The Glass Renaissance

The Glass Renaissance

The return of a versatile rod material that never really went away.

  • By: Ted Leeson
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
Glass Rods

Like most anglers of a certain vintage, I began fly-fishing with fiberglass rods. Cane rods, aside from their prohibitive cost, were considered a bit old fashioned, and “graphite” was still a word that applied to pencils. Fiberglass was modern technology, a lighter, stronger, more versatile, “high-performance” material, and to many fishermen, that automatically meant that we had to have it. Some things never change.

The reign of fiberglass as a mass-market rod material, though a relatively short two decades or so, was nearly absolute, and its eclipse by carbon fiber proved just as complete. By the late 1970s, fiberglass rods had all but gone the way of love beads and lava lamps. Anglers flocked to graphite in part because it built lighter, longer, faster rods that gave more distance, which always makes us feel like better casters than we actually are. Most of us embraced the new material and turned our fiberglass rods into tomato stakes, or traded or sold them to the small group of anglers who still treasured glass.

In recent years, that group of glass aficionados has grown, bringing old fiberglass rods out of the closet and creating a market, albeit a small one, for new designs. Likeminded anglers are establishing a presence on the Web, and as with bamboo, a pantheon of contemporary glass-rod makers and rods is emerging. Several reasons probably underlie this renaissance. Nostalgia (or “tradition”) probably has a role, as does the impulse to exclusivity and specialization that always generates subcultures. Demographics may be at work as well. In my experience anglers moving into or beyond middle age often step back a bit from fast rods to something with a more relaxed casting tempo, and booming graphite cannons may no longer suit the aging boomers. And, of course, anglers always seek something new, even if it’s something old, as in the parallel resurgence of cane rods. Finally, technology plays its part as well. Although graphite rods have dominated fly-fishing for the past three decades, the world of fiberglass has not stood still. The material has changed, primarily owing to improved resins, and perhaps ironically, graphite-rod manufacturing has given fiberglass builders improved techniques for fabricating composite tubes.

But having now cast rods from a number of the current glass-rod makers, I’m convinced that the biggest reason for the renewed interest in fiberglass is the rods themselves. In fairly short rods, about eight feet and under, the weight differences between fiberglass and graphite are functionally negligible, but fiberglass rods typically load more easily, particularly with a shorter line. For fishing close in, I believe glass rods deliver a fly with less effort, more authority and greater accuracy. They are more forgiving of exuberant hook-sets with light tippets, and have impressive strength, especially in the tips, where graphite rods are most apt to break. Above all else is an attribute underscored by every fiberglass devotee and rod maker I talked with: the sensation of the shaft working. A fast graphite rod with a tip that delivers searing speed and hairpin loops is a marvelous instrument in a dozen ways. But between your hand and the action up top is a length of comparatively lifeless material. With fiberglass, you can feel moving mass, the rod bending, loading and unloading, and to some anglers that’s the sweetest feeling in all of fishing. No one I spoke with failed to summon the word “smooth,” invariably several times. And I have to agree; the word sums up a lot about how good fiberglass rods handle.

Many anglers complain that fiberglass rods are too slow. As a rule, they’re certainly slower than graphite—that’s part of the point. If you fish graphite, casting glass may take a bit of adjustment, more or less depending on the angler and the rod, but it typically involves slowing down the timing, backing off on the power, understanding that the rod will do the work, but you have to let it. Glass rods, in my opinion, do not serve all purposes. Where longer rods or heavier lines are involved, where long casts or big winds prevail, or when you must control lots of line on the water or lift weighted flies or sinking lines, I’ll take graphite hands down. But fiberglass rods excel in circumstances that are a trout-fishing mainstay for many of us, those where short- to mid-range casts are the norm, where precision and delicacy count for more than distance. And they are exceptionally pleasing for small and mid-size streams.

I test drove a selection of fiberglass rods from builders who design their own tapers and either fabricate the blanks themselves or have them rolled to their specifications, which differentiates them from the “custom finishers” who build on stock blanks. With a couple of exceptions—Scott and Great Bay—the makers are relatively low-volume builders. They typically construct rods to order, carrying little or no inventory, and buying one is often not an instant transaction; you may endure a waiting list, which can be months long. Taken as a group, these makers offer the largest selection in rods of 5-weight or lighter and under eight feet in length, though some offer longer or heavier models (most notably Steffen Brothers, which builds rods up to 10/11-weight). Since it was impossible to cast every model from every maker, in most cases I consulted the builder, described where and how I ordinarily fish, and let him make a recommendation.

I’m anything but an expert on fiberglass rods, having used them maybe a couple of dozen times in the past 35 years. But I spent a summer and fall fishing these rods, and two things stood out above all else. First was the range of actions, how different these rods were from one another. To say a rod is “fiberglass” no more characterizes its performance specifics than to say a rod is “graphite.” For some reason, this surprised me. And second, I realized what I’d been missing: Fishing glass is as pleasurable as it is practical. I don’t think it’s best for every fishing application, but as I came to appreciate, neither is graphite.

Great Bay: Northeast Series 7' 4-weight, 4-piece

If you can’t think “fiberglass” without thinking “linguini,” this rod may well readjust your attitude. While not fast compared to graphite, it has surprising stiffness and perhaps the quickest action of any rod in the group. A lively tip delivers dry flies with a crisp precision, but there’s some power in the shaft as well. The rod answers to a fairly wide range of casting strokes, and this window makes it easy and forgiving to cast. You can present a soft, quiet line or get more aggressive and build line speed for throwing larger flies or handling some wind; the rod doesn’t fold when you push it. It has good range for its length and versatility within that range. Purely in the interests of science, I rigged up a couple of beadhead nymphs, split-shot and an indicator, and this rod had the authority to pick up all that clutter and lay it back down.

The tradeoff here seemed to me a bit less “life” in the hand, not that deep-bending feel on the cast that some fiberglass devotees favor, though still more than the average graphite rod. Because it will tolerate a quicker casting tempo and more power in the stroke, this one would be a good place to start if you’re making the transition from graphite to fiberglass. $279.99 www.greatbayrods.com

L. Kenney: 8' 3" 4/5-weight, 3-piece

When it comes to rods, the term “progressive action” gets tossed around, often in ways that seem to me not quite accurate. In this case, it applies beautifully. As you gradually apply power, this rod incrementally and very smoothly translates the increasing amount of moving mass into energy for the cast. When I first assembled this rod and gave it a wiggle, it seemed slightly heavy in the tip—a flashback to the fiberglass of yesteryear—but on the water, there was no such feeling. It has fine balance in the hand and a pleasing swing weight; with the slightest acceleration, line hops off the tip with a sure precision. One consequence is that the rod performs handsomely with a fairly short line on windy days—something most graphite rods do poorly. It also handles larger dry flies well and responds to a more energetic stroke for fishing distances out to 55 or 60 feet. There’s good versatility here.

What it doesn’t respond to particularly well is an overly fast hand. This is an easy rod to cast once you find its rhythm—a tautology, I realize, true of most rods. Yet some windows of casting tempo are wider than others. While this one isn’t overly narrow or difficult to find, it must be respected. But you can feel it when you’ve got this rod working right. I used both line sizes, but ultimately preferred a WF5F to a DT4F. $595 [email protected]

Scott: F2 7'7" 4-weight, 3-piece

Unfortunately, the term “slow action” is almost pejorative these days, an assessment of rod quality rather than performance characteristics, and the error probably says more about casters than rod actions. Frankly, a slower rod requires better technique; it takes a more exact sense of timing. In some respects, the rod calls the shots. You can think of it this way: Faster rods are a bit like dogs—fine animals, in part, because up to a point they can be made to obey you. Slower rods are more like cats—you cannot bend them to your will, but taken on their own terms, they’re equally satisfying.

This rod is definitely a cat. It’s designed for a fairly full, deep flex, and you can distinctly feel the swing of the shaft in your hand. In truth, it took me a while to find the right tempo with this one, but when I finally caught on, it was a pleasure to cast. It has an easy, fluid delivery and responds best to a deliberate and controlled stroke. It tolerates a slightly more energetic arm, but it won’t put up with a jerky casting motion. If you’re smooth, it’s smooth; if you’re not, it bucks and bounces. Though I wouldn’t recommend this rod for a novice, it isn’t difficult to cast if you pay attention to what it’s telling you, which for me was “throttle back and slow down.” There’s a bit of reserve power, but this is really a small-stream finesse rod that’s great fun to fish. Once you find the rhythm, it delivers a fly accurately with only a couple feet of line through the tip-top. That it’s an effective roll-caster only adds to its close-quarters performance. $595 www.scottflyrod.com

South Fork: 8' 5/6-weight, 2-piece

If it’s possible to speak of a “traditional” fiberglass action, this would probably be it, with some weight out front and a fuller flex in the upper half or two thirds of the shaft—what was often called, back in the day, a “wetfly” action, though this is in fact a perfectly fine dryfly rod. This is one of the slower rods in the group, and it took me some time to discover the right stroke, not so much in delivering the line—which it does fairly easily—but in minimizing or eliminating the bit of tip bounce that often comes in a rod with a big swing and a slow recovery.

I finally dialed into it by stringing the rod with a WF6, which to me brought out noticeably better performance. It fishes comfortably and accurately at close range and in general handles a short line admirably, which you’d expect from this kind of action. But what surprised and impressed me most is that you can lean into this rod, even with a moderately energetic double-haul, and it doesn’t feel as though you are overloading it. As a result, the rod fishes well throughout the range of practical fishing distances. There is the feeling of weight out ahead of the grip on this rod, and I found that balance in the hand was improved by using a slightly heavier reel. But this one has a slow, easy, sweeping power, not the kind that generates blistering line speeds, but casts with authority and sureness. $275/$100 (blank) www.southforkrodcompany.com

Steffen Brothers: 8' 3/4-weight, 3-piece

I cast Mark Steffen’s graphite rods in years past and was looking forward to how he approached fiberglass. I wasn’t disappointed. In the imprecise nomenclature of rod actions, I’d call this one “moderate,” and I was impressed with its handling through a range of fishing distances. It has the crisp, sensitive tip that’s a delight in dryfly fishing; with a DT3F, it sets a fly down softly and cleanly, and effectively cushions light tippets. It delivers well close up and roll-casts nicely for fishing in tight quarters. The length of this rod gives a measure of line control—not to be underestimated in small-stream fishing—that shorter rods can’t manage. The shaft also has some unexpected guts, especially for its line rating. With a WF4F, it has good range even with fairly large flies and is a creditable performer in the wind. With no tip-heavy feeling, the rod has a sweet balance in the hand. And I found it one of the easier rods to cast; from a light flick of the wrist at shorter distances to a more energetic stroke at longer ones, it delivers with a range of casting tempos; among other things, that makes for good control of the loop size.

I wouldn’t chuck nymph/indicator rigs or conehead streamers with this rod, though I’d fish just about anything else with it, and did. It’s a good all-around light trout rod that excels in small-fly, delicate-tippet fishing. $370/$170 (blank) www.steffenbrothersflyrods.com

T. L. Johnson: 7'6" 4-weight, 2-piece

I found this an interesting rod, and quite agreeably so, in its blend of characteristics. It has the fuller-flexing, fiberglass feel, but at the same time the shaft is somewhat stiffer than others in the group, particularly in the top quarter or third—a combination that could give rise to a slightly clubby rod with a bouncy tip. Instead, it produces a rod that feels somewhat fast, though not in the same way as a tippy graphite rod; it’s more a sense of power than blistering speed. This one casts with real authority, particularly for a 4-weight; you can get fairly aggressive, and the rod just does its job without folding at the tip or buckling down lower. It also shoots line like a demon. I don’t want to overemphasize the power thing—it’s hardly what I value most in a rod—but it does give somewhat more distance, improve performance in the wind and increase the range of fly sizes and types that are practical.

Having said that, you don’t need to push this rod. It answers well to a more relaxed, comfortable stroke, and swing weight in the shaft makes the rod nimble at shorter distances. I suspect that anglers raised on graphite might find this to be an easy rod to cast; its response to the application of power feels familiar, though I also think they’ll find that response smoother than they’re accustomed to. $445 www.tljohnsoncompanies.com

Tom Morgan Rodsmiths: 8' 5-weight, 2-piece

On a trip to Montana last summer, I stopped at Tom Morgan’s shop to pick up this rod. The shaft represented the last in a series of tweaks to the taper and was fitted with makeshift, workshop components—the final design, ready to fish but cosmetically rough. “It’s ugly,” Morgan said, “but I think you’ll like it.”

He was right on both counts, though the first was immaterial and the second verged on understatement. This is a wonderfully pleasing rod to fish. The true progressive action provides a smooth, uninterrupted transition of power as casting distance increases. Line just flows from the rod tip. There’s enough sensitivity up top for effortless and accurate casting at shorter distances, yet there’s plenty to draw on lower down for longer deliveries or hauling to build line speed in a breeze or with wind-resistant flies. Some rods, particularly faster graphites, have a distinct sweet spot, a window of load or distance at which performance feels optimized. This rod seemed to me all sweet spot, fluid and graceful throughout, with a deceptively quiet power that doesn’t come through as stiffness in the shaft. Easy to control, it’s an admirable rod for general trout fishing.

The sticker price is unquestionably up there, but according to Morgan, his company’s production of finished rods, fiberglass and graphite models combined, is extremely limited in volume. But to me the rod blank is quite reasonable for a rod of this performance quality. $1,345/$295 (blank) www.troutrods.com

Ted Leeson has reviewed fly-fishing equipment for this magazine since the earth cooled. His latest book is Inventing Montana (Skyhorse Publishing).