Is carbon fibre or graphite a better material for building fly rods than glass fibre or fibreglass? The jury is out and may never come in with the verdict given that the difference in weight between the best of both materials is negligible, and so much depends on the personal preference and casting style of the user.
Their manufacturers made much of the light weight of graphite rods in their advertising campaigns, and many inexperienced and inept fly casters quickly used that feature to judge rod quality. When they first hit the North American market, graphite rods were stiff in comparison to those of fibre glass and bamboo. The purveyors of graphite rods pointed to this feature and claimed it enabled the user to cast tighter loops, which, because of its aerodynamic efficiency, is the back bone of a well executed cast.
Any skilled caster who has experience casting rods of graphite, glass, and bamboo, knows that weight is of almost no importance to good casting. Balance is the key. A fly rod is a lever. The caster’s arm is the fulcrum. If the reel and the portion of the single handed rod behind the hand of an angler is approximately equal to the weight of the rest of the rod, the rod is balanced and, as such will can be cast with less effort, greater efficiency, and will cause less wear and tear on the shoulder, arm, and back. I frequently encounter anglers with single handed rods that have lightweight reels attached to them. They are the unwitting victims of marketing hype and would be much better off putting away their perforated space age reel in favour of a much heavier, and invariably much cheaper, winch.
A simple, age old test to discover the correct reel for any fly rod consists of fastening the reel on the rod then placing the outfit on your index finger under the top cork on the handle. If it sits there parallel to the ground the outfit is balanced. If the balance point is a few centimetres toward the handle or the tip, that’s fine too, but if you have to move a greater distance either way, purchasing that reel will put an unnecessary obstacle between you and casting comfort.
As for the other extravagant claim, the ability to produce tight casting loops is not a feature of the material from which a rod is made, but a function of an angler’s casting skill. I have watched my good friend, Bill Burkland cast perfect loops as tight as a drum with a soft action bamboo trout rod and seen him perform the same feat with nine weight, nine foot cane rods that were built with steelhead in mind. Years ago, when he was still fishing them, I watched Bill do the same thing with graphite rods.
As far as the issue of weight goes, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the difference in weight between high-end bamboo, fibre glass and graphite, is only a few ounces, and that the heaviest material, bamboo, has the most mass, and thanks to this feature, takes less energy to flex. On the occasions when I have let anglers with no experience with the material cast one of my bamboo rods, they invariably employ the rhythms they use to power their graphite poles and overpower the rod. It takes a while to get the feel of cane and come to the realization that bamboo will take up more of the task and that less power needs to be applied as a result. It can be persuasively argued that, cast properly, a bamboo rod will take far less toll on a caster’s arm than the equivalent rod made of plastic.
When it comes to double-handed rods, weight becomes more of an issue. Some ten years back, my friend, rod builder Bob Clay, and I fished the Skeena’s Panorama Run together. I was using a 15-foot graphite two hander, while Bob was giving a 16-foot bamboo rod of Sharpe’s manufacture that he’d recently acquired on eBay. Because of the considerable torque spey casting cane rods puts on their joints, their makers favoured splices to metal ferrules. The Sharpe’s rod was of these.
Bob lashed the sections together with tape, then began casting. The line went out well enough, but after a few casts it appeared that Bob was straining. I took the rod when he offered and quickly realized where that strain was coming from. The pole weighed as much as a fence post. The anglers who cast rods of this heft had a system of casting that involved balance points on the caster’s body and employed as little movement of the arms and body as possible. The technique is well described in John Lynde’s superb primer Thirty-Four Ways to Cast a Fly. Bob and I weren’t familiar with this approach then. I know it now, but even so, using a rod as heavy as that with the best technique would be more work than pleasure.
…continued next week…