A Basic Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing in Belize

Chapter 3 - Fly Rods

Although the earliest fly rods were made from ash, lancewood, greenheart and other hardwoods, the first "designed" fly rods were made from calcutta cane, in the 1850's. Rods made from tonkin cane became popular in the early 1900's and even today, literally dozens of skilled artisans hand-make six-strip split tonkin cane fly rods, precision works of art which command prices in the $1000. price range. In spite of their tradition and attractiveness however, cane rods are quite heavy and demand exceptional care to prevent damage from the elements. Over the past half century first fiberglass and then graphite has captured the fly rod market, although there have been brief spurts of popularity for other materials such as steel, beryllium-copper and boron. Early graphite fly rods had their problems as rod manufacturers wrestled with the characteristics of this new material. One of the most persistent problems was that graphite fibers could be made relatively stiff or strong, but not both. Now, after 20 years of joint development by the materials scientists of the aerospace industry and the design and manufacturing experts in the rodmaking industry, the modern graphite fly rod is a reliable, high-performance tool for casting and catching fish.

For saltwater fly fishing in Belize, the best models for all-around use would be 8-1/2 to 9 feet in length and designed to cast either a 7-, 8- or 9 weight line. Some fly fishers use shorter, specialty rods when their primary object is to cast very tight line loops under and between overhanging mangrove branches. 10-foot and longer rods do offer the advantage of achieving higher backcasts (to clear rearward obstructions), but their added length and weight make them attractive mainly to really strong, expert casters who can tap their potential for long distance casts. Fly fishers who fish primarily in wind-protected areas for smaller fish can manage quite nicely with rods designed for use with 4-, 5-, or 6-weight lines. Anglers venturing out for tarpon in the 40-150 pound range would be advised to equip themselves with rods designed for 10-, 11-, 12- or even up to -15 weight lines. Lefty Kreh once said that light rods in the 1-5 weight range were designed primarily for delicate presentation when casting, that medium rods in the 6-9 weight range were designed for long casts, and rods in the 10-15 weight range were designed to lift and fight heavy, hooked fish.

Even if an angler decides on a particular length and line weight, his or her choices are just beginning. At the outset, a decision must be made as to how much money is to be spent on this fly rod. New fly rods are typically priced between $100 and $500. I would be suspicious about any rod priced considerably under $100; either it will be overly heavy, difficult to cast, without adequate warranty or of marginal structural integrity. On the other hand, if you're just starting out in saltwater fly fishing, you might not want to make make the $500 investment until you're more confident of your preferences. When you buy a fly rod in the $500 range. you're getting a product which is probably very light (and therefore less tiring to use), constructed from the latest in high-tech graphite and resin technology, capable of relatively long-distance casts and backed up by a very liberal warranty against breakage. Keep in mind though that these high-performance casting tools are usually designed with a relatively small margin between the stresses of expected usage and the strength at which the rod will break. That's why they are so light and why they have liberal warrantees and attendant high prices. Another key decision is whether your fly rod should be of 2, 3 or 4 pieces. One-piece and five-piece saltwater rods are basically unnecessary and rare. 20 or 30 years ago, I would have unhesitatingly recommended 2-piece rods for all applications, since at that time the tip ferrules for 3-and 4-piece rods were rather heavy and they destroyed the smooth action of the rod. Today, manufacturers have modified the rod tapers and designed the ferrules so that their action is uninterrupted and just as good as the 2-piece versions. If you are likely to be doing any airline travelling with your fly rod, I would strongly urge you to spend the extra $20-$50 for a 3- or 4-piece fly rod and gain a lot in convenience.

Perhaps the next and probably the most difficult choice is in selecting the rod with the best "action". This is a highly subjective issue and one which is fraught with problems of semantics. Personally, I like to think of rod action as being fast, medium or slow, recognizing that there dozens of actions between these three types and many other special characteristics labeled as "parabolic", "progressive", etc. The basic problem here is to select a rod action which best suits your casting style. If a true beginner, this will not be an easy matter. In this case my suggestion is to get some casting lessons from a fly fisher that is both a good caster and a good teacher. If he or she is competent, you will be coached into a casting stroke that will permit you to cast reasonably well, though not necessarily optimum. Also, a good instructor should be able to advise you whether to buy a rod that approximates or differs from the action of the rod used during instruction. Then, with your new-found skills, go to a good fly shop and test cast the various rods that meet your length/line weight/price criteria. With some experimentation you should begin to lean toward one or two rods that feel pretty good during casting. I cannot overemphasize however the need for some preliminary casting help, in order to put yourself in the position of being able to make worthwhile judgements. Whatever you do, don't ever buy a fly rod without first casting that same model.

Along with test casting, it's also a good idea to develop a feel for rod action in the fly shop. To evaluate rod action, hold the cork grip firmly in both hands, parallel to the floor and at waist height. Now wiggle the rod from side to side firmly until you establish a rhythm that produces rod deflection curves like that depicted in the Wiggle-Test sketch. A fast action rod will assume a shape like curve A and will also oscillate at a frequency (cycles/second) which would be noticeably faster than for a slow-action rod. Another way to evaluate rod action is to assemble rod, reel and line, hold the rod grip fairly horizontal and hang a weight of a few ounces at the end of the line. The resulting rod bending curve, like the Rod-Loading , sketch will be similar to that achieved in the Wiggle-Test and will also closely replicate the rod bending curve during actual casting at that level of loading.

Now, in practical terms, what does all that mean? Well, first of all, a fast-action rod will have to be cast "faster"; i.e. the caster's hand and arm will have to move back and forth faster than with a slow-action rod, so as to be synchronized with the rod's inherent bending frequency. I have found that shorter people, who usually have shorter casting strokes, seem to prefer fast action rods because they can achieve higher line speeds in a shorter period of time. Let me digress a bit to explain that.

Contrary to the claims of some writers, a fly rod has no power of its own, other than the stored energy released when the rod recoils from its flexed position. My experiments have indicated that the extent of this stored energy is quite minimal when compared to the kinetic energy imparted to the rod tip and line by the angler's casting stroke just before rod flex recoil. A flyrod is after all simply a long lever connected to angler's body linkages, its length and flexibility amplifying the motion of the hand from perhaps 2-3 feet to about 15-20 feet of rod tip motion. Over the same span of time, this means that the rod tip is travelling over 6 times faster than the hand! The rod's flexibility also converts the somewhat rotary motion of the rod butt to a rather straight-line motion of the rod tip. Unless the rod tip is travelling in a straight line, the line (which follows the rod tip) will develop waves, reducing distance and accuracy. Straight line rod tip motion is depicted on the Casting sketch. It can be demonstrated that if a caster pushes a slow-action rod too hard during his stroke, the inertia of the rod tip and extended line will cause the rod tip to dip downward creating vertical waves which will ruin the cast. Thus, if a short caster needs to push the rod that hard in order to achieve a high line speed in a short period of time, he or she should try a faster action rod, which is more able to keep up the pace. Conversely, I have noticed that many tall fly fishers will gravitate toward medium- or slow- action rods since they have a longer stroke and much more time to develop high line speeds without pushing too hard. Notwithstanding, fly fisher anatomy is only one factor involved. Some casters, short or tall, just like to wave the rod back and forth real fast and therefore the fast-action fly rod is the best tool for them. You, the caster/customer have to be the final judge on what rod action is best for you!

Having perhaps belabored the subject of rod action too much, let's wrap up this chapter with a discussion on fly rod accessories. Fly rods have line guides throughout most of their length to distribute the loading of the flexed rod and to guide the line in a more or less straight line as it is shoots out during the cast delivery. Most fly rods nowadays have an adequate number of guides for this purpose and reasonably appropriate guide spacing. The biggest differences between rods can be in the guide design and materials. I personally favor conventional snake guides for our fishing in Belize, because of their light weight and rugged reliability. The last two guides closest to the grip should, however, employ large ceramic ring guides, to gradually funnel the line down when the line is being pulled out during the casting delivery. The first stripping guide will get a lot of abrasion from dirt on the line, and the hard ceramic ring can withstand this abrasion for a long time. It is most important that all guides be made so as to resist corrosion from the marine environment. Chrome-plated stainless steel seems to work very well, but titanium and titanium nitride coatings are even better, especially in the tip-top, which is subject to considerable abrasion from the line. I have experimented with the single-foot ceramic-ring guides and they have worked out OK, but are more apt to get bent or damaged in rough usage. A hookkeeper, near the front of the grip, is a good feature as long as its design will not permit the line from catching on it during the run of a fish.

Almost all good fly rods come with cork grips, the standard of the industry. Cork has a comfortable surface, is easily cleaned and enough resiliency to facilitate fish fighting. Grip shape is a strictly personal preference, but many of our fly fishers prefer the full-wells design, where there is an enlarged middle section to grasp, a flared front section for resting the thumb during casting and a flared rear section to accomodate an up-locking style of reel seat. Reel seats should definitely be of the screw-locking type, not the sliding-band type common in light, freshwater fly rods. Either up-locking or down-locking models are fine, though I sort of prefer the up-locking approach because it moves the reel's center of gravity closer to my hand, minimizing torque during casting. Anodized aluminum is fairly standard for reel seats, although titanium reel seats are decidedly better. I would recommend that your fly rod have an end-padded extension butt rearward of the reel seat, either permanent or removable. Whenever you are fighting a fish in excess of 5 pounds, it's real convenient to jam the butt into your waist area to get additional leverage and ease the wear and tear on your hand and wrist. The extra length is also helpful when you're bracing the reel seat area under your forearm for additional leverage.


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