The first thing you might want to have a look at is the workmanship. Have a close look around the whippings and the feet of the rings to make sure that there are no gaps for water to seep in. A well finished rod will have only just enough epoxy to make a smooth finish - anything more is excess weight - and it should be level and without bubbles of course. Even nicer if the epoxy lines are finished straight and not wonky as how you or I would manage it, if we were rod building.
I'm a huge believer in matt-finished rods. It makes no sense to me to wave a flashy rod around since this spooks fish - I have seen it spook fish! You can take steel wool to remove the shine from glossy rods, but this can/will invalidate the warranty. So a stealth matt factory finish is required for “proper fishing”. Quality rings are H&H in the Snakes department and I'm a big fan of Recoils (not the strippers, which should be SIC and - if you are looking to pay for top quality - then these should have titanium frames).
Cork - no excess filler and no gaps where water can seep in. 1/4 inch cork is going to hopefully give you better quality. In the trade a "super grade' cork grip costs around 10GBP. Almost all companies try to reduce their costs and so just about everyone compromises on cork quality - and then blame champagne drinkers for taking all the good cork!
Now it's very important that you test drive your rod with the line/s that you plan to use on it. It's no good using a test line that is of a different profile or weight to the line you intend to use. And believe me, if you haven't thought about what line you will be fishing then you have done the process backwards! There is a system and it goes fly, line, rod. So what sort of fishing are you doing? What size flies will you be typically throwing? What weight line is best for this? Which profile of fly line do you prefer? Only now are you in the position to go shopping for a new rod.
My first few casts are with the leader only. This is because I often only cast the leader when fishing. I see many people testing rods carrying 10 or more metres of line outside the tip, or aiming for the horizon, but I almost never see anyone cast just the leader. Most of my fish are caught within a few rod lengths and often only a few metres away. Casting the leader only should still work rather well because the rod bends against its own weight. A rod should feel very comfortable just flicking the fly and leader around.
Next I add one or two metres of line and repeat. I do this with Roll as well as Overhead Casts. Some rods really are too stiff in this department. This is where if you’ve bought the rod before the line, you may feel that you would prefer a heavier line “to make things work”. Oh dear, oh dear! That’s the problem with working backwards... still maybe instead of going fishing for stream trout you can go fishing for bonefish!
I continue with this “adding line” but I also vary speed as well. Slow short cast and then fast short casts, as if I was making a quick shot or casting into a headwind. And I work with this, extending line, playing with speed, all the way through to carrying the head plus a few yards of overhang, or - as in the case of a DT line - up to the point where it’s an unreasonable amount of line to carry. For example with a small stream 7’6 4WT rod, it’s not really a practical fishing test to be carrying 90’ of Double Taper fly line!
Then I have a few more things to look at. One is how does the rod respond to pull-back? Some don’t behave well at all, whereas others seem to sync very well to this reversed torque manoeuvre. Of course if you don’t use pull-back in casting then you have some practising to do! For setting tight loops, for placing the fly down first and for making curve casts there is no better technique.
My final basic test is to form a hard stop on the backcast to see how the rod tip damps. I’ve done this with every single rod that I’ve cast in the last 25 years - literally thousands! Some damp extremely well and the bottom leg of the loop is completely smooth - the HT6 is a perfect example. The HT8 took me three “final” prototypes to get to the point where it is now. Of course it may not matter to you, that the bottom leg of the loop has a miniature set of waves running towards the loop, but it sure matters to me!
I like to take shots when fly fishing - in fact nowadays even blind casts feel like shots. So it’s fun to take imaginary shots with the rod in the practise area. Firing the loop away from different angles, using speed and accuracy.
There are four cornerstones to fly casting; accuracy, distance, presentation casts and Speys. I would argue that a well-adjusted rod is a compromise between these four disciplines. But mostly it’s a compromise between short and long distance. Particularly short roll casts and long overhead casts. A good rod should be able to comfortably do it all.
The current trend for stiffer rods obviously doesn’t suit many - otherwise they wouldn’t be making lines heavier and heavier than AFFTA rating! Stiffer rods are good for distance. If you need to cast 130ft then a stiffer rod can help, with the right technique. But don’t expect a stiff rod to throw a line further for you without technique - because it won’t. The only time it will do this is after you have dedicated years of your life to learning distance casting and then more years practising with a stiffer rod!
Almost everyone would be far better off buying a softer rod - properly matched - than are currently “trendy” AND learning to cast . Once you can cast 120ft consistently with a softish 5WT rod and line, then you are ready for a stiff competition rod - if that’s what sparks your interest. Whatever you do, don’t be fooled into thinking that top fly fishermen are using stiffer rods for fishing because they absolutely are not.
Competition distance rods are a different breed of course. Then I look for ease of optimal distance carry, loop shaping, and of course what happens when you knock seven bells out of it. But that’s another story.
The key is to have a plan, use the line you intend to fish and practise the casts as you would normally fish. I’ve attended numerous trade and public fly fishing shows over the years and I can tell you the vast majority of casters don’t test drive a rod in any way remotely close to how they fish - or if they do then haven’t learned the basic fishing skills yet - such as stealth, getting close to the fish to avoid a myriad of drag currents, short-lining so that you can stay in control of your flies and not simply spooking everything between them and their maximum distance!
However none of this matters until you have learned to cast really fucking well.
So, we have:
- A video fly casting manual. - A discussion forum affectionately known as “The Board”
- have a private email: email@example.com
- And we have a casting test for you to use as your practise syllabus.
If you are not an outstanding caster then you should change this first and foremost. Otherwise you are going to spend your life buying rods based on spurious marketing bollocks and then uplining them because they don’t work for you.
Fortunately we can help. Then, once you have learned to become the awesome caster that you can be, you can buy all of our rods and not worry about marketing shit anymore.
edit: Jesus it's looks like I have already written a very similar article last year on the same subject, even using the very same title which is why it wouldn't save first time. Well I don't know about you but I didn't read it and besides, next year I'll do the same article again :p