Fly fishing rods are designed to fulfil particular requirements depending on the type of fishing you are doing, so it’s really important to ensure that you buy the right equipment from the outset. It’s a waste of time, effort and money kitting yourself out with a small stream rod if you intend going after the monsters that may lurk in the depths of a big lake or reservoir. That may seem like an obvious statement – but it’s not quite as easy to get the right equipment as you might expect. It’s all about length, strength and flexibility and knowing how these qualities meld together to give you just the right tool for the job.
A fly fishing rod needs to do several jobs. Firstly it must cast the line, which requires strength and spring so that it can act like a catapult to shoot the line great distance when needed – or very accurately and gently when that’s the order of the day. Secondly it must retrieve the line, which requires sensitivity so you can feel the line as it is recovered and know when a fish takes the fly. Thirdly it must fight the fish, which requires the ability to cushion the leader and soak up the shocks as the fish runs and jumps. Finally it must be transportable, which means that it must be capable of being manufactured in sections which come together to act as a whole when assembled.
To satisfy these requirements in one rod is very difficult, so rods are made which place more emphasis on one particular quality, often at the expense of the others. A rod with great casting qualities will tend to be stiffer and will be less forgiving when fighting a fish, so it needs to be used with a heavier leader – which may be more easily detected by the fish. A very flexible rod can be used to cast slowly and accurately, will soak up the energetic activity of a small fighting fish but will not cast the line very far and will be unable to handle a large fish. A travelling rod that can be broken down into five or more pieces to fit in your suitcase will have to sacrifice qualities of flexibility or sensitivity. Compromise is often the key.
The first rule of thumb is – the smaller the fish you are hunting the smaller the rod you should use. A little stream or beck will need a small rod of only four or five feet, whereas big salmon from huge rivers can command rods up to sixteen or seventeen feet in length. Those are the obvious extremes; it’s the fishing activities in between where it can get confusing. One rod may be ideal in one circumstance, but unsuitable in another where a rod of the same length might be perfect. So there must be a lot more to it than just length.
Following this rule of thumb, the average trout fisherman approaching a stocked reservoir or lake should be looking for a rod around nine foot six inches or ten feet in length. Loch style fishing on such a reservoir is usually undertaken with a longer rod of eleven foot six inches. So the same venue can demand different rods with different qualities depending on how you want to catch your fish. The length is only part of the story. We need to find a way of identifying the power of the rod as well, which will give us a further insight into its best use.
THE AFTM RATING SYSTEM
Equally important as the length of the rod is its power. Power is a relative assessment, comparing one rod against another. So we need a way to make this comparison of one rod with another. We can then decide the fly line that can be used with that rod and the reel needed to accommodate that line. It’s like making sure all the pieces of the jigsaw fit. The standard way of describing this quality of power in a rod is by giving it an AFTM rating. That stands for American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association. This has long been accepted as the best way to ensure that you are matching rods, reels and lines for maximum effectiveness. It’s a bit like making sure that you have the right tyres for your car and that you are using the right kind of fuel – it may work OK with something else but not at full potential. We need to understand this AFTM system if we are to make sure all the pieces of equipment, including the rod, work together.
Historically, the AFTM system was developed to create a uniform method of describing the basic characteristics of a fly line. The most important element of a fly line is its mass, or more simply its weight. In order for lines to perform well with your rod and reel they should have the same weight as any other line you use with that equipment so that each line interacts with the rest of your fishing gear in the same way. It should not matter whether the line is designed to float, sink or something in between, it should still weigh the same as any other line you want to use with that particular rod. This is really important when trying to match the fly line with the fishing rod.
So, the heart of the matter is the actual weight of the line. This was originally measured in grains – which is the smallest standard unit of weight and is determined as the average weight of a grain of corn. There are 7000 grains to the pound avoirdupois. The avoirdupois weight system of pounds and ounces is the one we all recognise and which was virtually universal before the advent of the metric system based on the gram. There is another weight system using the pound weight, called the troy system but that is now only used to weigh precious stones and metals, although it was once the common weight system in some countries.
The grain is the only common weight in both these systems and thus there are a different number of grains to the pound, depending on which weight system you are addressing. Confusing, isn’t it? There are 7000 grains to the pound avoirdupois which is divided into 16 ounces of 437 grains each. There are 5760 grains to the troy pound which is divided into 12 ounces and then into 20 pennyweights of 24 grains each. Both the avoirdupois and the troy system were in use in different parts of the world at the same time, with different actual weights for the pound and ounce. This is the reason why the grain was chosen to weigh fishing lines – it didn’t matter which weight system you normally used – the grain weight was the same. Just to complete the confusion, and for those of a metric disposition, 1 grain = 0.0648 grams. So it was unimportant where in the world you were and what the local weight system was, old fly lines were described by their grain weight, which measured the weight of the first 30ft (9.14m) of the line. Each line was individually weighed and could have a grain weight that was unique to it and might be only slightly different from another line. This idea of weighing fly lines in grains overcame the problem faced by the British colonials who might be in India or South Africa or in many other outposts and needed to order their fly line from the home country as no lines were made in the country they were currently residing in. They could ensure that they were ordering what they needed without reference to their current country’s weight measurement system.
The American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association made the sensible decision to simplify this system by converting it into an easy scale which was a step beyond the grain weight system. The idea is to group a range of grain weights into one category, as shown here.
AFTM Weight..Weight.....Number in grains
Simply put – the lower the grain weight, the smaller the AFTM number and the lighter and more delicate will be the line – and therefore the rod and reel needed for it. So, those little brook trout which may be no longer than your finger will require an AFTM set up of just 1, whereas the monster salmon and saltwater fish which will test your gear to the limit may need an AFTM kit of 14.
This table can now be simplified even further to look like this:
AFTM.........DESCRIPTION OF ROD/LINE USAGE
1/3…………Small trout stream
4/6…………Small river and lake
7/9…………River, lake and reservoir
12/14……….Large salmon and sea fish
There will be some overlap and a rod may be sufficiently robust to accommodate slightly heavier use than indicated. Like all things there are the exceptions that prove the rule! You will probably begin to understand that the AFTM rating of a rod gives a good indication of its use. But that is only a part of the story. Imagine a car with a 2 litre engine – easy enough, but that 2 litre engine might be tuned for speed or pulling power and similarly with a rod the AFTM rating gives its loading but not whether that loading is for distance or accuracy.
IT’S ALL IN THE ACTION
To make things even more complicated, rods are categorised according to their action as well as their length and AFTM rating. This will give an indication of the amount of flex that a rod possesses and the amount of flex is the basis of how fast it can move the line. Essentially, there are three categories of rod action – fast, medium and slow. What this means is the speed that the rod will generate when casting the line and the greater the initial speed the greater the casting distance. The less the rod bends, the faster it will move the line and – vice versa – the more it bends the slower it will move the line, which can be an asset when casting accurately and gently to fish in small streams and becks.
Fast rods have the least flex (bendiness) and this stiffness means that the line comes away from the rod in a tight loop. Alternatively, a slow rod generates a great deal of bend as it casts and this will create a deep loop in the line. You can appreciate that a deep loop will have more of its surface area meeting the oncoming air as it is cast and this will slow it down very quickly. The higher the speed the greater the distance the line will be cast. Without boring you with the mechanics involved it is sufficient to say that the faster the rod the tighter will be the loop that is being generated and a tighter loop will cut through the air for a longer distance. Slower casts are shorter and can be more accurately positioned, ideal for casting to a rising fish on a small stream.
So – the fast action rods are the stiffest and possess great power for long distance casting. To achieve this, the majority of the flex is generated in the top one third of the rod, nearest the tip. This concentration of power and distance is perfect for use on large waters where a lot of area needs to be covered. However, there is always a price to pay and these rods can become tiring to use for an extended period of time. In fact, from my own experience I can tell you that continuous use can result in repetitive strain injury (R.S.I.). But I was using a highly powerful rod for up to seven days a week, so I probably deserved to endure some personal wear and tear!
Medium action rods are good for general purpose and will develop a slower more comfortable style of casting. Because the action generates power over the top half of the rod it follows that the cast will have a deeper loop to it, giving more control over matters. It will keep the leader and flies away from the lower part of the line as it is being cast, so things aren’t as likely to get all tangled up mid cast. This is a much easier and more comfortable fishing style and I would recommend it for the beginner.
Finally, slow or progressive action rods develop their power over nearly the entire length of the rod. This makes for a very slow and lazy cast which cannot be hurried. This will suit short distance fishing with a floating line, where accuracy is more important than distance. They are ideal for the small trout stream where presentation to a feeding fish is all about accuracy and stealth and you are doing little more than laying the line onto the water.
You may be able to fish with just one rod quite satisfactorily to begin with. However, it is inevitable that, as you become more experienced, you will realise that you need more than one rod to meet changing circumstances, such as wind or the depth that the fish are lying. I was fortunate enough to own a matched pair of rods so that I could have two different lines set up. This was useful when fish were varying their depth and different sink rates of line were needed. Again, we’ll get to how you work all that out, but for now it is sufficient to say that you’ll be buying more than one rod as you get more into the sport.
If you are setting out, as most do, to gain your experience on one of the reservoirs or lakes stocked with fish around the one kilo mark then my advice would be to look at a rod of around nine foot six inches with an AFTM rating of seven and a medium action. This will give you the widest range of usage from a single rod, as it can accommodate both floating and sinking line set-ups quite comfortably and is relatively easy to cast. If your quarry is bigger – or smaller – then use this starting point as a guide.
My first experience of fly fishing was quite by accident. One summer afternoon I found myself driving down a dual carriageway on my way home from a stressful business meeting. “AFTERNOON TEAS” proclaimed the road sign as I sped past. “Now that sounds like a nice way to wind down” I thought to myself. Ten minutes later I was lounging on a balcony overlooking an idyllic setting. Gentlemen of leisure were sitting in boats on a large expanse of water practising the ancient art of fly fishing. I was beguiled by the sight of such a wonderful way to spend an evening and was immediately smitten.
I knew I had to give it a go. After all – as Jeremy Clarkson says – how difficult could it be…