Lighter, Faster, Stronger?
It's a common misconception that durability is sacrificed as fly rods become lighter, with thinner walls and narrower shafts. In fact, the opposite is true. Due to the expense of honoring warranty claims, most companies are seeking stronger materials and designs as a first priority. Weight savings are only an important (and marketable) byproduct.
G.Loomis Director of Engineering Steve Rajeff says that more than a year after the company introduced the NRX series, rod breakage rates are down compared to the heavier GLX series.
Shawn Combs, product development specialist at Orvis, and the man behind the new Helios 2, echoes that sentiment: "We haven't seen failure rates increase as rod weights have gone down. It has been quite the opposite. As we have explored new materials and construction, we have been able to increase rod strength and reduce weights at the same time."
Both Combs and Rajeff report that the majority of broken rods come from car doors, ceiling fans, booted feet, or falling on the rod—massive impacts no rod can survive.
The second most destructive impact is fishing related. "With increased use of heavily weighted flies, more tips have been broken by these mini missiles striking the rod tip on an errant cast. Like a rock hitting the windshield of your car, sometimes nothing much happens; other times, it starts a crack that grows," says Rajeff. "New resin systems are less prone to crack migrations, but some rod tips will simply not survive some impacts."
The most disturbing type of rod breakage comes while playing a fish. It's easy to blame the manufacturer when you hear that fatal "Pop!" right as you're about to land a fish, but based on what I've seen, fish don't break rods. "User error" is most often to blame if the rod breaks in the final phase of landing a fish.
"High sticking" or using the tip of the rod to pull a heavy fish toward you (see the photo to the right, or our cover photo) strain any fine casting tool to the point of potential failure. High-sticking works fine with a 12-inch trout, but heavy trout, false albacore at boatside, and other large fish will often snap the rod if you elevate the rod shaft to 90 degrees or beyond.
On a recent trip to Kamchatka I landed more than 100 big trout using a Morrish Mouse and 15-pound-test Maxima (a recipe for rod failure). I saved my rod tip by getting large trout into shallow water, and then quickly stripping out an arm's length of line from the reel and grabbing the leader with my hand. Hand-lining the trout at the final bell saved my rod in a place where a no-fault guarantee is meaningless—you need your rod for the rest of the trip.
High-sticking also happens when you net your own fish. Short-handle nets force you to bring a trout so close that you'll end up holding the rod too high, or actually angling it backward past the point of breakage. Get a long-handled net, or better yet, have your friend net large trout, and you won't have trouble with broken rod tips. New Trout Rod Review
G.Loomis NRX $775-[imo-slideshow gallery=62],150
NRX rods use a higher-density graphite not previously used by G.Loomis along with 3M Matrix Resin to produce a rod series that is 15% lighter and 20% more impact resistant than the previous GLX series. Our testers have used these rods on everything from Missouri River carp to Dean River steelhead, but they don't report back on 'techy stuff ' like the nano-silica particles in the resin, or Ion Coated Recoil Guides. They just like the way it casts, with a delicate touch at close range (read: it loads at actual fishing distances) and plenty of 'ooomph! ' to push a long cast when you really need it. When first introduced, the rods were only available in matte black with blue trim, but NRX green color schemes (shown) are available in every size/model along with a matching green graphite rod tube.
Hardy Zenith One Piece $640-$680
Saltwater anglers love 1-piece rods because they can leave them strung up in the boat for months and never worry about the ferrules getting stuck. Because they have no ferrules, the rods are also stronger and lighter than standard 4-piece rods. Trout fishermen also own boats, and with the new 4- through 7-weight freshwater 1-piece Zenith rods from Hardy, they can leave the rods in the drift boat all summer, and never have the ferrules wiggle loose while casting or fighting a fish. The rods are 8'10" instead of the standard 9-foot length, and the 5-weight model weighs a mere 2.89 ounces. The rods use Sinitrix nano-silica reinforced resin for lightweight strength, have Recoil titanium guides, and corrosion-resistant aluminum reel seats.
Orvis Helios 2 $795-$850
Orvis Helios rods are the lightest fly rods ever made, and when they appeared in the fall of 2007, they precipitated an era of skinny rods where almost everyone shed weight. Fast-forward to the fall of 2012 and Helios rods are still the lightest rods on the market (by a much slimmer margin) but Orvis is eclipsing them with the introduction of Helios 2. On the face of it, 'the second coming ' of the Helios brand seems unnecessary. Like New Coke, it can be a bad idea to fix something that isn't broken. Put another way, 'How in the world do you improve on your company's lightest, best-selling rod ever? ' This is what Orvis rod designer Shawn Combs asked himself before accepting the task. His solution was to make the rod stronger, more impact resistant, and to feel lighter in the hand by changing the tapers and therefore the swing weight. 'We've increased the impact strength in the tips of these rods by 100 percent, and made the tips lighter at the same time, giving you less fatigue when casting, and more sensitivity. But what's even more important is the additional horsepower you get from your casting stroke. A fly rod can be viewed as an infinite series of springs that transition from stiff at the cork to very flexible at the tip. We've virtually tuned each spring to work perfectly within the system to give you the smoothest possible power curve during casting. ' Our tester used Helios 2 rods extensively in both fresh and salt water, and says Orvis has hit another home run. 'Don't think of it as New Coke, it's more like a new iPhone. With the new colors and hardware, and new tapers to fit every fishing situation, everyone will want this upgrade. '
Redington Link $350-$380
Redington says its new Link rods are 15% lighter — and stronger — than any previous models, thanks to a change from fiberglass scrim to lighter carbon fibers that have a high strength-to-weight ratio. (The scrim is made up of fibers that are wrapped crossways on the mandrel and give the rod its hoop strength.) Link rods use Redington's ExoCarbon technology, which also adds extra carbon fiber overlays to the butt and ferrules to increase strength, durability, and lifting power. Available in 15 models ranging from 3- to 10-weights, Link rods (and the aluminum tube) are black with glacial blue trim.
Sage CIRCA $745-$775
In the late 1980s Sage changed the world of performance fly tackle by introducing rods that were stiffer, faster, and with 'higher-modulus graphite. ' The rest of the fly-fishing industry followed suit but 25 years later, things may have come full circle as Sage is now using its modern technology and design techniques to produce a retro feel in its new CIRCA series. In a video promoting the new series, rod designer Jerry Siem says the CIRCA has a 'fishing tempo ' like fiberglass or bamboo rods, but better tracking and accuracy. 'My goal for this rod was to apply the performance advantages of modern materials on a very sleek, slender shaft that would load down in the hand for a fishing tempo like glass or bamboo while providing the crucial need for accuracy, ' said Siem. CIRCA rods won the 'Best Fly Rod ' award at the EFTTEX show in Paris in June, and both 'Best Freshwater Rod ' and overall 'Best of Show ' at the American Fly Fishing Trade Association show in Reno. Obviously, industry peers love the rod, but will consumers? Our tester used this rod on Wyoming rivers and stillwaters in late 2012 and said it should come with a word of warning: 'This isn't your regular jack-of-all-trades fly rod. It's a highly specialized match-the-hatch tool for relaxed fly fishers who can pick and choose their fishing. If you're the type who can sit and smoke a cigar on Flat Creek, and wait for the PMDs to come off, this rod might be a good match for you. If you want to throw Chernobyl Ants all day through wind and rain, then you might look elsewhere. ' CIRCA rods have a green tea colored shaft with olive and slate trim wraps. There are six different 4-piece models from 2-weight through 5-weight.
Sage ONE $715-$740
Our testers spent the spring and summer of 2012 using the ONE everywhere from Tierro del Fuego to remote rivers in Kamchatka and the urban tributaries of Lake Erie. The rods are light as advertised, and noticeably slimmer with low-profile ferrules intended to cut weight and create a more sensitive stick. The result is a rod that gives feedback during the cast. 'There are many great rods out there, but this is 'the one ' that makes me a better caster, ' said our tester. 'I'm on target more often, get better distance in the wind, and I feel like I make fewer errors when I use this rod. ' ONE single-handed rods range from 3- to 10-weights, in 22 models. The blanks are a glossy black Sage calls 'Black Ice ' and the rods come in a black graphite rod tube. Sage also sells a version called ONE Elite ([imo-slideshow gallery=62],295). It's a 9' 5-weight with a titanium reel seat and laser-etched logo end cap, titanium stripper guides with ceramic inserts, and a titanium winding check. Sage's most expensive rod also comes with a spare tip.
Scott A4W $425
Theresa Van Nooten does the finishing work at Scott Fly Rods including the fine calligraphy of the brand name, make, and model on the rod shaft. She's a dedicated fly fisher who lives near the Gunnison, and takes full advantage of it. Her friends call her a she-man (pronounced schmaan) 'because all I talk about is fishing and building fly rods. ' She liked the affordable performance of the A4 series, and the low physical weight, and in her spare time made herself a 4-piece 5-weight with lightweight guides, and a modified wells grip she personally sanded to comfortably fit her hands. Soon her friends were asking for the same rod, and it became the A4W women's fly rod. Like other A4s, it uses Scott's low-mass sleeve ferrule design and a multi-modulus design to get to a low blank weight.
St. Croix Legend Elite $410-$520
We asked our tester for a few sentences about the performance of the fast-action Legend Elite. Instead we received a book chapter that concluded, 'The technology behind the Legend Elite (and some of St. Croix's other top series) is what sets this rod apart. ' A mandrel is the steel template that creates the rod taper — thicker at the base and narrower at the top just like the rod itself. However, according to St. Croix, when most mandrels are machined, they have distinct transition points where they graduate from one diameter to the next. When graphite fabric is wrapped around the mandrels, these transition points can create spots with varying wall thicknesses. In some places the rod wall may be thicker or thinner, resulting in dead spots or weaker breaking points. St. Croix's Integrated Poly Curve (IPC) technology re-engineers the way mandrels are made, creating a smoother base to build the rod on. The result is a rod with uniform wall thickness throughout — no dead spots or Achilles heel that fails at just the wrong moment. In addition to IPC, St. Croix sandwiches extra layers of a secret carbon fiber material between layers of graphite fiber (St. Croix calls it Advanced Reinforcing Technology or ART) to make the rod stronger and stop the rod from 'ovaling ' under heavy loads. It also uses lasers to align the handle, blank, and guides, and a urethane shim to fasten the reel seat for strength and lightness. In layman's terms, the science behind the Legend Elite equates to one helluva nice fishing rod. Freshwater 4-piece rods are available in 3- through 10-weights.
Winston Boron III-SX $795-$895
When Winston first introduced rods containing boron, the Montana company advertised a product that was lighter, stiffer, and faster. In the ensuing years Winston amplified the effect with Boron MX and then Boron IIIx rods. In November 2013 the company pushed the bar a little higher with Boron III-SX rods — think of it a little like adding a bottle of nitrous oxide to your Mustang. According to Winston, SX stands for 'Super ' fast-action rods with more power and strength than previous iterations of Boron. The III-SX rods have been specially designed to handle popular specialty lines like the RIO Clouser and Outbound, and SA Titan and Magnum lines, as well as regular WF tapers. Our tester used them on Alberta's Bow River to throw hoppers against the bank, and control indicator and double nymph rigs at long distances. 'These rods are pretty to look at, but don't let that fool you, ' he said. 'These are serious casting tools for heavy lines, big flies, and long distances. ' The rods have silver trim wraps around the logo, and silver-anodized aluminum reel seats, each engraved with 'R.L. Winston Rod Co. ' on the end cap. Available in 4- through 12-weights.