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Fly Fishing Rods – An Explanation
Fly fishing rods are designed to meet particular requirements depending on the type of fishing you do, so it’s really important to make sure you buy the right equipment from the start. It’s a waste of time, effort and money to put yourself out on a small stream if you’re going to chase the monsters that may be hiding in the depths of a large lake or reservoir. That may seem like an obvious statement – but it’s not as easy to get the right equipment as you might expect. It’s all about length, strength and flexibility and knowing how these qualities come together to give you the right tool for the job.
Fly fishing has to do several jobs. First it has to throw the line, which requires strength and spring so that it can act as a catapult to shoot the line a great distance when necessary – or very accurately and gently when that is the order of the day. Second it has to retrieve the line which requires sensitivity so you can feel the line when it is retrieved and know when a fish is taking the fly. Third, it must fight the fish, which requires the ability to soften the leader and absorb the shocks as the fish runs and jumps. Finally it must be transportable, which means it must be able to be manufactured in sections that fit together to act as a whole when assembled.
Satisfying those requirements in one rod is very difficult, so rods are made that emphasize one special quality more, often at the expense of the others. A rod with excellent casting qualities will tend to be stiffer and will be less forgiving when fighting a fish, so it should be used with a heavier leader – which can be more easily detected by the fish. A very flexible rod can be used to cast slowly and accurately, will soak up the energetic action of a small fighting fish but will not cast the line very far and will be unable to handle a large fish. A travel stick that can be broken 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 is – the smaller the fish you are hunting, the smaller the rod you should use. A small stream or bill will need a small rod of only four or five feet, while large salmon from huge rivers can command rods up to sixteen or seventeen feet long. 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 could be perfect. So there has to be a lot more than just length.
Following this rule, the average trout angler approaching a stocked reservoir or lake should look for a rod about nine feet six inches or ten feet in length. Lake-style fishing on such a reservoir is usually undertaken with a longer rod of eleven feet six inches. So the same venue may require 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 to identify the power of the staff as well, which will give us further insight into its best use.
THE AFTM CUP SYSTEM
Just as important as the length of the rod is its power. Power is a relative rating, comparing one rod against another. So we need a way to do this comparison of one stick to 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 puzzle fit. The standard way to describe 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 you match rods, reels and lines for maximum performance. It’s a bit like making sure you have the right tires for your car and that you’re using the right kind of fuel – it may work well with something else but not fully. We need to understand this AFTM system if we want to make sure that all the equipment, including the rod, works 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 work 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 doesn’t matter if the line is designed to float, sink, or something in between, it still needs to 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 to 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 avoirdupois pound. The avoirdupois system of weight of pounds and ounces is the one we all recognize and which was almost 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 this 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 of these systems and thus there is a different number of grains to the pound, depending on which weight system you are dealing with. Confusing, isn’t it? There are 7000 grains to the avoirdupois pound that 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 used 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 usually 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 didn’t matter 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 30 ft (9.14 m) 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. That idea of weighing fly lines in grains overcame the problem faced by the British colonists who might be in India or South Africa or in many other outposts and had to order their fly line from the home country because no lines were made in the country they were. currently living. They could make sure they ordered 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 that 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 the line will be – and therefore the rod and reel needed for it. So, those tiny trout that may be no longer than your finger will require an AFTM setting of only 1, while the monster salmon and saltwater fish that will test your gear to the limit may need an AFTM set 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 sturdy enough to accommodate slightly heavier use than indicated. Like all things there are exceptions that prove the rule! You will probably begin to understand that a stick’s AFTM rating gives a good indication of its use. But that’s only part of the story. Imagine a car with a 2 liter engine – easy enough, but that 2 liter engine could be tuned for speed or pulling power and similarly with a stick the AFTM rating gives its load but not whether that load is for distance or accuracy.
IT’S ALL IN THE ACTION
To make things even more complicated, rods are categorized by their action as well as their length and AFTM rating. This will give an indication of the amount of flex a rod possesses and the amount of flex is the basis of how fast it can move the line. Basically, there are three categories of stick action – fast, medium and slow. What this means is the speed 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 – conversely – 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 points.
Fast rods have the least flexibility (flexibility) and this stiffness means that the line comes away from the rod in a tight loop. Alternatively, a slow rod generates a lot 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 thrown and this will slow it down very quickly. The higher the speed the greater the distance the line will be thrown. Without boring you with the mechanics involved, suffice it to say that the faster the stick, the tighter the curl that is generated, and a tighter curl will cut through the air for a longer distance. Slower casts are shorter and can be more accurately positioned, ideal for casting to 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 upper third of the stick, closest to the tip. This concentration of power and distance is perfect for use on large bodies of water where a lot of area needs to be covered. However, there is always a price to pay and these sticks can become tiring to use over an extended period of time. In fact, from my own experience I can tell you that continuous use can result in repetitive strain injury (RSI). But I used a very powerful wand up to seven days a week, so I probably deserved to put up with some personal wear and tear!
Medium action rods are good for general purpose and will develop a slower more comfortable style of casting. Since 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 things. It will keep the leader and fly away from the bottom part of the line as it is cast, so things aren’t as likely to get tangled in the middle of a 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 almost the entire length of the rod. This makes for a very slow and lazy cast that cannot be rushed. This will suit short-range 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 precision and stealth and you do little more than put the line on the water.
You may be able to fish with just one rod satisfactorily enough to begin with. However, it is inevitable that, as you become more experienced, you will realize that you need more than one rod to meet changing circumstances, such as wind or the depth that the fish lie. I was lucky enough to own a matching pair of rods so I could set up two different lines. This was useful when fish varied their depth and different sink speeds of line were needed. Again, we’ll get to how you work it all out, but for now suffice it 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 get 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 use of a single rod as it can accommodate both floating and sinking lines quite comfortably and is relatively easy to cast. If your quarry is larger – or smaller – then use this starting point as a guide.
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