A Beginner's Guide to Rods, Reels, and Lines - Frequently Asked Questions by Jim Stangowitz This is not intended as the definitive work on outfitting oneself for fly-fishing. It is, rather, an attempt to answer some often asked questions and the questions that arise from some of those answers. Please be forewarned that this is one experienced angler's view and in fly-fishing, as in most other things in our lives, diversity of opinion is widespread. Rods: "What weight of rod should I buy"? There is no simple answer to that question. It depends largely on two main factors; what kind of water you will fish, and what sorts of flies you will be using. Before answering the question it might be helpful to understand a few things about fly casting and rod weights. The AFTMA (American Fly Tackle Manufacturer's Association) numbers that appear on new fly rods are supposed to designate the weight of line that the rod was designed to cast. Using the archaic weight scale of grains, the number denotes the weight of the first 30 feet of a fly line (excluding the front tip). In other words, if you chopped off the line and tossed it on a suitable scale, it should weigh X number of grains. The thing that most want to know now is, why does the weight matter? It matters because fly rods are designed to cast the weighted line and a relatively weightless fly. This is the exact opposite of spinning and bait casting rods which cast a relatively weightless line and a weighted lure, sinker, etc. With fly rods it is the amount of line that is beyond the tip-top (the uppermost rod guide) that matters. If you fish nothing but small streams and creeks and will rarely cast more than 40 feet, then you have no need for anything more substantial than a 4 weight rod. Some experience anglers opt for even lighter weight rods in these circumstances. That's fine if you have an arsenal of rods and if you don't live in windy places. Try and cast a bushy dry fly in Chinook winds with a 2 weight and you'll have your hands full. Bushy, wind-resistant flies and/or windy country demand slightly heavier rod weights. If you will be casting up to 50 or 60 feet on medium and larger rivers, then a 5 or 6 weight would be a wise choice. You must note, however, that there are exceptions to this generality. If large streamers or very wind resistant flies (e.g. bass-bugs) are the norm for you, then add at least one line weight. It is the received wisdom of most experts that a 5 or 6 weight is the best all around rod for most beginners. Generally speaking this is true. A rod in this range can usually present small dry flies delicately enough and can handle big streamers or heavily weighted nymphs. If you are after large powerful fish and will often be casting the heavier flies, then a 7 weight should be your minimum and an 8 or 9 weight merits serious consideration. Many of you fishing for bass would likely look at a 7 weight as a good choice. Folks who fish the salt water will likely consider a 7 weight as barely acceptable and usually choose long rods in sizes 8 or bigger. One additional thing to note has to do with the typical distances you will cast. If you will be regularly making casts under 30 feet, it could well be to your advantage to go one line weight heavier than the rod is rated for. The heavier line will help to load the rod (make it flex) when the requisite, and ideal, 30 foot length of line is not out past the rod's tip-top. Remember, it is the weight of the line that is being cast that flexes the rod. "What length of rod should I buy"? Once again, there is no simple answer. One thing that the typical newcomer is often surprised by is the relatively long rods that most fly-fishers use. Those of you used to a 5 or 6 foot spinning rod, find it strange that we fly- fishers most often use 8 foot, or longer, rods. If there is such a thing as an all around length to recommend, I would suggest that it is 8 feet. Even so, the most commonly sold length seems to be 9 feet. For sake of simplicity, fly- rodders most often call rods over 8 feet "long" rods, and those under 8 feet "short" rods. Yes, there are much shorter rods, but they have several distinct disadvantages for most of you who are new to fly- fishing. Short rods are more difficult to learn to cast with, and make playing the fish more difficult. Well, perhaps "difficult" is not quite the right term to use here. Let's revise that to say that they are less forgiving of many casting errors. Small mistakes in the critical aspects of timing in casts and playing of the fish are magnified by short rods. Most beginners will find that learning to cast a fly line is the first serious challenge that faces them. In my estimation, this is exactly the time to make best use of tools that will make it easier to learn. The longer rod is that tool. Added to that, short rods are much less effective in making use of one of the most effective and popular methods of fly- fishing. I am speaking here of nymphing (or nymph fishing). A long rod is far more useful; particularly if you are employing the very common "short-line technique". The importance of the long rod is that it lets you reach more water and control the line better. This applies equally to line mending (which is applicable to all methods of fly- fishing). Here, the long rod will make it noticeably easier to flip line up or down stream when and where required. Another advantage of the longer rod is that it allows you to switch from using dry flies to wet flies to nymphs, to streamers, and to fish them all very effectively. Since most of you will start with a single rod, and given the costs, may not be able to afford more than one rod, the longer rod gets the nod. In addition, longer rods are a boon when fishing from float tubes or if you are wading deep. They allow you to keep the line elevated when you yourself have given up the advantage of a relatively high position above the water's surface. A final advantage of a long rod is that it will help keep the flies further away from you. Anyone who has stuck themselves with a fly will attest to the wisdom of not repeating it a second time. This is even more true if the fly in question is a very large streamer or heavily weighted and huge nymph. As my old pal Harry could tell you, "It's no fun having a size 2 woolly bugger stuck in your neck!" (Even less so, if the barb hasn't been removed or flattened). If you can't stand the sight of blood, especially your own, use the long rod to keep those flies at bay. As with most things in fly-fishing, there is at least one exception. Those of you doing most of your angling along very small bush choked creeks will do better with a rod that is no more than 7'6". This is not often a problem for most newcomers (most of whom don't feel very comfortable fishing such demanding waters). Nonetheless, some of you will want to do just that. If you are in this group then a 7 foot rod (or close to it) in a 3 or 4 weight is likely your best choice. "Don't I need a rod that will cast long distances"? The answer is, "not really". Discounting the anglers' usual penchant for exaggeration, most casts are not terribly long, and few are ever the length that they are claimed to be. Even so, there are better reasons for not over emphasizing distance. Stealth, not distance is the angler's greatest ally. Long casts are not only difficult to execute, they are harder to control. Learning to get close to fish will help you with both casting and catching. "What is rod action"? Simply put, it is how much and where a rod flexes when it is under load. Moderate (or medium) actions are generally the best for newcomers. These are the rods that flex into the middle portion of their overall length. There are also slow or soft rods (they flex over most of their length) that are much more like their bamboo predecessors. Finally, there are the fast or stiff actions (they flex mostly in the top third of their length). Just like shorter rods, they are less forgiving of errors in the timing of casts. The test method quite often seen is where the angler wiggles the rod back and forth in the shop. That would be okay if you were going to fish the rod that way, but the best way to find out what a rod's action is, is to try casting it. How it feels with a reel on it and the fly line flexing the rod is what you want. If the shop you are buying from will not let you try the rod in their parking lot, then go elsewhere! No responsible shop owner will expect you to part with a fair amount of your hard earned cash and not let you try the rod for feel. Many shops have loaner rods that they will even let you fish with for a day. Even better!! Depending on your casting style (there is no single correct method - no matter what some writers and instructors tell you), you may find that a slow or fast action is more to your liking. If so, go with it! Fly-fishing is a highly personal sport, and what works best and feels most comfortable to you is of inestimable value. Additionally, as you develop your casting abilities, you will be able to adjust the casting stroke to suit the rod action. I have friends who cast very stiff, fast-action rods for bonefish and tarpon and relatively soft bamboo rods for small creek trout. They handle both very well, but use different casting strokes to do it. That is why there is no one "correct" style or one "proper" rod action. Reels: Supposing that you have selected a rod, you need a reel to put on it. "Do I need an expensive reel"? The answer is an emphatic no! What you do need is a dependable reel of sufficient capacity to hold your fly line and backing. A good rule of thumb is that the reel should hold a double taper line of the desired weight and 50 yards of braided backing (covered below). It should have a decent, well constructed drag system. An external rim model (the spool covers the outside of the frame) is generally a better choice, but is not mandatory. Finally, it should be a model for which extra spools are readily available. (More about this under the section on fly lines). One big reason to buy a less expensive but dependable reel is economics. Suppose that you have budgeted $400.00 to buy your rod and reel. Since, as we have already discussed, the rod is the most important tool you will own, it makes far greater sense to spend the money there. A $200.00 reel sure is a lovely piece of hardware, but a $50.00 reel on a $350.00 rod is a much better way to invest your funds. "What is line backing"? Backing is a thin diameter line (most often braided) that is put on the reel prior to loading the fly line itself. It serves the two-fold purpose of providing sufficient line for playing big fish, and in providing a base for the fly line to be wound onto. Some backings are made of monofilament and are to be avoided except for special circumstances. Braided dacron backing does not have memory problems (kinking), and does not stretch. Additionally, it will not damage the spools on fly reels the way monofilament can. Some of you will not, strictly speaking, need the backing, but it is better to have it and never use it, than to need it and be without. This is particularly true if you have the fish of your dreams on and run out of line. Another good reason to have backing on your reel is that it provides a larger base (or arbor) to hold your fly-line. The received wisdom is that this minimizes kinking in you fly- line due to memory set. With many of the new fly-lines this is a less significant issue, they don't have the same sorts of memory problems that plagued older lines. The real practical benefit of backing is the advantages afforded when playing fish. Sooner or later one of your fish will run a fair distance upstream on you. No big deal until it turns around and starts coming right back at you. Then you have to reel like mad to keep tension on the line so as not to lose the fish. The larger arbor created by backing will show its value in quick order. "Do I need a disc drag reel"? This is another question that needs to be qualified by "it depends". If you are fishing for small to medium sized fish, the answer is no. If you are going to be chasing bonefish and tarpon on salt water, the answer is definitely yes. If it's steelhead or salmon on the coast or Great Lakes region, sea trout in European waters, or big pike and muskies, the answer is maybe. I have seen salesmen advising neophytes to buy expensive disc drag reels to catch trout on the Bow River. Their sales pitch is usually something like "when you hook one of those big ones, you don't want to lose it..." I have to wonder how these folks sleep at night. The simple truth is you do not need that expensive reel. The longer answer is that if the drag system is a good one, it might help. Note that I said `"if it is good", and "it might help". If the drag system is of poor or fragile design, the reel will lock up and the leader will break. If, in a slightly different vein, the fish is huge and gets into heavy current, then the regular sort of click and pawl drag may not prove suitable. However, millions of large fish have been caught over many decades with nothing but the simple system. Given that, it is obvious the disc drag is not needed for these fishing situations. Contrast this with the extremely large and powerful tarpon or the silver bullet, bonefish, both of whose reel emptying runs are legend, and the disc drag (if well designed and functional) is by far and away more desirable. Once again, and strictly speaking, it is not needed, but for such fish as these, it is far more likely to be of significant benefit. I leave it as an open question for the steelhead, salmon, or pike fisher. In some rivers or lakes where the fish are big or the currents extremely strong, a disc drag can once again prove to be an invaluable aid. As before, it is not needed, but it might be a very good thing to have. "What is a single action reel"? This designation refers to the fact that on the vast majority of fly reels, a single turn of the reel handle equates to a single turn on the arbor. This direct drive system has no gears and is unlike spinning reels and others where one turn of the handle usually results in multiple turns of the pickup spool. It is generally a hallmark of simple and strong design that it results in dependability. This is true of any decent fly reel. Although multiplying reels (more than one turn of the arbor for each turn of the handle) do exist, their use is generally confined to salt water fishing. "Isn't a fly reel just a place to store the fly-line"? One thing that is apparent to even the causal observer is that a fly reel is more than just a place to store line. Most experienced anglers will tell you that it is easier to play a fish from the reel than by hand. This is more true for large fish. Of course, there are advocates and folks who play fish without the reel (simply by stripping in and releasing line), but this is just another worry for the newcomer to avoid. Generally speaking, you will have some loose line when you hook a fish. The first thing to do is to get that loose line on the reel where the drag of the reel can be put to use. I have seen more than one fish lost when it ran and the loose line got tangled around the rod butt, the angler's hand, or somewhere else (Murphy's law tells you that loose fly line will always get tangled). Ping, goes the leader and the fish swims off with your fly and tippet trailing from the corner of its mouth. Fly Lines : Now that you've found a rod and reel, you need a fly line. "What fly line should I buy"? This question is really several questions in one. It asks what quality of line is needed, what taper of line should I get, and what type of line (floating, sinking, sink-tip) should I buy? "What quality of line should I buy"? So far I have avoided mentioning brand names, but that will end here (however, this is the only time that I will mention a brand). There are two fly lines that are readily available (at least they are in North America) that I consider to be the bare minimum in acceptable quality. Both were once the "best" fly lines on the market, and even today are still decent lines. In alphabetical order, they are: Cortland's 333, and Scientific Anglers' Air Cel Supreme. There are, of course, many other top notch and specialty lines out there and a few cheaper lines. Avoid the latter, they don't cast well, aren't very durable, and are notorious for their "memory" problems (kinks in the line). "What is fly-line taper"? Unlike other fishing line, fly lines are usually not the same diameter throughout their length. There is one line style that is like this. It is called level line. Some cheap fly-lines are level taper and you should never buy one. Aside from being cheap (kinking problems), they don't cast worth a damn. This basically leaves two alternatives; double taper, and weight forward. The double taper is a line that has a tapered section on each end (hardly a surprise given the name) and a center portion (called the belly) that is uniform in thickness. The weight forward has one end tapered, thickens out to a maximum diameter (the belly), then has a longer taper to a relatively thin section (the running line). As noted below, the double taper is considered to be more delicate and the weight forward was designed for distance casting using a technique called "shooting" line. (Not to be confused with shooting the bull). "What taper should I buy"? As to taper, I think the correct line for beginning freshwater fisher-folk is the double taper. It has long been touted as the line that presents the small dry fly most delicately. While this claim may or may not be of paramount importance, it seems to be true. Another good reason to select the double taper for your first line is that it roll casts very well. Often neglected, this cast can be the best cast to use in a variety of situations. One final reason is economy. When one half of a double taper line has worn out or cracked, the whole line can be reversed and the life doubled. However, like most everything else we have covered, there are exceptions. If salt water, bass- bugging, or steelheading are the game; or if big water is your fishing "home", then the weight forward taper may be the best bet. Even so, day in day out, the double taper ought to be in every angler's gear bag. "What type of fly line should I buy"? First and foremost when it comes to line type, the floating line (with the exception of specialty situations) is the only line most of you will need. Of course, the floating line was designed for dry fly fishing. Even so, when used with long leaders, and split shot if required, it will work well for nymphing, and streamer presentation. Those of you fishing streamers in lakes or bigger rivers will likely find a sink-tip line is the next requirement. With these lines, the front portion (usually 10 - 20 feet) sinks, while the rest of the line floats. Like all sinking lines, there are different rates at which the sinking portion does sink. This is very much specialty fishing and the help of local experts is really required to make the necessary choices. A few of you will need a full sinking line. Once again the sink rate required is largely dependent on local factors. In rivers, it will change from place to place and time to time. Both are determined by current speed and water depth. For lake fishers it's a matter of how deep the fly must be to gain access to the fish. (Beginners are strongly advised to seek local talent or to read one of the many excellent books available on this subject). It should be noted that each line is best stored on a separate interchangeable spool. This allows the angler to switch from one line type to another without having to carry (and buy) more than one reel for a given rod weight. This is not only lighter on the back (your vest will soon weigh plenty as it is), but is much lighter on the pocketbook. Conclusion: I would like to thank Henry Kanemoto for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this work He made some valuable suggestions. I would like to thank Danny Walls for providing a forum for the document. Finally, I'd like to thank my wife, Valerie, for allowing me to disappear for hours on end to spend time writing it. It should be noted that this list of questions is not exhaustive. It represents one man's opinion on things that a newcomer should know. Any errors are of my doing and ought not to be attributed to others. If nothing else, it ought to provoke more questions and some thought into the processes going on here. If such things do not interest you, then it's quite likely that fly-fishing will not be for you. It's not that we are all equipment "junkies", nor is it that we are overly concerned with every detail of the sport. However, fly-fishing is, for most of us, a life-long pursuit. One that has far more hard questions than easy answers, one that takes us to beautiful places, one that allows us to meet some very fine people, and one that never gets boring. No matter how much learning you manage to acquire along the way, there is still far more that has yet to be discovered. If this helps you the least in that journey, it will have been far more worthwhile than the time it took to write it. Jim Stangowitz, Calgary, July 1996. All rights reserved.