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Fly Rods -- Educational Portal Series

Fly-fishing is fun.

Fly Rods

If you ask a fly fisherman why they love the sport, their replies will vary. Some love the challenge -- a craft that is carefully nurtured through hours of practice, frustration, more patience, more practice, then maybe a bit of luck -- and more practice. Some love the commune with nature, as fly-fishing requires an intimate investment of learning about the full scope of the environment that the angler becomes part of.

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Some are tackle junkies and this sort of angling can feed an avid collector for a lifetime. Others like to tie flies and come up with new patterns to (maybe) fool the fish. And then others, many more, find their church in the art of the fly cast. There is a musical, mesmerizing sonnet created in the mechanics of the cast: The sound of the line traveling through the guides; the fly line harmoniously cutting past your ear in rhythm; the click of the reel; the fly landing softly upon the water for its careful presentation.

It All Begins With the Rod

Fly-fishing rods are designed for control and leverage. Each rod is rated according to the AFTMA system (American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association), and is a numeric scale ranging from 1 - 16. These values are referred to as "weights." For example, a "1-weight rod" is the smallest and most lightweight, and would be used for small fish, in small streams, with very small flies. On the other hand, a 16-weight rod would be used to pursue large species such as dolphin or even sharks. The rods also come in varying lengths, again according to what they were designed for.

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Fly-Rod Terminology:

  • Blank -- The basic structure of the rod; its core composition.
  • Fly Reel -- A specific type of reel used in conjunction with a fly-rod. It is key that you match your reel to the rod it is suited for and vice-versa!
  • Reel Seat – A plastic, wood or aluminum fitting placed on the blank within the last 1/4 section of the rod, which secures the reel to the blank.
  • Taper -- The diameter of the base of the rod relative to the tip. Often described as "Action"
  • Rod Butt -- Also known as "butt section," this refers to the part of the rod held closest to the body when fishing. This is the thickest and heaviest part of a fly rod.
  • Rod Tip -- The end of the rod blank that is opposite from the butt section. This is where the tapered length of the fly-rod ends and the line exits.
  • Guide -- Also known as "eyes," these ring-shaped implements run lengthwise up the blank to control the line coming off the reel up to the rod tip. Guides are made of metal, although higher-end rods use titanium. The interior portion of the first two guides on a fly-rod have inserts made from a variety of high-tech materials to ensure that the fly line runs smoothly through the guide. The guide may also be coated to create a smooth surface. These first two guides are called "stripping guides." Most of the rest of the fly-rod guides are chromed stainless-steel snake guides. More guides enable better casts by utilizing all of the rod's available power to get the line out easily, and are one of the trademarks of better craftsmanship.
  • Grip -- Often made of cork or EVA foam, the grip protects the angler's hands, prevents the rod from slipping, and transmits sensation.
  • Pieces – Fly-rods are made up of multiple pieces. Multi-piece rods break down into several sections and are better suited for travel or storage. Rods are assembled section-by-section, in order of their taper, and secured by ferrules.

How Power, Action and Line Weight Are Used

Power -- The "power" of a rod refers to how much pressure it takes to flex the rod and is defined by a descriptive scale from ultra light to ultra heavy.

Action -- The "action" of a rod is determined by where a rod bends (and/or flexes). Fast-action rods flex mostly near the tip, moderate-action rods flex near the mid-section, and slow-action rods flex down into the butt section.
Line Weight -- Describes the tensile strength of the fly-line best suited to the flexibility and strength characteristics of the rod.

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Casting Distance -- One of the important considerations of rod action. This describes how fast it takes for the blank to return to the straightened, neutral position after being put under load. A 'slow' blank is going to flex in three-fourths of the total length and is a reference to its range of motion. In describing casting ability, the action of a rod pertains to its available energy; this quality is described as "rod loading." The more the rod loads, the greater casting ability it will offer. This is one of the most crucial factors in buying a fly-rod – which is its ability to get the flies and line out to the fish.

The process begins with the technical series of movements that make up the fly cast. Various types of rods are available depending on the kind of fishing or nature of casting proper to its use. The fly-rod loads and carries the line in the trajectory of the intended cast. Once the fly is presented in the water, the rod is used to control the fly (in a manner similar to using a lure with a spinning rod). In the event a fish becomes hooked, the fly rod may be used for the fight. For large, hard-fighting fish, the fly rod is an essential piece of the duel. Since the artificial flies are weightless, the fly-line must have weight so the flexing power of the fly rod can cast the line and thus carry the fly to its target.

Why Use This Tackle?

With the right combination of skill and equipment, one can develop creative strategies for luring particular types of fish in certain environments. Strategy is an integral component in the sport of fly-fishing. One of the most important reasons anglers prefer to use fly tackle is for the sheer quietness of the presentation of the fly. It rarely spooks a fish when landing in the fishes lair.

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Most Popular Types

Fly-rods were originally made out of bamboo. The advent of fiberglass brought affordability and durability but as with bamboo, weight was a concern. However, for someone new to the sport, the slower action of a fiberglass rod can be a good choice as it helps the angler get a feel for their casting action.

Modern fly-rods are made of graphite. A graphite fly-rod is significantly lighter with a high strength-to-weight ratio. In addition, it's thinner and therefore more aerodynamic and extremely sensitive. Often when speaking of modern fly-rods, the term "modulus" is used; this refers to the relationship between stress and strain. It usually defines the stiffness-to-weight ratio of the fibers used to construct the rod blank. Generally, a higher modulus is indicative of a lighter blank, for any given stiffness.

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Technological advancements enable the modulus of graphite to become higher, making for more sensitive, lighter and more efficient rods. However, a higher modulus rod is more susceptible to breaking. Graphite as a singular component is very strong and the high modulus of top-end graphite enables blanks to be lighter and more sensitive.

How to Rig This Tackle

Multi-piece rods are assembled from the bottom to the top in sequence to their taper. Slide the corresponding piece into the ferrule; often times there is a marker on each piece that will line up to one another, ensuring the rod is straight and therefore the fly line will slide through the guides properly. Most fly rods come with a small container of ferrule wax; this eliminates friction and wear when putting fly-rods together and taking them apart. Additionally, it lubricates the ferrule as it flexes during use and prevents undue wear-and-tear. An angler should use the wax a few times a year to protect their investment.

Once all of the pieces are assembled, hold the rod horizontally so that you are "looking through" the guides, as this will ensure everything is straight and ready for the next step.

Pick up the fly reel and strip off approximately two times the length of the fly rod. Secure the fly reel to the fly rod at the reel seat. Pick up the fly line and feed it through the guides, starting at the butt end and working towards the top. Pull it through the guides and tie on the leader, tippet and desired fly.

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The length of the rod also factors into fly-fishing action. Shorter rods generally have less action because they generate less torque when casting and reeling. Beginners will most likely want a rod long enough to provide a good casting distance, but short enough to be easily maneuvered in the water. Medium-sized fly fishing rods between 8 and 9 feet in length provide the action, casting control, and strength to match most situations. Advanced users and those with specialized goals, however, often prefer the shorter or longer models, depending on their goals.

Short Fly Fishing Rods -- Short fly fishing rods measure less than 8 feet in length and are ideal for fishing where trees, bushes, stream size, or other objects would restrict the movement of larger rods.

Medium Fly Fishing Rods -- Medium-sized fly fishing rods measure 8-to-9 feet in length and are appropriate for most terrains and conditions. They allow for longer casting and can handle more line weight than shorter rods.

Large Fly Fishing Rods -- More than 9 feet long, large fly rods are the ideal choice for their casting ability and used for the pursuit of big-game fish.

Fly-fishing relies on specialized fly lines as an integral part of the process. Various fly lines distribute their weighted portions differently, giving a desired degree of control. Fly lines also come in many colors to most appropriately match the body of water they are being used in. Line weight is measured on a scale that ranges from 1 to 15. Some rods can accept more than one line weight, especially those designed for medium weights. A rod's line weight rating is usually listed near the grip. The rod's length will be listed first, with the line weight printed second.

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When learning to cast, it is often beneficial to practice and perfect the proper casting arc using only the butt end of the fly rod. Once comfortable with the small arc and ensuring a straightened wrist, transition to using the complete fly-rod, and then the reel and line. Gradually work up to making longer and more accurate casts. Breaking the steps down into smaller portions is often the key to perfecting the fly cast, especially for those accustomed to fishing with a spinning or bait-casting combo.

Specific Types of Fly-Rod Casting Techniques

All fly casting revolves around the backward and forward casting strokes and the control of loop size, direction and speed. Your eyes, legs, shoulders, arms, wrists and hands should all combine to energize and control the rod to cast the fly line, its leader and the fly to the target area.

Standard Casting -- In a standard cast the fly line and rod are lifted with a smooth motion in an up-and-back direction. This backcast motion is stopped when the rod reaches slightly past vertical. As the fly line begins to fall or straighten out, the forward cast begins with increasing acceleration as the wrist snaps the rod from the 11 to the 1 o'clock positions, shooting the line and fly forward toward the presentation area.

False Casting -- False casting means fly casting backward and forward without actually presenting the fly to the target area. It is useful when you wish to gain distance by working out more line, when you aim the fly over a certain target or when you want to remove water from a dry fly or a hair bug.

Roll Casting -- In a roll cast, the fly line is not lifted from the water for the backcast but is simply pulled back along the water and then cast forward. Roll casting is used to best advantage when backcasting room is unavailable or when strong winds make backcasting impractical.

Curve Casting -- A curve cast bends to the right or left of you and is a variation of the standard forward-casting stroke. Curve casts are useful when presenting the fly around surface objects or when preventing the leader and fly line from being seen by a fish as the fly passes over it.

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Slack-Line or Serpent Casting -- A slack-line cast causes the fly line to fall on the water in a series of "S" curves. Such a cast allows the fly to float without dragging and is especially useful when casting across current or directly downstream.

Reach Casting -- Reach casting allows the fly, leader and line to be presented to a target area at an extreme right-hand or left-hand angle from the caster. It is especially useful when presenting a fly across a stream that has several current speeds. This prevents the fly from dragging downstream faster than the water on which it lands.

Shooting-Line Casting -- A shooting-line cast is accomplished in either the backward or forward cast by using considerably more power than is needed to cast the line already extended. This cast is similar in purpose to the false cast when it is used to extend out more line.

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Hauling  -- Hauling is a technique of increasing line speed or overall fly-casting efficiency by using the power of both the rod arm and the free-hand arm. To accomplish a haul, the caster, just as the power stroke is applied with the fly rod, simultaneously pulls down on the taut fly line below the first stripper guide. This pull – or haul – increases the line's outward speed. Double hauling involves hauling on both the forward and backward strokes.

Mending Line -- Mending line is a technique of repositioning the fly line and leader on moving water. It is accomplished by using various rod-lifting and roll-casting movements. When you are fishing streams, mending line is about as important as casting.

Julie DeStefano



The Online Fisherman

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