Orvis Helios 3
To Find a solution, you have to better understand the problem. That's why rod designers at Orivs spent years coming up with a qualitative, repeatable method of measuring the horizontal oscillations of a rod as it tracks along what is supposed to be a straight path, and also the bounce-back after the rod is supposed to stop. Many perceived faults in a rod handle in a static position, deflect the blank to precise positions, and then use high-speed photography and digital plotting to detect and measure these unwanted vibrations that hurt your casting.
Once Orvis found a reliable testing method, rod designer Shawn Combs used the data to choose from hundreds of combinations of new carbon fibers, resigns, tapers, and construction methods to design a rod with fewer of these liabilities. The result is the new Orvis Helios 3D (distance) and 3F (finesse).
Here's just one small way the data inspired a change in methods: Every carbon fire tube has a spine (often referred to as spline) created when sheets of carbon fiber are rolled and joined. The spine used to be an important contributor to the strength and stiffness of a rod, and helped manufactures align the rod guides appropriately. But as materials improved, the spine became less relevant to how rods flex and then unloaded. According to Combs, Orivs stopped spinning rods altogether for more than a decade.
With the new testing, however, Combs found concrete evidence that having the line guides in sync with the rod spine reduces oscillation during the casting stroke. It adds an extra time-consuming step to the manufacturing process, but all Helios 3 rod are now spined and aligned to help reduce this variability.
While the new materials and processes in the Helios 3 also make the rods lighter and stronger, none of that is really important compared to smooth, straight tracking of the Helios 3 and the following dead stop that puts your fly on target more often. User error is still always a possibility, but imperfections introduced by this casting tool are not. It's the most precise trout rod I've every held in my hand. $850-900|Orvis.com
Anglers who track development in tackle have undoubtedly noticed the uptick in application-specific fly rods in recent seasons, a steady but fairly minor trend typically involving the annual appearance of a new streamer or muskie stick here, a couple of Euro nymph rods there. But this year G.Loomis doubled down on the idea in a major way with its fast-action IMX-PRO Series, a selection of 15 "purpose driven designs" tailored to the specifications of professional fishing guides to optimize performance with particular techniques. Most are trout models; all use Conduit Core in the lower half to shave weight for better casting comfort and increased power.
According to Red Kulper of G.Loomis, "Conduit Core is a new scrim/resin combination that rod designer Steve Rajeff used in the bottom half of the rod to reduce weight (most significantly) in the butt section of the rod, noticeably improving swing weight when compared to rods without the new scrim. The reduction in mass improves the transfer and distribution of energy, and boosts the rod's recovery rate."
I spent some time with the 9' 5-weight. The feeling of rod weight placed back toward the grip and the crisp, responsive top end make it a pleasing match for anglers who enjoy tip-casting quick, tight-looped darts. With a standard 5-weight line it lays out small to midsize dry flies smartly with sufficient forgiveness in the tip to protect lighter tippets.
But this rod really comes into its own when used for applications that have become standard operating procedure in today's trout fishing, particularly in the West: drilling out big, foam-boiled patterns, wind-resistant drys; bulky or heavier streamers; hopper/dropper setups; and indicator rigs-the primary purposes for which the rod was designed. And for this heavier lifting, you'll profit from bumping up a line size (or size and a half) to bring the middle of the shaft into play and better turn over bigger payloads. On a very windy day, I even strung up a standard 7-weight; the rod handled it quite neatly at short to middle distances.
These more dynamic fishing techniques require a rod that can deliver the freight without taxing your arm unnecessarily, folding up, or bouncing around under a load. The IMX-PRO showed none of these deficiencies and proved particularly advantageous in fishing from a drift boat or raft; you can pick up a fly and set it back down quickly instead of watching prime water slide by while you strip in line and false cast. You can tighten up loops for throwing dry or unweighted flies, or open them up for chucking and dangerously weighted stuff that's best kept a safe distance from the rod tip. Even with the energy loss inherent in wider loops, the rod summoned the muscle to close the deal. And it has a nice balance in the hand for imparting action to bulky flies designed to push water, for stack mending, or for any technique entailing quick, repetitive wrist movements.
I can't speak to all 15 rods in the series, but the 9' 5-weight does just what it's supposed to. It offers some versatility, and though not my top choice for a general-purpose rod, it facilitates fishing techniques and circumstances so widespread in trout fishing these days that the rod rises above a narrow, niche, specialty stick. $500-575| gloomis.com
The newest Winston draws its design from the company's premium boron rods, and uses some of the same multi-modulus material but in an all-graphite shaft. The deflection profile of the NIMBUS is also similar to the Boron IIIx, a fast progressive action with what Winston terms a "mid-tip flex taper"-a shaft that bends most perceptibly from mid-ferrule to tip. What that brings to the fishing is a rod that steadily, uniformly, and seamlessly enlists more power as load increases and–
something Winston has always rightly prided itself on–
a smooth, even, fluid feel throughout the range of casting distances.
It's no secret that fast rods, as a group, tend to mediocrity at closer ranges; they require an energetic stroke to load with a shorter line, which compromises accuracy and takes more work cut above the pack, loading with an easier stroke and delivering the goods close in. This rod has great "touch" and is capable of surprisingly gentle presentations for a fast action. The shaft has stream strikes–a lovely rod for drifting tiny drys and swinging junk–tungsten-head streamers and cumbersome indicator rigs–while easily forming the more open loops that are a wise precaution hurling heavy ordnance.
In short, the NIMBUS performs just as an all-around rod should, and this versatility extends to a performance category that seems to me underappreciated–response to changes in line size. Many anglers are reluctant to diverge from the rated line size, perhaps because some rods react poorly to it. Overlining many very stiff, "tippy" rods, for instance, just makes them feel like slightly less-stiff rods with sloppy, uncontrollable top ends. But a progressive-action rod, and the NIMBUS in particular, lends itself well to moving up a line size or more. Under the added load, this rod just flexes more deeply and delivers the same smooth, stable cast.
Changing line size not only allows you (within limits) to fine-tune the feel of the rod, but it can help to optimize performance with a wider range of fly types and techniques. I strung the NIMBUS with a variety of line types and weights, and it accepted them all with a ready adaptability. While a standard 5-weight was satisfactory, I found a half size heavy to be even better, especially at shorter distances. But in the end, for everyday all-around use, I'd choose a standard 6-weight (160-grain) line, which improves the short game even more and gives better turnover with wind-resistant patterns, indicators, dropper rigs, and long leaders. I even chucked some truly brutish stuff on a 170-grain line; the rod took it in stride. And it handily managed both full-sinking and single-hand Spey lines.
On those abundant days when you could end up throwing anything from a #20 Jujubee Midge to a #4 Bunny Leech, what serves as a solidly performing, general-purpose rod. Like this one. $650-750| winstonrods.com
In 1976, San Fransisco was ground zero in the world of graphite fly rod design. Golden Gate Casting Club member Jimmy Green with Fenwick hand just recently introduced graphite fly rods to the consumer public, Tom Morgan was the new owner of the R.L. Winston Rod Co., and Harry Wilson–
who had started the Scott Fly Rod Company in a basement on Cook Street just a few years earlier–
introduced the world's first 9-foot 4-weight graphite rod.
Wilson called it the G rod, and with its groundbreaking internal ferrule it quickly became the foundation product that built the entire Scott Fly Rod brand. In 1993 Scott moved its factory to Colorado, and in 2006 the G was re-engineered to become the G2. By today's standards, the G2 was a slow, deep-flexing rod. It developed a cult-like following in the Rockies because it was easy to load at trout-fishing distances, and amplified your enjoyment of even small and medium-size fish.
With the recent introduction of the G-Series, Scott can lay claim to having the longest-running continuous graphite fly rod series–even if it's the name only, because the G-Series is a completely different animal. Like the G2, the finish on the G-Series is brown with gold trim, and the rod is miraculously easy to bend. With the G-Series it's easier to be accurate because you're never trying to muscle your way through it. Your hand talks, and the rod listens.
The new G-Series is much lighter than its predecessor. More important, with modern material, technology, and design elements borrowed from the Radian and Meridian series, the rod recovers (comes back to the straight position) much quicker than you'd expect from such an easy-loading rod, even when your reach out to distances beyond its intended range like 60 and 70 feet. It also tracks straighter and comes to a stop with less wobble than the old G2, which means you'll hit the target more often with less frustration and fatigue.
It's hard to redesign an American classic, because like a Ford Mustang or a favorite pair of Levis, so many people have fond memories that it leaves little room for improvement. But Scott has hit a home run with this one. It's retro in all the right ways, but gives you a bigger window to work in terms of distances, wind, fly size, and the species you can tackle. It's a rod that will be winning fans and catching fish for another decade. $845| scottflyrod.com
Thomas & Thomas Exocett SS
The successful Thomas & Thomas Exocett saltwater series turned heads when it hit the market two years ago, and showed it has more that just technology and slick components. The series hits an appetizing balance between weight and power, where the casting is so tactile and rewarding, it's almost suprising to feel the power in the rod when it's time to do the dirty work of lifting and pulling–
perhaps part of the reason the Exocett has become a common fixture at some of the Earth's most challenging saltwater locations. But an interesting thing happened with this "saltwater" series. I started to also see it in the hands of fishermen in Africa with tigerish, cradled under the bellies of golden dorado in the freshwater streams of Bolivia, and in my own hands fishing in Mongolia.
The Exocett, it seems, isn't just for salt water. With that in mind, rod designers at T&T came up with the newest iterations called Exocett SS, two 8'8" rods with steep taper at the tip end, so they have extra lifting power for sinking-tip lines, and for casting heavier short-head floating lines. I used the 350-grain Exocett SS at the annual Cheeky School Tournament, and throughout the day used increasingly larger flies (to keep small stripers off my fly) and heavier sinking tips (to sink below small stripers) and while I never did find bigger stripers, I did find there was almost nothing this rod couldn't handle. For heavy lifting, carrying short lengths of heavy heads, and for drilling large flies into a headwind, the Exocett SS (also available in a 250-grain version) is also perfect for muskie and pike fishing; largemouth bass in heavy cover; for snook under the lights, docks, and other structure; and for baby tarpon snacking within the mangroves. $825| thomasandthomas.com
Saltwater fishing isn't just about catching tarpon, bonefish, and permit from the platform of a flats skiff. It's about blue-collar fish like striped bass from a New Jersey jetty, corbina in the wash of the California surf, snook under the dock lights, and tripzletail hanging around crab pot makers. I first used a 10-weight CRUX to put the boots to several 25- to 30-pound jack crevalle, and then was pleasantly surprised to find out the fast-action CRUX isn't strictly a saltwater rod. It comes in line weights from a 10 down to a 7'6" 3-weight.
CRUX rods have slim-profile rod blanks and what Redington describes as a "line speed taper" with greater lifting power and stiffer tips to pick up and carry line, or drive powerful casts into the wind. With the 10-weight, I found a rod strong enough to quickly pressure jacks away from shrimp boat rigging, land them quickly, and get back in the game. In a shoot-out with a pile of jacks there are usually casualties, but even though the 10-weight bounced against boat gunwales, wrapped around the outboard, and became entangled in the trim tabs a few times, it held up–and even landed a few unintentional sharks.
In the smaller line weights the rod is still a workhorse, and the extra tip strength pays dividends for mending and nymphing with a strike indicator, and for streamer fishing big rivers. The "angled key grip" made from composite cork material gives you extra durability right where you need it. The reel seats are saltwater-safe anodized aluminum with built-in hook keepers and line ID printed on an enlarged reel foot hood. Each rod section has alignment dots, and the rods come in a lined Cordura rod tube with sewn dividers. $400|redington.com
Sage SALT HD
Sage's KonnetichHD technology uses smaller carbon fibers with less gap between them for a high-density lay-up with less resign, and a better strength-to-weight ratio. (It's like a hamburger with more beef, and less filler.) In the Sage X rod series, that technology translated into light, responsive rods with incredible sensitivity. Sage took that same attribute in the opposite direction with the SALT HD, using the densely packed fibers to give saltwater junkies more strength and incredible lifting power.
The rod has beautiful cosmetics with a squid ink blank, electric blue trim, a black anodized reel seat with the line weight laser-etched on the one-way alignment sliding band, oversized Fuji ceramic stripping guides, and a full wells cork grip. But don't fooled by the luxury exterior, as under the hood the SALT HD is actually a muscle car.
How stiff is it? Comparisons are often helpful in fly fishing to describe how a Trico is just two sizes smaller than a Blue-winged Olive, or that Rock Creek, Montana is about the same size as the Crowsnest River, Alberta. But there's nothing in the fly world that compares to the stiffness and power of this rod. It's in a class by itself.
If you can bend it properly, it gives you an effective fishing range of 80 or 90 feet with minimal false casting. Long-range shots are great for two reasons: #1 the fish don't see you, and #2 if a fish doesn't eat, you still have time for the highly underrated second shot that gives you another chance–and a little more data to work with, like the speed and pace of the fish and direction of the wind. Often, the second shot is your best opportunity. However, the problem with most saltwater rods is that while they allow a long first cast, they don't have the power to lift all that line and quickly make another shot. Instead, you have to strip in line to cast, and by then the fish is gone. I used the 11-weight SALT HD tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys and loved the rod for exactly that reason. Not just the long range of the first cast, but the range you can lift and cast again, and again as a string of tarpon move past. When I hooked up, the SALT HD had enormous power to lean on fish and control them, and it was easy to imagine how that lifting and fighting power would translate to sinking lines for inshore rips, or off-shore with heavy lines for tuna and albacore.
For flats fishing on cloudy and/or windy days where you don't expect to see the fish until 60 feet or less, I strongly suggest you overlain the SALT HD by at least one line size. The 11-weight SALT HD casts a 12-weight line easily at what most people would consider "normal" sight-casting ranges. $950| sageflyfish.com