January 04, 2022
By Ross Purnell
This article was originally titled "Situational Awareness" in the 2021 Gear Guide issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
The “grain weight” of something in the Troy system of measurements was based on the equivalent weight of dry wheat kernels. Today, the things most commonly measured with grain weights are bullets, arrows, and of course fly lines.
Firearms are designed for very specific projectiles and purposes. For instance, a .223 bullet is normally 55 grains, and a .223-caliber rifle cannot shoot any other diameter of ammunition. A 12-gauge shotgun is usually for hunting ducks, geese, and turkeys, while 20-gauge shotguns are typically for doves, pheasants, and quail. In archery, arrows weighing less than 400 grains are used by hunters who expect to take longer shots and require greater accuracy. Light arrows fly flatter over greater distances. Heavier arrows from 420 to 500 grains are less accurate, but they carry more momentum to drive deep into vital organs.
There is a lot to be learned from these levels of specificity, and fly fishers in 2021 have either caught up to their fellow grain-weight enthusiasts, or else surpassed them in the ways they choose exacting tools for a known task. In essence, we’ve realized our place as hunters. We carefully stalk the fish we’re after, and we choose our tools just as carefully as any other hunter.
Expert fly fishers don’t just flail the water with a one-size-fits-all solution. The very best among us have long realized that range, depth, fly size, and strategy mean everything, and like experienced hunters, we step into the water with situational awareness. Dr. Mica Endsley, former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, describes situational awareness as having three levels: perception, comprehension, and projection. I think we can all recognize those levels to describe our progress as fly fishers. Perception is the process of simple recognition of the cues we get from the water conditions and from the fish. Comprehension is the next step that allows us to properly interpret and evaluate those cues. Projection is the third and highest level of situational awareness, and for fly fishers, it allows you to predict how your role in the environment will affect future outcomes.
At this highest level, you know what conditions will require, and you know that you’ll need a very specific set of tools to succeed in that environment. For instance, when Penn State fly-fishing instructor George Daniel steps out into a central Pennsylvania spring creek at 9 A.M. on a bright sunny July, he likely doesn’t seine the water to find out what nymphs may be in the stream, or question if it might be a good day for streamers. When he steps out of his truck, he’s almost instantly at the third level of situational awareness, and he can project what he needs to do in those conditions to catch trout. He also requires a very precise set of tools to match that strategy, whether it’s streamer fishing, dry-fly fishing, or Euro-style nymph fishing.
It’s the same way with a smallmouth bass Jedi like Mike Schultz. His years of experience and situational awareness inform him very quickly about the fly movement, line, and the rod he’ll need to catch the trophy smallmouths he’s known for. He often knows which setup will catch the best fish that day before he even takes his first pull at the oars. He’s quick to adapt if conditions change, but let’s be honest. Day in and day out, he’s got it on speed dial.
It’s not just guides. There are a lot of expert fly fishers out there who have very refined, specific methods—and a thirst for the tools that will help them exploit their knowledge and their skills, and help them take full advantage of whatever situation they find themselves in.
Manufacturers have listened, and are coming out with the most specialized freshwater rods, lines, and reels that we’ve ever seen in the world of fly fishing. Here’s some of the best we’ve seen and used.
Euro Nymphing Fly Rods
Thomas & Thomas Contact II 10'9"
When you’re Euro nymphing, close tactile contact with your terminal setup—for “feeling” the stream bottom during the drift and detecting the subtle takes of feeding trout—is of paramount importance. To address the demand among Euro-nymphing enthusiasts for such specialized tackle, Thomas & Thomas last year introduced the Contact II series. These are redesigned and updated versions of the company’s original Contact rods. To build the Contact IIs, T&T designers carefully chose and blended five different types of premium-quality carbon—as well as fiberglass—fibers, all embedded within T&T’s proprietary aerospace-grade resin matrix. T&T craftsmen then align the fibers at strategic angles when they roll the rod blanks, giving the Contact II rods superior strength, sensitivity, and accuracy.
Specially selected rod components help enhance the Euro-nymphing experience. Contact II rod grips are constructed of extra-dense premium Flor-grade cork. The redesigned, rounded, low-profile fighting butt improves balance. The “low rider”–style stripping guide and RECoil single-foot snake guides keep the fly line as close as possible to the rod shaft to minimize line sag and help you maintain close contact between your line hand and your terminal rig. Line guides, hook keeper, and winding check are all black—and the thread wraps are all brown and olive—to avoid spooking wary trout. Available 4-piece rods are: 10' 2-weight; 10', 10'9", or 11'2" 3-weight; 10'9" 4-weight; 10'8" 6-weight; and new for 2022, a 10'9" 2-weight.
$825 | thomasandthomas.com
Orvis Blackout 11'
Penn State fly-fishing instructor George Daniel helped design the 11' 3-weight Euro-specific Blackout and says the biggest difference with this rod is that it’s well . . . a little more “American.” While many Euro rods have a thin butt section designed primarily for sensitivity, this Blackout has a beefier butt section to set the hook with more authority and handle 18-inch rainbows in the heavy currents of the Madison River. The tip section delivers the sensitivity to feel every nook and cranny along the bottom, and the length gives you the reach you need for longer leaders and specialized Euro techniques.
“I believe we have struck a balance with this rod,” said Daniel. “I have used it for everything, from ultralight rigs on small spring creeks in Pennsylvania to drop-shot rigs in raging snowmelt waters in Idaho. It is truly a rod designed for all nymph fishers.”
$1,000 | orvis.com
In highly pressured rivers where the trout see a lot of flies, there’s likely no more effective way to catch trout than drifting small nymphs near the bottom with zero drag. Euro nymphing is a highly refined strategy for creating these kinds of perfect drifts and detecting strikes, but it requires a highly specialized set of tools.
At 10' (2-weight) or 10'6" (3-weight), IMX-PROe rods help lift the leader off the water and control the drift while the delicate, sensitive tips of the rods allow you to feel each “tick, tick, tick” as the nymphs tumble near the bottom. The slender cork handle is designed to hold the rod close to the reel while casting, but for greater sensitivity you can slide your hand forward and hold the rod so your index finger is right on the blank—almost like you’re taking the pulse of the river. The hook keeper is relocated forward and out of the way on this rod exactly for this purpose, and the engineering team at G.Loomis arranged the guide placement on the IMX-PROe to reduce line sag, which dulls your contact with the flies.
$575 | gloomis.com
Greys Fin Euro Nymph Combo
If you’re looking to get into Euro nymphing, but the sticker shock of a new rod, reel, and line is holding you back, the Fin Euro Nymph Combo will help you test the waters with an entire setup—4-piece rod, closed-frame disk-drag reel, and low-diameter Euro line—for less than $250. Designed by former FIPS Mouche world champion Howard Croston, it’s a perfect way to get started in Euro-style nymph fishing.
$240 | purefishing.com
Trout Fly Rods
Orvis Blackout 9'5"
Slightly longer rods have advantages. On the technical dry-fly waters of the upper Delaware, this 9'5", 5-weight Orvis Blackout makes accurate casts from a drift boat and allows you to make big reach casts and long-range mends for selective rising trout. On smaller spring creeks, that extra length allows you to creep and cast on your knees, and still keep the line above obstacles on your backcast. On the flip side, the Blackout doesn’t exact a price for those extra inches. It’s got ultralight components, and a light swing weight to keep you in the game all day. On big Western rivers like the Big Hole, I found it was easier to mend the line all the way to the indicator, and in that fast-paced scenario, it meant catching more fish.
Blackout rods are midnight black with black accent wraps, SiC/titanium stripping guides, and RECoil snake guides. The blanks are rolled at the Orvis factory in Manchester, Vermont, and the rods are assembled there as well. The black Type III anodized aluminum reel seats are made in New Hampshire and come with matte black carbon inserts.
NOTE: This rod won the 2022 Best New Freshwater Rod Fly Fisherman Gear Guide award.
$1,000 | orvis.com
Sage Trout Spey G5
In the late fall, insects hatches taper off, and trout move into their slower winter holding areas. It’s the perfect time of year to swing streamers with a Spey rod. But let’s be serious. Anytime of year is the right time to load up a Skagit or a Scandi line, and work all the water with a swinging fly, whether it’s a soft-hackle during a caddis hatch, a black leech during runoff, or a salmon smolt in the spring. Sage’s new Trout Spey G5 is designed to cover all these situations on rivers and streams, and if you love to make snap-T and double Spey casts, these downsized rods will help you deliver the goods and catch fish, even along those tight shorelines where you can’t make a backcast.
The Trout Spey G5 has retro cosmetics—if you remember the amber and brown tones of the original Sage RPL series (early 1990s), you have just categorized yourself as an O.G., and you’ll instantly recognize and appreciate the styling of the Trout Spey G5, which is available as an 11' 3-weight or an 11'3" 4-weight. Both have anodized aluminum downlocking reel seats to better balance the rod, custom-shaped fore and rear handles, a Fuji ceramic ring stripping guide, and hard chrome snake guides sized specifically for smaller trout-sized Skagit and Scandi heads with narrow running lines.
$650 | sageflyfish.com
Hardy Ultralite X
Specific situations require a special rod, and make no mistake, this one is for those days when you really need the best possible casting tool. Hardy’s new Ultralite X is for high-pressure situations where you need to make extra-long casts, use excessively large flies, or deal with extremely windy conditions. The Ultralite X uses the same resins and construction techniques as Hardy’s Ultralite Sintrix NSX rods (introduced last year), but the Ultralite X uses a greater percentage of high-modulus carbon fiber, and a rapid taper design that makes this rod faster for driving tight loops into the wind, and more powerful for lifting sinking lines and pressuring large fish away from snags and obstructions. The rods have ceramic-lined titanium RECoil stripping guides and RECoil single-foot line guides. They are available in 5- through 8-weight models, and three different rod lengths: 9', 9'6", and 10'.
$850 | hardyfishing.com
Small Stream Fly Rods
Because of heat and crowds in the summer of 2021, more and more anglers found themselves hiking away from the big rivers, and discovering seldom-fished mountain streams. G.Loomis’s new IMX-PROc “creek” rods make the most of these tiny trickles because they are short (7'9") and they load quickly at close distances so you can fire quick casts under the rhododendron canopy or into short pockets in miniature boulder gardens. Using G.Loomis’s Conduit Core Technology and Multi-Taper Design, the 2- through 4-weight creek rods are designed for distances ranging from 15 to 40 feet, with small to medium-sized flies. The 4-weight can handle some wind and a hopper/dropper rig in the Rockies. The 2-weight is perfect for native brookies in Appalachia. All three models have a matte aluminum reel seat with a weighted fighting butt, chrome single-foot line guides and stripping guides, and a custom half-wells premium-grade cork grip.
$525 | gloomis.com
Hardy Ultralite SR
Tiny trout in small streams carry with them their owns sets of challenges and problems. Delicate presentations and close casts with little more than the leader out of the tip-top require rods that load easily and amplify the fun of fishing headwaters, tributaries, and streams that fit inside a single culvert. Hardy’s Ultralite SR rods are built for these smaller trickles with 6'6" to 9' rods in 2-weight through 5-weight. The pearlescent green blanks are built using Hardy’s Sintrix NSX materials adjusted with thinner blank walls and a long, gradual taper that ensures you can feel the rod loading at distances under 20 feet and enjoy the pull of a 10-inch trout. Ultralite SR rods have ceramic-lined titanium RECoil stripping guides, chrome snake guides, and a lightweight reel seat with a hardwood insert.
$700-$825 | hardyfishing.com
Outlaw Rod Co. Rogue Edition
For some aficionados, small streams aren’t just locations, they are a secret passion where you often fish by yourself and you choose your own rules, like dry-fly only, one fish per pool, and move on. You’re probably not going to catch a 22-inch rainbow, so how you play the game is more important than the results. Rogue Edition fiberglass rods fit this equation with full-flexing, slow-action 7'6" 3-weights and 8' 5-weights that make your short game more delicate and more enjoyable. If you want to throw lead, forget about it, but if you are looking to work less, and see your dry flies settle to the water like thistledown, these shorter glass rods get the job done. Rogue Edition rods are smoke gray with black wraps, with custom cork grips with composite accents, and a burlwood reel seat insert.
$250 | outlawrodco.com
Bass Fly Rods
G.Loomis NRX+ SF
Articulated, “swimming” flies have a realistic, lifelike motion that trophy fish can’t resist. Whether you’re fishing for smallmouths or big browns, big fish love a meaty fly that moves correctly in the water. You’ll also need a rod that can deliver these big flies into tight spots, and still transmit every twitch and bump sensation into your hand so you can deliver a precise swimming motion. Mike Schultz (“Schultzy”), owner of Schultz Outfitters in Michigan, says too many bass or streamer rods are merely repurposed saltwater rods designed for floating lines. He helped Steve Rajeff design the NRX+ SF for modern subsurface fly lines like the SA Sonar Titan, so you can deliver the goods and maintain a straight-line connection to the fly for maximum sensitivity.
He uses the 7-weight NRX+ SF for 3- to 5-inch flies, and uses the 8-weight for flies 5 inches and longer. “When it comes to loading this rod, I’ve found this series to be just as good up short as it is long,” said Schultz. “From short, awkward-angle punchy shots into cover, to backhand long pokes from the back of the boat, the SF series tracks true and delivers.”
The reel seat is more compact, and the cork handle of this rod is also shorter and with a narrower diameter than most 7- and 8-weights. This is to improve sensitivity, reduce line tangling on the fighting butt, and to avoid hand cramping Schultzy calls “the claw.”
The Dynamic Recovery Technology in all NRX+ rods uses a proprietary carbon fiber package called Mega Modulus+ graphite matrix together with a new GL8 resin to roll blanks that are 15% lighter than original NRX, but with equal strength and impact resistance.
As usual, technology is only one element of a great rod, and rod designer Steve Rajeff has used these building blocks—along with extensive micro-tapers throughout the length of the rod—to engineer lighter rods with a smooth, rapid recovery so you can more easily shape better loops in tactical situations, and with less fatigue. Less material means you also get greater feedback and sensitivity while fishing so you can “feel” your fly, even if you can’t see it.
$795 | gloomis.com
Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.