There was a time not too many years ago when almost all fly rods were two piece rods and those that consisted of four or more pieces were all commonly considered to be “travel” or “‘pack” rods. However, if you look at a fly rod manufacturer’s catalog or web site these days, you will see that very few of them still manufacture two piece fly rods and that they are few and far between. Consequently, most any modern fly rod that you purchase today will be well suited for travel in that it will provide you with a reasonably compact package for boarding planes and boats. However, there is far more to choosing a freshwater travel fly rod for any given destination that you might think. Thus, in the following article, I will explain how to choose a freshwater travel fly rod.
First of all, you need to be aware that fly rods are commonly divided into two categories consisting of those designed for freshwater use and those designed for saltwater use and, the main difference between the two is that freshwater fly rods are designed to cast line weights 1 through 6 whereas saltwater fly rods are designed to cast line weights 6 through 14. Also, although all commercially produced fly rod feature cork grips, there are several different standard grip shapes but, freshwater fly rods commonly feature the Reversed Half Wells grip shape whereas, saltwater fly rods commonly feature the Full Wells grip shape and the main difference between these two grip designs is that the Reversed Half Wells grip is a better design for accuracy and finesse due its significantly more narrow front taper whereas, the Full Wells grip design is a better choice for casting over long distances due its larger diameter. In addition, another common distinguishing feature is that most freshwater fly rods lack a fighting butt on the end of the reel seat whereas, most saltwater fly rods do have a fighting butt on the end of the reel seat to aid in landing large fish.
Therefore, the first step in choosing a freshwater travel fly rod is to choose the appropriate line weight for the particular species of fish you intend to pursue. For instance, when fishing for native Brook Trout in small mountain streams, line weights 1 through 3 are a good choice but, when fishing for Rainbow and Brown Trout in larger creeks, line weights 4 and 5 are a good choice. However, when fishing for larger trout and/or smallmouth bass in large streams and rivers, a 6 wt. is a good choice. However, it is also imperative that you understand that because a fly has very little weight and a lot of wind resistance, fly fishermen cannot cast their flies in the same manner as lure or live bait fishermen and thus, instead we have to use a weighted line.
Therefore, as I mentioned previously, fly lines are available in weights ranging from 1 to 14 and they are rated according the weight of the first thirty feet of the line measured in grains (440 grains equals one ounce). Of course, the reason that this is important is that the larger a fly is, the more wind resistance it has and thus, the heavier the line required to cast it (see chart below).
So, by examining the chart above, you can see that each fly line weight will cast range of fly sizes. But, this chart is also somewhat misleading in that it would lead you to believe that heavier fly lines will not cast the smaller fly sizes but, the fact is that any line weight will cast the range fly sizes listed with it as well as those listed for lighter line weights. For instance, according to the chart, a 5 wt. fly line will cast fly sizes 6 through 18 but, it will also cast all fly sizes smaller than size 18 as well. However, at the same time, the heavier a fly line is, the less gently it lands on the surface of the water and thus, the less delicate the presentation is. Therefore, when fishing small, crystal clear, mountain streams with small fly sizes, it is inappropriate to use a heavy fly line weight because the disturbance caused by a heavy fly line landing on the water may spook the fish and yet, when fishing larger streams with larger flies, heavier line weights are a necessary evil. On the other hand, it should be noted that in most cases, not only will heavier fly line weights enable you to cast larger flies, they will also enable you to cast farther and to cast more accurately on windy days because heavier fly lines have more inertia. Therefore, in order to choose a an appropriate fly line weight for your chosen fish species and/or stream size, you first need to determine what size flies you will be fishing with and then choose your fly line weight accordingly.
The next step in choosing a freshwater travel fly rod is to choose an appropriate rod length. For instance, when fly fishing small mountain streams where the streamside foliage is dense and encroaches upon the edges of the stream, short fly rods make it much easier to cast in the limited amount of space available but, they also limit the distance over which you can cast. On the other hand, longer fly rods enable you to cast over longer distances but, they also make it difficult to cast in tight quarters. Therefore, when fishing small mountain streams, fly rods ranging in length from 6 ft. to 8.5 ft. are often the best choice but, when fishing larger creeks and rivers, fly rods ranging in length from 9 ft. to 12 ft. are a far better choice because they will provide you with greater casting distance as well as better line control during the drift.
Then, once you have determined the appropriate line weight and the appropriate rod length, you will need to choose an appropriate rod action. For instance, fly rods are commonly available in one of three different types of actions consisting of slow, medium, and fast actions (aka full flex, mid-flex, and tip flex) and the reason that this is important is that the slower a fly rod’s action is, the less the weight it requires to “load” it and, the faster a fly rod’s action, the more weight it requires to load it. Now, what I mean by the term “load” takes us back to the aforementioned fact that because flies have little weight and a significant amount of wind resistance, we have to use a weighted line to cast them and thus, when fly casting, we are using the weight of the fly line to bend the fly rod and thus store kinetic energy instead of using the weight of the lure or bait and the act of bending the fly rod during casting is called “loading” the rod. Therefore, when fishing at close ranges such as when fishing small mountain streams, we commonly have very little fly line extended past the tip of the rod and thus, we have very little weight with which to load the rod but, when fishing larger streams and rivers, we commonly have a need to cast much farther and thus, we usually have significantly more line extended past the tip of the rod and thus, we have significantly more line weight with which to load the rod. Therefore, when fishing at close ranges, slow action rods are by far the best choice because they require very little weight to cause them to load. But, they can also be easily overloaded if you extend too much line past the tip of the rod. Vice versa, when fishing at long ranges, fast action rods are by far the best choice because we commonly have much more line extended past the tip of the rod and thus, we have considerably more weight with which to load the rod. Therefore, when fishing at medium ranges, medium action rods are often the best choice because they exhibit some of the properties of both slow action and fast action rods in that they require more line extended past the tip of the rod to load properly than slow action rods do but, they do not require as much weight to load as a fast action rod does. Consequently, almost all fly rods designed specifically for fishing small streams have slow actions and almost all fly rods designed for fishing “big water” have either medium or fast actions.
Last, as I mentioned previously, most modern fly rods available today are four piece rods but, some fly rod manufacturers still make two piece fly rods and both Orvis and March Brown (there may be others that I am not aware of) make seven piece fly rods. But, while both four piece and seven piece fly rods are certainly more convenient to travel with, they generally do not load quite as smoothly as a two piece fly rod does. The reason for this is that the part of the fly rod where the various sections mate with each other is called the “ferrule” and there are two different types of fly rod ferrules used for building graphite and fiberglass fly rods. For instance, the most common type of ferrule is called a “tip-over-butt” ferrule in which the tip end of each preceding section of the rod is smaller in diameter than the butt end of the proceeding section so that when the two sections are mated, one slides over the other. However, this causes the wall thickness of the rod blank to effectively double at that point which, in turn, causes the rod blank to become significantly stiffer at that point. Therefore, the more tip-over-butt ferrules a fly rod has, the more stiff sections it has which hampers its ability load smoothly regardless of any claims the manufacturer may make to the contrary. On the other hand, there is another far less common type of fly rod ferrule that is significantly more difficult to manufacture (and thus more expensive) called an “internal” or “spigot” ferrule where, instead of making the tip of the preceding section smaller than the butt of the proceeding section, both the tip and the butt of each section are nearly the same diameter. Thus, in order to enable them to mate with each other, a solid piece of graphite or fiberglass (depending on the material that the rod blank is made from) is inserted into the tip of the preceding section so that it extends for a short distance beyond the tip of that section and then, the proceeding section of the rod blank is then slid onto the spigot instead of sliding over the preceding section of the rod blank and, because the spigot is significantly more flexible than the doubled wall thickness of a tip-over-butt ferrule, an assembled spigot ferrule rod blank loads considerably more smoothly than one constructed with tip-over-butt ferrules. Consequently, although both four piece and seven piece fly rods are significantly more convenient to travel with than two piece fly rods are, many fly fishermen have a distinct preference for the feel of a two piece fly rod.
Thus, when selecting a freshwater travel fly rod, you first need to determine what species of fish you intend to pursue, then you need to determine what size flies you intend to use to fish for them, and then you need to choose your line weight according to both the size of the flies you intend to cast as well as the degree of delicacy you require in your presentation. Then, you will need to choose an appropriate rod length for the size of the streams you intend to fish as well as choosing the appropriate rod action for the ranges at which you will be fishing. Therefore, you will eventually discover that freshwater fly rods are very much like golf clubs in that each one should be specifically tailored for a specific purpose and thus, you should consider purchasing more than one. After all, while you could theoretically play eighteen holes of golf with nothing but a driver, it would likely be an exercise in frustration and the same is true with fly rods. In fact, it is my opinion that all fly fishermen could greatly benefit from having a rod caddy accompany them on the stream so that you could simply turn to your caddy and say “seven foot four weight please” or “eight and a half foot five weight please” and that way, you would always have the perfect fly rod at hand for every hole!