Rod Basics – Action vs Power vs Price


“If you know how many fly rods you have, you don’t have enough” was the simple, telling comment Dick Sherwood, my fly fishing mentor, made as he helped me pick out my first real fly rod at Bass Pro in Arundel Mills, Maryland. At the time, the truth (and warning) of this statement went in one ear and out the other. After all, a fly rod has a few primary purposes – casting, line control, landing fish – so how complex could this be? Rather than try to explain the intricacies of action, length, construction and line weight, he got to the bottom line for the local trout streams, and I walked out with a 4 weight, nine foot White River rod costing less than $100 when paired with my military discount. It’s okay to rely on a trusted friend for your first rod when unenlightened or uncertain about commitment but get educated before purchasing the second. The variables to consider are action, length, construction (material, hardware, and weight) and price – customized to the target fish.

The “action” of a rod influences ease of casting, distance, accuracy, and landing fish; making it the most important aspect of the purchase. Action is the legacy term used to describe flexibility. The word “action” is slowly going out of favor and being replaced by more descriptive language such as “mid-flex” or “fast tip” – more understandable since these labels identify exactly where the rod bends. To translate, the closer to the handle the rod bends, the slower the action. Hence, “full flex, butt flex” = slow action; “mid flex” = medium action; “tip flex, fast tip” = fast action.

Nothing beats a flexible (slow action/full flex) rod for short, accurate casts and working a hard fighting fish. A slow action rod loads quickly with only a short section of line in the air, resulting in a decent cast to a close-in target, and flexes easily to absorb the shock of a lunging fish. For wider streams/rivers, a tip flex/fast action rod allows more line to be in play, storing the energy to provide the punch required for distance. The right rod must be effective in controlling both short and long casts with “short” and “long” being defined by where you fish. Granted, a full flex/slow action is the most accurate in close quarters, but harder to control since casting requires patience to allow the rod to fully load. Beginners may become frustrated with a tip flex/fast action as they boom out long casts to random end points… usually trees. Given the unknowns (skill, fish, location), the right decision is often to start with a mid-flex/medium action rod. A mid-flex is easier for those with an entry-level skill to cast with reasonable accuracy for an acceptable distance. For tight mountain streams, be sure to give Tenkara rods a look. Casting can be mastered in minutes, and they are deadly at short range.

Rod length is a factor in both casting and line control. Every action/length combination has a built-in minimum and maximum distance. The flex/action determines the minimum distance (ability to load quickly with a small amount of line) while length determines total energy stored to propel the line and achieve the maximum distance. In general, use a 9-foot rod for longer casts, 8.5 feet for general use and a 7 footer for precision or to dodge obstacles. The main advantages of longer rods include easier roll casts, better mending for line control and more distance. If overcoming tight vegetation on a small stream is critical, be careful selecting a short rod – be sure to get a full flex/slow action. Bass Pro has a new line, White River Fly Shop Classic Fly Rods, with lengths starting at 5.5 feet designed to load quickly for short casts on small water.

Choices do not end with action and length. The material makes a difference in “feel” and durability. Most modern rods use graphite. It is light, feels good, supports accurate casting and is available in full range of flex/actions. The principal drawback is brittleness; making it sensitive to whacks on streamside rocks and tip breaks when, not if, you trip. The traditional choice, bamboo, is slow and great for small trout streams. However, bamboo rods require maintenance and must be wiped down, waxed and stored correctly (temperature and humidity control) after use. The third choice, fiberglass, is making a comeback. Noted for being almost indestructible, a fiberglass rod is typically slower, lacks the sensitivity of graphite in detecting a strike and may vibrate/wobble a bit at the end of the forward casting stroke. Some anglers prefer the smooth feel of fiberglass, and that may have motivated Cabela’s to launch the reasonably priced CGT line of combinations built around this material.

While obsessed fly anglers my argue for hours on action, length and rod material, do not forget the hardware! Look for a cork grip with a robust reel locking mechanism. There are three basic styles of grips – cigar, half well and full well. A cigar grip shows up on lighter weight rods and tapers to a point where the rod meets the handle. Half and full well grips turn up at the junction with the rod to provide a push point for the thumb, providing greater leverage for landing fish. Being able to push against the slight upward angle makes it easier to add power to the cast. The full well grip found on larger rods has more taper than a half well for additional leverage.

Now to the core questions driving the “weight (wt)” issue. What kind of fish are you going to pursue and where are you going to do it? Big fish require a higher weight line to throw larger flies and a rod with the backbone to handle the subsequent fight. Big water implies long distance casts needing heavier line pushed by a more powerful rod. Every rod is designed for a specific weight fly line. Given the variety of fish and locations, you can easily fill your basement with the specific rod/line/reel combinations required… hence the caution from Dick Sherwood at the start of the article. As a beginner, ignore the opportunity to spend yourself homeless. If in pursuit of stocked trout, buy a nine foot, 3/4 wt (one designed to cast either 3 or 4 wt line), mid-flex/medium action rod and put 4 wt line on it. This will work fine on small streams and rivers using normal sized flies. If you need a bit more power/distance or use larger flies, pick up a 5/6 wt rod loaded with 6 wt line. The 5/6 wt will work fine for smallmouth as well, especially later in the summer when rivers run slower and catching requires stealth.

Now to the final and most onerous variable – price. In most cases, you get what you pay for. After discounting for the brand name, an expensive rod is usually made of quality components with better craftsmanship. Beginners should wait, gain experience and establish their personal preferences before moving away from moderately priced rods. If possible, cast as many as possible before choosing. Whatever you buy, be sure it comes with a lifetime warranty covering inexpensive replacement of broken sections!

On small, tight streams, use a short full flex/slow action rod. A 3/4 weight or Tenkara rod will work fine
River picture for rod blog
Wide rivers imply long casts. Use a nine foot, tip flex/fast action rod. A good first choice is a 5/6 weight loaded with 6 weight line

To summarize, consider these questions and discuss the answers with the experts at the fly shop or your fishing mentor (key parameter in parenthesis):

  • What kind of fish do I want to catch? (Weight)
  • Where am I going to fish? Small streams? Rivers? Ponds? (Action, Length)
  • What is the shortest cast I will make? (Action)
  • What is the longest cast I will make? (Action, Length)
  • What is the size flies match the hatch on the targeted rivers/streams/ponds? (Action, Length, Weight)
  • How much can I spend? (Spouse)

Pay extra attention to the last question.

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