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What is a fly rod really for?

What is a fly rod really for? Just for casting a fly line, right?

But there’s so much more: casting, sure, and fighting fish – but also mending and controlling line, increasing reach, increasing leverage, decreasing fatigue, pointing out fish to other anglers, retrieving flies from snags, poking snakes….

In the fly fishing universe, we have a wide range of descriptors when it comes to fly rods. Depending on the context, some of these, like ”fairy wand” and “buggy whip” can be almost pejorative. Trending upward, we use some speed-related terms which, mostly to our collective detriment, mean different things to different folks: slow, medium, and fast. Tactile words sneak in here too, often to describe the ambiguous “feel” quality of a rod: soft, stiff, light, heavy, squishy, gutsy, delicate, smooth, and many more. Somewhere beyond those come the artillery references: “rocket launcher” and “cannon” and “bomber”. Finally, we slam to a halt at the moniker that sometimes ends these exchanges: broomstick. If you’re describing a fly rod as a broomstick, that’s typically a condemnation of its castability – even to the point of saying that it’s uncastable.

But what does that actually mean? Is a broomstick truly uncastable? Are ultra-fast / stiff rods really analogous to real broomsticks? We decided to explore that a little further.

Now, I have been known to take things a little too far when it comes to satisfying my curiosity, especially when it comes to fishing. It won’t come as much of a surprise then that we actually got ourselves a broomstick – a nice aluminum one with plastic fittings on each end branded with a famous name in household cleaners – then added a keyring to one end as a tip-top and zip-tied a reel near the other end . . . and did some fly casting.

Before we talk through what that experience was like, let’s cover some of the basics of how fly rods are designed and intended to be used.

Prior to the mid-1800s, a fly fisherman would have probably used a rod made from a branch cut from a tree. It would have been cumbersome and probably best used for distancing the fly from the angler – sometimes called “dapping” today – rather than for the elegant casting that would come later. Even if the branch in question was supple and whippy, a few days between fishing trips would dry it out and force the selection of another chunk of tree.

Skipping ahead a few generations, fly rods still use a tapered design similar to their branch forebears but the materials have vastly changed. The taper of a fly rod from thick to thin is a carefully planned thing. Many iterations are mocked up, lots of tape gets used to place and adjust temporary guides, and there can be – gasp – math involved. Most modern rods are made from rolled graphite, but what modulus? How many fibers, what kind of epoxy? In general, there’s a great deal of hemming and hawing over this or that detail. There’s a lot of casting that happens, and even some fishing.

When we use a fly rod to make a cast, the rod absorbs some of that energy and flexes; because it’s tapered, the tip flexes more than the butt section. Depending on their design, some rods flex more, some flex less. If the rod flexes more, we say that’s a slower action. If the rod flexes less, that’s a faster action. Most of that is by design, and some of it varies by rod weight. Few folks would expect that a 15wt fly rod would be suitable for the same fishing scenarios as a 5wt. Without letting ourselves get too bogged down in the details, let’s throw all that stuff out. Imagine a rod with no taper whatsoever and no discernable flex. Folks, it’s broomstick time!

Despite what you hear in some circles where fast / stiff “modern” rods are disparaged and labeled uncastable, they’re still vastly more flexible than an actual broomstick. That said, we discovered that it’s absolutely possible to cast with a real broomstick. Admittedly, it’s not particularly fun. Short and accurate casts are difficult. Longer casts require real effort, good timing, and fast hauls, and it begins to feel like work if you’re really getting after it. An extended session of pushing longer casts might even be hard on your joints! But it’s a worthwhile experiment; it proves that even the stiffest rod on the market is altogether castable and suitable for some fishing scenarios.

One of the most eye opening parts of casting an actual broomstick is just how much the flex of a fly rod helps maintain control of a cast. This is the rod “load” that people talk about. I have moved away from talking about loading the rod, instead focusing on how much tension we are keeping in the fly line, but the flex of the rod during the cast is still very important to consider. Reducing a fly cast to its bare fundamentals – straight line movement, appropriate power and timing – is actually quite tricky to do. That’s part of the reason that fly casting instructors exist, after all. If you try to cast a fly line with an actual broomstick, it forces an adherence to those rules that is uncompromising compared to even a fast action fly rod. If a fly rod’s job is to convey energy from the caster’s hand to the line, then a broomstick does that job with aggressive efficiency.

Taking that a step farther, a modern fly rod plays two roles in that energy transfer: it’s both a lever and a spring. The lever manipulates the movement of line in the air; the spring stores energy and smooths out the stops, providing more control and enabling greater accuracy. The relative importance of each is a hotly debated topic. For our purposes here, suffice to say that both factors work on a spectrum, and their proportions vary by rod, casting style, and cast. The broomstick provides an excellent control for this experiment since it completely eliminates the spring and forces us to cast exclusively with a lever.

Let’s be clear: the broomstick works. We brought it to the field and threw casts on a measuring tape; we topped out at 76ft. Short casts are even more difficult to execute well than with a standard fly rod, which has a lot to do with the total lack of flex. Once the head of the fly line is in the air, the weight – and increased tension – enables slightly more control than you have with short shots. But as mentioned above, the hauls need to be almost violent, and your timing has to be excellent. It’s very difficult to imagine mending effectively without some flex in the rod, much less aerial mends or protecting a light tippet. Casting a broomstick will make you appreciate casting a fly rod – any fly rod.

So what does this experiment reveal about fly rods in general and especially the ultra-fast modern rods that occasionally get tagged derisively as broomsticks? First, it demonstrates conclusively that casting even the fastest, stiffest rod imaginable is possible – it’s a matter of skill and practice. Second, you’re looking for a fish fighting tool rather than a casting tool, a fly rod that’s closer to a broomstick than a fairy wand is probably what you’re looking for.

The rod designers aren’t crazy; those ultra-fast rods have been created to address particular niche needs. It’s about trade-offs, and choosing the right tool for the job. An ultra-fast rod provides a powerful lever with a modicum of spring, and there are certain use cases when that might be exactly what you need. Match the needs of the fishery with the tools and skills you bring to the table, and your experience on the water is almost guaranteed to be more enjoyable . . . even if you’re casting a broomstick.

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