The Best Rods for Bass

The Best Rods for Bass

... Some of them work great in salt water, too

  • By: Jim Dean
Whew! You think your tackle room is overflowing with gear? Try adding 54 fly rods to the mix. For more than three months this past year, my den resembled a field of dense volunteer pines--a virtual forest of graphite and boron. By late fall, our test crew was in a state of near mutiny trying to recall what it was like simply to go fishing without comparing rods and taking notes. I would like to tell you that it's tough work--and somebody's gotta do it, right? --but the truth is that we were delighted at the rare opportunity to sample so many fly rods from so many manufacturers.The good news is that we found what we were looking for: lots of 8- and 9-weight fly rods well suited to the demanding task of casting big, wind-resistant bass bugs. Indeed, we found far more good bass rods this time than we did in a similar survey eight years ago [FR&R May/June 1998]. As we expected, many of these have slow or moderate actions that are the traditional choices for bass bugging. But the big surprise this time around was finding so many fast-action rods that could easily handle big bass bugs. Such rods have typically been considered far better suited for use in salt water, so this new crop elevates versatility to a new level. In fact, we were so impressed with some of these faster rods that we decided to broaden our original subject to discuss their multi-purpose potential in more detail. Our tests also left us with another distinct impression: Not only are there more fly rods with admirable casting qualities than ever, there's greater parity in performance. Many of the rods we tested seemed to share remarkably similar casting characteristics with others in their category (slow, moderate or fast), and this impression often persisted regardless of the brand. It was even evident among rods with widely differing prices. These findings contrast sharply with those from our 1998 survey. At that time we tested 44 fly rods and found only 19 that we thought were well suited for casting big bass bugs. This time, we tested 54 rods and found 33 rods with good to excellent bass-bugging capabilities. As mentioned, the biggest difference could be found in comparisons of the fast-action rods we tested in both surveys. In 1998, we thought most of the fast-action rods sent to us were not particularly good choices for bass bugging. Although the fast rods were capable of long casts with smaller flies or streamers, many felt clubby and uncomfortably "twitchy" when you tied on a bulky, wind-resistant fly. Typically, many of those rods were so stiff and fast that they didn't begin to load and deliver a big bug until the caster had 30 to 40 feet of line in the air. Meanwhile, the caster was double-hauling furiously while the bug twitched dangerously back and forth overhead like a balloon on a tether. That will probably sound familiar to those who in the past have searched in vain for a suitable bass-bugging tool among saltwater rods. Not so this time. Many of these fast-action 8- and 9-weights are far more user-friendly than their earlier counterparts, and better suited for a broad range of fishing opportunities, including bass. This should come as welcome news to bass-bugging enthusiasts who for years have grumbled about being the overlooked orphans in an otherwise booming industry. Indeed, manuf-acturers have not designed and marketed many fly rods purely for bass fishing over the years because they perceive little demand for rods targeted to such a specific audience. However, there are so many rods well suited for bass bugging in this current crop that finding a good one is no longer a problem. We divided the rods we tested into three general categories: slow, moderate and fast. Admittedly our placement of a rod into one of these categories was a subjective decision--and it did not always match the manufacturer's description of the action. However, these descriptions have never been very precise, and they have also changed in recent years. Originally, the terms slow, moderate and fast referred only to the way a rod bent, not its stiffness. Some manufacturers still use charts showing slow rods that bend throughout their length, moderate rods that bend roughly halfway and fast rods that bend mostly in the tip. Yet, in recent years, the popular concept of rod action has evolved to also equate faster actions with greater stiffness. No doubt this reflects the advent of improved tapers and superior materials, but it can be misleading. Indeed, a slow-action rod can be either soft or relatively stiff and still have an action that reaches into the grip. Nor are all fast-action rods necessarily very stiff. The earliest fast-action rods developed in the 1950's combined a relatively stiff butt and mid-section with a so-called "quick tip" that was so noodly that those rods were an abomination to cast. I had the misfortune to own one of those quick-tip glass rods while I was stationed in Baltimore back in the early 1960's. It had cost two weeks of my second-lieutenant's salary, and I was proud of it. But I couldn't cast it worth a hoot (my problem, I figured). Finally, in frustration, I took it to a friend I'd recently met. He was already widely regarded as the best fly caster around, and he frequently gave demonstrations and casting lessons. Perhaps you have heard of Lefty Kreh. Lefty made a couple of casts, and began laughing. He told me, "What you own here is a very handsome piece of experimental junk," (although I don't believe his precise word was junk). Fortunately, there aren't many truly bad fly rods on the market these days. But it's still a challenge to find the one that's perfect for you. It's a highly subjective matter, and no two fishermen are likely to favor precisely the same action, even if they are standing side-by-side and seeking the same species under identical conditions. Some of us like slow or moderate actions; others want fast rods. Most like to mix and match depending on the quarry. That's why it is so important to test any fly rod you're thinking of buying to make sure it fits your style of casting. Most reputable dealers are happy to let you do this, and many provide a place on site or nearby for this purpose. Some will even let you borrow a rod you're considering for a day or two. It's even smarter to compare several rods, switching back and forth among them until you decide which one you like best. By all means, make sure you're using a leader and a fly similar to what you anticipate using on the water. That's particularly important when picking a bass rod because those big, wind-resistant bugs can turn a sleek, seductive parking-lot cannon into a pop gun. By all means, don't arbitrarily rule out a moderate or fast-action rod simply because you've always preferred slow rods for bass. Historically, rods with slow actions have been the favorites of long-time bass-bugging enthusiasts (and many continue to use old favorites that have been out of production for years). The tradition of pairing a slow-action rod with a bulky bass bug dates back to bamboo and steel rods made before World War II, and it persisted through the era of glass and early graphite rods. There is still logic behind it, since the dynamics of casting large, wind-resistant offerings tend to dictate a slow- to moderate-action rod that loads quickly and develops line speed at a more deliberate pace. Such rods require a "wait-for-it" style of casting with the rod doing much of the work, and they're often less tiresome to use. They also tend to sacrifice long-distance casts for a more comfortable functional range out to 60 or 70 feet. Distance is not usually critical since many bass fishermen typically fish from a boat, and often while sitting down. In addition, it is difficult to set the hook in the tough maw of a largemouth at much greater distances. Even so, in the hands of an experienced caster, these slower rods can easily deliver a bug well beyond normal casting range if they have sufficient stiffness. Many bugging enthusiasts--particularly older ones--continue to prefer them, and some always will. However, relatively few of the rods we tested had true slow actions (we listed only five, and arguably some of those may belong in another category). One that clearly belongs here, though, is the 8-weight G908-B fly rod designed specifically for bass bugging by Harry Murray (built by Scott and available only at Murray's Fly Shop). This is an old-school slow-action rod that works into the grip, yet it has a beefed-up tip. Though it may seem overly limber to anglers accustomed to modern rods, traditionalists will find it a smooth, easy-casting rod that comfortably delivers big bugs out to surprising distances. Much the same can be said of the 8-weight, 8-foot, 8-inch Scott HP888/3 Classic. Although the other three rods in this category are somewhat faster, they had the gumption to handle bass bugs and, when compared to all the other rods, they seemed to fit this category best. However, if you place the highest premium on long casts, rods in the other categories may suit you better. Most bass fishermen are likely to find their favorite bugging tool among the rods in the moderate-action category. As a group, they represent a fairly broad range of actions, with some on the slower side and others decidedly faster, and they are certainly appropriate choices for other species as well. As with rods in the slow-action category, many convey the feeling that the rod is doing much of the work. They all load close enough for comfort, and most were also quite capable of long casts even with large bugs. Many of these moderate-action rods are also very reasonably priced, a plus for budget-conscious anglers. You could hardly assemble the components and build your own rod for what it would cost to buy the Albright TW908/9 at $69, Bass Pro Shops White River WR908 Classic at $99.99 or the St. Croix Premier P908 at $120 (and this one is a 4-piece rod). All three are sweet-casting rods. The mid-price rods in this class also offer outstanding value for the buck, and were among our overall favorites for bass. The Diamondback Americana at $179, G. Loomis' Evergreen GL2 ($195) and Cabela's Bass Pro Shop's Gold Cup 9093 ($169.99) demonstrated exceptional perfor-mance. The Scott V2 series in both 8- and 9-weight for $185 might be all a bass fisherman could wish for at any price (for $10 more, the V2 8-weight is also available in a 4-piece edition). The St. Croix Legend Ultra and the two Scott A2 rods were slightly more expensive, but they offer superb performance for the money. All these rods impressed us for their ability to load comfortably close, yet hold lots of line in the air while delivering a big bug out to surprising distances. Several outstanding rods that match great performance with handsome aesthetics and top-quality fittings were at the upper end of the moderate-action price scale (see list for prices). The two Thomas&Thomas HE rods and the Sage SLT890-4 were impressive (I own earlier versions of these, and like them a lot). The G. Loomis Cross Current FR969 was an interesting entry because it is a 9-weight that's only 8 feet long. It's designed primarily for making quick, mid-range casts into cover with big bugs, although Scott Wood could throw the whole line with it (though that might get tiring). Many of these moderate to moderately fast rods would also find favor among those who fish in salt water. The rods we placed in the fast-action category were the racehorses of the bunch. They proved to be surprisingly good choices for handling large bass bugs--but it's their multi-purpose potential that will appeal to anglers who fish for a variety of species in fresh and salt water. Historically, bass bugging enthusiasts have not been fans of fast-action rods, but these newer editions are redefining the performance we can expect. We had the impression that many designers have pulled back from the extremely fast and pool-cue-stiff rods of a few years ago (and those we tested in 1998), and redesigned actions to function more progressively. Even those that are still extremely fast and stiff seem more user friendly than ever, and they deliver optimum performance with noticeably improved versatility. Of course, you wouldn't expect these fast rods to load as close as a rod with a slow or moderate action, but considering their other assets, that might not be an onerous compromise for most bass fishermen. At least a dozen of the faster-action rods we tested proved to be nearly as much at home in salt water slinging Clouser Minnows or Crazy Charlies to the horizon in a brisk crosswind as they were when unfurling a bulky, waterlogged deerhair bug on a bass pond. In fact, one of these rods might be all you need for virtually any situation you encounter anywhere, and switching from a big bug to a small fly will no longer entail major adjustments in casting style. Travelers can easily pack one of these multi-purpose, 4-piece babies in either checked luggage or a carry-on bag. Among this group, the Redington CPS 9-weight particularly impressed us for its combination of outstanding performance and affordability ($279). It's a light-in-the-hand, smooth-casting cannon that loaded close enough to comfortably handle a big bass bug and deliver it the length of a fly line with a feeling of connected control. You'd expect similar sterling qualities from rods twice that price (along with handsome aesthetics), and you wouldn't be disappointed with the Sage XP 8-weight, G. Loomis Cross Current GLX 8-weight, Winston Boron IIx 9-weight or the Thomas&Thomas HII 8- and 9-weights. All shared that admirable feeling of lightness, loaded close enough to get bugs moving without too much effort, and launched them great distances. In the same price range, the Scott S3s (yes, that electric blue baby) and the Scott S3 handled bugs exceptionally well, and both shared very nearly the same sweet, line-shooting action. But you're not giving up much--in aesthetics or arguably in performance, either--with the more price-conscious Orvis TLS Power Matrix, Albright XX Lou Tabory, Temple Fork Jim Teeny or the Cabelas XST (the latter being the least expensive in this category at only $175). All in all, this 2006 batch of rods is truly impressive--but it left us wondering. Will improvements in fly rods continue at this amazing pace during the next eight years? If so, somebody's gonna need a bigger den. Testing the Rods We asked rod manufacturers to provide the 8- or 9-weight rods in production for 2006 that they felt were best suited for casting big, wind-resistant bass bugs. Each rod was tested and compared to various other rods using identical floating lines, leaders and bugs. For consistency, we tested rods with weight-forward lines because they generally work well for bass bugging, but anglers are encouraged to try other types. When weather and schedules permitted, we fished with many of these rods (Incidentally, the biggest bass caught during testing was a 71/4-pound largemouth. Hot Dang!). Tests were conducted by the author and Scott Wood, fly-fishing manager of The Great Outdoor Provision Company. Buzz Bryson, gear guru for Fly Rod&Reel, provided valuable technical guidance. All rods were returned to the manufacturers upon completion of the tests. To aid readers in choosing the rod that best suits their casting style, we placed the rods into categories that we felt best described their action--slow, moderate and fast. It is highly recommended that prospective buyers test and compare rods they are considering, and do so using the line, leader and the size fly or bug they intend to fish with. Our tests revealed little difference in bug-throwing capabilities between 8- and 9-weights, nor any noticeable difference in performance between 2-, 3- and 4-piece rods, so your choice will depend more on how and where you plan to fish. Many of the rods that performed admirably were available at reasonable prices. Keep in mind that the warranty may be more limited on a less expensive rod, and it will not have fittings and finish comparable to a higher-price rod. Slow-Action A slow-action fly-rod is the traditional choice of many bass-bugging enthusiasts, although fewer 8- and 9-weight rods of this type are made nowadays. Some of our choices might not conform to everyone's notion of a slow rod, but these seemed to best fit this category when compared to all the others tested. These rods bend well down the shaft, and they demonstrate sufficient stiffness to comfortably cast big, wind-resistant bugs, though they may not be the best choice for truly long casts. Listed below in alphabetical order: Cortland Precision XC 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $189.95 L.L. Bean Orion 2-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $360 Streamlight 2-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $125 Scott G908-B, "Harry Murray Special;" 2-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $595 HP888/3 Classic 3-piece; 8-foot, 8-inch; 8-weight; $595 Moderate-Action In recent years, more fly fishermen consider a moderate-action 8- or 9-weight fly rod to be the best all-around choice for bass bugging. While some of these rods were faster and stiffer than others, they all handled big bass bugs admirably with smooth, untiring power, and they were also capable of making long casts when necessary. Listed below in alphabetical order: Albright TW908/9-2 2-piece; 9-foot; 8-9-weight; $69 Bass Pro Shops Gold Cup 9093 3-piece; 9-foot; 9-weight; $169.99 White River WR908 Classic 2-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $99.99 Diamondback Americana 3908 3-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $179 G. Loomis Evergreen FR1088 GL2 2-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $195 Cross Current FR969 3-piece; 8-foot; 9-weight; $350 Sage SLT 890-4 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $600 Scott A2909/4 4-piece; 9-foot; 9-weight; $295 A2958/4 4-piece; 91/2-foot; 8-weight; $295 V2908 2-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $185 (Also available in 4-piece for $195) V2909 2-piece; 9-foot; 9-weight; $185 St. Croix Premier P908.4 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $120 Legend Ultra U908.2 9-foot; 8-weight; $320 Thomas&Thomas HE 908s-4 4-piece, 9-foot, 8-weight; $675 HE909s-4 4-piece, 9-foot, 9-weight; $675 Fast-Action Bass-bugging enthusiasts have generally avoided fast-action rods in the past because they don't load quickly and can be tiring to use when matched with a big bass bug. Although such rods have typically been better suited for use in salt water, that is now changing. Many new fast-action rods have progressive tapers that are less extreme and far more user-friendly. These rods are not only suitable for bass bugging, they have multi-purpose potential for use virtually anywhere. Listed in alphabetical order: Albright XX980-4 Lou Tabory 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $325 Cabela's XST 908-4 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $175 G. Loomis Cross Current FR1088 GLX 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $635 Orvis TLS Power Matrix mid-flex 7.0 2-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $295 Redington CPS9094 4-piece; 9-foot; 9-weight; $279 Sage XP 890-4 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $600 Scott S3s908/4 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $625 S3908/4 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $625 Temple Fork "Jim Teeny" 0890-4-J 4-piece; 9-foot; 8-weight; $199.95 "Jim Teeny" 0990-4-J 4-piece; 9-foot; 9-weight; $199.95 Thomas&Thomas HII 908s-4 4-piece, 9-foot, 8-weight; $675 HII 909s-4 4-piece, 9-foot, 9-weight; $675 Winston Boron IIx 4-piece; 9-foot; 9-weight; $615 Wade Deeper Albright 866-359-7335; www.albrighttackle.com Bass Pro Shops 800-227-7776; www.basspro.com Cabelas 800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com Cortland 800-847-6787; www.cortlandline.com Diamondback 800-847-6787; www.cortlandline.com G. Loomis 360-225-6516; www.gloomis.com L.L. Bean 800-809-7057; www.LLBean.com Murray's Fly SHop 540-984-4212; www.murraysflyshop.com Orvis 800-548-9548; www.orvis.com Redington 800-253-2538; www.redington.com Sage 800-533-3004; www.sageflyfish.com Scott 800-728-7208; www.scottflyrod.com St. Croix 800-728-7208; www.stcroixrods.com Temple Fork Outfitters 800-638-9052; www.templeforkflyrods.com Thomas&Thomas 888-868-7637; www.thomasandthomas.com Winston 406-684-5674; www.winstonrods.com