It’s always interesting to see someone get their hands on a brand new fly rod—something they haven’t cast before but might have heard about from friends, guides, or the pages of a magazine. They take the rod to the parking lot at the local fly shop, or to the casting pond at a sporting show, and often the first thing they do is peel way too much line off the reel, start double-hauling, and determine how far the rod can cast.
It kind of makes sense, right? You’re there to cast the rod, not fish with it.
You don’t test drive a car without driving near the speed limit, and the ride of a car is often judged at high speed because that’s where wobbles, vibration, noise, and flaws in the steering most easily reveal themselves. Fly rods also reveal their merit when you take them to their distance limits. Sometimes you find a rod that doesn’t have the backbone to lay out a 70-foot cast. Instead it collapses under the weight of the line, the loop breaks down, and everything falls apart. That’s when you should start thinking: How many trout do I actually catch at ranges greater than 60 feet? I suspect that it’s not many. That might be an ideal range if you’re casting streamers in a large river or lake, and you want to cover as much water as possible, but in any situation where you need to be accurate, you’ll need to be much, much closer. Even if you are a Steve Rajeff-caliber caster, and you can place a #10 Adams on a dinner plate from 60 feet away, you’ll never be able to set the hook in any situation where you have to introduce slack to present the fly properly.
A good trout fishing rod—as opposed to a rod designed for parking lot casting—is one that loads at distances much less than 40 feet. Even on big rivers, you don’t want to be fishing the whole river. You always want to put yourself in a position where you’re fishing to just one fish, or at least a specific spot that might hold a fish. The most demanding, and by far the most stimulating opportunities are the ones where you can be surgically precise.
I grew up on Alberta’s Bow River, and when the evening caddis hatches arrived, the smallish fish splashed about in the middle of the river while the largest trout invariably moved to the slower water near shore, and took up strategic feeding positions behind small deflections like rocks, fallen clumps of sod, and drowned branches. The whole day was often eclipsed by a single challenging fish.
Throughout the day, when you are searching water with streamers or a strike indicator nymph rig, just about any rod can get the job done—as long as the fly is out there (anywhere) you have a chance to run into a fish. But when you find that one 23-inch brown rising in the exact spot night after night, and your previous experiences tell you that it won’t move more than just a few inches to take a fly, that’s when you switch from fisherman into a hunter. You’re not searching for this fish, you’ve already found it, and you’ll need every tool in your arsenal to finesse the fish into eating your fly.
This is when you lengthen your leader and add three extra feet of 5x or 6x tippet. You need the length because you don’t want the tip of your fly line to land anywhere near the trout, and you need that limp length of tippet to help create slack and allow the fly to float freely like a natural insect.
Despite the longer leader, you need the fly to land exactly on target, so you crouch, kneel, and crawl as close to the trout as possible, because you know it’s a matter of inches. If you’re behind the fish, you can often get closer than 30 feet. If possible, you’ll create a casting angle that prevents the leader from passing directly over the fish, but sometimes willows and brush on shore, or a steeply angled bank and fast water force you into a slot where you have to cast from directly behind the trout. With that three feet of extra tippet, that’s not a problem, especially if you have a purposefully tapered fly line with a thin, delicate front end that unrolls and falls to the water gently.
The most popular fly lines today have short, steep tapers to deliver large flies powerfully against the wind, but these are the wrong tools in a finesse situation. Too often, this power overage in a close situation results in a fly that kicks at the end of the cast, simply because there’s too much leftover energy. When this happens, your fly is often off target. Worse, the fly and line slap the water forcefully and the fish is gone. A fly line made for casting hoppers along a breezy bank and for lobbing Thingamabobbers is not the same line you’d prefer for casting a size 18 Spent Caddis to a fish rising in flat, skinny water. I’m not saying you can’t do it, but having the right tools for the job increases your odds of success.
Just as the best nymph fishermen tailor their leaders to every water depth and speed, the best dry-fly fishermen use a rod that loads and helps create loops at distances as short as 20 feet, nylon monofilament tippet that is limp with strong wet knot strength, and a smooth reel with gradual adjustments so you can apply delicate pressure on light tippets and small flies. You work hard at getting in the position to hook trout like these. You don’t want to lose the fish because of a cheap reel, or bad spool of tippet.
The right tackle can’t cure a bad fisherman, but it is one sign of a good fisherman who has done the homework, and came prepared to pass the dry-fly portion of the examination.
Thomas & Thomas Paradigm
Twenty years ago, Thomas & Thomas came out with its Paradigm graphite rod series, a dry-fly tool that paid homage to its uber-classic Paradigm bamboo rods. While both the original graphite and the bamboo versions are collector’s items today, Thomas & Thomas for 2020 is recreating the legendary rod series, using modern carbon fiber, resins, and construction techniques to make a dry-fly presentation rod worthy of the name.
I first cast this rod at the Thomas & Thomas factory in Greenfield Massachusetts alongside rod designer Joe Goodspeed. We tried three different fly lines on the 5-weight Paradigm: Scientific Anglers Amplitude Infinity, Scientific Anglers Mastery Trout, and RIO Gold. To give you an idea of how light and sensitive these rods are, I can say that the Amplitude Infinity—my favorite general-purpose trout line for more than a year—was my least favorite line on this rod just because it overloaded the delicate tool too much, and the steep taper delivered a kick that put a damper on the exacting control the rod was intended to produce. For the Paradigm, what you need is a true 5-weight grain weight line, and a longer gradual taper to take advantage of the smooth delivery of the Paradigm. This is a rod that starts to load at ranges at short as 15 feet, and at 25 to 35 feet, you can create perfectly formed loops to drop a dry fly onto a spot as small as your palm. The Paradigm performs at what I’d call “long” trout fishing distances of 45 to 55 feet as well, but here the rod is bending deeply into the butt. The Paradigm is a scalpel, not a machete, so it’s not meant to be muscled or pushed. Use it for Trico hatches on the Deerfield, Sulphurs on the South Holston, and anywhere you know trout will be feeding on top, challenging you to catch them at close range. Semi-gloss blue Paradigm rods have lightweight titanium-finish single-foot REC guides, matte titanium-finish hardware, and U.S.-sourced bird’s-eye maple spacers. $875| thomasandthomas.com
Scientific Anglers Absolute Trout
The most challenging trout in the world are often the ones feeding on small flies in flat water with varied yet subtle currents. Sometimes your eyes can’t even pick out the different current lanes, but they are there, and when the water is slow, the trout have the time and the ability to see everything. They sense every microcurrent in their natural worlds, and if something seems just a little off, your fly is ignored. Worse, an unnaturally dragging fly can set off alarm bells, causing fish to stop feeding or move.
Scientific Anglers helps overcome these challenges with Absolute Trout, a super-limp tippet material made from copolymer blends designed to reduce water absorption for higher knot strength—this is especially important when you’re dealing with larger trout and extremely fine tippets. Absolute Trout is available in 0X-7X clear and also in a Stealth Green color 3X-7X for reduced flash and ultra-wary fish. $7 | scientificanglers.com
G.Loomis NRX+ LP
G.Loomis’s Dynamic Recovery Technology (DRT) is a combination of the new Mega Modulus+ graphite matrix and the new GL8 resin system, two building blocks that together are stronger by weight than the composition material of the original NRX. This gave rod designer (and world casting champion) Steve Rajeff what he needed to build the versatile all-water fast-action NRX+ series. But because DRT is also lighter and has less resin, it was perhaps even a better opportunity to create a dry-fly rod with a crisp, rapid recovery, and a delicate delivery.
In situations with wind, large flies, indicators, and long casts, this technology helps develop stable loops with less effort and less fatigue, but in lighter line weights, fatigue and effort aren’t problems that need to be solved. Instead, the NRX+ LP (Lite Presentation) uses DRT to load the rod more efficiently at short to medium ranges, yet recover (snap back to the straight position) with crisp authority so you have a light rod that gives you very precise ability not just to put the fly on target, but to make sharp mends, and exercise the line control you need to produce slack in highly technical situations—and still set the hook.
The 4-piece NRX+ LP is available in line weights 3 through 6 with titanium SiC stripper guides, machined aluminum reel seats with amboyna wood inserts, and single-foot Recoil guides. $800 | gloomis.com
Orvis gave its popular Recon rods a makeover for 2020, using trickle-down technology to boost the tracking and the accuracy of its midpriced rod series. Recon rods are designed and built in Orvis’s Manchester, Vermont factory, and while they don’t have the same carbon fiber and resin package as Helios 3 rods, the newly designed Recon does borrow some of the construction technology from the Helios 3 to build hoop strength without extra weight.
And while making the Helios 3 series, Orvis rod designers learned important lessons about how the spine of the rod plays a role in how the rod tracks—all of this filtered into the way Recon rods are designed and then rolled, making the new Recon a significant upgrade from its predecessor.
There are 22 new rods in the Recon series, and while the rods with saltwater components at the upper end of the scale are powerfully fast big-game rods, it’s fair to say the freshwater rods (13 models 6-weight and lighter) are more focused on presenting the fly and effective fishing than they are for bombing out long casts.
The taper of each rod weight is designed to perform a specific task, and especially the softer 2- through 4-weight Recons excel at placing small flies delicately, and on target, at close range. $500-$550 | orvis.com
Sage Trout LL
I didn’t expect Sage to come out with a light-line trout rod just a year after the introduction of the Sage Dart series—available in 0- through 4-weights—but there’s a degree of specialization here that maybe only very experienced dry-fly fishermen can understand or appreciate. While the Dart is made for small flies and small water, it’s still a fast-action rod made for throwing bullet-shaped loops. As the throwback name indicates, the Trout LL is more traditional. Available in weights 3 through 6, the Trout LL is also made for rising trout and small flies, but the rod loads more deeply into the midsection at close and medium ranges, and is more suited to technical situations where you have some space to work and you’re not worried about firing a single backcast in and around obstructions.
Our tester used the Trout LL for scum-sucker browns in Green River backwater eddies. You should also consider it for pods of trout sipping in shallow riffles on the Missouri, or a single big brown feeding on Hendricksons in glassy water on the Delaware. These are situations where you don’t need to shoot quickly to a tight spot, you approach warily, carefully measure the cast, and delicately allow the line to unroll in the air, watching as the energy dissipates and the fly and leader fall gently to the water. The Trout LL also excels anywhere you are fishing 6X or even 7X tippets, and you need a limber rod to act as a buffer.
Beyond the casting aesthetics, this is one of the prettiest rods we’ve had in our hands for this Gear Guide issue. It doesn’t scream “Look at me!” Instead the mahogany blank, bronze and gold trim wraps, walnut wood reel seat, and snub-nose, half-wells cork handle are things you’ll appreciate when you’re standing alone at twilight waiting for the hatch to begin. $800 | sageflyfish.com
Abel vaya in native cutthroat
Vaya is the Spanish word for “Go!” but in some other language, it must certainly mean “beautiful” or “astonishing,” as this is truly the best combination of aesthetics and functionality I’ve seen in a trout reel. The half-ported frame reduces weight and leaves just enough surface area for CNC-milled artwork on the inside. The artwork depends on the size of the reel. Shown here is a 5/6 Vaya with a native cutthroat finish. The reel is also available in 4/5 and 7/8 sizes. The large-arbor spool has an exposed double-pawl drag engagement, balanced precisely on the spool to eliminate any need for a counterweight. The double-pawl audibly engages a carbon fiber/stainless steel disk drag system, and gives a wide range of adjustments. The larger sizes are capable of light saltwater work, but the sweet spot is definitely on the low end of the drag spectrum, where you can make subtle adjustments to protect light tippets and hook-ups with small flies. $975 | abelreels.com
Ross San Miguel
The classic San Miguel is instantly recognizable because of its high-gloss black finish on a solid frame, and the “flower petal” porting on the spool. This is the reel that built the Ross brand more than 20 years ago.
The new San Miguel has the same design aesthetics, but the updated version returning to store shelves in December of 2019 has a smooth, wide-range sealed drag system constructed of stacked disks of carbon fiber and stainless steel.
The new version also has an updated canvas Micarta handle, a material used in knives to improve grip when wet. We’ve used the same type of handle on larger Ross saltwater reels, and the material provides more traction—especially when wet—than machined aluminum or plastic handles.
The large-arbor spool has a stainless steel push-button release and is available in three sizes: 3/4, 4/5, and 5/6. $595 | Rossreels.com
The full-frame Trout reel from Sage has a totally enclosed cage, so your line can never slip from between the frame and the spool. The ported, classic look is built with modern performance ideals with a heavily knurled drag knob, and a one-revolution, sealed carbon drag system with detents numbered 1 through 20, so you can return to your favorite settings over and over again. The designers did this one right—on the 4/5/6 version, settings 1 through 10 give you a wide range of light drag for the most common trout-fishing situations, 10 through 15 are reserved for heavier tasks like streamer fishing with 0X tippet, and the drag doesn’t get “accidental paddlefish” crazy until you hit the top end. Unlike some other reels, most of this drag range is completely usable. The reel is also available in a 2/3/4 version perfect for dry-fly fishing with light tippets and small flies, and a beefy 6/7/8 that is probably better suited to steelhead or bonefish than it is to trout. $375-$400 | sageflyfish.com
Rio InTouch technical trout
This line is built to present small flies gently to selective trout at a distance. Our field tester fished this on two different rivers in Pennsylvania, a technical spring creek and a limestone stream. He found it to be a great match for small dry flies, wet flies, and smaller nymphs. A long 52-foot head allowed for tight loops when casting longer lengths of line. It was able to turn over the long leaders needed for spooky fish and present small flies accurately and delicately. The ultra-low-stretch ConnectCore made setting the hook fast and offered a high level of sensitivity while nymph fishing. The sky blue head blends in on a bright day, while the peach middle section is highly visible in all light conditions. Even at shorter distances, the front taper lands smoothly and softly. The Technical Trout series comes in two other versions, a weight-forward (Technical Trout WF) and double-taper (Technical Trout DT) line. $100 | rioproducts.com
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.