To really appreciate how many fishing rods hit the shelves this year, you’d just need to look at my garage after I called in 53—yup, 53!—new sticks for our 2016 fishing-rod face-off. With so many new and different models, fishing editor Joe Cermele and I first organized them into five categories, based on which species each is best suited to catch: bass, catfish, muskie, panfish or trout, and walleye. Then we spent a few long days on and off the water, testing their casting ability, sensitivity, and overall feel and quality. By the time we wrapped up our test, we’d winnowed the field down by half, to include only the top five rods in each category. In the process, the very best rods and some killer deals emerged. Here’s the lowdown.
Each of the following categories was worth up to 20 points, for a maximum possible score of 100: Casting We fitted each set of rods with the same, appropriately sized reel. Cermele and I took several casts to see how they loaded up and how far they slung a given weight. Components We thoroughly examined cork grade, reel seats, and guide frames and inserts; then we scored each rod for the quality of its hardware. Sensitivity To test how well signals were transmitted through the rod, we repeatedly cast, bounced, and dragged the weights off a variety of surfaces. Blank Quality Rods received points for the initial quality of the blank and overall performance in the test. Feel and Finish We rated the rods for comfort, including their weight and the grip ergonomics, then examined the finish and overall looks of each model. —M.M.
The Winning Sticks
 Best of the Test: Bass
This heavy-action, extra-long casting rod is designed to shine with big, deep-diving cranks, but it can handle a wide array of other bassy chores. Though it’s made of graphite, the rod has the flexibility of fiberglass, and that deep bend helped it outcast every other model in the test. It took the top spot for sensitivity, too, and yet it has plenty of power for subduing the heaviest lunkers. As is always the case with Loomis, you get a handcrafted, American-made rod with top-quality cork, guides, and blank. And you pay for it ($315).
 Best Value: Bass
The Hellbent Aramid actually did not quite make the top five in the bass category, but at just $70, it cost less than half of any that did. So we had to give it the Best Value win. This spinning rod—built on a 24-ton graphite blank with ballistic Kevlar for extra hooksetting power—has -stainless-steel guides with zirconium inserts, a full premium-cork grip, and a cork reel seat. It casts great and has good sensitivity and a crisp, fast-action tip. Most important, the Hellbent -Aramid rivaled, and in some cases bested, the performance of rods costing three times more.
 Best of the Test: Catfish
St. Croix has nailed its first stab at a kitty-specific rod. Built on a blend of graphite and S-glass, the Mojo Cat has the perfect combination of flex and power to handle channel, flathead, and blue catfish. The components include a premium-grade cork handle and Kigan Master Hand 3D guides with aluminum oxide rings. There are five casting and two spinning rods in the Mojo Cat series; the 7-foot medium-heavy casting rod we tested ($160) cast well and had lots of muscle, but if it’s huge flatties and blues you’re after, you may want to move up to a heavy-power model.
 Best Value: Catfish
As the name says, this rod was built for bumping, a technique that involves drifting a river while keeping your bait bouncing along the bottom. That requires a lightweight, sensitive rod that still packs plenty of power, and the Silver Cat fits the bill. And it would do just as well from the bank, working a big chunk bait or live bluegill. The Silver Cat is made of 80 percent high-density carbon mixed with fiberglass, with stainless-steel Dyna-Flow guides. Perhaps it’s a little light for the absolutely biggest cats, but this stick’s overall capabilities make it a great buy at $79.
 Best of the Test: Muskie
The Legend Elite was the last muskie rod we tested, and after getting used to the lack of sensitivity inherent in most of the sticks, we were shocked at how much more responsive this one was. The new flagship in St. Croix’s muskie line is built from its SCV and SCVI graphite to be stronger and extraordinarily lighter than any other blank on the market. Add super-grade cork, a premium Fuji reel seat, Fuji Torzite guides and titanium frames, and all of St. Croix’s best technologies. Even at $550, you won’t feel cheated.
 Best Value: Muskie
It was a close fight for Best Value honors in this category (between Cabela’s, 13 Fishing, and Okuma), but the $125 price tag on the Guide Series Select “A” won out. Constructed from IM-8 graphite, the 7-foot 11-inch model we tested had plenty of oomph for even the largest rubber muskie baits. It has a Fuji reel seat and Fuji K-concept guide frames with Alconite inserts that can handle heavy braid with ease. While the price may not scream bargain, you won’t find a better muskie stick for less.
 Best of the Test: Panfish or Trout
From the second we picked up this spinning rod, we knew it was going to outperform the pack. The Venerate has the ideal action and tip for a variety of panfish and trout applications, and the 7-foot medium-power model we tested would be right at home on a trout stream or tossing jigs for slab crappies. It’s incredibly sensitive and casts light lures with ease. The rod comes fitted with titanium-alloy guides with zirconium inserts of the like you’d normally find on rods twice its $130 price. And this is one gorgeous stick, to boot.
 Best Value: Panfish or Trout
This rod is a flat-out steal. Had someone removed all the logos before the test, I think Cermele and I would have pegged it at double its actual cost ($50). Unlike other low- to mid-range spinning rods for these species, the Micro Lite is made from graphite, not fiberglass. It has -stainless-steel guides and a very comfortable cork composite grip. On the water, it has good sensitivity for its price tag and casts astonishingly well given its 51****⁄2-foot length. Bottom line: For panfish or trout, you simply can’t go wrong here.
 Best of the Test: Walleye
Much like the muskie casting stick cut from the same cloth, this spinning rod truly is elite. The 7-foot -medium-light model was the best walleye rod I’ve ever used. Of all 53 rods we tested, none was closer to perfection. It matches the best blank, made of SCV and SCVI graphite, with the best guide system, featuring Torzite ceramic rings in titanium frames. The rod’s sensitivity is almost unbelievable, and our test model cast even the lightest weights like a dream. Again, it isn’t the cheapest—at $380—but it is the best.
 Best Value: Walleye
Cabela’s Prodigy Walleye**
At $100, the Prodigy Walleye is another terrific bargain. Our test rod cast great, was sensitive enough to detect subtle bites, and had plenty of backbone for a medium-action spinning stick, just in case you get into that 10-pounder. Cermele and I both loved the feel of this rod, with its composite-cork and EVA handle. It uses a quality blank and stainless-steel guide frames with zirconium inserts. There’s a nice selection in the series, but the model we tested would have you covered from live baits to tiny jigs.