On Fly Rod Evaluation

John Juracek

Thirty years in the fishing business have given me the opportunity to watch a lot of anglers evaluate a lot of fly rods. Most of the time these evaluations are part of the rod buying process. Sometimes they’re just for the personal edification of the angler. But in almost all cases, I see a methodology used that I think could be improved upon.

Most rod evaluations I observe take place on the casting field. Nothing wrong here, but I notice that most fishermen engaged in such casting tests are not at all clear about what they should be looking for in a rod. What passes for their evaluation is frequently nothing more than repeated attempts to throw as long a line or as tight a loop as possible.

For certain applications—some kinds of saltwater fishing, perhaps—this method of evaluation can occasionally make sense. However, even when distance is important it is seldom the primary consideration. I’d wager that most of the time these displays of distance casting are merely a substitute for fundamental knowledge about how best to evaluate a rod. One consequence of this narrow form of testing is that it becomes all to easy to misjudge the quality of a rod. (And for most anglers that in turn compromises their ability to find the rod most suited to their needs.) So while casting is important in evaluating a rod, rarely should it be about distance.

Another flaw common in rod evaluations involves the injection of a personal agenda. I witness many evaluations that revolve only around the biases of the rod tester. In this scenario if the personal criteria of the tester are met, a rod is deemed good. If the rod fails these criteria, it’s deemed bad. This type of evaluation, incidentally, often comes from influential and respected anglers, and ends up being a disservice to those that don’t share the same biases. Discussions that should center on design parameters and whether a rod meets them devolve into statements of taste and opinion. (Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s okay to have an opinion. It just seems more useful to keep it separate from the actual rod evaluation.)

Here’s a different approach. Begin by asking the question: What is the rodmaker trying to do? This question provides an essential framework for the evaluation. After all, if we don’t know what a rod is designed to do, on what basis are we supposed to judge it? There is simply no substitute for knowing the intentions of the rod designer if you want your evaluation to be credible. Towards this end, gather together all the relevant design parameters you can—the kind of fishing for which the rod is intended, the species and size of fish, casting distances, line weight, line control requirements, etc. Absent this information, our only recourse is to apply our own ideas regarding conditions suitable for the rod. Maybe these overlap with those of the rod designer, maybe not. If they don’t, the integrity of our evaluation is suspect. This is why bringing a personal agenda to an evaluation instead of the rodmaker’s is a bad idea.

Obvious places to find rod design information are company catalogs and websites. Unfortunately, much of what is written today is of limited value. Advertising agencies seem to reign supreme over catalog and website text. Witness, for example, the “rocket” and “cannon” rods available to us now (both of which will come in real handy the next time we want to blow up our favorite water). You’ve undoubtedly seen breathless descriptions of new graphites, new methods of construction, high-tech reel seats, low-friction guides and, well, you get the picture.

Sad to say, none of that is the good stuff. That’s marketing talk. That’s...fluff. (My intention here is not to scold the rod companies marketing efforts, but to simply point out that as anglers we would all be better served by having more specific design information on which to base our buying decisions.)

If a catalog or website description seems weak or uninformative, you can always call the company and ask for the information. That should work. If that approach is unappealing or (heaven forbid) fails, it’s sometimes possible to infer a rod’s general design parameters through a knowledge of line sizes and their appropriate uses. Of course, you have to be careful here because certain line sizes have multiple uses.

I happen to fish a five-weight line when sight-nymphing the Madison River. A long cast for me is twenty-five feet. I use the same line weight for gulper fishing on Hebgen Lake, where casting distances can reach seventy feet or more. Because of this difference I fish two different rods. Both are five-weights, and both are great in the situation they were designed for, but far from great when used in the other. Context is everything, which means when evaluating a rod there is really no substitute for knowing its design parameters.

Once you know what a rodmaker is trying to achieve, ask the question: Does he do it? The best way to answer this is by fishing the rod. Fishing it under the exact circumstances for which it was designed. Only then can you say whether or not the rodmaker’s objectives have been met. And only then can you begin to make a valid judgment about a rod’s quality.

I know it’s not always possible to fish a prospective rod. In lieu of this, I think useful judgments regarding a rod’s quality can be made through extensive casting. But I counsel caution here. It’s all too easy to end up casting with your own agenda in mind and not the rodmaker’s. Do spend plenty of time casting, but remember to measure the rod’s performance against its design criteria.

Some fishermen find the question, Does he do it?, highly subjective and argue that determining whether a rod works, or how well it works, is only a matter of opinion. I disagree, and buttress my contention by returning to the first query: What is the rodmaker trying to do? If we know specifically what he’s attempting, I think it’s possible to say whether or not he accomplishes it. It’s just a matter of knowing the design parameters exactly, and testing the rod within them. Ambiguity arises only when it isn’t completely clear how a rod is to be used.

Should you be fortunate enough to find a fly rod that meets its design criteria, I suggest a final question: Was it worth doing? Meaning, are the design criteria reasonable? Practical? It’s simply not enough for a rod to perform a given task; it has to be a task worth performing. (Who wants a ten-weight rod that protects 7x tippet?) So make sure a rod’s design criteria are applicable in the real world.

After answering these three questions, we should be in good standing to pass judgment about a rod’s quality. By concentrating our efforts on the intended design features and ignoring personal biases towards particular rod characteristics, our evaluation should be able to withstand scrutiny. It should prove especially useful to less experienced fishermen searching for good information about a given rod.

At this point I almost always establish a personal opinion about a rod. That way I’m prepared should a shop customer ask what I think. But I remind myself that likes and dislikes are personal matters, not to be confused with statements of quality or the suitability of a rod for someone else.

How should a rod evaluation relate to a buying decision? I recommend that before searching for a new rod, you establish your needs. Think hard about the fishing you’ll do and the demands that that fishing will place on a rod. Be as precise as possible, of course. Once your needs are established, look for rods where those needs and the rodmaker’s intentions are aligned. Know that you won’t always be completely successful. Likely you’ll find several rods with parameters close to what you need but not exactly right. Minor concessions might be necessary. Just find the closest possible fit. And if you can, fish the rod before buying it.

I think asking and answering the questions What is the rodmaker trying to do?, Does he do it?, and Was it worth doing? form a fundamentally solid methodology. Follow through with them and the quality of a rod should become apparent. If you relate that quality to your own needs and desires you’ll be on the way to making a wise rod purchase. And whatever you decide, rest comfortable knowing that your decisions were informed. That’s better than the majority of fishermen will ever do.