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Fly Rod Actions?

02/25/10 – Last week the most frequent questions asked here in the shop related to the topic of felt versus rubber wading boot soles. This week customer focus has shifted to fly rods or more specifically – fly rod action. When I started fly fishing rods were classified as 
Rod Flex types

slow, medium and fast. Fairly simple groupings that anyone could understand. Then came graphite.
Shortly after the introduction of graphite some rod design person realized that they could build an aggressive taper into a rod and generate line speeds that went beyond what was known as fast and that upset the apple cart. What to do? Add a new class by calling them slow, medium, fast and super-fast? Orvis addressed it by calling their faster than fast rods HLS (high line speed) and telling people if distance was the objective the HLS series was the way to go. Other manufacturers created similar new categories.

All of that settled out and dropped back to the three generally accepted groups we see today which are full-flex, mid-flex and tip-flex. Oddly like the old grouping of slow, medium and fast don’t you think? It’s like the old saying “the more we change the more we stay the same.”

For those of us who suffered through this changing terminology there was one constant that kept us happy while casting. That was no matter what the label said if we test cast the rod and it felt good we bought it – if it didn’t feel good we didn’t buy it. And that still works today if you’re fortunate enough to live Upset Apple cartnear a fly shop that will let you test a rod or you are willing endure the hassles shipping rods back and forth to test cast them.

But if we’ve already got a favorite action do we need to go through the test casting phase? Some say no – just buy the action you’ve come to like and you’ll be happy with the rod. And for a few years that has been a fairly safe way to go. At least, until someone upset the apple cart again.

What happed this time? Was it Boron, thermoplastic resins, nano ceramic coatings or black magic? Well all of those may be contributing factors but the people who upset the apple cart this time were golf club manufacturers. Yep, it was those golf guys.

The people who make golf clubs got into the graphite game much later than fly rod manufacturers and when they got into graphite it was all new to them. So unlike fly rod manufacturers who used their old mandrels to build with a new material the golf guys had to start from scratch. What they found was new technology that rod manufacturers didn’t have back in 1974 when graphite took over the rod industry.

That new technology allowed for a change of taper along the shaft length. Thus they could fine tune the shaft for the different weight and shape of golf club heads. They jumped right past rod manufacturers and began building golf clubs that were so finely tuned they added yards to any golfers drive. Eventually rod manufacturers became aware of this new technology and many completely retooled their rod making facilities.

The retooling was so extreme that Orvis built a new rod shop from the ground up. The industry movement to multiple tapers along the length of a fly rod has so blurred the lines between full-flex, mid-flex and tip-flex that Orvis is having a hard time fitting the new tapers into their Flex-Index rating system.

Today’s fly rod has become a combination of actions. Many of today’s fly rods offer what can only be called three rods in one. For example the light action tip of my 8′ 6″, Zero Gravity, 5-weight, mid-flex allows me to cast and form a loop close in, (say 10 to 15′) with just a flick of the wrist. Something only my full-flex rods were capable of with any consistency. Yet that same rod with thirty feet of line and a single stroke will reach out to sixty feet and if you throw a double haul into the cast you can approach the backing knot. A casting feat that used to demand a tip-flex or fast rod.

Yep, once again it’s time for reclassification of fly rod actions. Who knows where it will settle out this time perhaps we’ll have two classifications – multiple taper rods and single taper rods. However, it works out I think it will make rod selection easier as actions may fade out of the selection criteria. Instead of subjective classifications like slow, medium or fast we’ll select a rod based on the type of water we’ll be fishing, the amount of wind we have to deal with and the size of the flies and fish involved.

Fortunately, the constant that got us through the last upsetting of the apple cart will get us through this one. The final and most important selection criteria was and remains does it feel “right” when you cast and fish with it? If it does – that’s the one you want to buy and fish with.