Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee
Showing posts with label choosing a fly rod. Show all posts
Showing posts with label choosing a fly rod. Show all posts

Monday, February 12, 2024

Choosing the Best Fly Rod for Smoky Mountains Fly Fishing

If you're like me and have been around the inter webs for a long time, you've seen some variation of the question. What is the best fly rod for.....? You name it. Best fly rod for streamer fishing. Best fly rod for nymph fishing. Best fly rod for brook trout. Best fly rod for brown trout. Best fly rod for Yellowstone. In other words, people are always looking for an edge when it comes to their piscatorial pursuits. This question has been asked via online message boards, in person and on the phone when I worked at a fly shop, and nowadays on Facebook groups. The problem is, they are asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. The title for this short piece is clear enough, but I probably should have called it, "How To Ask the Right Questions About Fly Rods."

The real solution here that very few people actually seem to seriously want is to work hard at becoming a better angler. That could include investing money into some guided fly fishing trips or it could be as simple as just getting out on the water more. Investing a lot of time goes a long ways towards making someone proficient. If you have invested that kind of time, you've probably already figured out the answer to the question of best fly rod. If you haven't been fly fishing long enough or don't have the time to get out more, I'll address one specific version of this question. What is the best fly rod for Smoky Mountains fly fishing?

Before I get too far into my own personal opinions on the matter, I'll share some background. First, this is not the first, and probably won't be the last time I deal with some form of this question. I've covered How To Select the Perfect Fly Rod before. This is a little different from that post as you'll see. Go back and read it first just to be sure.  Second, I've been fly fishing for close to 30 years now or nearly 3/4 of my life. In other words, I have a little experience that has led me on a circutuous journey that has brought me nearly full circle on rod selection. I'll explain more shortly. Finally, note the first sentence of this paragraph. No matter how much I or any other angler may have learned a thing or two along the way, anything we might suggest is simply our own opinion. No matter what anyone else says, there is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions.

When I first started fly fishing, I got a Walmart special. In retrospect, I'm not sure it is even a fly rod. At the time, however, it was perfect. Everything about that rod looks like a fly rod except for how clunky it is and how terribly it casts. I'm suspicious it is actually some sort of crappie rod, and yes, I do still have it floating around somewhere. Still, and this is the important part, I learned to cast with the rod. In fact, I was hauling and even double hauling without knowing that was a thing. The darn rod wouldn't cast worth a flip without a good haul. Necessity is the mother of invention. At the time, I didn't know that hauling was an actual technique, so I made it up as I went. As time went on, I yearned for a better rod. Now I know better. That is a slippery slope, but at the time I was convinced that a better rod would help. 

The next rod wasn't half bad, but still not the right rod for the job. It was a 6 weight, too heavy for what I was doing, but better than my current setup. Of all the rods I've ever owned, I actually have probably used it the least or pretty close to it. Not that anything was especially wrong with the rod, but it wasn't too long after getting this rod that I got my first "nice" rod. That 6 weight did come in handy years later, but that's another story for another day. My first nice rod was an Orvis Superfine 8' 4 weight, known as the Tight Loop. To this day, it is still one of my absolute favorite fly rods. So much so, in fact, that I eventually picked up a second to have as a backup. Orvis doesn't make these rods and hasn't for more than 20 years I believe, so you can't just get a new one made unfortunately.

That rod really molded me as an angler. Because it was the nicest rod I had for several years, it became all I fished. I learned to do a LOT with that 8' 4 weight rod, but what it really excels at is dry or dry/dropper fishing on small to medium sized mountain streams. When I learned to high stick nymphs for the legendary Walter Babb, he kindly suggested that I might want a slightly longer and faster rod. The soft Superfine is just too flexible to be a great tight line rod although it works in a pinch. In fact, I learned to be deadly with that rod, but it is not the most efficient rod I could use for that method. Thus it was that I found myself looking for yet another fly rod. The next rod would be my 4th in case you're counting. Don't worry, the numbers will get really blurry quickly. 

My next "nice" rod was a 9' 5 weight St. Croix Legend Ultra. When I first got the rod, I was in college and had it shipped to my dorm. When it arrived, I hurried to string it up and cast it on the lawn. I was almost convinced the rod was broken. Yet, upon examination, the rod looked intact. You see, my casting stroke had evolved through the prior three rods and settled into something that made the SUPER SLOW Superfine (Say that 10 times fast!) work magic. It was far from fitted for a super fast St. Croix (Try that one also!). It took me quite a bit of work to make that fast action rod work correctly, but I got the hang of it and soon found myself fishing it far more than the Superfine. I had evolved as an angler and was more interested in the most effective fishing tool. The Legend Ultra was an amazing high sticking rod. Being so fast, you could stick most fish that ate instead of missing many like I did on the Superfine. Setting the rod hard enough was no longer my limiting factor.

After the 5 weight Legend Ultra, my next rod was a 9' 7 weight Temple Fork Outfitters TiCr-X. Even though I've had that rod for probably close to 20 years now, it is still one of my favorite streamer rods. I've caught big trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, drum, carp, stripers, musky and many other fish on that rod. Since then, I've picked up just a few more rods. Short rods, long rods, 1 weight rods, 2 weight rods, 3 weight rods, 4 weight rods, 5 weight rods, 6 weight rods, 7 weight rods, 8 weight rods, 10 weight rods, 11 weight rods, well, you get the picture. Some rods have stayed and kept a place in my gear closet, while others have been sold to make room for more pressing needs. The important part here, however, is that I have plenty of options to choose from when I go fishing in the Smokies. In general, I find myself reaching for one of 4 or 5 rods depending on where I am fishing.

If I'm fishing Little River, Abrams Creek, the Oconaluftee, Deep Creek, Cataloochee Creek, or any of the other larger Park streams, I'm probably reaching for my 10' 3 weight Orvis Recon, or a 10' 2 weight Echo Shadow X. The Echo is an incredible rod, but the main reason I don't reach for it every single time is that it is a little light for jigging heavier streamers. I find that my Orvis 10' 3 weight Recon can do anything (for me) from jigging heavier jig streamers, to throwing dry flies, to high stick nymphing. In other words, it can cover any possible situation that might arise on the medium to large streams of the Smokies. It isn't the best rod for beginners because it is a little stiff. That makes it tough to get the hang of for someone new to fly fishing and trying to cast dry flies, but if you have been doing it a while, you can make this rod do everything. The Echo Shadow X is probably more fun to fish, and a nice Smokies fish feels incredible on the 2 weight. I'm just nervous casting super heavy jig streamers on a rod with such a delicate tip. There was a point where I thought you couldn't go too long on fly rods, but for me the 10' rod is the sweet spot. I have an 11' 3 weight Echo Shadow X that is just a little too much rod for me in many situations. If all you're doing is high stick nymphing, however, it is hard to beat as well.

If I'm going fishing for brook trout, then I'm likely reaching for a slightly shorter rod. I've fished 10' and longer rods on brook trout streams, and they are actually pretty useful. However, I like a deeper flexing rod for brook trout, and find myself reaching for the old Orvis Superfine rods or a fiberglass rod more often than not. If I know I'm only fishing dry flies or maybe a dry/dropper, then something between a one and four weight is perfect, and I hope it has a nice slow action. When you hook a 10 inch fish on a rod like this, you'll double the rod up and think you've hung the biggest fish in the Park. Lots of fun! 

At this point, you might be asking yourself, which of these is the best fly rod for Smoky Mountains fishing? And that is the wrong question. What you need to be asking is what rod will I enjoy the most? Or maybe, what rod will help me catch the most fish? Or what rod is most effective for method XYZ? The answers to those questions are not necessarily the same. 

I have long held that many people's recommendations for shorter rods for Park fishing is the furthest thing from the right rod for the job, and I still stand by that belief. However, that only applies for the question of what rod is the most effective rod in the Smokies. I can only think of two or three brook trout streams I've fished where I shorter rod is better suited for the job. For probably 90% or 95% of Great Smoky Mountains fly fishing, a rod ranging from 8'6" to 10" (or even longer) is ideal. This is because we find ourselves high sticking more often than not (for dry flies, nymphs, and streamers even on occasion). Longer rods equals longer reach. The farther you can reach towards the fish without spooking them the better, at least up to a point. There is a point of diminishing returns, however, based on rod swing weight and if it starts getting tip heavy, you've probably gone too long. That said, high sticking can be a mask for a deeper problem. Some high stick anglers continue to only fish that way because they find much less success utilizing other methods. 

And that brings us to the next point. Shorter rods are fine if you just like to cast and don't fish as much pocket water. However, longer rods will still help you mend better because a longer rod can pick up more line off of the water. So now the question becomes clearer. Do you want the most effective rod, or do you want the rod you will enjoy most? If you measure enjoyment by how many fish you catch, then probably go for the longer rod most of the time (and not one that is too soft). Even on brook trout streams, fish the absolute longest rod you can manage without getting in the bushes and trees all day. If you measure enjoyment as a function of the joy of casting the rod combined with the total experience of catching fish in a pristine mountain stream, then a shorter deeper flexing rod might be the ticket. This is especially true if you enjoy playing the fish and not just yanking them in one after another. A true sporting gentleman might take this one step further and make sure the rod is made of split bamboo by a fine rod maker.

Deciding which rod you'll enjoy the most comes down to just casting a bunch of rods. Go to your nearest fly shop and cast a bunch of rods or ask your favorite guide to bring a selection to sample on the next guided trip. Ask questions of your local fly shop employees such as what rod will help me catch more brook trout? Or what rod will make me a better dry fly angler? Or what rod is best for high sticking/euro nymphing/tight lining/whatever else you want to call it? Or what rod brings YOU the most joy to fish? Ask 100 shop employees that last question and you'll get a TON of different answers, just like in that Facebook group.

Most of the best anglers I know aren't hanging out on online forums answering and asking questions about the best fly rods. So just know that your answers on places like a Facebook group will be wildly inaccurate, or at best will be rooted in that person's favorite (and in some cases only) rods. Make sure to ask the correct question, and it will go a long ways towards helping you select your next fly rod. If you need help figuring out what rod you need, don't hesitate to reach out to me. I won't necessarily have the right answer, but I'll definitely have some opinions, and I don't mind sharing those. The best discussion will probably happen on the phone or in person, because there isn't usually a simple answer. I'll work through the question with you to make sure we are asking and answering the intended question to get you the right rod. 

Want to read more? Check out this story of a Smokies autumn fishing trip.

Big Browns in the Smokies in Fall

Sunday, October 25, 2020

How To Select the Perfect Fly Rod

As a fly fishing guide, I am asked about the perfect fly rod a lot. People have a variety of questions, but they all boil down to this: what is the best fly rod? These questions can be in the form of a beginner asking what the best fly rod for a beginner is, or they can be asked by intermediate anglers looking to upgrade. For example, "I've been fly fishing for a while and I'm ready for a better/nicer/more awesome/(fill in the blank here) rod. What fly rod should I buy?" Before I get into attempting to answer what is always a loaded question, I want to clearly state that this is an extremely subjective question. However, I'll try to give a reasonable answer based on what type of fishing you are looking to do. 

What I'm NOT here to do is to sell a certain brand or type of fly rod. There are lots of good makers out there, and probably the best advice I can give anyone is to go into your local fly shop and cast a bunch of rods. Do this even if you aren't experienced. The shop staff will probably even give you a free casting lesson if you need it. Wherever you are on your fly fishing journey, one rod will probably speak to you more than the others. Chances are good that it won't be that $900 high end model, but if it is and you can afford it, go for it. There are plenty of good rods being made these days that won't break the bank, so make sure the fly shop staff know your budget before they start lining up some rods.

First, you need to consider what kind of fishing you plan to do. If you don't know the answer to this, then find your local fly shop or a local guide and take a lesson or guided trip to see if this is even for you. However, chances are that you have already done some research and figured out that you want to fly fish for trout or bass and panfish or maybe even saltwater. Whatever you plan to do will affect your rod choice. I'll tailor this explanation to middle and east Tennessee, but the principles will apply to wherever you want to go. 

Here in Tennessee, people fly fish for trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, panfish, musky, stripers, carp, and a few other random species. For fishing on moving water, your options will range from small headwater streams like we find for trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to large tailwater rivers like the Clinch River, Holston River, and Caney Fork River. These large rivers contain trout, bass, and other species. 

For fly fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains, streams range from tiny brook trout water choked with rhododendron, to good sized low elevation trout rivers that also contain a few smallmouth bass. For smaller headwater streams, your best rod choice will be in the two through four weight range and be between 7' 6" to 9' long. You can fish most streams with longer rods. Only the very smallest, tightest brook trout streams fish best with anything less than 7' 6". On those smaller streams, I actually tend to go heavier on the rod while also going shorter. A four weight will roll cast and bow and arrow cast into tight places better than lighter lined rods will. These streams are mostly hard to access and are not for most anglers due to the work required in fishing them. The average Smoky Mountain stream will fish best with a rod in the three to five weight range and range from 8' to 10'+. In my opinion, the best all around rod for most fly fishing in the Smokies is a 10' three weight rod. This rod works fine for most brook trout streams and excels in the low to mid elevation streams that feature large pocket water stretches. This advice applies to any higher gradient pocket water stream from the eastern US to the Rockies and beyond. 

This seems like a good time to address a common misconception about fly rods for the mountains. There are a lot of people who think you need a shorter rod to stay out of the trees. While there are certainly some streams where that applies, the vast majority of mountain trout fishing is easier with a longer rod. If you want to hit the sweet spot and get one rod that is a good compromise, then go with an 8' or 8' 6" rod. That said, there are many places on larger streams where a longer rod will help. 

With practice and experience, that longer rod will rarely be a liability. More often than not, the extra reach will help you get to fish that you otherwise would have missed. This is almost always true when you are high sticking. On larger pools where you have room to cast, the longer rod is also helpful for better roll casting although not mandatory. It also helps to make mending easier since you can pick up more line prior to each mend. The shorter you go on your fly rod, the better your line management skills better be. Things like mending, a reach cast, and other line management tricks come into greater focus with shorter rods. A longer rod is a tool that will make even below average anglers look good.

One other thing about a good fly rod to consider is the action. For fly fishing in the mountains, if you are getting a rod primarily for nymph fishing, get something that is on the faster end of the spectrum. The ability to quickly set the hook is essential, and a fast rod will help make this happen. For dry or dry/dropper fishing, you can fish something slower if you like. My all time favorite Smokies rod for small to medium sized water is a very slow rod that makes dry fly fishing a blast. That said, while the rod works okay for nymphing, it is probably not the best tool for the job. A good all around action for the Smokies would probably be medium fast or fast. Just remember, however, that personal preference goes a long ways towards making this decision. If you like a softer rod, go ahead and get one and learn to set the hook harder and faster. 

As we move away from the mountains and to larger streams and rivers, we need a rod that can handle some larger fish. If you are fly fishing primarily for trout on larger streams and rivers, then you will want a rod somewhere between a four and a six weight and ranging from 8' 6" to 10'+. Probably one of the best rods out there right now for this is a 10' four or five weight rod. The extra reach of the 10' rod makes mending a breeze and you can seriously air out some line with that long rod also. The longer rods are perfect nymph fishing but also handle dry fly rigs with ease. A standard 9' five weight will be a good all around rod for most situations on the tailwaters. If you want a compromise that will also do well for some streamer fishing and light bass, then go with the six weight. The six weight would also be a good choice if you plan on traveling a lot to fly fish out west. Anytime the wind starts to blow, a heavier rod is helpful. 

As far as action goes, I would recommend staying away from super fast rods for this application. They cast line a mile, which is nice of course, but can be tough to get a hook set with the 6x tippets that are usually required on our tailwaters. A rod with a slightly softer tip (medium fast action) will help protect that fine tippet much better than the ultra fast cannons many rod manufacturers are making these days. If you plan on fishing mostly out west, then you can disregard this advice and go for the faster rod. Again, this is for the wind that one would expect out there.

Moving into fly fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass, we need a rod that can handle larger fish and especially larger flies. I routinely use a rod in the four to six weight range for wading smaller streamers for smallmouth, but once I'm in the boat on a larger smallmouth river, I want a minimum of a six weight rod and more often will be throwing a seven weight. Don't be afraid to go even heavier. Anything in the 8' 6" to 9' range is fine for this task. Personally, I prefer a faster rod when I'm throwing big wind resistant bugs. The ability to power through wind and cast farther in general means a fast or at least medium fast action is required for this type of fishing. A good 9' seven weight rod is also an excellent streamer rod for trout when you are fishing high water out of a drift boat. My seven weight rods have the option of floating or sinking or sink tip lines depending on the fishing I'm doing that day. I've caught everything from trout to bass to stripers to musky on a seven weight and have also used it in the saltwater when chasing snook and other species. 

Speaking of stripers and musky, these apex predator species are probably the largest fish most people will ever catch in Tennessee on a fly rod. Overall, fast action rods in the eight to ten weight range are ideal for these species. You'll be throwing large, wind resistant flies most of the time. Be prepared to have a sore arm by the end of the day when chasing these critters with heavy rods. While the rod is important, a quality reel is probably even more important for the stripers in particularly. Make sure you have a quality reel with a smooth and strong drag. The stripers will generally show you your backing very quickly on the first run. For musky, not so much.

With these larger rods and reels, I recommend getting a setup that can handle saltwater because at some point, you're going to want to try that out. A good eight or nine weight striper and musky rod can also make a good rod for redfish, snook, and even smaller tarpon. This same advice also goes with the six and seven weight rods if possible. The more versatile your equipment, the more enjoyment it can bring you over the years. 

Speaking of tarpon and other saltwater species, I'm going to leave selecting a good saltwater fly rod for another day. There is a lot that goes in to the selection of a good fly rod, and I'll stick with common fresh water fly fishing for this article. 

About that 9' five weight... If you have done much research at all, you've probably found the advice that a 9' five weight is a good all around rod for trout fishing, and it is. For most of our fishing here in Tennessee, that rod will do great for you. However, I would suggest that a slightly lighter rod will probably be even more enjoyable for fly fishing in the Smokies. Thus, we are back at my advice that you decide what type of fly fishing you primarily intend to do. If it is the Smokies, then look in the three to four weight range and get a rod that in the 8' to 10' range. Go towards the shorter end if you intend to do a lot of brook trout fishing and the longer end if you plan to spend more time on larger streams. If you are just planning to fish the Clinch River or Caney Fork River, then a 9' five weight is a great all around rod.

Willing to buy more than one rod? A great piece of advice I read many years ago was to get a rod for every other line weight. In other words, if you already have a five weight, your next rods will be a three and a seven weight. This gives you some excellent versatility. Make sure and get spare spools for the reels on your heavier rods. You'll want to be able to switch between floating and sinking presentations with those heavier rods at minimum. If you plan on doing a lot of still water fishing, then this advice also applies to lighter rods as well where sinking or intermediate lines will be used a lot. I generally get spare spools for all my reels. I can use the same reel for my two, three, or four weight rods. I just change out the spool to the one with the correct line. 

If you aren't sure where to start shopping for a fly rod, check with your local fly shop if possible. Build a relationship with the local shop and you'll get great advice and help along the way for many years. My local shop that I spend a lot of time in is Little River Outfitters, but there are some other excellent shops in our area. Still not sure what rod you need? Let me know what you are wanting out of a rod in the comments and we can discuss what will work best for you.