Rack'em Up

Rack'em Up

Our equipment editor puts the pedal to the metal in a field test of automobile rod racks

  • By: Ted Leeson
I doubt that car-mounted rod racks--the type that transport assembled fly rods atop or inside a vehicle--are considered a fly-fishing necessity by most anglers. In my younger years, I dismissed them as a crutch for the slothful, in much the same way I scoffed at old guys wearing flip-down magnifiers. Now that I am lazy and weak-eyed myself, I have come to appreciate both.

Under certain circumstances, rod racks are an enormous convenience and prudent protection against our own haste. If your fishing involves driving from spot to spot along a river or beach, or back and forth to the water from camp or a lodge, racking your rod saves the hassle of endlessly breaking it down and setting it up. And it virtually eliminates the risk of breakage that comes from tossing an uncased rod into the back of a pickup or SUV or into a car trunk. (One rod repair person told me that he sees a regrettable numbers of rods damaged in just this way every year.) If you routinely haul along several rods, say for flats or inshore fishing where multiple species are a possibility, a rack allows you to rig everything calmly and carefully beforehand, and hit the water ready to roll. None of this, as I say, is crucial to your personal happiness, but it sure can make life easier.

Rod racks come in two basic flavors, each with its advantages and limitations.

Exterior Racks

Racks of this type store rods outside your vehicle on the roof or on the hood. As a rule, they're more versatile, since magnetic- or vacuum-base types can be used on virtually any type of vehicle. Other racks, however, can be used on any vehicle with a roof rack, either factory or aftermarket. Exterior racks will transport assembled rods of any size, they don't clutter up the interior of the car, and I find them a little quicker and more convenient to use. Pedestal-style racks can easily be moved from one vehicle to another.

On the other hand, most exterior racks leave the rod and reel bare naked and exposed to the indignities of the world--low-hanging trees, gravel kicked up from a passing vehicle, and pilfering hands. In most cases, these racks are better suited to short-distance or spot-to-spot travel. Hood-mounted pedestal systems produce mild visual obstruction, and depending on where you fish, pedestal systems may need to be removed and stored inside for security while you're on the water.

SporTube Double Haul
The Setup: A nine-foot hard plastic case with room for two rods is secured in two brackets that mount on a roof rack. Case latch and bracket latches can be secured with small padlocks (not included). For stability, the front end of the case is shock-corded to a magnetic-base pedestal (vacuum base also available for nonmetallic roofs). Installation: Mounting the roof-rack brackets is uncomplicated; it takes a screwdriver and about 15 minutes. The case itself can be secured to, or removed from, the brackets in a few seconds. What's to Like: The most protective and secure of exterior storage racks. Rods and reels are completely enclosed, and with the case in place, even screw heads on the mounting brackets are concealed from unauthorized screwdrivers. Case (with or without rods) can be removed from brackets and stored inside. The unit is quite stable, with little wind noise even at high speeds. Hard case comes in three sections; additional middle sections can be added to accommodate longer rods. Cause for Pause: When rods are removed, guides sometimes catch on the lip between case sections; it can take a bit of finagling to get them out. Holds only two rods. In extreme heat, the front of the case can fatigue and droop--no risk to the rods, however, and it will straighten out when the temperature cools. The most expensive of all racks. All in All: A wonderfully designed and built unit that usefully balances convenience, damage-protection and security; the best exterior rack for use on the open highway, gravel roads or brushy two-tracks through the woods. I've used one for a few seasons now with great satisfaction. A little pricey, but durable and worth the money if you'd use it often. Price: $199.95, magnetic pedestal included. sportube.com.

Professor Bodkin Onstream Rod Carrier
The Setup: Two "T" pedestals, one for hood mounting to hold rod butts, one for vehicle roof (or windshield with vacuum base) to hold tips. Four rods bungee to the crossbars. Installation: With either magnetic or vacuum bases, mounting and removal take only a few seconds. What's to Like: Magnetic base has a 165-pound pull, non-marring magnet for rock-solid hold; lever-type vacuum base produces 100 pounds of pull. Five options in magnetic/vacuum base combinations suit virtually any vehicle and any rod type, including Spey. Simple, practical design with metal base and crossbar joined with a polyethylene post. Double-bungee tie-downs give tight, two-point clamping pressure against crossbar. Fast and easy to use, and handily carries four trout rods. Good price. Cause for Pause: Carrying two big saltwater reels on one of the five-inch "T" crossbars may put reels uncomfortably close together. Polyethylene vacuum base seems a bit lightly built, though it gave me no problems. Stouter bungee cords would better guard against long-term elastic fatigue. All in All: A very nice unit--simple, but highly practical. I pushed these up to 60 mph (not, by the way, recommended by the manufacturer) with no problem. A good value, especially for anglers who may use a rod rack only a few times a season or those requiring one or more vacuum mounts, which are typically more expensive than magnetic types. Price: Two magnetic bases: $69.95. Combination magnetic/vacuum: $74.95. Two vacuum bases: $79.95. Special configurations for big surf or spey rods also available. Professor Bodkin: 980-224-2480. Most popular combinations available from Cabela's: cabelas.com.

Tight Lines Rod Transport Systems
The Setup: Two "T" pedestals, one for hood mounting to hold rod butts, one for vehicle roof (or windshield with vacuum base) to hold tips. Four rods bungee to the crossbars. Installation: With either magnetic or vacuum bases, mounting and removal take only a few seconds. What's to Like: Choice of bases gives mounting versatility on virtually all vehicles, including passenger cars. Two 95-pound-pull magnets (non-marring and corrosion resistant) on each base unit are extremely secure and stable. Unique pump-type vacuum bases hold tight, and a clever, low-vacuum indicator on the pump piston lets you know if holding power on the base is weakening. Made of formed aluminum bars with corrosion-resistant stainless-steel hardware. Crossbar padding is UV resistant. Securing and detaching rods is quick and simple. "T" crossbars are six-inches long and comfortably carry two larger saltwater reels on each side. Cause for Pause: Assembled with nuts and bolts, which makes me a little wary for extended us on rough roads, where screws might loosen. I hasten to add that I had no problem, but I still kept an eye on it. Somewhat expensive, especially the vacuum bases. All in All: Don't try this at home, but I drove four racked rods at 70 mph (20 mph above the recommended maximum) just to see, and the racks were rock solid. A bit of an investment for just occasional use, but you get what you pay for here. These racks are thoughtfully designed, quite solidly made, and durable. Quality makes these a good choice for those who rack rods frequently; and nicely suited to bigger saltwater and Spey reels. Price: Two magnetic bases, $127. One magnetic, one vacuum, $175. Two vacuum, $235. www.tight-line-enterprises.com.

Fentress Roof Rack
The Setup: A pair of high-density polyethylene brackets mount to front and rear roof-rack bars. Each bracket holds two polyethylene tubes; rod tips press-fit into foam liner on front tubes, and secure with elastic shock cord. Rod butts slip inside rear tubes (reels upward), and secure with shock cord. Two-rod capacity. Installation: Bracket/tube assembling is quick, requiring only a screwdriver. Brackets can be attached to roof rack permanently by drilling racks and mounting with screws; they can also be attached temporarily with plastic zip ties. Total time: 15-25 minutes. What's to Like: This straightforward, utilitarian design holds rods securely; mounting and removing rods is quick and simple. Polyethylene components and (mostly) stainless hardware are non-corrosive and durable. A functional, low-profile unit that is moderately priced. Cause for Pause: Rather sketchy assembly and mounting instructions; my unit was short some hardware--ultimately remedied but it took a call to the manufacturer. Weakest point is the bracket mounting. I don't care much for screwing the mount into a roof rack when another couple of bucks worth of hardware could have provided a simple clamp-type mount. Plastic zip ties work reasonably well, but seem a lame way to address repeated mounting and removal of the unit when it is used temporarily and intermittently. All in All: Nothing fancy here, but a workmanlike idea, serviceably executed. Speed and ease of use are appealing. Shock-cord assembly is a bit crudely made--my candidate for the first cause of failure--but this unit should give acceptably long service for the money. Price: $39.99. cabelas.com.

Interior Racks

Racks of this type store rods inside your vehicle, lengthwise along the ceiling. They offer the best security when your car is unattended; the highest rod capacity; and in most cases, greater damage protection for your equipment, especially when traveling longer distances.

Interior racks, though, are best suited to SUV's and to pickups with canopies and sliding-window access to the cab rather than to passenger cars, and even in these bigger rigs the racks and stored rods steal headroom inside the vehicle. Racks of this type can be a little fussy to mount, and most importantly, the practicality of carrying a fully assembled rod depends upon the length of the rod and the length of the vehicle. Normally, rods are racked with the butts pointed rearward; rods tips can curve down the inside of the windshield with little harm or visual obstruction, but only to a point. For instance, my Toyota 4Runner will carry rigged rods up to eight feet long on an interior rack, but that's about it. Just as a field-testing experiment, I broke longer, rigged rods in half and racked the sections, with mixed results as explained below.

Rod Saver Vehicle Rod Carrier System
The Setup: Two adjustable nylon-web straps (like seatbelt material) mount crosswise inside the vehicle or pickup shell. Front strap has sewn webbing loops for rod tips; rear strap has hook-and-loop holders for rod butts. Total capacity, seven rods. Installation: Strap ends have drilled metal tabs that mount on grab handles or garment hooks; hook or handle is unscrewed, the tab hole is aligned, and the whole assembly reattached. Tabs can also be mounted with screws on ceiling trim track, or existing screw-in brackets or trim on pickup shell. On vehicles with no exposed grab handles, hooks or exposed screw heads, you can screw tabs directly into the hard-plastic portions of the interior. Total installation time depends entirely on how the vehicle is trimmed on the inside. What's to Like: Pretty basic design, but it does the job and holds rods securely. Straps clip to the mounting tabs and can be detached quickly. Inexpensive. Easy to install on the right vehicle. Cause for Pause: A bitch to install on the wrong vehicle, especially if you're reluctant to drill holes in the interior or epoxy wood cleats to a pickup shell interior (as suggested in the instructions) as a mount for the metal tabs. Even with tightening, the straps droop some, and the rods can sway, especially on rough roads. All in All: To me, the usefulness of this one hinges solely on ease of mounting. If you have lots of hangers, handles or trim screws--or don't mind taking a drill to the inside of your vehicle--it should go up easily. The sewn-webbing rod supports and hook-and-loop straps actually make this rack pretty workable for carrying rigged rods that are broken in half to fit inside smaller vehicles; the butt straps can be tightened to snug the tip against the cork grip, and everything rides pretty handily. Price: $19.99. rodsaver.com.

RodLoft Pro
The Setup: Two telescoping metal bars mount across the vehicle ceiling; each bar holds two plastic brackets (total capacity, six rods). Front brackets have neoprene-lined holes through which rod tips are inserted. Rear bracket holes have neoprene liners cut with notches into which the rod shaft snaps; elastic straps on the bottom let the rods drop down for easy removal. Installation: Installation kit contains hardware for mounting rods on garment hangers, grab handles, windows, window moldings or pickup canopies. I tried the first four of these; all went up fairly easily and worked well. Getting the optimum mount for a specific vehicle takes some experimentation. Figure on 15 to 45 minutes for the first time; after you figure out the right system, mounting only takes a few minutes. What's to Like: With five mounting options, this rack should fit virtually any vehicle without drilling or adhesives. Rods are held securely; after rods are in place, racks can be rotated to pinch the shaft in the foam liners, giving a firmer hold and reducing rattle or vibration. Racks can be moved along the bars for best rod positioning--to improve rear vision, for instance, or get more headroom over a seat. Extra racks can be added to increase capacity, and they can even be stacked to carry still more rods. Cause for Pause: A few days of driving rough gravel roads caused one mounting bar to loosen; it had to be intermittently tightened--no big deal if you pay attention. Depending on specific vehicle and mounting option, metal bars and fly rods can hang annoyingly low in the vehicle interior. Large brackets with oversize holes really seem designed for bigger rods or conventional tackle; I'd like to see a fly-rod version of this with lower-profile brackets and smaller holes, especially at the back. All in All: Seems best suited to larger, longer vehicles with more headroom. I tried racking rigged rods that were broken in half, mounting both metal bars in the cargo area, away from passengers in the back seat, and cutting slits in the rear foam liners to secure rods tips. It was only a moderately workable solution since securing the tips took some fussing around and diminished the convenience of use. But if you can get non-obstructing bar placement, and your rods fit the vehicle, this is a very practical way to transport lots of rods, even over long distances. Price: $109.95 includes two pairs of brackets (six-rod capacity); extra bracket pairs (for three additional rods) $24.99. rodmounts.com

    Some Stuff I Learned (Including the Hard Way)
  1. Vacuum-base pedestal mounts will eventually lose their grip; releasing the vacuum and remounting the base every few days will keep it secure.

  2. When mounting rigged rods on exterior racks, make absolutely certain that the fly is firmly secured to a guide or hook keeper, or better yet, reeled tightly to the tip-top. Four or five feet of leader with a hook on the end, flapping in the breeze as you're driving, is the precursor to forms of tragedy you don't even want to think about.

  3. Along the same lines, make sure that rod sections are tightly joined before securing them to an external rack.

  4. When using magnetic or vacuum pedestals, position the bases as far apart as is practical to put a support point as close to the rod tip as you can and to keep the tips as low as possible.

  5. Mounting rods on an interior ceiling rack may mean curving the tips down the inside of the windshield. That's fine, but in hot, sunny weather, don't leave the tips bent for extended periods of time; they can take a set.