By Spencer Durrant
Walk into any fly shop from the Rockies to the Catskills and you’ll see a wall or two full of trout rods. Most shops carry a half-dozen brands at least, and the prices range from the bare-bones value of rods like the ECHO Base, all the way to the pricey G. Loomis Asquith. I’ve spent my entire life chasing trout in the American West, and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about “good” trout rods. I’ve also had the opportunity to fish many different rod brands across a wide spectrum of price ranges. Of course, “good” and “bad” are subjective terms, but using them to describe rods boils down to whether or not a fly rod puts your fly where, how, and when you wanted it. It’s the performance aspect of fly rods that creates the price disparity. But does that price difference automatically mean an expensive rod will put your fly on the water, exactly how you want, as accurately as possible, every time? Not entirely. A competent angler can work with an incompetent rod. If you’re in the market for a new trout rod, here’s what to consider when figuring out which one is right for you, based on everything from budget to your preferred style of fishing. First and foremost, you have to understand that what creates the price differences among trout rods comes down to these three features:
A high price tag almost always correlates to a fly rod blank that’s lighter and stronger than cheaper rods. Winston’s new AIR rod family is a great example to use here. The AIR utilizes Winston’s blend of boron graphite and a new resin (the glue that holds graphite together), which supposedly dries lighter, meaning you’re fishing a lighter rod. The AIR retails for $950 – a hefty price tag. But when compared to the company’s new Kairos—which goes for $475—you can immediately notice the difference in rod weight and overall feel. Blank quality is the biggest factor in pricing a rod.
This is a tricky aspect to quantify because performance is such a subjective term, and it’s devilishly hard to accurately measure. What is measureable, though, is how a blank tracks and deflects. A rod with high torsional stability (meaning the tip stays in a relatively straight line as it moves on your front and back cast) that doesn’t oscillate will, in the right hands, be more accurate than a rod that’s not built with those major features in mind.
Just like the majority of flies are tied to catch fishermen more so than fish, rods are built to draw attention while on the shop rack. From the bright green of the Sage MOD to the trademark unsanded finish on Scott rods, every company has some signature build quality meant to make a rod fit for the classiest of tweed-clad trout anglers. Joking aside, the quality of a rod’s cork, guides, thread wraps, and hardware quickly add up to a bigger price tag. They don’t drastically impact how a rod performs, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t appreciate well-built rods. It’s a lot like hunting rifles, honestly. A composite stock doesn’t make a gun better than one with a real wood stock, but something about solid mahogany or walnut just feels better.
Now that you have a better understanding of what sets the price of a fly rod, consider these factors before walking into the fly shop:
Budget: How much are you willing to spend on a rod? Go in with a firm idea because that will hugely narrow down your search for the perfect rod.
Use: What do you plan to use this rod for? Is it your .30-06, ready to tackle just about every situation you come across? Five-weight rods are the go-to for most trout anglers, myself included, and are largely considered the best all-around weight. Four-weight rods are lighter and a top choice for devout dry fly anglers, and a heavier, faster 6-weight is the standard stick for guys that like to strip larger streamers all day or dredge nymphs on weighted rigs. When you clearly define the use of the rod you’re going to buy, your options will narrow even further. However you fish, make sure the rod you buy matches your style. You’ll appreciate your investment that much more if you buy something suited exactly to your standard trout fishing needs.
Once you’ve answered the above questions, and taken into account what aspects of a rod are most impactful in rod performance, you’re ready to start shopping. The following list is a great starting point for finding the rod you want at the right price. I’ve personally fished each and every one of these sticks, and while there are many, many others on the market, my field test findings may help guide your decision. Whichever rod you end up with, make sure to keep it clear of car doors, clean the dirt from the ferrules, and catch some trout with it. No matter how pretty or expensive a rod is, as late master rodsmith Tom Morgan himself told me, “Rods are meant to be fished.”
This article first appeared in Field and Stream.