Walk into any fly shop from the Rockies to the Catskills and you’ll see a wall or two full of trout rods. Most shops carry a half-dozen brands at least, and the prices range from the bare-bones value of rods like the ECHO Base, all the way to the pricey G. Loomis Asquith. I’ve spent my entire life chasing trout in the American West, and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about “good” trout rods. I’ve also had the opportunity to fish many different rod brands across a wide spectrum of price ranges. Of course, “good” and “bad” are subjective terms, but using them to describe rods boils down to whether or not a fly rod puts your fly where, how, and when you wanted it. It’s the performance aspect of fly rods that creates the price disparity. But does that price difference automatically mean an expensive rod will put your fly on the water, exactly how you want, as accurately as possible, every time? Not entirely. A competent angler can work with an incompetent rod. If you’re in the market for a new trout rod, here’s what to consider when figuring out which one is right for you, based on everything from budget to your preferred style of fishing. First and foremost, you have to understand that what creates the price differences among trout rods comes down to these three features:
A high price tag almost always correlates to a fly rod blank that’s lighter and stronger than cheaper rods. Winston’s new AIR rod family is a great example to use here. The AIR utilizes Winston’s blend of boron graphite and a new resin (the glue that holds graphite together), which supposedly dries lighter, meaning you’re fishing a lighter rod. The AIR retails for $950 – a hefty price tag. But when compared to the company’s new Kairos—which goes for $475—you can immediately notice the difference in rod weight and overall feel. Blank quality is the biggest factor in pricing a rod.
This is a tricky aspect to quantify because performance is such a subjective term, and it’s devilishly hard to accurately measure. What is measureable, though, is how a blank tracks and deflects. A rod with high torsional stability (meaning the tip stays in a relatively straight line as it moves on your front and back cast) that doesn’t oscillate will, in the right hands, be more accurate than a rod that’s not built with those major features in mind.
Just like the majority of flies are tied to catch fishermen more so than fish, rods are built to draw attention while on the shop rack. From the bright green of the Sage MOD to the trademark unsanded finish on Scott rods, every company has some signature build quality meant to make a rod fit for the classiest of tweed-clad trout anglers. Joking aside, the quality of a rod’s cork, guides, thread wraps, and hardware quickly add up to a bigger price tag. They don’t drastically impact how a rod performs, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t appreciate well-built rods. It’s a lot like hunting rifles, honestly. A composite stock doesn’t make a gun better than one with a real wood stock, but something about solid mahogany or walnut just feels better.
Now that you have a better understanding of what sets the price of a fly rod, consider these factors before walking into the fly shop:
Budget: How much are you willing to spend on a rod? Go in with a firm idea because that will hugely narrow down your search for the perfect rod.
Use: What do you plan to use this rod for? Is it your .30-06, ready to tackle just about every situation you come across? Five-weight rods are the go-to for most trout anglers, myself included, and are largely considered the best all-around weight. Four-weight rods are lighter and a top choice for devout dry fly anglers, and a heavier, faster 6-weight is the standard stick for guys that like to strip larger streamers all day or dredge nymphs on weighted rigs. When you clearly define the use of the rod you’re going to buy, your options will narrow even further. However you fish, make sure the rod you buy matches your style. You’ll appreciate your investment that much more if you buy something suited exactly to your standard trout fishing needs.
Once you’ve answered the above questions, and taken into account what aspects of a rod are most impactful in rod performance, you’re ready to start shopping. The following list is a great starting point for finding the rod you want at the right price. I’ve personally fished each and every one of these sticks, and while there are many, many others on the market, my field test findings may help guide your decision. Whichever rod you end up with, make sure to keep it clear of car doors, clean the dirt from the ferrules, and catch some trout with it. No matter how pretty or expensive a rod is, as late master rodsmith Tom Morgan himself told me, “Rods are meant to be fished.”
Top Rod Picks $80 – $325
All-Around Rod: Fenwick Aetos
Fenwick Aetos: 9′ • 5-weight • $189.00
I have yet to find a “cheap” rod better than the Fenwick Aetos. It won the Best Inexpensive Rod award at George Anderson’s Yellowstone Shootout in 2015 and continues to draw praise from anglers. It’s a fast, crisp, surprisingly light rod that does everything well. It’s good with dries, turns over larger streamers, and provides great response and feel when nymphing.
Dry Fly Rod: St. Croix Rio Santo
St. Croix Rio Santo: 8′ • 4-weight • $120.00–$140.00
This was a toss-up between Redington’s Classic Trout and the Rio Santo, but St. Croix’s better action and built-in-the-USA product makes this the ideal budget rod for dries. The Rio Santo bends deep into the blank, but has a surprising amount of lifting power when hooked into good fish. One of the best anglers I know does some serious work with his 8′ 4-weight Rio Santo on Idaho’s Silver Creek.
Nymph/Streamer Rod: Sage Foundation
Sage Foundation: 9’• 5-weight • $325.00
Sage recently released the Foundation, and it’s already turning heads. The Foundation deflty handles streamers and nymphs better than just about any rod in this price range. The Foundation features Graphite IIIe technology and Sage’s lifetime warranty.
Top Rod Picks $350- $700
All-Around Rod: ECHO 3 or St. Croix Legend Elite
ECHO 3: 9′ • 5-weight • $349.00
St. Croix Legend Elite: 9′ • 5-weight • $460.00
I went back and forth for a while on this one and decided to make it a tie. The ECHO 3 is a stellar piece of gear, the flagship rod for Tim Rajeff’s innovative company. Meanwhile, the Legend Elite is built in the USA, comes with a lifetime warranty, and has a taper and action strikingly similar to the Winston Boron IIIx. The ECHO is faster, while the St. Croix has the edge in dry fly presentation. Both are incredible rods at great prices.
Dry Fly Rod: Hardy Ultralite Zephrus
Hardy Ultralite Zephrus: 8’9″ • 4-weight • $679.95
The Ultralite Zephrus series from Hardy is, without doubt, one of the three best rod families currently in production. This rod weighs next to nothing, swing weight is non-existent, and even the folks at Sage would be jealous of how this rod tracks. In an 8’9″ 4-weight, you won’t find a better dry-fly rod than this. It has enough backbone to turn fish, fight wind, and lay out long leaders on glassy water.
Nymph/Streamer Rod: Scott Flex
Scott Flex: 9′ • 5-weight • $475.00
The Flex is a surprising rod from Scott, a company known for its trout-centric rod actions. That said, it’s a good surprise as the Flex is an extremely capable streamer and nymph stick. For average size streamers, the 9′ 5-weight is ample. If you fish big articulated monstrosities, then grab the 6-weight instead.
Top Rod Picks $750+
All-Around Rod: Orvis Helios 3D
Orvis Helios 3D: 9′ • 5-weight • $849.00 This rod deserves its own 1,000-word review because it’s incredibly interesting. The quick notes are this: the Helios 3D is the most unique, different, surprising rod I’ve ever fished. It’s so different from the Helios 2 I don’t feel the rods belong in the same family. Casts are outrageously smooth, effortless, and accurate. The lifting power of this rod impresses given the blank’s light weight. In the 9′ 5-weight configuration, I couldn’t find an aspect of the 3D’s performance I didn’t like.
Dry Fly Rod: Winston Boron IIIx, or Tom Morgan Rodsmiths
Winston Boron IIIx: 9′ • 5-weight • $850.00
Tom Morgan Rodsmiths: 8′ • 4-weight • $1495.00+
Here’s another tie – the venerable Winston Boron IIIx, a rod that’s nearly eight years old and still among the best trout rods you can buy, and the Tom Morgan Rodsmiths 8′ 4-weight. The price tag on the Morgan shocks a lot of anglers, but as a proud owner of one, I’ll tell you this much: you’ll never fish a more well-built, beautiful, smooth rod. The company’s custom order system and eye to detail is readily apparent in every rod that leaves their shop in Bozeman. The Boron IIIx is everything you want in a dry fly rod: moderate-fast action, a soft tip, lifting power in the butt section to turn big trout, and plenty of backbone to throw giant dries.
Nymph/Streamer Rod: Hardy Wraith or Sage Method
Hardy Wraith: 9′ • 6-weight • $849.00
Sage Method: 9′ • 5-weight • $850.00
There’s just too many rods at the top of the heap here for one to stand out as the best, especially when it comes to nymphs and streamers. These rods both do something well, though, which is why they tied for first place. The Wraith is a fast, light, smooth rod that has an understated, beautiful finish and a crisp action that’s just fun to fish. The build quality is impeccable, and there’s more than enough power here to throw meaty streamers. The Method is a rod that you should over-line by a weight size to get the best performance possible from it. So the 9′ 5-weight with a 6-weight line casts great. The Method’s crazy-fast action can give Wyoming wind a run for its money, and the light weight makes it great to fish all day long.