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Buying a Fly Rod

In our Spring Edition, we published Part I of an interview with Tom Morgan, one of the great rod builders of his generation, That piece covered his thoughts on rods that work best for fishing in Yellowstone Country.

Part II describes the best ways to buy your next rods.

Buying a Fly Rod

MD: Now that we have your thoughts on the best rods to own for fishing Yellowstone Country waters, I think our readers would enjoy your ideas on the best way to buy that next rod. A daunting task, to say the least. Like other fly fishing products, there are just so many fly rod options available. And, with the price of rods, the wrong choice can be exceptionally painful.

TM: Yes. There are lots of things to consider when buying a fly rod.

For most people, including me, I would never buy a rod through the mail unless I was really confident that the rod maker produced it with the action I liked. I'm now in the business of selling rods through the mail, but the people I sell them to are using rods I've designed before and they know what the action is. And, even though they know the rods I'm selling now are a little bit different than the ones I sold before, they know the action is going to be similar and it's one they like.

The other exceptions might be if I had cast that rod somewhere else or a friend of mine had tried it. Or possibly if an accomplished angler I trusted would recommend a rod for the situations I'd be fishing. But to just pick up a catalog and order an 8-foot for a 4-weight? I'd never do it. Because even though there are a lot of quality rods out there, the action of the rod and the stiffness varies so much and rod action is such a personal thing, I don't think you can make a good decision buying through the mail.

MD: Is it essential for all anglers to try the rod before they buy it?

TM: Well, no. We're really talking about two levels of anglers. If you're a beginner, and you don't know much about rod action or you're an intermediate and you've used only one type of rod, you may have difficulty determining which rod is really appropriate for you. That can be a problem. But if you're an experienced angler and know what you want, then you can truly evaluate a rod.

What I see with people who try out rods in a shop is that in most cases, especially light rods, they're usually casting much longer distances than the distance they're going to fish the rod. So they really get a skewed idea of how the rod's going to perform. From my experience, fishing for trout and guiding people, most of trout fishing takes place under 60 feet with most of that being from 25 to 40 feet.

So if you go in and buy a rod that casts well and loads well in the 40- to 60-foot range, unless you're fishing unusual circumstances, that rod's going to be too stiff to be a pleasant rod to fish under your normal fishing conditions.

MD: When you're in a fly shop, how do you evaluate a rod off the rack?

TM: This is where you get into opinions, and not everybody would agree with me and that's fine. But let me build a case for what I'm talking about.

When you're looking for a rod, before you take it out to cast it, the thing I like to do is first I check out the overall stiffness of the rod by just flexing it. And I don't mean flipping it back and forth and just wiggling the tip. The proper way to flex a rod is to swish it back and forth so you're bending the whole rod and you can get a sense of where the rod bends and how stiff it is.

Then the next thing I check is the tip. I hold the rod in one hand maybe 3 feet down from the tip and with the other hand I flex the tip. What you see with a lot of the rods is the tips are very stiff. This prevents you from controlling the loop and casting a variety of loop shapes. This is particularly true on the less expensive rods, although some of the expensive rods also have stiff tips.

But one thing that separates a low-priced rod from a high-priced rod in many instances is that the tip is much stiffer on the lower-priced rod and the reason for this they're easier to make this way. They can use bigger diameter mandrels and can put more cloth on it which makes them straighter and makes the overall production easier. But it doesn't make a great fishing rod.

Then I would take 2, 3 or 4 rods that felt good in the store and go cast them. And I would choose rods of different lengths. Today, it's very fashionable to use longer rods...9 feet or more...but I feel there are many situations where a shorter rod is a better choice . Especially for less experienced casters.

I'd start casting those rods at short distances and work up to longer casts. (Now we're just talking about trout rods. If you're buying a saltwater or steelhead rod you're looking for distance.) But, with a light trout rod, I start at 20 feet and work out to the maximum distance I think I'll be fishing that rod. I spend a lot of time casting the rods in the 30- to 50-foot range or 25- to 40-foot range...where you're going to be fishing the rod most of the time.

And I try to cast different loops with the rod, like a tight loop you'd use casting into the wind or driving the fly in under the brush. Then I'll open the loop up 4-foot wide so I can see how the rod handles line at a lower line speed. And I do that a number of times to get a sense of the rod.

From my experience, what I've found is that really to be an effective fishing rod it needs to bend a fair amount when you're casting in those intermediate distances. To relate how much it's bending is a little hard to do, but at those distances, the rod should bend well down below the ferrule. It shouldn't be so soft in the butt that it would bend clear down to the handle because you wouldn't have the reserve power that you need to make a reasonably long cast. But at those distances, the rod should flex a lot and you should feel it bend well down into the rod. If it doesn't, it's a tip action rod or a real fast rod.

MD: When rod builders talk about Rod Action, it starts sounding very ambiguous, often other-worldly. Can an ordinary mortal understand this?

TM: OK. Let me talk a little about the terminology of stiff and fast.

In the old days, a fast rod in the bamboo era was a rod that had a light tip, a stiff butt and, like the old Leonards, would have been called a tournament dry fly rod. And that was a fast action rod with a tip that bent quite a bit so it made effectively a shorter rod out of it. Because the top part of the rod didn't support the line very well, it made it a faster action rod.

Today, almost all of the manufacturers make stiff rods that overall may have a very pleasing bend, but be rated in my opinion one or two line sizes lighter than what the rod should carry and still bend the right amount.

MD: You mentioned overlining rods earlier and this is something lots of anglers I know have been fooling around with a lot in recent years. They like to "tune" rods for different situations by using different lines. How do you feel about this?

TM: A few years ago, I built a 4-piece 4-weight for my brother. Because we didn't make a 4-piece rod at Winston, I bought another manufacturer's 3-weight rod and didn't tell him. I marked it as a 4-weight. He thought it was still a little stiff for a 4-weight, but he liked it a lot. And that's what you run into.

A rod will often be rated for a 4-weight, but to get the bend I'm talking about -- when you cast it in those intermediate distances, you get that bend down into the middle of the butt -- you're going to have to put one or possibly two line sizes heavier on that rod to bend it the way it should bend for the kind of fishing most anglers do.

MD: That bend is what really gives the caster a "feel" for the rod, doesn't it?

TM: Yes. That's exactly why I like the rods to bend like that. In order for the rod to communicate to the caster what you should be doing, the rod has to bend quite a bit. And, if the rod is too stiff, you don't get that feeling of the rod communicating to you. It makes it much more difficult to vary your cast with the rod. So from a casting standpoint, it's not communicating to you what you need to know to fish effectively.

MD: The importance of the bend is a Big Concept because this "communicating" is one of the things people most like about the rods you built at Winston.

TM: One of the most popular Winston rods ever is the Tom Morgan Favorite, a very soft 4-weight. I said when I built that rod that it was maybe a 3.5-weight. But people love the rod because it bends a lot and communicates to them what they need to know when they're fishing.

MD: How will anglers like casting these softer rods versus the more popular stiffer rods?

TM: One thing about them is they are a little bit harder to cast than the rods that are a little bit stiffer. And I think that's one reason a lot of the manufacturers have made the stiffer rods. Because people just entering the fly fishing tend to have a much faster casting tempo than what they're going to end up with or what I would say they should have just from a natural mechanical rhythm. And, many tend to overpower the rod by using their own strength rather than the rod's power.

Those stiff rods have a more familiar feel to athletes who have played other sports like golf or baseball and they make it easier for them to learn to cast. Which is not a bad thing. But, here, we're talking about what the ideal rod is for the kind of delicate fishing that's required on heavily fished waters these days. If you are a beginning fisherman, getting a rod that's a little bit stiffer for your first rod is not a bad thing.

However, if you buy the right rod with the right flex and, even though it takes a little bit longer to learn to cast it, if you work at it a little bit, you'll end up in the long run liking the rod better and you won't be buying two rods. You'll be buying the right rod first.

MD: You've covered the bend in the rod, but let's get back to the rod tip. There's so much talk these days about tip design.

TM: That aspect of the softer action rods is important. If the rod is properly designed, the tip flexibility is appropriate for the line size and, as the rod bends and gets progressively stiffer, it works together well as a unit. And from my experience, most of the rod companies are building rods that are pretty well balanced between the tips and the butts, even though they may be stiffer than what I think is appropriate for that line size.

In the lightweight rods, the tip stiffness is really critical. It's out at the last 18 to 24 inches of the tip where you need that suppleness. Because when you're buying a rod for delicate fishing with small flies and, in most cases, tippets that are 5, 6 or 7X, the value of the softer, more supple tip will soon become apparent when you start fishing with it.

Because when you set the hook on a fish -- out here in Yellowstone Country you're apt to be hooking pretty good-sized fish from 13 to 17 inches with 18-inch and bigger fish thrown in -- that softness in the tip will protect the tippet so you don't break off the fish. Or, if you're using a small fly, it doesn't pull the fly through the fish's mouth. And, after you get the fish on, that supple tip protects the tippet much better than a stiffer rod does. When the fish is playing against the rod, it's more flexible, bends easier and is more forgiving. You'll lose a lot fewer fish.

MD: So what's the key test of a light trout rod?

TM: If you're trying out a 3- or 4-weight rod, I would physically step off 40 feet and work the rod. When you're satisfied the rod bends the way you want it to and has the action you want at 40 feet, then you can cast the other distances. But absolutely do not go out there at an indeterminate distance and cast all the line you can cast to evaluate the rod you want to buy. Because if that's the way you select your rod, I can almost guarantee you're going to buy the wrong one.

MD: What about the heavier stuff?

TM: A lot of the same things apply to the bigger rods -- the 5- and 6-weight rods. When you cast them, you should work at a little bit longer distance. Probably in the 30- to 50-foot range. Because that's where bigger rods like that will be used for fishing. But there again, you want to avoid simply finding out how far the rod will cast. You should start casting the rods at the shorter distances to see how they work and then work on out the intermediate range for that line size.

Now when you get up to the 7- and 8-weights, it's a different story. There you're almost never going to be casting short distances. Unless you're going to be dry fly fishing with a big fly and not casting very far because of the circumstances of where you've seen a fish rise. And, with heavy nymphs, you may not want to cast a long distance with them. But, generally, the 7- and 8-weight rods are designed to cast 50 feet and beyond.

With these bigger outfits, you're not going to be fishing delicately with a dry fly. You may be using a dry fly, but it's going to be on freestone type streams or where the water is very broken. So, in those cases, you'll want to try the rod in the 50- to 70-foot range. But there again, many of those rods as with the 5 and 6's are typically too stiff for the line size to bend that rod midway down into the butt.

And, with any rod you buy for trout fishing, they should bend mid-way down into the butt when you're making the typical cast you'd be making with that rod. Your typical cast varies from the 30- to 40-foot range with the 3- to 4-weights; 40- to 60-foot range with the 5- to 6-weights; up to the 50- to 70-foot range with the 7- to 8-weights. All those rods should bend midway down into the butt, so you'll know your really loading the rod properly and the rod is communicating with you.

MD: That's a great overview of what to look for in a rod. But another thing that comes up so often is "How much do I spend on a rod?" It's confusing when you see nice looking rods that vary so much in price. By hundreds of dollars, sometimes.

TM: This can be a difficult thing to determine. Just because it's cheap, doesn't mean it's a bad casting rod. Or not a good fishing rod. There's no doubt, if you look hard, you can find an inexpensive rod that will get the job done.

Generally speaking, the better rod companies that produce more expensive rods have rod designers who spend more time developing rods that are well balanced and well designed. However, one thing I've observed is that some of the rod companies use rod designers who are tournament casters. And I think this may be where we get some of the rods that are too stiff for the line size they're rated for.

Because these people are very accomplished casters, they can load a rod and cast long distances with it. That's how they expect a rod to perform. But the average angler doesn't have that casting expertise to cast the rod the way they can. And in fact they shouldn't. Because, as you've heard me say so often, that's not the distance they're going to be using the rod when they're fishing it.

MD: Then what are you getting when you spend the Big Bucks on a rod?

TM: First of all, manufacturers who sell higher priced rods have spent lots of money field testing and refining the action of their rods. They've put a lot into their design work. The result is a variety of rods that fit many different angling situations their customers face out in the field.

With most of the high-priced rods, you also usually get better components. Better guides, reel seats and finish. You'll also get a better cork handle. A better bag and tube. Overall, better workmanship.

Another thing you'll often times get is a rod with more guides on it which makes it cast better. One way manufacturers cut down on the cost of a rod is putting fewer guides on it. It takes less time and money to make the rod. But when you're casting the rods, you'll get more line slap between the guides and the rod won't cast as well.

MD: No doubt most expensive rods give you some important advantages over less expensive ones. Anything else to consider in the buying decision?

TM: I think the best analogy when comparing rod prices is with automobiles. People buy different price levels of cars because of the intrinsic value of the brand they're buying. A car with a more perceived value -- like a Cadillac -- is going to cost you more money. So that's a choice you can make. You may not get a better car to get you from point A to B, but it will get you there in better style.

And that's really what you're talking about to some degree with rods. When you buy one with a prestigious brand name, you're getting perceived value. You're going to get one with more pride of ownership. The basic blank may not cast that much better than some of the cheaper rods, but the perceived and actual value is higher.

You really need to go to a store and cast different rods to understand for yourself which rods suit you best for the fishing you do.

MD: One thing you hear about is not all rods from the same line cast the same. A 4-weight from company X's particular line may cast very differently from a 6-weight in that same line. What's going on here?

TM: That's very true. I've cast many different rods from most of the major manufacturers and what I've found is that there's often a bit of inconsistency from an individual rod manufacturer in the style of action between one rod and another even in the same series.

Some companies will have more than one style of rod action to try to address different people's individual desires. So you need to cast the different styles to see which one you like the best. Then within those styles -- when you go from one line size to another -- often times the transition is not as smooth as it should be and one rod in the same style will have a different design concept than the other one. Even though it shouldn't.

MD: So just because you like a particular manufacturer's rod in a specific weight and model, it doesn't mean you're going to like all the rods in that series?

TM: That's exactly right. The only way you can tell if you're going to like an individual rod or not is take it out and cast it. Most manufacturers do try to have a consistency in action between their different line sizes. I know we worked very hard at Winston to maintain that consistency. If you bought a 3- or 5-weight rod, the basic style of action was going to be the same. We felt that was really critical. So once people determined a type of action they like, they knew they could get that same action in another rod. But all manufacturers aren't real fastidious about that.

MD: Any tips on what to look for when evaluating a rod's workmanship?

TM: Here's a little check list you can follow when looking at a rod:

the blank should be fairly straight with a smooth and blemish-free finish

guides should be aligned straight

threads should be wrapped evenly and have a nice smooth coating

ferrule fit should be good so the rod won't come apart when fishing

cork handle should be good quality with little filler

reel seats have great variation in design, so I'd try the reel you're going to use on the reel seat to check the fit

MD: I know the straightness of the blank is a very big deal for lots of people I fish with and, yet, I've heard you never get a perfectly straight one.

TM: Almost all blanks of all rods have some kink in them. It's extremely rare to find one that's perfectly straight. But having a little "out of straightness" isn't a big concern for me.

MD: OK, you're recommending we go to a dealer who's got lots of rods we can try and, using some buyer's guidelines, identify the ones that work best.

But what's the key to actually making the final decision?

TM: Like designing a rod, buying one is a very personal matter. In simplest terms, you need to buy a rod that you like.

The most important thing is to cast the rod at the distances you'll be fishing. The way it casts and feels. But the way it looks is also important when choosing a rod that will please you for a long time.

MD: As you mentioned earlier in your car analogy: lots of cars will get you there, but our buying decision is heavily influenced by taste, style.

TM: That's exactly right. And, like buying a car, you need to take your time and avoid the pressures of a salesperson. Trust your own judgment about how the rod feels, your own sense of good taste. You shouldn't settle for anything less than what really suits you.

Because owning a fine rod you enjoy casting and that's aesthetically pleasing is one of the most satisfying aspects of fly fishing. Casting a great rod can become for many anglers one of the best parts of fly fishing, an experience as exciting as hooking and landing fish.

So buy the best rod you can afford. It's an investment that will give you a return in ways no other piece of fly fishing equipment can provide.

Questions? Contact us:
21505 Norris Road
Manhattan, MT 59741

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Phone: 406.282.7110
Fax: 406.282.7167
tommorganrodsmiths@gmail.com

(Note: rodsmiths@imt.net is no longer a working address)




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This interview by author  Mike Dry first appeared in the Wild Trout Journal

The Wild Trout Journal was a magazine devoted to angling in Yellowstone Country. The editor and main contributor, Mike Dry, unexpectedly died in the summer of 2005. Mike was a very good friend and I miss his companionship.