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New Fiberglass Rods Revolution

by Cameron Mortenson   |  October 29th, 2013 3

Photo: Cameron Mortenson

Why glass, and why now?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it at your local fly shop yet or not, but fiberglass fly rods are back, and they are back in a big way, from small-stream 2- and 3-weights, to classy 5-weights and beyond. These aren’t the fiberglass fly rods that your grandfather or father might have started with decades ago. No, the new glass is coming from big-name rod companies such as Echo, Hardy, Orvis, Redington, Scott, and many obscure small custom fly rod blank makers and builders, most of whom are doing spectacular work.

Contemporary fiberglass fly rods are rewriting the history on what glass is all about with new thoughts and ideas about taper design and fly-rod actions. Rod designers are helping to birth a resurgence that is gaining
considerable momentum as more and more fly fishers are again interested in what glass is all about.

A Brief History
Fiberglass has been used to build fly rods since the late 1940s, and was the most common fly-rod material through the 1970s. After World War II, fiberglass largely replaced bamboo as the preferred fly-rod material because it was cheaper to obtain and easier to work with. Fiberglass fly rods were strong, easy to mass produce, and had much of a similar action and feel to bamboo without the extra steps of working with that material.

Fiberglass sometimes gets a bad rap as many of these fly rods are written off as historically being heavy, with rod actions similar to a buggy whip. That really isn’t a fair assessment at all, since there are some real gems in vintage fiberglass, and also it has to be taken into consideration that during the heyday of fiberglass an “ultralight” fly rod was typically a 5-weight, and most fly rods built at that time were 6-, 7-, and 8-weights. Way back then, yes, they were heavy.

The technology and expertise to build longer and lighter fiberglass fly rods didn’t really manifest itself fully until the late 1970s, when the material was already being discontinued by many companies in favor of graphite. Just about the time that glass rod design was about to bloom, the industry moved almost entirely to graphite fly rods, since that material is inherently lighter.

Why Glass?
I am often asked why I enjoy fly fishing with fiberglass fly rods, and there are quite a few answers to that question. My first fly rod was glass, so of course there is a certain nostalgia to it, but it took me years of fishing graphite fly rods before I again picked up that same glass fly rod and sparked my current passion.

Close-quarters fishing is where fiberglass truly excels, but “glass geeks” like author Cameron Mortenson have caught everything from redfish to muskies with modern fiberglass rods. Photo: Ben Hoffman

I began poking around the Internet for more information and came across the Fiberglass Flyrodders forum, which really opened my eyes to the history behind many of the vintage fly-rod brands, as well as contemporary fiberglass fly rods. I became thoroughly hooked on glass, and bought everything and anything that I could afford on that forum’s for-sale page, eBay, and various other places.

Over the last seven or eight years I’ve sold or given away nearly all my graphite rods, and have replaced each one (and then some) with fly rods made of fiberglass. You could say that I am truly addicted . . . but why?

Foremost, I really enjoy how fiberglass rods cast. In an age of fast-action graphite, it’s easy to forget that you are supposed to feel your forward and backcast, and that the fly rod is really supposed to do the majority of the work.

I see many fly fishers put so much muscle into casting graphite rods that it really goes against the principles of what fly casting is supposed to be all about. Fly casting is supposed to be enjoyable and it’s supposed to be easy. Your arm shouldn’t be sore at the end of the day if you’re doing it right, and you have the right tool.

With glass you do need to slow down your casting stroke, but that means you are letting the fly rod work. A glass fly rod takes the weight of the fly line, bends deeply, and sends out casts of 30 to 50 feet with surprising accuracy and ease.

Fiberglass fly rods might not be known for laser loops, but distance casting, when needed, is also possible with glass fly rods and I’ve been around more than one guide or casting instructor who has picked up a glass rod and within a couple false casts sent the backing knot through the tip-top with relative ease.

Glass fly rods are great for beginning casters, since it can be easier to get the timing of the back and forward casts. I taught myself to fly cast more than 20 years ago, and I really think starting with a fiberglass fly rod is why it all came together for me. Conversely, stiff, hard-to-bend rods may be a learning obstacle for some people.

From a more technical standpoint, there are two distinct advantages of glass—it’s better at protecting tippets of all diameters and still gives you the ability to put a lot of pressure on a fish. Whether you are using light tippets, such as 6X or 7X, or when fighting large strong fish on a line-class tippet, the softer action of glass allows it to act as a shock absorber that tempers and cushions the head shakes and excited runs of large fish. I find that I am able to land fish quickly and easily on glass since there is less worry that I will break the line.

Fiberglass rods come alive in your hand in ways that only bamboo can match. When a fish takes a fly and the rod is bent over double, it’s really quite thrilling as you are able to better feel every head shake and run that the fish makes. In short, a fiberglass fly rod can certainly sweeten your experience while on the water.

Photo: Cameron Mortenson

Why Now?
New fiberglass rods are getting a hard look by the fly-fishing industry, as well as scores of fly fishers, because high-modulus graphite fly rods have gotten so fast that it’s reached a point where anglers start scratching their heads and asking, “Why?” Fast-action rods require more effort to cast, and casting distance is not a priority to many fly fishers because trout-fishing situations most often require an accurate cast of 40 feet or less.

Over the past five years, and especially the last year or so, there has been a marked surge of fly-rod companies offering fiberglass fly rods. Some of the very best fly-rod designers who understand and have worked with fiberglass for decades such as Tom Morgan formerly of Winston, and Tom Dorsey of Thomas&Thomas, are still at it. Innovators such as Jim Bartschi of Scott Fly Rod Company, and small builders and blank makers like Larry Kenney of L. Kenney Fly Rods, Mark Steffen of Steffen Brothers Fly Rods, and Mike McFarland of McFarland Rods are all bringing new concepts to market. These rod designers are all pushing the envelope on what fiberglass can do as a medium for fly rods.

What’s out There?
The two main types of fiberglass used to make fly rods are E-Glass and S-Glass. The names come from the original intended uses as either electrical or structural fiberglass. E-Glass is lower modulus than (structural) S-Glass, but you can’t say rods built with E-Glass are always slower, since blanks can be rolled and tweaked in many ways due to wall thickness, actions, lengths, and line weights.

With the growing numbers of glass rods today, the actions encompass everything from slow, full-flexing actions, to parabolic, progressive, and even fast-action tapers.

Continued after gallery…

 

 

Since glass fibers are clear (hence the name) you can add dye to the resin to make rods in an array of colors from white to black and almost every color of the rainbow in between, from muted yellows and greens to flashy reds and blues. In comparison, graphite (carbon) fibers are gray, and they can be painted, but they can never match the brilliant translucent colors of a fiberglass rod.

Modern fiberglass fly rods have a sweet spot for consumers in the trout sizes, with 6′ and 7′, 3- to 5-weights. This where glass excelled in the past, and it still does today. However, advances in taper design, and the use of S-Glass pushed us through a “glass ceiling” of sorts, where it’s not uncommon to see fiberglass fly rods in these line weights in lengths up to 9 feet long.

In recent years there has been increased interest in heavyweight fiberglass rods to pursue anadromous species such as steelhead, salmon, and lake-run browns as well as skinny-water species like carp, redfish, and even tarpon. Glass has advantages in these situations to load with minimal false casts, and can provide incredible leverage to turn large fish running the other way.

In the next couple years I think we’ll see more choices in switch rods and even two-handers made of glass. These types of fly rods are showing that they work well with these casting styles and with Spey, Scandi, and Skagit line systems. There is a noticeable difference in the actual weight of a fly rod in these line weights, but the ability of the fly rod to furnish the majority of the power gives them marked advantages in some situations.

As the number of fly-rod companies offering fiberglass rods grows, it gives anglers more choices across the entire price spectrum, from a $25 Eagle Claw Featherlight at a local sport shop, to a custom fly rod built by Mario Wojnicki or Tom Morgan Rodsmiths at prices approaching $1,200 or more. There is definitely something for anyone who is interested in glass, and you don’t have to break the bank to find that next special fly rod.

Photo: Cameron Mortenson

The Future
I think the resurgence of fiberglass will continue to grow over the next few years as more anglers find that glass rods are a great complement to the fly rods that they already enjoy. I’m not going to say that everyone who tries glass is suddenly going to flush their graphite fly rods in favor of it. It happened to me, but I am more than likely not the norm.

The growth of fiberglass from within the fly-fishing industry has been incredible over the past several years. I really saw this shift begin when Scott Fly Rod Company reintroduced the Fibertouch with the F2 series of fly rods a few years ago, and it has continued into 2014 with companies like Orvis, Echo, and Redington all offering new fiberglass fly rods.

Other companies such as Hardy and Thomas&Thomas continue to offer fiberglass, and there have been rumors of refreshes to their line-ups as well in the next year or so. It really leaves me to wonder if any of the other established fly-tackle companies—especially those with a history of producing glass rods—will design future offerings giving anglers even more choices.

I also see the artisan fly-rod builders and blank makers continuing to innovate in the fly rods that they are producing, or the blanks that they are having built for them, and will continue to offer something very unique and special to their customers.

Over the years much of the artisan fiberglass fly-rod work has been done in the United States but as more interest has developed in glass, builders in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and throughout Europe are all creating very unique offerings with their own design perspectives.

There has never been a better time to be a fiberglass aficionado. It has been exciting to witness this resurgence, and while fiberglass will always be a relatively small niche, it’s certainly an enjoyable one. If you haven’t tried glass, well then maybe it’s time you did.

Cameron Mortenson writes thefiberglassmanifesto.com. He is also a husband and the father of two young children.

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