A “fly rod” is designed to cast an artificial fly onto the water using the built-up momentum of a weighted fly-line. The rod also needs to be able to bring in a fighting fish, from palm-sized bluegills to 90lb tarpon (and even bigger). The vast variety of lengths, weights, and “fight-ability” in sportfish requires an equally vast selection of rod sizes and actions to best match your prey. This article is aimed to help you determine the most versatile fly rod weight, length, and action for your needs.
Before we begin, this might be a really good time for you to fully understand a fly fishing line and rod setup. This article does a great job.
Fly Rod Purpose
Basically, a fly rod serves three purposes:
- Casting and Load (control of distance & accuracy)
- Line Control (ability to adjust the drift & drag of the line and fly)
- Catching (capability to set the hook & land the fish)
Below, we are going to get into how each of a fly rod’s attributes effect its purposes by looking into weight, action & length.
Fly rods are rated by weight, length, and action.
The weight indicates the size (weight) of fishing line that matches the rod, which will vary depending on what you’re fishing for.
For example: A 5-weight rod is built to cast a 5-weight line, while a 9-weight is designed to work best with a 9-weight line.
Many anglers will use a line “one-up” or “one down” to help adjust the action of their rod to their personal preference and fishing conditions.
Most anglers who fish for a variety of species agree that a medium-action 5-weight rod is probably the most versatile, especially for those new to the sport.
If you want to know more about the flexibility of the 5-weight rod, take a look at this article on choosing 5 weight rods.
We also have a section within this article explaining what types of fish match up with what weight rods. Larger fish, like steelhead, red snapper, and big catfish typically require a bump up in length, the most popular being an 11-weight.
While measurements like a fly rod’s weight and length are pretty straight forward, this final element, action, is less definitive and can be especially confusing for newer anglers.
The “action” of a fly rod can refer to:
- Stiffness & Recovery Time: How long it takes to become immobile after casting.
- Flex-Point: The natural spot where the bend begins in the lower portion of the rod.
- Load: The amount of bend and energy imparted to the rod on the beginning of acceleration following a back or forward cast (similar to the point where the vaulting pole is at its deepest bend and begins to lift a pole-vaulter into the air.)
… or all of the above.
Action has little to do with a rod’s weight or length but is mostly determined by the materials used in the blank, wrapping, and coating of the finished fly rod.
Increasingly, fly rod manufacturers are becoming more specific in their designations, and you’re like to find modern rods broken down into “fast action”, “medium action”, and “slow actions” categories.
Also referred to as “fast tip” or “tip action” fly rods:
- Commonly built on graphite or boron/graphite mix blanks.
- Flexible tip, with a stiff body.
- Preferred by saltwater anglers casting in windy conditions.
- Preferred for larger, stronger fish.
- Fiberglass or graphite blanks.
- Bend in mostly in the upper quarter for the rod length.
- Best balance between performance and versatility.
- Preferred by trout anglers who a multi-purpose for dry and wet-fly fishing.
- Fiberglass or bamboo blanks.
- Bends from ¾ down the length of the rod.
- Best for short, precise casts and delicate presentations.
- Preferred action for “small stream” fly fishing.
All of that said, the general (if over-simplified) rule of thumb is: for accuracy over long casts, use a “faster” rod, for accuracy over shorter distances, use a “slower” rod.
Or, as stated by acclaimed rod builder Alan Palmer, in A.J. McClane’s 1953 The Practical Fly Fisherman (1953): “A rod can be broken down into three convenient and easily recognized sections, the tip, the middle and the butt. In actual casting, the hand drives the butt, the butt drives the middle, and the middle drives the tip, and, of course, the tip drives the line. The tightness or looseness of this linkage is the action of the rod.”
Unfortunately, there really is no industry standard terminology for types of action by which you can compare any manufacture’s rod to another’s of the same length and weight.
Most anglers depend on trial and error, getting the “feel” of a rod while actually on the water, to find their personal “sweet spot.”
A fly rod is a big lever, so the longer the lever, the easier it is for you to cast far. Here are the pros and cons of different rod lengths.
A rod 10-14 feet, or longer in length is considered a long rod. These are great for spey casting, large fish, ocean fishing, and maybe even reaching over long rocks. What these rods are not good for is enclosed spaces. Where trees are nearby, walking through the woods is necessary, etc. The mobility of these rods is hindered by the long length.
Mid lengths are simply in the middle. 8-9 foot rods that allow for good casting, and mobility in tight spaces. You can’t huck a big fly quite like a 10 foot spey rod, but you can still get them out there. It also is a bit harder to be casting in tight situations than a 6 foot rod.
Many choose to go with mid length rods due to the versatility. Ability to cast distances, be in tight spaces, but still high stick your line our pretty far into the water. They also keep smaller fish fun, and allow anglers to land some larger sized fish.
Any rods less than 8 feet would be considered short. These are great rods for small-water fishing, where tight casting and accuracy is necessary. They also make walking through the woods a bit easier.
The Best Combination
Of course, just like every other aspect of fishing, if you ask 10 anglers what the best “multi-purpose” rod combo is…you’ll get 11 different answers. 😉
So…in my opinion, the best combination to achieve the most “versatile” fly fishing rod would be:
- Medium Action
- 8’6”-9′ Length
Note: When I started fly-fishing, my preferred targets were trout, and a 5 weight, 9 foot rod was perfect.
A medium weight rod, loaded with an under-weight line, will be more forgiving for the angler who’s still learning.
At the same time, it will still perform admirably for the more seasoned angler, and fish a variety of fly setups on bodies of water ranging from lakes, streams, and rivers, to moderately-sized species in tidal flats and jetties.
*For larger salt-water species, it’s best to go with a heavy action 9-11 weight rod to battle both the bigger fish, as well as the ever-present winds.
So, if you’re not aiming for one specific species, or non-traditional environments requiring extremely specific gear, there’s really no practical reason to spend little Timmy’s college fund on a dozen different fly rod weights, lengths, and features.
A couple of good multi-purpose, moderately priced, and well-built fly rods will keep you happily setting the hook, in 99% of fishing situations you’re likely to find yourself in, for many, many years to come!
Because we believe the 5 weight is the most versatile rod, we have put together the complete buying guide and our top picks of 5 weight rods in the market.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about