Fly Fishing Blog

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Beginner Fly Rod

It is without question a daunting task to choose a fly rod suitable for a beginner from the many that are offered by the manufacturers and builders. Reasonable quality fly rods are a minor investment; high quality rods are expensive regardless of the standard of measure. Fortunately, there is a practical solution.

A fly rod is used for three separate functions while fishing: delivering the fly so that when it reaches the fish it is in the right place, controlling the action of the fly as it approaches the fish, and fighting the fish after it takes the fly. The first task is called casting, the second mending or stripping, and the third, well, fighting. The right rod for a beginner will make all of these three easy.

The core of every fly rod is the blank, the pole or “stick” of carbon fiber (“graphite”) or bamboo to which the reel seat, grip, and guides are attached. The most expensive graphite blanks are made from the latest generation of carbon fiber technology with a very high stiffness to weight ratio, expressed as “modulus of elasticity” or simply “modulus”. Bamboo blanks have a much lower modulus, are generally not suitable for beginners because of their cost. Let’s examine what stiffness and weight mean for a beginner.

Extremely light weight is of little concern to the beginner, since the weight of trout rods is just a few ounces even with a lower modulus (heavier) blank. Very high modulus blanks may be very light because of the thinness of their walls, but they are also relatively fragile. I don’t recommend them even to my experienced customer-fishers unless they understand that the latest generation blanks must be treated more carefully and are more likely to break under real world conditions than older styles. Contrary to what one might think, fish rarely break rods if the match of equipment to species is even close. Rods are most often broken by being knocked against a hard surface, fracturing the carbon fiber material, although the actual total break may not occur until the rod is stressed at a later time. I have never seen a carbon fiber blank break unless the material has been fractured first, for example by being rapped by flying split shot during an errant cast or falling to the pavement when leaning against a vehicle. (With the care put into the creation of all modern carbon fiber blanks, manufacturing defects are very rare.) It is a simple fact that a thick wall is stronger than a thin one, whether in a fly rod blank or guarding China. The carbon graphite technology of just a few years ago is more suitable for a beginner’s rod than the latest material, and it’s cheaper.

I mentioned the stiffness to weight ratio earlier, and we’ve already discussed weight, so let’s talk about stiffness. In general, the stiffer a rod is the more difficult it is to cast. The reason is that a stiff blank, once bent, straightens very quickly, requiring more precise timing than is required with a softer blank. With all blanks, the straightening action is controlled by the design of the taper from tip to butt. In a fast action rod – the kind most often promoted in the glossy advertisements -- the primary bending occurs closer to the tip under load than it does with a medium or slow action. Incidentally, these “action” terms can be confusing, since they don’t describe the speed of the straightening but the bend profile. It is important to understand that you can have a fast action rod that can straighten relatively slowly! It all depends on the material that the blank is made from.

The right fly rod for a beginner is one that is made from second or third generation graphite with a medium to medium-fast action. This type of rod is relatively inexpensive, durable, and forgiving. It will not require precise timing during the cast, it permits gentle and controlled mending, and will protect the fragile tippet – the end of the leader – during the fight with the fish. It can stand up to rougher treatment than a newest-generation carbon fiber, whether it’s used by a beginner or a veteran who handles it with other than kid gloves. In fact, many of my customer-fishers, once they use a “beginner’s rod” that I build for them, never use anything else.

Casting a Fly Rod

There have been many articles written about casting a fly rod, and I find most of them confusing and, for the beginner, intimidating. Casting a fly rod is as easy as throwing a ball or a dart once the basic casting principle is understood.

A fly rod is above all flexible. It is designed to bend easily with a minimum amount of force applied to it, both from your hand and from the weight attached to it. Excluding additional objects added to it, the weight that causes the rod to bend comes almost exclusively from the fly line. (Because a leader and fly are almost weightless, they won’t be considered as factors here.) Weight is weight; there is no difference between a fly line and a light lure if you put them on a scale. The primary difference between the two is that the weight is concentrated over a few inches of a lure, but over many feet of fly line. The difference in casting depends entirely on understanding this factor.

When you cast a lure, it is begins traveling forward as soon as you apply pressure with your hand, bending the rod. The lure starts directly behind the tip when you begin the cast and travels in the direction that the tip is pointing when you release the tension. Because there are just a few inches of line extending from the tip to the lure, any line not being pulled forward at the beginning of the cast is quickly straightened as the rod tip moves forward. Not so with a fly line.

If you are going to fly cast successfully, you must have the entire fly line traveling forward as soon as you apply pressure to the rod. You cannot achieve this if there is any slack in the line; much of the potential power of your cast will be lost eliminating slack. The most important ingredient in a successful fly cast is having the entire line parallel to the ground (or water) and starting to move forward as soon as you begin to apply pressure to the rod with your hand. If the line is straight behind you, any effort that you put into the cast begins to affect the line immediately. Fly casting becomes a relaxing activity, as it should be, and the desired casting results are easily achieved.

The key to having the line parallel to the ground (or water) before the forward cast is to create a good back cast. (It’s actually the same as the forward cast, only in the opposite direction.) You begin moving the end of line once any slack has been removed and the line is straight, and you cast it behind you by applying pressure to the rod. It’s desirable to begin with the rod low and direct the line slightly upward so that when you stop the back cast the line ends up just short of parallel. Throw it up and back, stop the tip where you want the line to go, and wait for the line to unroll, letting gravity pull it downward as you change direction to begin the forward cast.. The moment that it is straight behind you begin the forward cast. Put as much bend as you want into the rod then, as with a ball or dart, stop the cast when the tip is pointing in the direction that you want the line to go. The line will continue to travel forward, gaining momentum as the rod unbends and, when the energy has been expended, the line (and leader and whatever else is attached) will be delivered to the target. It’s really that simple!

You may have read or heard about the 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock casting arc, accelerating to a stop, “the inverted j”, tailing loops, and other confusing information about casting. You don’t need to pay attention to any of it if you pay attention to the above principle of casting. Assemble your rod and reel, lay the rod down on the grass, pull about 20 feet line from the tip, pick up the rod, and begin casting, straightening the line on both the back cast and forward cast. A few minutes practice and you’ll “get it”.

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Set Up a Fly Rod for Trout

You have your fly fishing outfit and you’re ready to set it up. Great! Before you begin make sure that you have the following…

Fly rod
Fly reel
Fly line
Backing (20 lb. Dacron)
Braided loop or 2’ .021 monofilament
1’ ¼” dowel (or a new pencil)
Small, sharp scissors (or nail clippers)
Flex-CH waterproof super glue (Zap-A-Gap)
2” length of hollow tubing (metal or plastic) – if using .021 monofilament

  1. Place the fly reel on the rod and make sure that it fits the reel seat properly. There should be enough of the reel seat foot covered to properly secure the reel to the rod. If not, stop here. You need to exchange the rod or reel for one that fits. There is nothing worse than losing your reel when fishing due to incompatibility.
  2. Remove the reel and make sure that it is set up for right- or left-hand wind. Most trout fisherman prefer left-hand wind. If you need to change the reel over, do so now according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  3. Prepare to put the backing onto the reel. Unwind about two feet of backing from the spool, wind the backing around the reel arbor, and attach it to itself using an arbor knot: (http://www.killroys.com/knots/backing.htm) Make sure that you pull the finished knot very tight against the arbor and that both knots are jammed against each other.
  4. If you have a helper, ask her/him to hold the backing spool with the dowel through it and apply slight pressure to to the sides of the spool; if you’re by yourself you will need to hold the dowel between your knees while sitting down, applying pressure so it won’t fall and against the spool sides also. Make sure that the backing comes off the top of the spool and goes to the top of the arbor (with the reel foot down). Begin reeling (your hand travels toward you) until the spool is filled to within 5/8” of the top. (This may be too much and you will have to adjust later, but it is better than having too little backing on the spool and creating additional knots.) Cut the backing, leaving about two feet outside the reel.
  5. Carefully open the plastic spool containing the fly line and carefully remove the chenille or other ties from around the line, then replace the line on the spool and close it, making sure that the line isn’t pinched between the two halves. Identify the end of the line to attach to the backing (usually labeled with a small sticker) and pull out about two feet of line slowly. Attach the backing to the line using an Albright knot (http://www.killroys.com/knots/albright.htm)
  6. Using the same helper/self technique as before, making sure the fly line feeds off the top of the spool to the top of the reel. Wind the fly line onto the reel using very little pressure; you don’t want the line coils on the spool digging into each other. Continue winding until the line is about ¼” from the outer edge of the reel spool.
  7. If you have fly line remaining on the spool, that is okay, but you still have some work to do; if the 5/8” space estimate was right, go to the next step. If not, unwind the fly line, piling it loosely on the floor or wind it back onto the spool by turning the spool – do not wrap it by hand! – until you reach the arbor knot. Cut the fly line right at the knot and remove backing to reduce the diameter of that already wound onto the reel by about ¼” (or as much as you guess you had overfilled). Retie the arbor knot and wind the fly line back onto the reel. If you still have more backing to remove when you’re done, repeat this step. (I know this is arduous, but it’s sometimes trial-and-error to get it just right.)
  8. The last step is to put a loop at the end of your fly line so that you can change leaders easily as fishing conditions dictate. There are two choices here: a braided loop or a monofilament loop. I prefer the former because it’s easier to install and is lighter. With a braided loop, make sure that there is a ½” of flexible tubing over the loop end, then thread the line into the opening and “inchworm” the line down until it reaches the loop. Holding the loop firmly (putting a short nail through the loop helps) slowly slide the tubing to just over the end of the loop material. (If you go beyond the end, remove the loop and start over.) Put a small drop of Flex-CH glue on each end of the tubing. Capillary action will cause it to flow under the tubing, locking everything in place. If you want to use a monofilament loop, you must use a nail knot (http://www.killroys.com/knots/nail.htm) to attach a 1’ length to the end of the line. I recommend only four turns instead of five and you must make absolutely sure that the monofilament digs into the fly line coating. I recommend using a thin coating Flex-CH glue over the knot after you’ve trimmed the end of the monofilament closely. Finally, you must put a perfection loop (http://www.killroys.com/knots/perfecti.htm) in the end of the monofilament, leaving about 6” total.