Steve Parton: Rod Rating - a professional speaks!

Last year I went to the Shakespeare Company's Annual Dinner Dance with Mrs P and halfway through the evening I was presented with a Long Service Award commemorating 21 years of Consultancy work. I was surprised and charmed, I never thought such a thing would ever happen to me. I'm still going over to the Company on a regular basis hopeful that I might get another one at 25 years!

I basically overview products and projects like tackle and flyline developments but the main thing I have done for Shakespeare's over the years has been to formally rate all their flyrods. Some years more than others because occasionally I have been able to train in-house staff to do the work - occasionally it felt like a kiss of death because they inevitably got promoted, left or passed away - but I kept on and keep on.

It isn't that easy a job because there are no set written rules anywhere that relate flylines to rods. There are very specific rules which govern the manufacture of flylines to AFTMA standards which are universally applied worldwide - but even they are somewhat outdated and in danger of becoming increasingly so in these days of fancier variations of Forward Tapering involving longer and shorter bellies.

I have read and attempted to understand the recent work being done by assorted worthies on matching the newer Spey lines to salmon rod rating - and quite what your average punter is ever going to make of what they've come up with - let alone the unskilled wezzocks occasionally to be found serving in shops - I have no idea. In terms of raw information supply - Confusion through Profusion is likely to be the way of it!

What I actually have over in the Shakespeare Factory at Redditch is a set of Forward Tapered Traditionally Constructed Flylines 30' in head length each and all of them exactly weighing into the dead central weights of each line size. A set of perfectly standard flylines, if you will.

There is a little additional subtlety in this choice because the vast majority of flyfishermen are far better served with 30' headed Forward Tapered Flylines. This is because they are average performers only, in purely casting terms. They are the mass market we serve as a trade generally - not specialists, not aggressive young professionals or veteran casting heroes with arms like steel bands and the technical mastery of a Steve Rajeff!

When testing a flyrod I test cast it with at least three different lines to see how it reacts in correct load, slight underload and slight overload.

Test casting is a bit of a black art because it is useless for any highly competent caster like myself to just go ahead and rate a rod for my own ability. I cast very well and normally want to use any flyrod in slight underload because I hit the cast hard and double haul as a matter of routine - I am still strong and very rhythmical physically as are most good casters.

When I test cast I deliberately attempt to cast like an average flyfisherman without double hauling. I try to be as like the average as possible and the average flyfisher is around 50 with a wife and 2.4 kids, a mortgage, well stressed and probably living a life of quiet desperation. He goes flyfishing at most 15 times a year. He may well also have slight tennis elbow and an imminent hernia!

And of course whilst I'm swinging the variously loaded rods about I am making hard mental notes about the actions - usually with a view to eradicating the hyper stiff or mega sloppy ones one very occasionally encounters these days. If I have a sensible comment to make about rod actions generally: it is that these days it is almost a rarity to encounter genuinely bad ones - the Koreans and Chinese learnt really very quickly what not to send!

What we have done in some years at Shakespeare's is to use two independent rod raters and compare results and views on the products. Once I worked in tandem with the good Paul Arden himself some years ago and it was most interesting to see how very closely we had independently agreed on almost every single stick!

I have had similar experiences with Terry Thomas, Charlie Jardine, Pete Cockwill and Peter MacKenzie Philps as well over the years when they all worked as co consultants with me at Shakespeare's. It was actually very rare that we had anything of a disagreement on any rod other than the few that definitely were somehow between ratings.

There only ever was the one I didn't quite understand because he seemed to rate everything as 6#/7# - but he was soon away!

Technically a rod works best with a specific weight of line to load it given that the line is moved sufficiently fast to keep it sensibly airborne. Nobody I know in the game tests at very fast linespeeds because it is very counterproductive as Mr Average Caster can't speed lines up anyway. So most of the markings you wind up putting on a rod reflect this - the higher rating is effectively the main rod rating and it is for a Forward Taper; the lower rating is conventionally for either heavy winds or a Double Tapered line. If you want to use shooting heads the practical rule of thumb is one AFTM up from the highest stated rating and a 33' (10 metre) head cut out of the end of a double taper.

Over the years though, I have seen very massive liberties taken with cavalier rod ratings, never, I hasten to add with Shakespeare's. I only ever had the one minor argument with the MD on one and was overruled on a top end uprating by 1 AFTM - on the specific grounds that no known in service breakages had occurred over a 5 year timespan - in retrospect he was right! But I am more than aware of numerous horrors that have happened in practice and one or two are worth noting because they show what does happen in the real world...

The batch of MkIV 10' Glassfibre Carp Blanks that once went out of Bruce and Walker's mistakenly built up as Bob Church 9# Weight Reservoir Specials and which were minimally AFTM 14# 's - they just vanished and never a complaint. Folks in the know who'd sold them waited anxiously for months and nothing was ever heard of them again - odd you might think!

Then there was Peter MacKenzie Philp's famous 10 footer rated on the rod AFTM5# - 9# on the grounds it would load with a vast amount of 5# or a bit of 9# and which was in any event actually wrongly rated because it needed at least a WF10# to put a bend in!

And a production batch of 500 11' 6#/7# Lochstylers off an approved sample that mysteriously turned into AFTM12# Leadliners when they came in and had to be withdrawn pretty damned sharply!

And, oddest of all after a long sweaty afternoon, two heaps of rods, all correctly rated but one heap maybe three times as heavy in the hand as the others - the only carbons I've ever handled that might have truly been made out of splitcane! That was a misunderstanding in Korea of "Light Line Version - Heavy Line Version!" (They must have sweated blood making those hugely heavy rods dead on to requested AFTM specs, and all to no avail!)

And finally there was a pal of mine who had an order for a load of 5# weights from Spain and a load of 7# rods - which became 5# with a few strokes of the pen and a coat of thinned epoxy! I offered to supply him with appropriate 5# lines to go with them because I had a load of lines and a pen of my very own! Oddly he got in further serious trouble the year after because he got the order repeated and this time supplied the right rods! Macho lads those Spaniards!

The problem most folks have as a result of line ratings is that the wholly unskilled marketing department in the joke company they bought the product off has had the rods marked without reference to professional help in the matter! That's just me being polite about thoroughly cowboy operations and there are a fair few still in business and you probably know them at least as well as I do.

Until there are bulletproof rules as there are with flylines rod rating will always be subject to debate and there is a sporting chance that the 6# you bought, say, will actually work better for you with a 5# or a 7# on it!

As ever the rule for practical fishermen is "Never Buy a Pig In a Poke!" In other words you buy your rod after you have tried it and not before unless you are duplicating a system somebody owns that you've tried yourself.

And that has its problems too because it is rare to find a batch of blanks in which there isn't one odd stiff one and one odd soft one - carbon fibre blanks aren't entirely identical, statistically they all fall into a normal distribution. So the average will be good but don't forget about the three standard deviations in either direction that this implies - but that's the way all engineering and mass production always was and always will be!

So just you try it before you buy it - there's a good chap!

Steve Parton needs no introduction to the UK readers. Midlands reservoir angler, obsessional float tuber, author and "in the trade", Steve owns Sparton Fishing Tackle (drop by for a visit!) and is well known in the UK for his in-depth flyfishing knowledge.

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