When I was a fly-fishing guide, and I had beginners in my boat, I remember my frequent first admonition when they hooked a trout was "keep your rod tip up!"
When I became a client on my first Florida tarpon trip, the guide yelled "keep the rod tip low!" while I was fighting my first fish.
This is one of fly fishing's age-old conundrums. When you hook a fish, do you keep your rod tip up or down? The answer to that question is, of course, "it depends."
In trout fishing, whether you are nymphing or dry-fly fishing, you are often engaged in slackline presentations. Reach mends, parachute casts, puddle casts, and wiggle casts all are intended to throw slack into the line with the goal of dead-drifting the fly. And when you are fishing in a river you are often casting upstream, with the current naturally bringing the fly toward you, all the while adding slack into the system.
When the trout takes the fly, raising the rod tip is the quickest and most effective way to remove slack from the system and keep the line tight between you and the fish. A slack line helps you hook the fish, and a tight line helps you land a fish.
Apart from being a casting implement, your fly rod is a giant shock absorber. A big part of the "natural presentation" mantra in trout fishing comes from using thin-diameter tippet so the fly drifts naturally and unencumbered. To protect this delicate connection to your quarry, you must keep your rod tip high so the flex of your rod acts as a buffer, cushioning your tippet against the thrashing head shakes of a truly large trout.
The same thing is true with small flies. When you're using a size 20 or size 22 fly, you hold the fish by an insignificant thread of flesh that can easily rip or tear, so a softer rod tip and high rod angle become paramount.
When a trout, bonefish, or permit takes off running there's another reason to keep the rod tip high: Coral heads, small mangroves, rocks, drowned logs, and boulders can snag the line or cut your leader in an instant. Holding your rod high helps avoid these potential pitfalls and helps you guide the line should the fish take a 90-degree turn around an obstacle.
I can't tell you how many times I've taken off running after a large trout after it runs hard down the creek past a logjam, then makes a hard right turn as the stream changes direction. I chase with the rod tip held high, watching the trout do a giant slalom around instream deadfall and boulders. A high rod tip gives you an overhead straightline connection to the fish, and the angle of the rod and line gives you the opportunity to navigate possible obstructions.
A high rod tip also puts drag on the line. When the fish switches to "turbo" mode, you don't want to adjust the drag on your reel to change the drag on the fish. Each line guide creates friction against the fly line, and when a fish is moving away quickly on a light drag setting (on the reel), a high rod tip creates friction, slowing the fish and making it work harder to take line, while still maintaining the cushioning effect of the rod.
It's obvious that there are many times when a high rod tip is your best option for keeping connected, especially when the tippet is fragile and your most important objective is to avoid breakage. Most trout tire themselves out. Don't break the line, stay connected for a few minutes, and you'll soon have that trout in the net.
But light pressure is a distinct disadvantage when you are in open water, using heavy tippet, and dealing with exceptionally large fish. With a big permit, tarpon, or a Chinook salmon you cannot play the waiting game, or else you'll be waiting a very long time.
And with any trophy quarry, time is your #1 enemy. As the fight progresses the pressure on the hook causes the hook hole to become larger and larger. Each jump, each head shake, each twist and turn is another opportunity for that hook to become unbuttoned. And with truly large fish like tarpon, tuna, and salmon, that are genetically programmed to swim thousands of miles, the light pressure from a rod tip will never wear them out.
And if you intend to release the fish, a long fight is the antithesis of a good game plan. A long fight causes oxygen depletion in the muscle tissue and the resulting lactic acid can kill the fish, or make it so weak and slow it can't survive after the release. And in salt water there is the constant danger of sharks showing up. The quicker you can land the fish and release it, the greater its odds of survival.
Measure Your Efforts
Legendary saltwater guide Stu Apte taught me everything I needed to know about rod angles in the parking lot of his home in Tavernier, Florida, nearly two decades ago.
Apte held a Chatillon scale tied to the tippet of my tarpon line, and I stood 80 feet across the parking lot from him. He encouraged me to hold the rod high and see how much weight (or pressure) I could register on the scales. I cranked the line tight on the reel and levered the rod tip high against the scale, but all I could was produce with that 12-weight rod was about 4 pounds of steady pressure, and occasional bursts of up to 5 pounds of pressure.
By pointing the rod directly at the scale like a Roman soldier with a spear, and pulling the rod away from the target (or stepping back) I could produce 16 or 18 pounds of pressure — near the limit of IGFA-legal fly-fishing tippet.
Many saltwater guides talk about using the stiffer butt of the rod to exert pressure, and indeed that's a significant step up in pressuring a fish. As you lower the rod tip, and bring the rod butt section down from 90 degrees to 45 degrees or less, the rod butt becomes more engaged, and you can actually pull the fish using the strongest part of the rod.
When you use your rod butt to pressure a fish like this, avoid lifting straight up. Control the fish's head by levering the rod to the downstream side. This way, the fish has to work harder against both your rod pressure, and against the current. With a strictly upward lift, it's easier for the fish to use the current to push it toward the bottom—away from you.
But even with the rod angled down to 30 or 40 degrees, the flex of the rod still significantly saps the actual "pull" you exert on the fish. For maximum pressure on truly large fish you must take the rod out of the equation completely. Think of it this way, when your fly is hooked on the bottom of a river and you are forced to break the line, you don't raise your rod tip to break the line. You'll find with each upward lift that the rod flexes, the line stretches, and it's difficult to break the line.
If you've ever hooked the bottom using heavy line you'll know that you have to point the rod directly at the fly and pull the rod backward or even step back to snap the tippet, and this is exactly how you exert maximum pressure on a trophy gamefish.
Only with a big game you don't want to break the line, and this is where a great reel comes into play. Instead of using the rod tip to cushion say a 4-pound-test or 6-pound-test tippet, a smooth, high-performance reel can exert 12 or 14 pounds of smooth pressure on the fish.
Keep the rod low, with the rod tip pointed at the fish, and the reel becomes the critical factor in whether you land the fish or not. Crank up the tension and you'll whip the fish quickly. Be careful: turn it up too much and you may exceed the breaking strength of the line and break off the fish.
Of course, pointing the rod at the fish is easy if the fish is some distance away in shallow water. In deep water (like when you are tuna fishing) or in the final moments of the fight with any trophy, the fish is often too close to get a straight-line pull, and you may have to resort to using the rod butt to lift the fish. This is when many rods are broken: The fish comes close, you keep lifting the rod tip higher and higher as the fish comes closer and closer, and eventually the rod comes past 90 degrees to where it's behind you, over your shoulder. Snap! This is where many rods break
Never "high-stick" a big fish like this. Use the rod butt to lift, and step backward to pull the fish toward the hands of your fishing companion. Keep the rod in front of you—in your forward field of vision—and it should survive. Fly rods can take a great deal of pressure in that direction.
G.Loomis PRO-4x $480-$575 (Switch Rod)
About a year ago, G.Loomis introduced its new PRO-4x rod series — rods that mimic the actions of the top-of-the-line NRX series because they share the same tapers, but they don't use the same expensive resin systems and carbon fibers as G.Loomis's best-performing rods. What you're left with is a series of well-designed rods that are fun to cast, and affordable enough that you can get more than one. Initially, the PRO-4x was a family of single-handed rods, but in 2014 it's expanding to include switch and two-handed models for everything from trout fishing in big rivers to true Spey casting for anadromous species.
Like previous PRO-4x rods, the switch and two-handed models use some tapers from the more expensive NRX series, so if you like the 13-foot, 8/9-weight NRX, you're likely to appreciate the same rod in the PRO-4x series. But you're even more likely to enjoy the price difference. With a trout rod, a PRO-4x is about $280 cheaper, but when you get into switch and Spey rods, the savings run up to $500 and more, and you still get much of the 'feel ' of a performance rod.
Although the series is based on NRX tapers, there are some original gems in the family. The 10'6" 5-weight PRO-4x has no equivalent in the NRX series, yet our tester thought it was 'the perfect trout switch rod. While most switch rods are actually too long and too heavy for extended use with one hand, this one is a real multipurpose tool that you can Czech nymph with, hit a snap-T when the bank is tight behind you, or cast dry flies to rising trout. ' gloomis.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video G. Loomis Pro-4x
For other award winners see our 2014 Gear Guide Awards
Orvis Helios 2 Switch $885 (Switch Rod)
When rod designer Shawn Combs set out to add switch rods to the popular Helios 2 rod family, he had the same parameters — a 20% reduction in swing weight, and a 20% increase in strength.
'When we were designing the Helios 2 switch rods, we wanted to reduce their swing weight (from the original Helios) without sacrificing any power or accuracy, ' explained Combs. 'The H2's steep tapers allowed us to keep more mass in the butt section for fish fighting and longer casts, but the rods are still light enough to overhand cast like a 10-footer. '
Like the single-handed H2s, the switch rods have midnight blue blanks, crushproof REC Recoil guides, California buckeye burl reel seats with black-nickel skeletons, cork handles, and cork-composite on the top and bottom of the handle. The rods will be available in five different 11-foot models, from 5-weights through 9-weights. orvis.com
Redington Dually $250 (Switch Rod)
Price has been an obstacle for many fly fishers wanting to get into two-handed rods. It's not that there haven't been inexpensive rods out there, but that there haven't been good inexpensive rods. It seems 2014 is the breakthrough year when you don't have to break the bank to get a decent Spey or switch rod, and the Dually definitely falls into this category. Available in 4- through 8-weights in switch, and 6- through 8-weight Spey models, the Dually is a simple casting tool with an all-cork handle and alignment dots for easy setup. redington.com
Redington Vapen $350
Yes, there's an interesting story behind the blank of the new Redington Vapen Red — the X-Wrap Blank Technology creates a lightweight, quick rod with surprising power — but the bright red PowerGrip handle is what really turns heads.
Redington collaborated with the golf club grip company Winn Grips to develop the advanced polymer grip that has better traction than cork, feels softer and more comfortable in your hand, yet is firm enough that it doesn't drain power when you want to push a powerful cast into the wind. We tested this rod (and grip) extensively at Deneki Outdoors Andros South Lodge, and found many other advantages — it doesn't pick up dirt like cork, it's easier to clean, and it doesn't chip, dent, or flake. It was tactile and easy to grip and apply force in the tropics where sweat, sunscreen, and bonefish slime can quickly make a cork handle as hard to hold as a bar of soap.
The Vapen is also available with a regular cork handle for $50 less, and although it won Best Saltwater Rod at the 2013 International Fly Tackle Dealer show, it comes in a range of weights from 3- through 12-weight, making it just as applicable in fresh water. redington.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video Redington Vapen
Sage Method $800-[imo-slideshow gallery=148],050
Although Sage isn't officially calling this a saltwater rod, we tested the new fast-action Method on the bonefish flats of South Andros Island and found it's the perfect tool for launching long, accurate casts in calm conditions where you can see the fish coming (and they can see you) from a long way off. And it's just as effectively when the wind is howling, and you need to make a powerful cast right into the teeth of a gale.
But since there are also 4- to 6-weights with wood insert real seats in the rod family, and nine different Spey and switch models, it's much more than a saltwater series — it's a high-performance casting tool for people who enjoy pushing the ceiling higher and higher.
'Sage's DNA is synonymous with fast-action rods, and through Konnetic Technology, we've taken seriously smooth, ultra-fast action performance to a new place entirely, ' said Sage chief rod designer, Jerry Siem. 'Our newest high-performance rods will make any caster better, but will also help experienced casters notch exceptional casts with regularity. ' sageflyfish.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video Sage Method
For other award winners see our 2014 Gear Guide Awards
Sage Pike & Musky $595
Everyone knows about Sage's Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass II rods — deeply loading rods for big flies and big fish in warmwater situations. Sage has now created two more specialty species-oriented rods, the Pike and the Musky. These rods have the same cosmetics and hardware as the 7'9" tournament-inspired rods in the Bass II series, but are 9' long and designed to throw even bigger flies, and they also have oversized stripping guides and extended fighting butts.
The Pike rod is a 9' 10-weight, and the Musky is a 9' 11-weight, and each comes with an appropriate floating Pike or Musky line. Our testers used both models on Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, for pike up to 50 inches, and found they were perfectly suited to giant flies up to 18 inches, and surface-churning topwater bugs that attract monster pike in shallow bays. sageflyfish.com
Scott Radian $795
Sometimes it's major improvements to rod blank technology that set a new rod apart. Other times, it's little functional switch-ups and cosmetic changes that woo consumers. In the case of the new Radian, it's both. Jim Bartschi and his crew at Scott Fly Rods have hit a home run.
The Radian uses Scott's X-Core design to create a wide, stable tube with thin, sensitive walls, along with ReAct technology to speed rod recovery time and reduce vibrations when the rod stops. Getting rid of these extra 'wobbles ' has been a goal of rod designers for a long time, and Scott seems to have brought us a step forward with a rod that casts with crispness and authority, but still has the feeling of connection you need in a trout tool.
And while some might consider a rod handle 'cosmetic ' I'd have to disagree. Your grip, and the handle on the rod, can affect the way you cast, and a full wells grip reduces hand fatigue and is a better grip for a wider range of distances and conditions. Sage did it last year with the ONE series, and we may be seeing the beginning of a trend here with the full wells grip on the Scott Radian.
Another improvement is the REC wood-insert reel seat with an uplocking ring Bartschi calls 'self-indexing. ' What this means is that you don't have to spin the reel seat ring to find a proper alignment for the reel foot. It's always perfectly aligned in relation to the forward hood under the handle. It's a very small thing — and no one has ever failed to seat their reel properly due to lack of a self-indexing reel seat — but it shows that Scott is thinking about consumers, and considering just about every possible path to make things slicker and more convenient.
Other small details like Universal Snake guides with curved, 'radiused ' feet that fit slimmer on a rounded blank; alignment dots; and measuring wraps on the blank all add up to a rod that has forward-thinking design and higher performance in mind. The fly-fishing industry seems to agree, as the rod won Best Freshwater Rod at the 2013 International Fly Tackle Dealer show, and also overall Best in Show. The 4-piece rods are available in 4- to 8-weight models. scottflyrod.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video Scott Radian
For other award winners see our 2014 Gear Guide Awards
St. Croix Legend X $480-$490
The black Xtreme Skin handle on St. Croix's newest rod series is durable, easy to clean, and is solidly adhered directly to the rod blank in thin layers. Think of it as a handle that is painted millimeter by millimeter right onto the blank in the Park Falls, Wisconsin, factory. The solid Xtreme Skin handle gives you greater feel with what's going on at the other end of the rod because of this direct contact with the blank, and there's no dampening effect caused by the cork and glue in traditional handles.
The rods also have a new combination of four carbon fiber materials, chosen and designed for the extra casting power needed for large flies, and for fighting large fish. The rods have custom, saltwater-safe reel seats, fighting butts, and Fuji K-series stripping guides to prevent tangles when shooting long casts. Built with bass, pike, and muskies in mind, the 9' rods are available in 7- through 10-weights. stcroixrods.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video St. Croix Legend X
Winston Boron III LS $795
The hallmark of boron is its powerful strength-to-weight ratio, but you don't need a big gun for most dry-fly situations. What Winston has done with the new Boron III LS series is use 10+ years of boron experience to create a light, accurate dry-fly rod with the best modern technology and hardware behind it. While you can get the LS with a traditional nickel silver and burled wood reel seat, you can also choose an updated, lightweight, skeletonized, aluminum-over-graphite reel seat. The rod has chrome, Nanolite stripper guides, comes in a graphite rod tube, and is available in 2- through 5-weight models from 7' to 9'. winstonrods.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video Winston Boron III LS