For fly fishers, the purchase of a new fly rod will be the single most expensive acquisition in their fishing arsenal. The perfect fly rod is a complicated question and seldom produces a definitive answer, even when the query is pitched to an expert.
Many find the hardest part of the decision process is tied to the brand, especially if discussing it with their mates. Differing views come thick and fast and can be just as opinionated as the good old Ford/Holden debate during Bathurst.
Off the top of my head in New Zealand fishing stores stock Scott, Sage, G-Loomis, Loop, Airflo, CD, Kilwell, Temple Fork, Hardy and Grey’s flyrods. Multiply this number by five or six and you will get closer to the number of fly rod brands in the world. For each of these brands, stores will carry up to six or seven different ranges, with different rod lengths and weights as well.
With so much variety in the market, it is easy to see how difficult it can be for the retailers, let alone the end consumer.
Obviously there is only so much stock an outlet can carry; indeed, carrying too much stock can be overwhelming for the poor old customer, especially if they are a relative new comer to the sport.
Quality rods are a joy to play fish with and have power when needed in heavy currents.
Evolution and build
Over the last hundred years or so fly rods have benefited from massive changes in technology. Early rod makers used materials like bamboo, split cane, green heart, then later fibre glass and nowadays graphite, to construct the perfect fly rod.
Even over the last twenty years the advancements in technology in modern day graphite rods has been staggering. The construction materials are much lighter and the recovery rate of the rods once flexed is very different to the original graphite rods.
Today's graphite fly rod is primarily comprised of a piece of cloth, which is made up of tiny graphite fibres, mixed with epoxy resign.
When it all comes together in the backcountry.
The flat cloth is cut to a taper and rolled around a mandrel, or tapered rod. The rod and mandrel are then put into an oven and baked for a period under heat and intense pressure.
Once the rod is removed from the oven, the rod blank is separated from the mandrel and then the rod sections are cut. The rod blanks are then painted, the guides are bound onto the blank and fine layers of epoxy are applied to the feet of the guides.
From there the finished rod spends a further couple of days in the drying room until the process is complete.
The world leaders in fly rod manufacturing are from the United States of America, where companies like Scott and Sage use multi-layered materials in the butt sections of the blank.
Multi-layering creates lighter, stiffer bottom sections and delivers higher performance. This is most apparent when casting long distances.
The skill of these rod makers is to know where to put the material for the best possible performance. Essentially, the lighter and stiffer the butt section of the rod (known as higher modulus) the more the manufacturer can do with the tip sections to manipulate and create the desired rod action.
The better rod makers also have the best or fastest recovery rates once the rod tip is under load. This process allows the production of a rod that folds away in the tip like a traditional medium action rod, while recovering very fast with the ability to cast further distances when needed.
Further advancements in graphite technology have produced lighter materials without any loss of performance. With such material woven into a rod build an angler can fish for longer periods without getting tired and enjoy a more complete fishing experience.
The downside of using more advanced materials is that there is an increased final cost price. As a general rule, the lighter and faster the rod blank, the more expensive the retail price.
To counter the high initial investment rod makers like Sage and Scott offer very comprehensive unconditional warranties and only charge a minimal freight fee if the rod is damaged.
Because these American brands don't mass-produce rods, preferring to hand make their products, when a section breaks a new piece can be crafted to precisely replace the damaged portion.
In New Zealand, Kilwell is the last large rod manufacturing company able to offer this service on repairs.
In practice there is no right or wrong answer to selecting the best fly rod. Some anglers prefer a faster action rod while others will like a more traditional slower action.
However, you can buy the wrong type rod for the water you’re trying to fish. There are rods designed for particular types of fly-fishing.
Tools for the job
Selecting the correct rod for the task at hand will increase your efficiency on any given type of water.
For example, if you are fishing a small and intimate stream, don’t attack it with an 8-weight outfit. You won’t be able to load it up when casting in tight pockets. Such waters should be fished with a small 5 or 6-weight rod. This single alteration will change your day from frustrating to delightful.
A stream rod needs to load quickly so the angler can feel the rod flex while casting. This will help when delivering the fly line correctly and will improve casting accuracy, especially under trees.
While nymph fishing small streams you won’t normally need to use much weight to get your flies down to the bottom and if you are dry fly fishing , presentation becomes paramount; another good reason to fish small when possible.
A modern day small stream rod is a very versatile tool and can still land some very large fish. The 5-weight is the biggest selling trout rod worldwide but here in New Zealand the 6-weight is more popular.
Backcountry and more
On our medium to larger backcountry rivers the 6-weight outfit comes into it’s own. It is probably the best all round fly rod for spring, summer and autumn conditions in New Zealand. Most leading fly rod brands will give the consumer a range of actions in the 6-weight, with both Scott and Sage carrying softer and faster rod action models in this weight.
The modern day 6-weight can be used on the lakes over the summer months for smelting fish and is the go-to rod for most competition fisherman when drifting over weed beds in lakes like Otamangakau and Aniwhenua.
The 6-weight can also handle throwing tungsten nymphs when fishing down deep, can cast short pretty well but can also make a 25-metre cast when needed.
A good quality rod of this weight has the power to turn over large bushy flies like the cicada in the heat of summer.
In summary, the 6-weight can land any trout. With its versatility to cover a wide range of water types and its ability to cast a range of weighted and smaller flies, the versatile 6-weight is the biggest selling rod in the country.
If you want to fish the Tongariro, don’t go there hoping to be successful with your 5 or 6-weight. Big water is the place of the powerful 8-weight set.
It can throw heavily weighted flies a long way and is good in the wind. Most 8-weight rods are much stiffer through the butt of the blank and in the tip than a 6, and therefore need more flyline aerialised when false casting to load them.
Winter fishing on the Taupo rivers is the perfect for them, as is shore-based fishing on any of the large Rotorua Lakes.
Many anglers get sore if casting these big rods all day while nymphing on the Taupo rivers, but they do help the angler to achieve longer drag-free drifts where the nymphs spend more time bouncing on the bottom.
When playing fish on big rivers an 8-weight has the extra power to turn a large fish in heavy winter currents.
Close quarter fishing calls for smaller 5-weight sets and often the 8'6" length will help you get in under the trees.
The right length
Choosing the correct rod length for a given style of fishing is also very important.
When I am fishing in tight spaces, usually with a 4 or 5-weight outfit, I will often fish an 8’6” rod. These rods are great to get in under trees and load up faster than the 9” rod. You will be able to false cast much easier in and around trees and you will be amazed at where you are able to put a fly with accuracy.
The 9’ rod is the most popular length rod sold in NZ. It is a superb all-round length and is by far the nicest length fly rod to cast.
The 9’ rod loads well and has the ability to cast appropriately on medium or large water. It’s versatile and lends well to both river and lake fishing making it the most popular choice.
People fishing lakes often use 9’6” rods. They are heavier than a 9’ rod in the same weight class but can be very handy when drifting lakes and fishing with a team of three flies. When fishing multiple flies the extra length will help in controlling fish when they are close to the boat. In places like the UK where they do a lot of fly-fishing from drifting boats a 9’6” rod is the most popular.
Over the last 10 years more people have turned to shortline nymphing on rivers, either Czech or French style. The best rod for this purpose is the 10’ fly rod. They are heavy and cumbersome to false cast with but when plonking heavy flies in close they come into their own. They are a specialist rod for a certain type of fishing and are very effective.
As you can see there isn’t one tool to cover every aspect of fly-fishing in NZ. Most North Island anglers will have a 6# and an 8# set to cover just about every angling opportunity they will come across and to keep them fishing through the summer and winter seasons.