By Nathaniel Linville
I get asked many times a year about my opinion on rods, reels, and lines. Because I own a fly shop and also spend a lot of time fishing, I’m often the person who gets questioned when someone is thinking about gear to buy (or not). With this comes a certain potential for abuse, and I have to work hard not to be biased for my own benefit. When someone asks me a loaded question like “I’ve heard great things about [redacted] and I’m thinking about getting one . . . what do you think?” my instinct is to tell them what they expect to hear. It’s hard to turn down a sale, especially when things are already heading naturally in that direction. But I’m in a tough spot when I’m asked to cosign someone’s inclination toward a piece of equipment they don’t need, or that I know they won’t receive any benefit from.
Over the years I’ve learned quite a few things about fly tackle, and this isn’t a discussion of all of those things. Instead, this is about the things that I was convinced were true, but were false. Not knowing something is one thing, but believing in an untruth is infinitely more damaging if you’re trying to get the right gear to help you do something as complicated and challenging as catching a fish like a permit or a tarpon.
“I want a stiff, fast-action rod for saltwater fishing”
A fly rod is used to do two things: cast the line and fly, then fight the fish. This order tells us something about which is more important. You have to do one before the other, so if we’re going to tilt our concern toward one task, it should clearly be toward casting.
One of the basic misconceptions about rods is that a stiffer rod is better for saltwater fishing, and it comes from this idea that you have to cast far in salt water. This can sometimes be the case, but in order to cast far you have to false cast your way up to it. Working backward from a 90-foot cast, your previous cast might be only 50 or 60 feet before you shoot line on your final delivery. Before that, you had to make a 20- to 30-foot false cast, and if we work back to the very beginning of the cast, you might have started with the fly in your hand and only a few feet of line out of the rod tip. Every cast starts short.
The most repeated motion in fly casting is the first one, where you feed line into the cast quickly before slowing down the pace and shooting line to a target. We do it on every presentation. It would make sense to build a rod for the things we do most often, not for the outlying distances. But too often we choose our equipment (and often build it) based on rare circumstances.
Stiff rods are nice when you’ve already got some line out, but if they make it harder get started, they become a hindrance. Saltwater rods should come alive at short distances.
Recently I had the opportunity to observe Jim Bartschi develop the new Scott Sector. While I cast prototypes and provided feedback, most of our conversations orbited around these closer casts. With each iteration we focused more and more on the tip of the rod, and instead of throwing long casts we became fixated on how the rod made the transition between the initial short distances and the longer presentation casts. What Bartschi ended up with is a rod that has the ability to make the whole cast easily, from when the fly is in your hand, right to the fish’s mouth.
Is it the rod I would choose if a gun were to my head and I had to cast as far as I possibly could to save my life? No. But it is a rod that can make an 80-foot shot easily and effectively? I suspect that for most people (myself included) it is. The lesson here is to consider both close and long casts when you’re choosing a rod. Maybe the rod that you can throw the farthest isn’t the rod to take on your tarpon or permit trip.
When you test a rod, start with a little bit of line out and make some false casts toward a target, just as you would on the bow of a skiff. Don’t start with 50 feet of line. Start short, and focus on making that transition from short to long over and over again. You’ll be surprised that the rods that feel better with this exercise are often not the ones that give you an extra 10 feet at the end of your cast, but they are exactly the ones you want to be fishing with.
“I need a fighting butt on my saltwater rod”
Another piece of misinformation is that fighting butts are required on saltwater rods. A 9-foot rod is still 9 feet if it has an additional 3 inches of fighting butt on it. But your hand is 3 inches higher on the blank than it would be if the butt was normal. If you have a rod that is already too stiff, choking up on the blank is the last thing you want to do.
A fighting butt is helpful when you’re fighting the fish, but if this small amount of aid is at the expense of the cast, and makes it harder to get tight to the fish in the first place, it’s not worth it. If you’re a rod manufacturer, my advice is the same, though I’ll happily be more direct: dispense with the whole extension butt thing on your saltwater rods. It’s not that helpful and it makes casting harder.
“I want a large-arbor reel that puts out 20 pounds of drag”
Every time I read an article that says a large-arbor reel picks up line faster, my neck hair feels like it’s curling into so many tiny fists of protest. The fact is, the reel diameter and circumference are what determines how fast a reel picks up line. The arbor—which is buried under all your backing—has nothing to do with it. Period. A medium-arbor reel will hold more line than a large-arbor reel when they are both filled properly, but if they both have the same diameter they pick up line at the same rate. The only instance a large-arbor reel will pick up line faster than a medium-arbor reel is if they’re both down to the last few inches of backing.
If line pickup is something you are truly concerned about, get a reel with a larger diameter. The center of gravity will change only slightly, and my guess is that a few ounces is something your arms can handle. You’ll retrieve line quicker, and land the fish faster.
How much drag a reel should put out is another source of misinformation. I hear people regularly talk about reels with 20 pounds of drag—and this is ridiculous. I’m reminded of a certain tarpon reel that requires four whole revolutions of the drag knob before it gets to 2 pounds of drag, then in the last half turn jumps up to 9 pounds of drag. If you are so inclined, you can torque on the drag knob past where an ordinary person might, and add another 5 or 6 pounds, but at this point the knob is so tight that it’s hard to move in either direction. At 15 pounds of drag, the reel is barely usable.
You don’t need 20 pounds of drag—the reality is that it’s actually hard to hang on to the rod with that much drag on the reel. Get a reel with a consistent drag range throughout the revolutions of the knob and be done with it. If you think you need to put 20 pounds of drag on a fish, I wish you the best of luck with your anabolic steroid regimen.
“I want a heavier fly line to turn over big flies in the wind”
We are all aware that there is a rating system for the weights of fly lines. Every fly fisher knows that a 10-weight rod is lighter than an 11-weight, though what this means precisely is actually dictated by the American Fly Fishing Tackle Association (AFFTA) fly line standards. These standards prescribe a weight range for the first 30 feet of fly line to allow consumers to match rods with the proper lines.
Strangely, the unit of measure they use for fly line weights is the “grain weight” where one grain equal 0.065 grams. Today, grain weight is most commonly used to describe the weight of a bullet and the weight of a fly line. It might be time to update our unit of measurement, but fly line standards have an incredibly important intended purpose: They help consumers match the right rods to the right lines.
My issue with the rating system is that manufacturers don’t abide by it—not even a little bit. Manufacturers can (and do) make a 12-weight line and call it a 10-weight. It’s easy to beat up on the regulatory agencies when no one follows the rules, but we actually do need to know what kind of equipment we’re buying. AFFTA should be given credit for its attempt to create a basic system of measurements, which they’ve successfully done with reel feet—it’s their system that makes it possible to buy a Tibor reel and be certain it will fit on your Sage rod.
Fly rods are unencumbered by any quantifiable limits, so while an 8-weight line should be within a certain range of weight, a 8-weight rod is simply any rod that can throw an 8-weight line. But over time, rods have become stiffer (yet lighter) and lines have become heavier. Lines are now, quite often, at least a weight heavier, and in many instances two line weights heavier than the AFFTA standards. This makes some sense: when a rod is too stiff (see myth #1 above) an oversized line can make you feel like a better caster, as heavier lines are helpful when you’re trying to feel the rod load.
But in fact, these lines have an evil side to them—they make longer casts more difficult. Imagine you’re casting—during the backcast, the loop is unfurling quickly behind you. Now pause, and think about what’s going to happen next: The loop is going to completely unfurl, and after it does you are going make a forward cast. Perfect. But you’re missing a step in the process, one that your brain often overlooks while you’re casting. You have to stop the inertia in one direction before you restart it in the other, and this is necessary for every cast except the very last one. If your timing is off, the line kicks around and feeds slack into the system. Slack is the enemy of any fly cast.
Advanced casters—the ones who are designing these lines—are able to accommodate these heavier lines by feathering the line with their hauling hand, and with their rod hand by drifting back and slowing the loop to a stop as it unfurls. Great casters do this so naturally that they don’t know they’re doing it.
When an intermediate caster throws these same overweight lines with aggressive tapers, they find the casting easier for the first 30 or 40 feet. But when they challenge themselves to cast longer—as they are often asked to do by their guides—these tapers actually make casting more difficult. It’s an awful thing when the piece of gear you bought to help you actually limits your performance. It’s like a teenager with training wheels on his bike, trying to keep up with his friends riding on a single-track mountain bike course.
Stay away from the super heavy lines unless you’re specifically using it for a short-range situation. A line designed to solve one problem might actually make new ones later. A lack of form can’t be solved with a line, and it’s often better to work on your cast than it is to buy a fancy new line to punch your crab fly into the wind.
“I want to catch big fish fast, so I’m going to use a 30-pound-test leader”
This is the easiest topic for me to discuss, since it’s a passion of mine. When people fish for tarpon, they often use a leader that is totally overkill—and it’s actually bad for the fish. Big fish should be caught quickly, and we have an ethical obligation to do as little damage to them as possible. At first glance, it makes perfect sense that you’d expect to catch a fish faster with a heavier leader, though understanding why that’s not true takes a little insight. When I first moved to the Florida Keys, I thought that the IGFA leader limitations were stupid, and made it a point to use 40-pound-class leaders when tarpon fishing. I was wrong.
When you hook a fish on 16-pound or 20-pound class, you’re giving yourself every amount of strength you need to catch a fish quickly—provided you do it properly—but no more. After you do some practicing and hook even a small number of fish, you can figure out how to quickly subdue a big fish with an IGFA leader. With a much heavier leader, you’re doing yourself and the fish a disservice. If a shark shows up, or if you make a mistake, you can’t break the fish off. The fish gets eaten, or you actually land the fish, but you don’t learn how to properly pull on a fish. A heavier leader increases the probability of your success, but does so at the expense of either the fish or your own growth as an angler.
With a proper class tippet, you’re doing some valuable things. You’re giving the fish a chance to get away if you make a mistake. That’s an important learning lesson that shouldn’t be circumvented. You’re also taking part in a rich history of playing a sport by the rules, which is something I think is worthwhile.
*Nathaniel Linville owns The Angling Company in Key West, Florida.