This is how *I* assess a rod's action. I hope that you find it useful advice. It is important that as well as performing that the rod also gives 'feeling'.
Most anglers judge fly rods like their women, by looks and by feel. I go for performance, in bed and across the water. The balls of a fly rod are in the blank ('what is this guy on?') so let's talk blank.
By far the majority of fly rods on the market are progressive action, by this I mean that as greater load is applied to the tip, the further down the rod the bend travels. When fly casting we use this characteristic to our advantage: for short casts we bend the tip of the rod, for long casts we bend all of the rod. The more we bend the rod the more power it stores.
There are however a few rods knocking about which are tip only. This type of rod is (I believe) inferior and is limited in which styles it can be cast. (Broadly speaking there are two distinct styles of casting: pushing, where the hand travels forwards in a straight line (punching action) and pulling, where the elbow leads the hand (throwing action) - tip action rods have to be pushed).
In order to find out what sort of action a rod has, lean the tip on the ground and gradually bend the rod. Greater force should bend more rod. This is the versatile action. I suppose that the ideal general-purpose trout rod would bend to about one third of the way down the blank with a ten yard pick-up and lay-down cast. This would give us room to bend less tip for shorter casts, and plenty of reserves for 'horizon breakers'.
Another key characteristic of the fly rod is fast recovery. To use snazzy, technical jargon (remember I am a professional) a light flicky tip is preferable to a heavy soggy one. However, by altering the weight of line outside the tip it is possible to slow or speed up rod recovery. For example, with a six-weight rod coupled with an eight-weight line you would have the slow, soggy experience. Fast recovery enables tight, pointy loops, without resorting to too much skill on our part.
And then there is bounce. Now look here, I know that a bit of bounce can be very exciting in the appropriate circumstances, but this doesn't include fly casting. A bouncy tip will send a little wriggle down the fly line to the leader where it will tie interesting little wind knots ('...ahhh, I knew it was the rod and not my casting; must buy a new one'). Of course it is sometimes possible to avoid this by being really gentle, but I'd much rather have a rod I can knock around.
You know I'm a bit like that sometimes. It's this mountain man caveman action man inside me trying to get out: 'If I can't be delicate, then sod it, I'll be forceful'. I'm like that in the bush too, it's either one extreme or the other; I either tiptoeing soundlessly through the undergrowth or storming about like some miniature hurricane.
So how should we assess a fly rod? Give it a good waggle? You must be joking!
And yet I know this is how many many rods are sold. You cannot tell how a rod will behave by wiggling it backwards and forwards in a shop (or at least I can't). You have find a bit of room and bung a line through it.
Having determined that we have a progressive-actioned rod (and now you know just what this entails - unlike many retail outlets. Be careful of advertising, most copy writers wouldn't know a rod action if it whipped them on the arse), the xt thing to do is to establish how fast the rod is. By fast I am discussing how quickly the bent rod straightens when load is released. Do not mistake speed for rod bend.
There are two ways to do this. The simplest is to 'go for next. Pick up and lay down cast ten yards of line. The rod should feel crisp. And not sloppy. If the rod feels crisp it is fast. If it feels sloppy it is slow. Blinded by science that's me.
The other way of assessing rods involves a spring balance and a stopwatch; you can time how fast a rod recovers, but these readings only really tell you something when you compare them other results of rods you know.
A good way of testing the tip for bounce is to watch your backcast (either use an open stance or rotate your head from the neck - never swivel from the waist) . Stop the rod really hard and watch the line for wriggles. If, having made the stop, one small kick appears then all's fine and dandy - this is where the rod tip has flicked forward after the stop. If, on the other hand, you end up with a whole series of waves disappearing down the fly line - then bin the rod (also bin it if it snaps - some do!).
So far all we have done is cast ten yards. The next stage is to establish the 'natural' action. So we false cast. Lots of false casting. With varying loads: six yards, eight yards, ten yards, twelve yards (unless its a ten-yard weight-forward line - in which case we might look a dick). All without hauling. Yes, I know you can make it tighter with hauls, but that's not the point is it? What we are looking for is a rod which throws nice, tight, well formed loops, all by itself (in a manner of speaking). Chuck in a couple of roll casts - just for completeness sake.
And now with all the preliminaries out of the way the real fun begins. Sexy loop time.
Nine foot man
I am a nine-foot-man.
Yeah, I know. But longer rods come around too slowly (all that leverage working against me) and the tip of shorter rods travels too slowly, because I cast in an arc. So for pure casting pleasure (and distance) give me a nine-foot rod. And make it a mean five-weight.
Face it, loop aerodynamics and loop velocity are the two keys to distance. True, the heavier the line weight, the greater the loop momentum, but what you gain is sacrificed in loop dynamics because the line is thicker. OK, heavy lines do go further, but not much. It can be handy to have a heavier line in a gale, but if you want to fish small (and I do) then you\'ve got to fish light. (If you want to fish big, then you need heavy tackle; I use an eight-weight in the sea for example). For reservoir bank fishing I'll use my nine-foot five-weight. For beginners, I recommend same length, but six-weight (because it's just that little bit easier, and besides I don't want them catching as many fish as me: that would be embarrassing).
AFTM is actually quite an interesting topic (in that angling discussion sort of way). You see, it is possible to radically affect the action of a rod by casting a heavier or lighter line. Sometimes (and especially with the lighter side and UK or Asian rods) it is not only possible to improve the rod action, but improve it to the extent that the rod becomes really quite exciting. The only drawback is that the rod feels heavy in comparison to quality lightweight rods - which frankly (and I don't think I'm being too cynical here) is probably why they are rated this way. The ideal rod, we are told, is like the ideal reel; weightless.
The AFTM system is a very accurate system and works extremely well; it is purely a means of rating fly lines according to their weight. The manufacturer weighs the first 10 yards of the fly line (excluding the first two feet - because, come on, this is science after all) and according to its weight gives it the appropriate AFTM number.
Interesting fact no.1: there is approximately a 20% difference in weight between each AFTM number. Interesting fact no.2: that's quite a significant amount.
The problems associated with the AFTM system are in how its applied: some poor, underpaid son of a bitch, like me, puts on his consultancy hat, and takes delivery of 20 or so rods for line rating assessment, and bungs different weight lines through them until they 'feel' right. And reports the results back. We're all different.
Depending on how we cast determines how we judge the 'correct' rating. I often rate rods one AFTM under my fellow colleagues (which is interesting), but, there again, I like my loops to have sex appeal. Unfortunately, quite a large number of rods (especially in the cheaper market sector) have a multiple line rating, such as (#5-7). Just what in the hell is this supposed to mean? Frankly, not a lot. In my experience, the recommendation to put the heaviest line on doesn't always work, although it does usually.
Applied AFTM becomes a little bit arbitrary, especially in the cheaper end of the rod market, and one rod in a range is no indication of the others in the same range (because cheap rods are made without the benefits of a full-time rod designer, which is partly why they are cheap).
The theory behind multiple line ratings is that with a double-taper line you can aerialise more line outside the tip and cause the rod to become 'soggy', and maybe even break. So the lower limit of the range should be used for a double taper, and the upper limit for a weight-forward line (remember twelve yards of a DT fly line has the same weight as ten yards of the next AFTM up).
I don't go along with this thought; most WF lines are now longer than the old bog standard 10 yards, and happen to be around 15 yards. And some of these such as Lee Wulff's Triangular Taper, Michael Evans' Arrowhead and Jim Vincent's Windcutter have some seriously heavy line in that 10 -15 yard section. Also it is possible, in fact desirable, to cast with an overhang, i.e. some shooting line outside the tip of the rod, which can play absolute havoc with rod loading. So forget this theory. However, if the resultant feeling with any line is of the slow-soggy experience; you are overloaded, and you need to go down in line-ratings.
Another common thought is that when using sinking lines you should go one AFTM up, because the line is thinner, hence more aerodynamic and requires slowing down when casting. In don't agree with this either. The problem is not that the line is thinner; it is that the usual WF sinking line is shorter than the modern floater. This has two effects: the sinking line head is lighter, and the loop will unroll quicker (there is less line in it). Buy a line with a longer WF head and you will notice the difference (line speed is actually desirable, slowing down the rod ain't! - my opinion, bet it gets Mark some mail though).
Orvis have fairly recently come out with their 'flex index' system, and various manufacturers are coming up with something similar of their own - although it would help matters if they all used the same system, but they probably won't. I have found the system to be a genuinely interesting attempt to resolve some market confusion. But it is limited; what they also need is a rod speed recovery chart. Until they do this, and until we get used to it, we will still have to try before we buy. Incidentally, most shops will allow you to do this, even if they don't have casting facilities, you should be able to take the rod away 'on approval' - if they don't agree to this: shop elsewhere.
I said before that most cheaper-end (and at least one 'high-end' manufacturer's) rods are over-rated for lines (and I do believe this is in order to make them feel light in the hand - after all quality is associated with lightness, and the general trend is for rods to be lighter and lighter) with this in mind it is worth experimenting downwards on line ratings. I have literally taken a #8 weight rated rod and cast a #4 weight line, and it's been the perfect action (but, of course, the rod is just a little on the heavy side).
I can honestly say that there has been a whole heap of rubbish talked about using a reel to balance the rod. The reel does not balance the rod, it is irrelevant: take it off and stick it in your pocket and you'll see what I mean. A rod which is 'tip-heavy' is one which feels unnecessarily heavy up top and will never feel pleasant, no matter how heavy a reel you stick on the other end.
The last few years has seen some pretty wicked fly lines come on the market. Triangular tapers and their variants facilitate tight, fast loops and to my mind are far superior to the standard old weight forward. The one thing they all seem to have in common, is a very heavy rear section of the weight forward, some fifteen yards, or so, from the tip. With these lines it 'pays to play'. And there are only two ways to do this. One is to take yourself and your rod along to a game fair, introduce yourself to a dealer and ask to try all their lines. And the other is to buy one hell of a lot of lines. Take your pick.
Mark Bowler offer the additional advice...
Rods, tackle shops and mail order
Buying a rod through mail order or via a tackle shop is a contract between both the purchaser and vendor, but the rod can only be returned and replaced either if it is damaged on receipt, or is not what was ordered. Otherwise, the retail outlet is not legally bound to change a rod once it arrives at the buyer's address, even if it doesn't suit the buyer's casting style. However, any reputable mail-order company or tackle shop will want a happy customer (i.e. a rod that suits the customer best), so FF&FT recommends the following arrangement: talk to the retail outlet, stating you wish to try the rod 'on approval', bearing in mind your full credit card details will be noted before the rod is released. Then, if you don't like the rod's action on receipt, return it hastily in its original, pristine condition (i.e. plastic shrink-wrap still on the handle, undamaged and dry cork, no scratches on the blank, etc). Obviously, this system relies fully on the consent of the vendor before the rod is released, and the onus is on the buyer to return the rod in an acceptable time and condition.
What alternatives are there?
A few tackle shops carry demonstration models of some of their rods (but it is unlikely they will have demonstrators of all the models), which can be tested before buying a new one; others allow rods to be taken from the shop 'on approval'. Various shops have 'on site' casting facilities, especially those based at fisheries, and often allow rods to used 'in action' before purchase. Game fairs, which take place throughout the country throughout the season (notably Chatsworth Angling Fair, CLA Game Fair and Scone Game Fair), offer a good chance to test out and buy the latest ranges of manufacturer's rods, utilising reels and the range of different line weights that the stands supply, in the casting areas provided specifically for this purpose. Finally, remember your angling companions will most likely be using different rod makes, models and actions, one of which could suit your style. If you can, borrow one or two, and try using them for a spell to see how they compare. Use your own favourite lines through them if you like. If you find you don't want to give one of them back, go and buy this one for yourself!