The Trout Stick

How to select the best rod, reel, and line for your fishing.

Field & Stream Online Editors

It was one of the most ludicrous moments I can remember in five decades of flyfishing.

On a small Lake Ontario tributary, fishing for early-spring steelhead, I managed to hook a big hen fish of about 14 pounds. I was standing waist-deep in quiet water near the bank when the big trout felt the hook and darted between my legs. The tip of my 6-weight fly rod was pulsing ever deeper into the water, and I quickly found I couldn't lift a wader-clad leg high enough to clear the fly line.

So I made a couple of awkward side steps toward the bank and threw myself backward on the grass, waving my legs in the air like an upside-down turtle. The rod tip popped free, the fish continued to pull line upstream, and I eventually landed it with feigned nonchalance in the same pool. The hardest part was trying to look cool while the two guys on the opposite bank were doubled over with laughter.

That I landed the fish at all was a matter of my using the right rod, line, and reel for the job at hand. When it comes to flyfishing, the array of such choices can be bewildering.

Choosing a Fly Rod
Some would say my steelhead problem was caused by my using too light a rod for those big fish, but that just ain't so. I was using small flies with only a single light split shot for fussy fish in clear water. A 4-pound-test fluorocarbon tippet allowed for no more than minimal restraint of a hooked fish, for which my 6-weight was ample. A larger, heavier rod would have given no advantage in this case where pulling power was limited by leader and knot strength.

So one criterion in choosing a rod is pulling or fish-fighting power and related leader strength. That's not often mentioned in rod discussions, but it's important. A little brook trout in northern Colorado obviously isn't a major-league tugger; in combination with customarily light small-stream tippets, that means that light fly rods in the 3- and 4-weight class are both appropriate and fun.

All-out brawls with bigger fish on heavy leaders are the opposite extreme. Big bass in heavy cover require heavy leaders and serious pulling power, in which case a 10-weight for bass bugging isn't too heavy.

Most midweight trout rods fall in between those extremes, of course. This means rod weights of 5 through 8, and here again choices can be related ultimately to fighting fish. Five-weights are most commonly used with small- to medium-size flies and tippets testing from 2 to 6 pounds. Such a rod is plenty strong enough for most trout fishing but too light for big fish on heavier leaders. Eight-weights, on the other hand, are often used to toss streamers and larger nymphs when gunning for larger fish with leaders testing up to 10 or 12 pounds. Six-weights are a compromise between the two in power and, partly for that reason, are often cited as the best all-around rod for beginners.

Fly size is the other major factor in rod choice. Light-line rods, meaning 4-weight or less, cast best with smaller flies, meaning roughly size 12 and smaller. That's because lighter lines don't have enough mass to carry larger flies efficiently through the air during a cast. For that reason, such rods are best for small streams and spring creeks.

Rods taking line weights 5 through 8 can cast progressively larger flies. And you can, of course, cast small flies with those rods as well. This means they encompass the range of most trout fishing, with 5-weights preferred on most Eastern streams, while Westerners, who often throw larger flies, generally opt for 6s or 7s on bigger rivers.

Rod length, meanwhile, is no longer much of a question. Nine-footers have become so standard now that some makers offer some rod series (of varying line weights) only in that length. I do use a couple of 71/2-foot light-line rods for small-stream trout; midweight rods of 91/2 to 10 feet are sometimes useful for float tubing, canoeingor getting a little extra reach in drifting flies for steelhead. But for most fishing, most of the time, you'll almost certainly end up with a 9-foot rod.

Choosing a Fly Line
This is very easy. Get a first-quality (meaning major-brand) weight-forward floating line of a long-belly design. The line weight, of course, will match the designated line weight of your rod. Most people, including me, use a floating line 95 percent of the time in fresh water, and a long-belly weight-forward one is the most versatile.

The long-belly designation means that the thickest, heaviest portion of the line is typically about 40 feet long instead of roughly 30 feet, as in more conventional weight-forward designs. This facilitates mending or other line manipulations you might want to make after your cast hits the water. It also means that as you gain casting proficiency, you'll be able to cast farther. That's because long-belly tapers allow casters to most easily hold more line in the air when false-casting, translating into greater distance when the final cast is made.

Sinking lines, most often used in streamer or nymph fishing, can likewise be simple despite myriad possibilities. For most river fishing, I usually use the fastest-sinking sink-tip design available, in which a 20- to 30-foot-long fast-sinking portion is followed by a floating running line. For shallow or slow-flowing water, a weighted nymph fished on a floating line gets deep enough that I don't need a slow-sinking line. For deep, fast chutes or other heavy water, however, a fast sinker is the way to go.

Choosing a Reel
Years ago, beginning flyfishers were usually fed some pablum about how a fly reel only served to store the line and to balance the rod. But first and foremost, fly reels are used to fight fish, and that means you need a good, smooth-running reel. Sooner or later, you're going to hook a large fish that will be impossible to land with a cheap, herky-jerky assemblage of stamped metal-even one that otherwise holds your line and balances your rod.

On the other hand, you don't usually need a reel with a complicated drag that will "stop a train," as some enthusiastic reel makers claim. You're not fishing for trains, and for most trout fishing a simple click-and-pawl mechanism is sufficient. When fishing with trout-size leader tippets, you can't use a tightly set drag to snub a freshly hooked large trout without breaking the leader. You're merely trying to stay connected until the fish finishes its first run, at which point you'll start recovering line and playing the fish. A click-and-pawl system is more than adequate here, and it gives a delightfully satisfying purring noise as a trout takes line.

But fashion in fly reels now means a couple of things: Your reel will most likely have a disc-type adjustable drag, which is nice but more than you need. And it will probably be made of machined bar-stock aluminum, which is pretty but expensive.

Whatever reel you choose, make sure it will accommodate your fly line plus 100 yards of 20-pound-test backing. That goes for light-line (5-weight or less) as well as heavier-line setups, which means your reel will most likely be at least 3 inches in diameter. Smaller reels than that create aggravating coils in fly lines and crank unbearably slowly.

Reels used for fast-running salmon and steelhead are another matter. Line capacities will be greater-usually at least 200 yards of backing-and construction materials will be corrosion resistant. Drags will be larger and more sophisticated. Most saltwater species are powerful enough to simply destroy freshwater reels, at least those that can survive that corrosive salt in the first place.

As a longtime tackle junkie, I like the fact that no one setup will do all things equally well. That means that eventually you'll need a lighter rod and reel for one thing, a heavier outfit for another. Over the long haul, you can make things easier by skipping line and rod weights as you build your arsenal. I concentrate on 2-, 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, and 12-weight outfits, for example, and skip the odd sizes. Others might opt for a series of 3-, 5-, and 7-weight, and so on. In either case, all the fishing bases are covered, and the financial damage-although not inconsiderable-is at least cut by half. eavier outfit for another. Over the long haul, you can make things easier by skipping line and rod weights as you build your arsenal. I concentrate on 2-, 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, and 12-weight outfits, for example, and skip the odd sizes. Others might opt for a series of 3-, 5-, and 7-weight, and so on. In either case, all the fishing bases are covered, and the financial damage-although not inconsiderable-is at least cut by half.