Straight From The Source

Straight From The Source

Eight top rod designers discuss flyrod action

  • By: Ted Leeson
Flyrod performance is devilishly difficult to talk about, and it's not hard to pinpoint the culprit-"rod action"-the single most important characteristic in buying a fly rod and yet one that most stubbornly resists words. Part of the reason is that we tend to use the term "action" somewhat inconsistently. Take, for instance, the description, "This rod has a fast action," which summons to mind tackle-catalog drawings of rods flexed under a load. Now consider an equally common expression: "I like the action of this rod.Here the term suggests a more complex idea that includes flex profile, but goes beyond it to broader notions of performance: how a rod delivers and picks up a line; how it balances in the hand; how powerful or leisurely it seems; how lively or relaxed; smoothness and ease of control, and a host of other subtleties and intangibles that we respond to as casters and anglers. Now throw into the mix other uses of the word-"This rod has a stiff action"; "This one has a progressive action"-and the whole idea gets pretty muddled. To shed some light on the subject, I went the source, the rod designers themselves, and talked to eight of the best in the business-Jason Brunner (St. Croix); Jim Bartschi (Scott); Tom Dorsey (Thomas&Thomas); Sam Drukman (Winston); Steve Rajeff (G. Loomis); Jim Rowinski (Orvis); Jerry Siem (Sage); and George Swanson (Diamondback). I wasn't trying to arrive at some consensus or definitive conclusions; as Tom Dorsey points out, in asking about rod action, "We're really asking a question about language. The terms have not been used cleanly, and that's a problem." Rather, my intention was simply to find out how individual designers find it most useful to talk about the characteristics of rod action, design and performance. The conversations, however, invariably ranged more widely, turning to other subjects as well: common misconceptions, casters and casting, fishing, and rod selection. Some of what they offer is practical advice, but much of it is simply interesting in the way it always proves to be when people at the top of their craft talk about what they know. Here's what they had to say: On Rod Action Virtually all the rodmakers agreed that the casting performance of a rod is attributable to two characteristics: its behavior as a "lever," in which the sheer length of a rod (or its "effective length," as we will see) in a sense amplifies hand motion; and its behavior as a "spring," its capacity to store and release energy through the specific way it bends and unbends. When we talk about rod action, we're essentially talking about its properties as a spring, that is, the behavior of a rod under load. But things get a bit sticky right here, as there are two ways of looking at "load," and hence at rod action. For Steve Rajeff, Jason Brunner and George Swanson, the load is primarily a static one, and action is defined by where the rod bends, its flex profile, the drawings in tackle catalogs. Action, says Brunner, "is simply the term for the location of the deflection of a blank under initial flex. In fast-action rods, the higher percentage of the deflection will occur towards the tip, or say the upper one-third of the blank. In a slow-action rod, the initial deflection will transfer back towards the butt of the blank. A moderate action rod would fall somewhere in the middle." "Taper," says Steve Rajeff, "is responsible for where the rod bends." While we are accustomed to thinking of taper as the changes in diameter along the length of the rod, taper, Jerry Siem notes, is really a "multidimensional" idea. A rod has an internal taper that it acquires when graphite cloth is wrapped around a steel mandrel to form the blank. The rod also has an external taper that often does not mirror precisely the internal one. The number of layers of material may vary on different sections of the blank, so that the internal and external tapers are not necessarily the same. Thus two rods of the same material with identical external tapers may have noticeably different casting characteristics. In fact, says Sam Drukman, "The internal taper really determines a lot about the character of a rod. It's arguably the major factor in rod design." It's also invisible, so just looking at a rod shaft doesn't necessarily convey much information. For instance, a rod with "fast" taper, that is, one that changes diameter radically from butt to tip, does not necessarily translate into fast action. Jerry Siem points to the old thick-butted, thin-tipped fiberglass rods that weren't particularly fast at all; other rodmakers point to the slim-profile butts and "slower" tapers of some new-generation rods that are quite fast. Tapers, and the flex profiles they produce, are not just important to rod action-they're huge. But as Siem cautions, flex profiles reproduced in tackle-catalog illustrations, are "a kind of comic-book look at action; it's an illustration to show relative differences." For a number of other rodmakers, the definition of "action" goes beyond flex profile because they find it more useful to talk about a rod under a dynamic load, that is, its behavior as the load changes. Thus, says Jim Bartschi, "Action is really an umbrella term" that groups together a number of performance characteristics. What falls under that umbrella depends a bit on whom you talk to, but the rodmakers who espouse this view of rod action agree on a few basics. Just as crucial as where a rod bends is how much it bends, that is, its degree of resistance to load or its stiffness. "A stiff rod," says Rajeff, "is a strong spring"; a soft rod is a spring that deflects more under the same load. Stiffness, though, is a particularly slippery term, Dorsey observes. It can for instance, as Sam Drukman points out, be measured in different ways. You can hold a rod horizontally, hang a specified weight from the tip, and measure the deflection. That's one interpretation of stiffness. Or (for the engineers out there) you can look at the total area "swept out" by the flexed rod, that is, the total area between the curved shaft and the horizontal axis. That's another interpretation. "But," Drukman notes, "you can engineer such very different curves that give you the same [swept out] area" that it becomes difficult to talk about stiffness in any useful way-so much so that he doesn't find the term "to have a lot of meaning from the design standpoint." Moreover, stiffness can apply to a characteristic of the rod itself or to the material from which the rod is made (the "Modulus" of a material is an index of its stiffness). And a number of rodmakers warned against a couple of common misconceptions that stem from confusing the two ideas. First, that a stiff material equals a stiff rod. While this is often the case, it isn't necessarily so. "Stiffness" in a rod, Jim Rowinski points out, "can be broken down into three or four things: the stiffness of the material, wall thickness, taper, and shaft diameter." All play a role in how much a rod bends. There are limits, but you can make a rod of almost any stiffness or any action out of almost any material. Second, that fast action equals a stiff rod. "Fifteen years ago," Drukman explains, "that correlation was easy to make. Rods on the market that were fast were stiff-stiff-feeling from tip to butt. But as rod design has evolved, we [rod designers in general] have found ways of achieving fast actions without so much stiffness, so the correlation really isn't here like it used to be." Can you make a fast-action rod that is soft? "The answer is yes," Brunner says, echoing the sentiments of a number of rodmakers. To see how that happens, you must consider not only how much the rod bends, but…How quickly it unbends, that is, how soon a flexed rod will return to an unflexed position-its rate of recovery. As the tackle-catalog diagrams implicitly suggest, how much and where a rod bends is a spatial component of action. "Speed of recovery," says Bartschi, "is the time component of action," and it's pretty much at the center of his ideas about the way a rod behaves under load. Siem puts it another way: "What we're trying to design into a rod-its performance-is the ability of a rod to unload." A rod that recovers sooner returns its energy more quickly to the fly line during a smaller window in the casting stroke. It is a more direct (and some rodmakers say "efficient") translation of energy from the hand to the fly line, and it promotes a higher line speed and tighter loops. Faster recovery in a rod can be achieved in a couple of ways. "When I think about a rod with faster recovery," Dorsey says, "I think about a stiff rod." Rajeff explains, "stiff rods are stronger springs that are less easily deflected and more quickly return to the starting position." But again, as was pointed over and over by every rod designer, the specific rod material is not a reliable guide. "You can have materials of the same stiffness," Drukman points out, "but different recovery rates. That relates to a spec that never makes into the marketing-the inherent tensile strength of the materials, which varies. For example, you can have two different 40-million Modulus carbon fibers, make two identical rods out of them, and all else being equal, they will deflect exactly the same. But the high-tensile one will vibrate at a higher frequency and recover faster." Second, you can speed up recovery by shaving weight from the rod-a frequently recurring theme particularly in conversations with Dorsey, Rajeff, and Siem. A heavier rod, particularly in the tip, has a more pronounced pendulum-like effect, which slows down recovery. As a very general rule, stiffer rods recover more quickly and have faster actions, but that relationship doesn't always hold. If you take, say, a moderate action "and start driving the weight out of it," Siem says, "that relationship changes." That is, you can speed up the recovery rate without changing the flex profile or stiffness. The upshot, Drukman observes, is that while recovery rate is related to the stiffness of materials, it isn't necessarily related to the stiffness of the finished rod. That is, you can have a rod with a lot of static deflection; it bends a good deal, so you could call it a "softer" rod. Such a rod, he continues, "isn't fast in the 'stiff' sense; but if it recovers faster, it tends to produce high line speed. The tip is actually quite limber; it's going to move a lot, but it's going to move quickly," and produce the line speed and brisk tempo that anglers call "fast." Which brings up a very basic question: where do the descriptive terms "fast," "slow," and so on actually come from? For Jason Brunner and Jim Bartschi, they apply to recovery. "When you say a rod has a fast action," Bartschi observes, "really what you're saying is that it recovers from its load more quickly." For Steve Rajeff, Tom Dorsey, Sam Drukman, and George Swanson, "fast" refers to line speed produced by a rod. Jerry Siem looks at it another way: "I personally tend to think of those terms "slow action" and "fast action" as the tempo that angler would be fishing using one of those rods." Same general idea, but interestingly diverse paths to getting there, and it may explain a bit some of the elusiveness in talking about rod action-not that it necessarily means something different to each designer, but that there are different possible points of departure in thinking about the idea. Finally, term power came up repeatedly, and I've held it to last because it was frequently used in two senses, one simple, one not. In the terminology used by Rajeff and Brunner, and one corresponding to a widespread popular sense, power is the equivalent of stiffness; it is a characteristic of the rod itself, its capacity to store and release the force of a cast, the energy in a sense that "inheres" in the blank. But power, Bartschi notes, summarizing the sentiments of almost everyone, is also "how much energy you generate out of the rod. It is probably one of the most vague and difficult terms to define because it's got the biggest variable behind it-the caster." That is, how much power lies latent in the blank and how much comes out depends on the style and ability of an individual angler. On Rods and Casters For most of us, a given rod action is only important insofar as it improves our fishing in some way, whether that means enabling certain types or techniques of fishing, or increasing our pleasure in using the equipment. Here's what rodmakers have to say about the advantages and drawbacks of various actions, their suitability to fishing situations and to individual skill levels. Fast rods: Line speed is a strong point. "The spring effect," of the rod, notes Rajeff, "is stronger," and you have "a longer effective lever." When a slow rod bends deeply on a backcast, its effective length-the distance from your hand to the rod tip-is shortened, and the lever effect of the rod is diminished. A faster, stiffer rod stays straighter, longer, for a more pronounced lever. Siem points out that casting tempo is simply faster as well, and a quicker stroke promotes speed. In addition, a fast rod tends to recover faster, he adds; "it comes back to a straight shape quicker, which allows the line to fly out when you shoot and avoids any of that excess tip bounce that throws waves into the line." Line speed is also increased because fast rods tend to throw tighter loops; "There's less tip deflection during the cast," Rajeff explains, so there's less distance between the top of the loop and the bottom. The unrolling line presents a smaller surface area and decreases wind resistance. And a couple of designers emphasized the contribution that tight loops make to both accuracy and speed of delivery. These advantages all add up to a rod that can cast a long line, deliver heavy or wind-resistant flies, and buck the wind well. Bartschi points to two common applications in which fast rods are the ticket: "dryfly fishing where pinpoint accuracy is key," and situations where "you've got a moving target and real limited window of opportunity to get your fly there," which describes a lot of saltwater angling. Now, the downside: "Rods that are stiff in the butt," Dorsey notes, "those twitchy, thin-tipped rods, don't rollcast well." And "many rods used today," says George Swanson, "are too fast for the average person casting." "Many people," Rowinski agrees "cannot cast well enough to access the power in some of the stiffer, faster rods, particularly the stiffer saltwater rods. It's bending in the tip, but they're not able to flex that rod enough, or flex it in the right timing, to access the power that's reserved in those stiff butt sections." Siem agrees: "There's not many casters at all that are getting out of those [fast] rods what we're putting into them. Most people probably don't take their rod up to even 70 percent of what the rod is capable of." Indeed, I got the sense from virtually all these designers that most modern fly rods, on the performance curve, are ahead of most modern fishermen. Rowinski's remark raises a second issue: timing. It has to be good. "With that very fast recovery rate" and high line speed, he notes, you have a "smaller window" in which to initiate a forward cast, and "your timing has to be more precise." Rajeff also notes that fast rods can also be more tiring to use: "Moving that longer lever takes more strength and control in the hand and wrist." Siem, who repeatedly returned to the idea that rod action dictates fishing tempo, observes, if people "want to fish pretty light gear at pretty high speeds, there's tackle for that." But some anglers are better off with a rod that allows them "to relax a bit more." None of the rodmakers argued that fast rods were specialty items for the most advanced casters and a bad choice for everyone else, but they agreed that accessing the full range of performance engineered into the rod requires good technique. You can only get out what you put in. Medium Rods: These are, says George Swanson, "probably the more forgiving and enjoyable rods for most people to cast and fish with." Bartschi elaborates: "They have the requisite amount of recovery and stiffness to help control the loop shape and get some line speed, and that helps accuracy and, to some degree, distance. But they're also forgiving enough that miscues in timing on when you accelerate and stop aren't as critical." For Rowinski, it's a power thing; less-than-expert casters can "access more of the energy of the rod and get a little longer cast, even if they're making mistakes." And for novices, Drukman notes, medium-action rods that bend deeper into the shaft, "feed back information to the caster" about rod loading. "The seductive choice for beginners is the fastest rod possible," he says, "but that's not going to teach them how to cast." As their remarks suggest, designers felt, pretty much across the board, that medium-action rods are best for beginning or novice casters, though Siem and Dorsey pointed out that, in their experience, it depends on the beginner. "In terms of having a rod load," Siem observes, "or feeling the 'loading sensation'-a more moderate rod enables a beginner to feel it easier,"and may be a better choice for those who learn best by feel. "Many men," Dorsey says, "particularly those coming from spin-fishing, tend to overwhelm the rod, so I put a faster action in their hands." Siem agrees: many novices, he points out, "tend to punch a rod; a faster rod handles that particular application of power better and throws a better loop." But a medium-action stick is hardly just a fly rod with training wheels. Even a caster "with really good technique," Rowinski says, "can often get more out of a medium-action rod than a fast one." Jerry Siem was of much the same mind, noting that some expert casters actually get more distance with a medium action. Tom Dorsey likes the way this action picks up line: "A more moderate-action rod lifts line off the water more comfortably; I like the way it gets that draw and snap as the surface tension releases." But for casters with good mechanics, the real advantage in a medium-action rod is its response to different casting strokes. You can cast off the tip, Siem points out, but "if you move those rods a little faster, they load further down. You can work your way up and down those rods and play them about anyway you want to. They're really versatile." Medium action, they all noted, was the action of choice for many accomplished casters, and a number of designers volunteered it was their favorite as well. That is, at least for trout fishing. The tradeoffs in medium action are, as you might expect, line speed and razor thin loops at long distances-the kind of performance you typically want in saltwater applications. Slow Rods: The big advantage of these rods that bend deep into the butt section, nearly every rodmaker pointed out, is the relaxed pace of casting, the feeling that the rod is doing the work. Rowinski points out that the lower tip speed also means that "turnover is slower, for a more featherlike presentation. And because they bend further into the rod, it's much easier to throw a shorter line; you can form a loop easier at shorter distances." Because such rods are softer and bend more readily, Bartschi explains, "you can load the rod to some degree simply by moving it with the force of your hand rather than the load of the line." "They're 'self-loading,'" Drukman says, again arguing for their short-distance virtues. Jerry Siem spoke at greatest length about slow rods, with, if I'm not mistaken, a bit of wistfulness in his voice: "Today, there aren't a lot of people who grew up learning to cast with a slow rod. I think if you once learned how to cast a slow rod, you can cast any rod. The lower down you load it, in the really true casting sense, the longer you have to maintain contact and drive that [load] all the way out the rod. It's really pleasant, and you get tremendous results with a slow rod that way." But, he says, voicing a universal sentiment: slow rods "are the most technically demanding rods to use." Steve Rajeff summarized the problem; "They take a very keen sense of timing, and you're more apt to throw tailing loops." With a full-flex action, Rowinski explains, "you have difficulty pulling extra power out the rod to rescue a timing mistake or compensate for less-than-perfect technique." A great many anglers simply can't find the stroke and end up overpowering the rod. Still, nearly all of these rodmakers-ordinarily associated with developing faster designs-felt that, for certain fishing conditions, slow actions were underappreciated and underutilized by anglers. On The Rating Game In my experience watching and talking to fly fishers, it seems that the practice of overlining a fast rod, to slow it down or load at closer distances, is far more common today than in the past, an observation that all of the rodmakers generally agreed with. However, their individual takes on the reasons behind overlining and their opinions about the practice varied rather more. Tom Dorsey and Jim Bartschi lay the blame partly on some rods: "The only reason to overline a rod," Bartschi says, "is because the rod is not designed properly for the application." Sam Drukman agrees: "If we're making a rod that you have to overline, it means we didn't do our job properly." At the same time, these designers felt that overlining a rod was often a response to something that came up time and again in various contexts: casting technique. Though rating a rod for a line is often accomplished partly on bench-test deflections, it is also based significantly on casting performance. "It's subjective," says Jim Bartschi, and one of the big variables is who's doing the casting. To anyone who's watched one of these rodmakers at a fly-fishing show or casting clinic, it's no news flash that they are superb casters. It's part of what they do for a living; that they are simply better at it than most of us should bruise no one's ego. They know how to make a rod perform. "Take Rajeff" for instance, says Jim Bartschi, "He can use every inch of that rod and put load all through it because he has such an immaculately timed and powerful cast." But, he emphasizes, it's not just a matter of distance; in fact it's quite the opposite. Accomplished casters have the technique to load even a very fast rod at short distances; to them, a fast 5-weight rod performs close in just fine with a 5-weight line at the same distances where the rod may feel underlined to the rest of us (okay, to me anyway). Jerry Siem concurs: "Yeah, I think we [expert and average casters] are definitely feeling different things" when we cast. Siem approaches the practice of overlining rods from a second perspective as well, citing an important idea that often goes unmentioned: given the trajectory of rod design in the recent past, yesterday's fast-action may really be a medium-action today. Thus anglers who've enjoyed fast rods in the past may choose the same action when buying a new rod, only to find that it feels underlined. So, Siem says, they "put a heavier line size on a rod to get it to feel like their old rod did." How good is this solution? Depends on whom you talk to. Steve Rajeff sees it as at least a workable option, even suggesting that some anglers might profit from exploring the potential of underlining to improve distance-casting and long-line pickups in some situations-float-tube fishing, for instance. Tom Dorsey, who is relentlessly pragmatic on this subject, feels the same way: "If anglers who overline are getting the job done, why should I care?" Other rodmakers disagreed, sometimes emphatically. "From a rod designer's standpoint," says Jason Brunner, "I would like to not see it done. Blanks are designed to load and perform under a specific line weight," an opinion strongly seconded by Jim Bartschi and Jerry Siem, who feel that overlining a rod may compromise its casting performance. For them, the behavior of, say, a 5-weight rod is optimized by a 5-weight line; it may throw a 6-weight line, but it won't perform as well. That extra line size may thwart some of the casting characteristics designed into the rod. "Personally," says Jason Brunner, "I feel they are cheating themselves." And George Swanson points out that overlining is at best a compensation for weak casting technique: "It will help 'load' a rod a short distance, but not correct the problem" of a faulty stroke. And by relying on a stopgap measure, the caster may not get better over time. Aside from practice, is there a solution to the problem of loading a fast rod? "Switching line tapers," says Bartschi, "is an appropriate response." There are so many options in fly line these days that "you can buy a specially tapered line of a given weight that accomplishes the changes you need." Jerry Siem agrees that equipment may be at the root of the problem. Overlining a rod, he suggests, may be a response to fishing tempo; "You simply don't want to be forced to move as fast as this rod is demanding. But I don't think the way to get there is overloading a rod. When you overline a rod, you may get this familiar feeling [of loading] in your hand; if that's what you're going for, you probably have the wrong rod." But some anglers, Siem continues, "will throw a heavier line size on a rod not to load it, but because they are fishing a large fly. If you're really honest about what size flies are really going along for the ride behind a given line size, you should pick a fly selection for a line size; then you really get the ultimate performance of the rod." Dorsey couldn't agree more; "I feel strongly about this," he says. "You have to start with the fly. The fly tells you what weight line you need. I think too many people love to try to catch fish on a light-line rod with too large a fly. Remember, you're casting the fly line, not the fly. People often use too light a line for the fly they're casting." Line ratings for rods ultimately brought up the question of quantifying rod action as a way of giving consumers more information about the relative casting characteristics of individual rods. Orvis already uses its numerical Flex-Index system to rate actions, but what about a system common to all manufacturers? "It would be nice," says Jim Rowinski, "if there were some industry standard, some uniform way of measuring it. There's nothing within our industry that's reliable and gives the customer some way of seeing a break-off point between, say, a fast-action or medium-action rod." Many of the designers agreed, but pointed to the obstacles. A number of action-rating systems have been proposed, but most of them rely on static-deflection measurements, which are only part of the story. Two rods with similar deflection profiles can differ in things like rate of recovery, tip mass, shaft weight, tensile strength, ferule design, and shaft diameter, all of which effect the casting properties. Devising a system to account for the all these variables would be difficult, and the system itself potentially so cumbersome that it might bring more confusion than clarity. And, as Sam Drukman points out, there's a paradox: "For consumers to really understand that kind of information, they have to have at least some casting proficiency. But as their proficiency level increases, they need that kind of information less and less." Tom Dorsey is suspicious of the whole idea: "People shouldn't think that there is some shortcut to rod choice, some magic schema that will make a decision for them. You don't go into a restaurant, dip a piece of litmus paper in the sauce, decide the pH is too low and leave. There's no industry standard for how food tastes. You taste the food." But all of these rodmakers were in agreement on one point: if such a system, numerical or otherwise, might be devised to convey the behavior of a rod under load, it could probably never of quantify or communicate those ineffable qualities of a rod that we group together in the category of "feel." Such qualities are a part of what differentiates one rod from another-and, in fact, one designer from another. The lack of such standardization, says Jason Brunner remarking on the creative dimension of the rodmaker's craft, fosters "the uniqueness that we are given as designers. I think it keeps our minds open and not institutionalized." "People should realize," Tom Dorsey says, "that when we talk about fly rods, we try to get scientific. But fly rods are probably closer to violins and wine than they are to rockets."