So you're taking up fly fishing, or thinking about it. First things first – you're going to need a fly rod, reel, and line so you can learn to cast. Before we get ahead of ourselves and just rush to the store (preferably a fly shop vs a big box retailer) to lay down cash, we need to answer some questions, so that you pick the right rod for the jobs at hand – those being: Learning how to fly cast and catching some fish.
You can learn to fly cast with just about any fly rod & reel combo, provided it's at least close to being balanced. The right combo, or one that's balanced between rod, reel, and line weights and types – will make learning a metric ton easier.
A couple words on rods and such:
Fly rods are typically rated for the AFTMA (American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association) line number they are intended to cast. These range from 00 to 12 – 00 being the lightest, 12 being the heaviest. Rods are also often described by their “action” or “flex” depending on what propaganda (catalogs) you're looking at. Typically you will see rods called “fast” action or “tip flex” - “medium fast” or “parabolic” action which is sometimes referred to as “mid flex” - and “medium” and “slow” action rods which may also be called “full flex” rods. The action or flex descriptor refers to how far from the tip the rod flexes when it is considered to be “loaded”.
Fast action rods flex mostly in the upper (tip) third of the rod. Fast action rods are all the rage – though they are least forgiving of casting mistakes. They are fine tools for distance casting, but might not be the best choice for a novice caster. Medium fast / parabolic / mid flex rods flex further into the mid section of the rod, and are more forgiving of timing errors in the casting stroke. Medium and slow action rods (aka full flex) bend down into the butt section of the rod – the slow actions bending down to the handle of the rod. These rods aren't in fashion with the majority of fishers, but do offer some benefits. Medium and slow action rods typically roll cast nicely, and they're very good at protecting lighter weight tippets because of the cushioning effect the action gives. Typically you'll find slow action rods are made from bamboo and fiberglass, as most modern graphite rods fall in the fast or medium fast category. The only “slow” action graphite rods I have encountered were in the low line weights – from 3 weight down – and intended for small streams where the fish are typically smaller, or for midge fishing where tippet sizes and flies are miniscule. These light weights make great panfish rods – but for a novice angler still learning how to play a fish – these rods shouldn't be used to target larger fish.
Catching fish is best accomplished by using the right tool for the job. Unless you're doing it for a joke, you're completely broke (fly fishing isn't for you if you're completely broke, sorry to say – because it's like a crack addiction. Once you get hooked, you're going to spend more, and more, and more on tackle, flies, and doodads), or you don't know any better, you won't take your sturgeon rod to the trout pond to fish for stocker rainbows. You won't take an ultra light panfish outfit to fish for oversized sturgeon. Likewise – you don't want to buy a light weight trout outfit to go fishing for salmon and steelhead, and you don't want to use a heavyweight salmon rod to chase small stream cutthroats.
So to tackle job one, lets figure out what fish we want to fish for first.
Most fly fisherman start fly fishing with trout fishing in mind. Fly fishing and trout are a match made in angling heaven, and there are literally centuries worth of literature about fly fishing for trout out there. But we live in the 21st century, and now fly anglers go after just about everything that swims.
So, what do you want to fish for?
Trout anglers have it made, because most fly gear is still made and targeted to trout anglers. You will want a rod made for a line between 4 and 6 to begin with. Most literature and “experts” advise you to get a 9 foot, 5 weight rod. A fine choice – but you can take that as a starting point and move up or down a line size, and go shorter or longer, depending on the waters you are likely to fish most. More on this a little later.
Panfish hunters might want to go a little lighter – from a 3 to a 5 weight – but unless all you're going to fish for are panfish, you may want to get a trout rod and use it for double duty – as panfish, especially the chunkier ones, still put a good bend in a 6 weight rod, and you never know when you're going to hook up with the oddball bass that likes sipping on insects or nibbling on smaller poppers and sliders. The extra oomph of a 5 or 6 weight rod is nice for these situations.
Bass anglers have a second question to ask – am I targeting mostly smallmouth, or largemouth bass? Smallmouth anglers can get away with going as low as a 5 weight for typical use, while largemouth anglers might want to go with a 6 or 7 as their lightest line weight. A more reasonable all-around bass fishing outfit will be a number 8 – given the larger flies bass fishing typically entails, and the extra power for pulling fish away from nasty cover when you hook up with them.
Steelhead anglers will want to look at rods from 7 to 9 weights, with the number 8 again being a good starting point.
Salmon anglers, like bass anglers, need to figure out which species they're going to go after. Coho anglers can use a lot of steelhead tackle. Since coho are usually smaller, and go after smaller baits – the 7 to 9 weight is a fine choice. Same if you're targeting chum or sockeye salmon. Chinook / King salmon anglers need to look at heavier gear, with a number 8 being the lightest you'd want to go, with a 9 or 10 weight being more reasonable, and if you're hunting the big bruisers – you might even step up to the 12 weight.
Carp anglers – and there are more and more every day – need a rod that can make accurate casts, deal with smaller flies well, but have the power to control fish that go 10+ lbs, and sometimes 20 or 30+ lbs. A 7 weight is a good starting point for open water fisherman. For the carp crazy – check out John Montana's Carp on the Fly blog at http://carponthefly.blogspot.com/ .
As I mentioned earlier – the line weight recommendations above are starting points, and when picking your rod is just one of the things to consider. Are you mostly going to be fishing smaller water that has over hanging tree branches and brush? A 9 foot long rod might be a hindrance in this situation. You might need to go down to a rod between 7 and 8 feet long. Are you fishing big brawling water where you need to reach out further, or you need to clear tall grass on your back cast? You may need a longer rod, say 9'6” to 10'6” or even longer, though these extra long rods are a lot less common, and typically more expensive.
If you are sure the fish you are targeting will be on the smaller end of the scale for their species, or you are going to be tossing smaller flies on a regular basis, you can go to the lighter end of the line recommendation spectrum. Lighter rods / lines will be easier to cast all day and result in less fatigue at the end of the day. These aren't the best choice though – if you think you will be tangling with bigger fish regularly, or if you are say, targeting native steelies, redband trout, or similar fish that shouldn't be overstressed, to keep fish mortality to a minimum. If you're going after these fish, stick to the middle or heavier end of the line recommendations so you can get the fish in quick, and get them revived and back on their way with less lactic acid buildup. We'll cover more on this point in a later post about ethics and on-water etiquette.
For the trout and panfish angler – you can get one rod that will cover just about all your fishing situations, save for really tight quarters casting – by getting an 8'6” or 9 foot six weight rod. If you're going to get only one rod for this, I say get the six because it really is a “do all” rod – or at least “do most” rod. You can fish with tippets down to a 6X or so (and we'll go over tippet sizes and whatnot a bit further down in this article, we're talking rods now) – and fish small dry flies, or you can fish big heavy number 6 stonefly nymphs with a 6 weight. As I said before, chunky panfish like bluegill and crappie will put a nice bend in the rod – and you can handle the occasional 1 or 2lb bass you'll wind up catching pretty well with a 6 weight. You aren't under-gunning yourself if you hook into a 20 inch trout, and you're not going to over-play and over-stress wild, native redbands if you happen to be fishing on the Deschutes either. A six weight will punch out into a wind better than a 4 or 5 weight will.