Slow and Steady…

For a long time, anglers gravitated toward fast action fly rods. As the trend starts to cool off, fly anglers are seeing more slower action fly rods available to them. In this timely article, casting editor, Jeff Wagner, discusses how to get the most out of a slower action rod, and he chats about the often overlooked advantages to casting a slower rod. Click on the image to read the full article.

by Jeff Wagner (Photo: Paula Shearer)

Have I mentioned that I’m a “grass caster?” To some it’s a negative term, but not to me. I have enjoyed many hours casting rods on the neatly manicured lawns of parks in just about every western state and province, teaching, talking and enjoying the company of others.  

Ten or more years ago, much of that time was spent with very fast, what I would even call “stiff” rods. I thought then that stiffer meant more: more speed, more distance, more power, more control. As a student of casting and a guy who’s pursued various levels of the Fly Fishers International (previously Federation of Fly Fishers) certification program, competed in casting contests, and pushed my personal limits, I was always looking for the best tool. I thought a stiff rod was the best rod. 

Previously I have described fly rods as tools designed to deliver our flies. As I reviewed these tools I was reminded of a common saying, one I used frequently myself: “Don’t overpower the fly rod.” You hear variations of this from numerous authors and instructors. It is a directive I now believe to be false, because I don’t think it’s possible to overpower a fly rod. Fly rods today, and even those of 10 years ago, are and were built to do much more than mere mortal casters could ever dream of. They are capable of casting further and generating more line speed than we can imagine. The question isn’t really whether the fly rod can do something, but rather, can the caster?  

Not all fly casters are created equal, and neither are fly rods. But, there is always more the caster can do. The caster needs to smoothly accelerate the rod in the way the rod requires, based on its own flex profile, to create a mostly straight-line path of the rod tip to form a good loop and properly deliver the fly. A lot goes into this one movement that happens in a few fractions of a second but is repeated hundreds of times a day. Many casters are unable to generate the hand speed or the acceleration curve profile that matches the rod-bend. For this we often fault the fly rod. But, the best casters can cast almost any rod. 

We all know a caster who can seemingly pick up any rod and make it perform short and long. They are that ever-present irritant at demo days and group outings. Inevitably someone will say “I just can’t seem to cast this rod more than 45 feet without a tailing loop. I think it must be the rod, or the line or… .” They then look for confirmation that the problem isn’t with their skills but with the equipment by offering the rod to anyone bold enough to attempt to cast it in front of the group. Eventually someone says, “Let Billy try it, he can cast anything.” After a little prodding, the results are a few impressive false casts, a full fly line in the air, and some bruised egos on the ground.  

For a long time fly fishers thought they wanted faster and faster rods. But, to make them more castable they started putting heavier lines on them. Fly line companies then developed heavier and heavier fly lines. They did this to the point now where you can find 5-wt lines that range anywhere from the designated weight to a full line-weight heavy. 

Over the years my preference in rods has changed. I now gravitate to something a little slower. So why a slower rod? Well, first let’s qualify slower. Slower rods take a slightly deeper bend, perhaps a greater deflection (if you read our rod reviews) but still recover quickly. We are not talking about tip-heavy rods that seemingly take forever to load and cast more like traditional bamboo or fiberglass. We’re talking about modern fast recovery-rate rods with a less “stiff” deflection profile. 

With such a rod you need apply less energy or work to make them perform. I mean this literally. Work is the physics definition of the force applied to move an object through a distance. With fly rods we need to move the rod through a distance to get it to flex. A rod that is stiffer takes more energy to make it flex to deliver the line. The more energy you exert the more you can become fatigued. Why work harder than you have to? 

This additional force is also applied to our bodies’ joints. Fly fishing is one of those pursuits we can continue to perform long after we have to give up other activities, and most of us want to fly fish into our later years. Casting more efficiently, and using a rod that accommodates your cast will prolong your fly-fishing life. Less force applied to the rod means less force on wrists, elbows, shoulders, and less chance of chronic injury. This means more years of fly fishing. I have seen many casting students over the years who want help modifying their cast because of nagging shoulder or elbow pains. Not all of this is the fault of the rod; other injuries and just plain bad casting are at fault also. But having a rod you don’t have to force to bend is critical.  

A slower rod can also be easier to control. This is not to say that fast rods can’t be controlled. On the contrary they may be more capable under the right conditions and with the right caster. But, for most of us, in most situations, a slower rod is easier to manipulate, making it easier to deliver the fly where we want.  

All of this to say that the hallmark of any good fly rod is that it seemingly disappears in your hand. A good rod – no, a great rod – is one that you don’t think about when you come off the water. Your memories linger on the rising fish, the great conversations, the beautiful sunset, the one that got away. Your companions may be lamenting failed casts, annoying wind, and inaccurate casts. When you realize how little you actually focused on the rod and your casting, it is a truly memorable and special place in your fly-casting journey. Man and tool have come together in a symbiotic dance performed with no thought to the high level of performance sought and attained.