weight rod to throw a 3-weight line a really long way to get little fish that are a long way from shore.

Given that, you’ll probably want to start with a fly line that matches your rod weight.  More on that in a later post.

Fly Rod Length:

The length of your rod is somewhat related to the weight, in that you aren’t going to find a 10′-long 3-weight rod.  However, the longer the rod, the farther it can theoretically throw the line, and the higher the trees have to be above you to avoid being snagged. 🙂  For your mid-sized 5-weight rod, they usually come in 8’6″, and 9′ lengths.  Since I mostly fish little spring creeks, I probably could have gone with the 8’6″ rod.  Maybe it’s the man in me, but I wanted the flexibility to fish a larger river (like the Colorado), so I went with the 9′.  To be honest, I’d pick what was on sale or available. 🙂


Those are the main considerations.  Now we’re onto the little features that various rodmakers use to lure you onto their brand, rather than some other brand.

Reel Seat: The Reel Seat is where your reel attaches to the rod.  A solid connection is important (so it doesn’t fall off when you drop your rod), and one that’s easy to take on and off.  Most fly rods these days have an uplocking reel seat.  Note that “uplocking” means Up-Locking, not “Uplock” “ing”.  I was confused by that for a while.  This isn’t Germany, we typically use hyphens for that sort of word-agglomeration in the U.S.  I digress.  Wooden reel seats are nice, because they look pretty, and they don’t tarnish.  I’m not convinced it really matters.

Easy Casting“:  A lot of rods these days are set up for new casters, and they are specially made to make it easier to learn to cast.  I like them.  They are indeed easier.  They adjust the way the graphite is distributed along the rod to give you a better “whip” for less effort.  Why start out on a “pro” rod that’s a pain in the butt to cast until you are an expert?

Case:  You need a hard case.  Buy a rod that comes with one.

Warranty:  So…here is where things get sticky.  My Sage rod comes with a lifetime warranty.  If I run it over with my car, I can sent it back to them and they will fix it and return it to me.  My rod cost $450.  My brother’s Elkhorn rod has no such warranty.  If his clumsy brother (me) steps on the tip of his rod and snaps it, he has to pay them $35 plus shipping to fix it.  His rod cost $140.   He’s broken his twice (one time was NOT my fault, he jammed it into a door frame).  I’ve never broken mine.  He STILL hasn’t spent as much on his as I spent on mine.  You do the math.  That said, I wouldn’t trade my rod for his…but for other reasons than the warranty.  I just love the way mine casts.


So, you do get what you pay for, but be careful.  I can’t recommend enough that you go to a fly shop or show and try out different rods.  However, if you haven’t fished too much, it will be hard to know what to get.  As a result, I recommend not spending more than $200 on your first rod.

As to what to buy, I recommend a Graphite 5-weight, 9′ rod that breaks down into 4-5 pieces, has an uplocking reel seat, a hard case, and is recommended for beginning casters.

I’ll try and post some links to rods I like later on.



May 18

Flyfishing 101: The Differences

In this installment of FlyFishing 101, we discuss what’s different about Fly-Fishing compared to other forms of angling.

Fly-Fishing is different in 2 major ways:

1) The lure is not actually fish food  (as opposed to ‘bait’ fishing like with worms or powerbait or salmon eggs).  It just *looks* like fish food.  If you see a sign saying “Artificial flies and lures only”, they are talking about fly-fishing as opposed to bait fishing.

2) The lure is delivered using a heavy weighted fly line that is pulled and pushed through the air, and then ‘floated’ down onto the target.  This allows for very precise ‘dry fly’ fishing.  You can drop a fly on *top* of the water, and precisely guide it down a moving stream.  You can also ‘nymph’, which is guiding a fly *under* water with the rod.

Other than any sort of snobbishness around fly-fishing being more challenging, more of a ‘sport’, the main advantage of  fly-fishing comes when fishing fast-moving, small water.  You can fly-fish in any water, but it excels where precise guiding of a visible, or semi-visible lure is required.

A big lazy river or a lake or bog can be fished with a spinning rig, because you are just trying to get the bait out to where the fish are cruising around, and hope that they swim past it.  If you are using bait, the smell of it might draw the fish in.

On fast water however, the fish hide behind rocks, and wait for the flow of the river to bring food to them.  They rarely go cruising around.  So, unless you can place your lure to go past them in the same way that the river would bring it to them, they won’t ever see it.

Enter the fly rig.  It can very precisely drop a lure in a pinpoint spot on the water, and then guide that lure along the water to mimic an insect being carried along with the current.  The bulk of the line is heavy, and brightly colored so as to be easy for you to see.  The end of the line is tapered monofilament, which is hard for the fish to see.  The reel is simply there as storage for the line…unlike a spinning rig, the reel has little to do with delivering the lure to the fish, and often little to do with reeling it in (though it keeps you from getting tangled in the line).

A fly rig is much more like a coach whip than anything else…a stick with a whip on the end.  Learning to control the whip portion with precision, as opposed to snapping your fly off and sending it sailing into the trees is what fly-fishing is all about.

Needless to say, this is all a lot more challenging than trolling along dragging something that stinks of food.  It’s even more challenging than dropping a bass popper on top of a lake and twitching it around.  So why do it?  Well, see last weeks post for that…. 😛



May 07

Fly Fishing 101: The Whys

So, you are interesting in fly-fishing.  As well you should be.  But why?  What is the lure (heh) of this ancient form of catching fish?  Why not buy a bass boat and go out on the lake?  Why not go to Larry’s $9.99 Trout Pond, put a piece of corn on a hook, and yank a fish into your basket in 2 minutes flat?  Why not go to the grocery store and buy a trout, all cleaned and ready to eat?

Why?  Because, fly fishing is an excuse to wander around in a beautiful setting with purpose.

An excuse?  Who needs an excuse to wander about in the wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park or the canyons of Salida?  Or the banks of the Firehole?  And a purpose?  How about relaxation, isn’t that purpose enough?

Well, for those of us who lead busy, brain-intensive lives, the glancing beauty of these places is not enough to roll back the defenses of the mind; to push thoughts trained to constantly run the the foreground and background of our cortices away for a time, and let us really relax from our usual tensions.

When hiking or driving through such places, one can appreciate their wonder, but until you have some activity that really narrows your focus, that challenges your brain to really understand what’s going on in the terrain in a way wholly different from your usual kind of concentration, you really won’t come to know nature much more than you would from postcards.

Sometimes camping can get you close, but I think camping is more about getting to know the people you are with, rather than the place you are in. I think that bass fishing in a boat is very similar to camping. It’s about the cozy, secluded boat or campsite being a retreat from some people, and a way to be closer to others.  It’s a nice thing, but it’s not the same frame of mind as fly fishing.

So when people say that fly fishing is a ‘zen-like’ activity, I agree –
although you typically go with someone else, the majority of your time
is solitary.  They rhythm of casting does become hypnotic over time,
assuming your fly doesn’t get caught in a tree, or under a rock, or in
your waders.  It’s easy to lose track of time when fly fishing, even if you aren’t catching anything.

To be successful at fly fishing, you have to train your mind to understand the way that water interacts with the terrain around it.  You have to understand what fish eat, why, where and when.  You have to understand how water currents carry that food, and how they might carry you away if you aren’t careful.  It’s one of the few activities I’ve ever found that is a fair balance of mental calculation and physical activity.  It’s like martial arts, without all the ego play.

Some people would say that martial arts is more humane, as at least there you are hurting other people and not innocent fish.  I’ve wrestled with this some.  Since fly fishing is primarily catch-and-release, as opposed to catch-and-eat, you are deriving no nutritional benefit from hurting the fish, it’s only for your own pleasure that you catch them.  So, is it wrong?  Should we not do so?  In our modern world, is it appropriate to treat a natural creature in that way?

Yes.  Because bottom line, we only have the luxury to think such thoughts because of the massive infrastructure that pumps food into our stores from around the world.  It would be much harder to be a vegetarian (especially in Colorado) if the only vegetables you could eat were ones that could be grown locally.  And I think that the visceral process of catching fish reminds you of how the food gets to your table on a daily basis – it’s not painless, it’s not spotless, and it’s not clean.

That said, fly fishers tend to have a great reverence for fish.  Most treat the fish very carefully when reeling it in and releasing it.  Many at least silently thank the fish for taking their lure.  And those that practice catch-and-release understand that the fish is a part of nature that needs to be nurtured, and not taken.  It is a reminder of our unique place in the food chain as both predator and caretaker.  This reverence is the reason that going to Larry’s Trout Pond isn’t appropriate.

There is something decidedly spiritual about standing in a stream in the dim light of early morning, mist rising off the mountains all around you, your eyes laser-focused on a bit of fluff floating down the water, and then suddenly hearing the adrenaline-inducing cry of wolves somewhere in the distance.  Rather than standing in the woods, letting your mind wander through well-worn canyons of thought, your mind is focused on nature, running over the bumps and valleys of a stream, a bank and the world around you, bringing nature into yourself, not just yourself into nature.

We fly fish because it is an excuse to wander around in nature with a purpose – the purpose of bringing some of that nature into ourselves, and forcibly pushing our regular lives out of the way while we do so.