Field Test rods

Field Test rods

  • By: Ted Leeson
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At some point, every serious angler confronts the naked truth—no matter how many fly rods you own, the prospect of a new one is irresistible. Part of the attraction undoubtedly owes to an unspoken suspicion lodged in the fly-fishing heart—that a “better” rod will make you a better angler. This comforting (if vain) thought gives us hope, which is a primary component of fishing generally. Sometimes, however, the allure is less easily explained. A few seasons back, I somehow embraced the groundless conviction that the ideal trout rod was eight-and-a-half feet long, and my nine-footers were now insufficient. Time to replace them. Still, there’s often sound logic in the appeal of the new. Over time, your casting style or tempo may change, and you want a rod action that better fits the way you fish now. Or you might seek an all-purpose rod that performs all of its purposes with less effort and greater control. Conversely, you may need a rod for a particular water type or angling technique or fishing circumstance. Or maybe you just want to fish something that feels different from what you use now, just for a change. Sometimes it’s that simple.

In the annual, self-rejuvenating cycle of the marketplace, a crop of fresh products springs up each season, offering anglers as many choices in new fly rods as there are reasons or rationalizations for wanting one. This year’s harvest continues some trends that emerged over the past few seasons. First, the pursuit of ever-lighter shafts, which drives development in high-end rods, has been carried into other segments of the market, and this year brought further weight reduction to mid-level and economy models, which is generally advantageous. (A rod maker once told me that, from the engineering standpoint, the ideal fly rod was infinitely thin with zero mass, an interesting piece of equipment to visualize.) Second is what might be called more “fishable” fast-action rods—not the stiff, long-range cannons of yesteryear, which certainly have their place, but quicker rods that present a fly more easily and accurately at ordinary distances. And third is the growing number of niche and micro-niche specialty rods—for high-sticking, small-stream angling, European-style nymphing, tournament-legal bass fishing, and so on.

I spent last summer and fall fishing some of the new 2012 trout rods. Here’s a sample of what’s out there.

We’re not asking why you have to own new rods and we won’t judge you by what you tell your spouse. Just make sure you get your hands on one or more of these modern gems, then get out there and throw.


FreestoneIn a formidable collaboration, rod designers Sam Drukman and Bernard Ramanauskas joined forces with rod-making luminaries Gary Loomis and Len Codella to produce the new Freestone series. I fished a 9-foot 5-weight, and three attributes quickly stood out. First, an exceptional smoothness in casting—no wobble or bounce or drift in the tip, no bucking lower down when you lean into it; it’s fluid and efficient, with a wonderful touch. Second is the perceived weight: A pleasing balance in the hand and deftness in the tip contribute to the feeling of casting a rod a line size lighter. Third is the breadth of the fishing window. The rod delivers as well at 10 feet as it does at 60, and throughout its range, an exceptionally responsive shaft communicates information to the hand, allowing precise presentations—particularly noteworthy at short range, where rods of this line/length combination sometimes disappoint. Yet you can push this rod for distance as well, and it doesn’t fold up or lose heart.

This is a highly versatile all-around trout rod, superbly enjoyable to fish, and an impressive, immaculately finished piece of equipment. It had better be—the 15 models, all 4-piece sticks, 4- to 8-weight, run $1,250.

G. Loomis Pro4x

G. Loomis Pro4xLoomis’ new mid-priced rod is a product of trickle-down technology from its high-end NRX line. I fished the 9-foot 5-weight; it’s a fast, fairly stiff, powerful rod with good range and the capacity to launch big dry flies into a wind. To me, this rod comes alive beyond 35 feet or so, where the light tip and quick recovery make for comfortable, accurate casts. At close range it fishes acceptably, but as with most fast rods, I find the shaft insufficiently loaded for optimum precision and control—a circumstance that can be improved with a WF6 line, which moves the distance window nearer to the caster. In fact, the more I fished this rod, the more I used a 6-weight line, which more efficiently turned over indicator rigs and waterlogged, bunny-fur streamers. The rod has plenty of stiffness to tolerate that overlining.

I was impressed with the way the Pro4x handled the sink-tip and sinking lines I sometimes use in fall fishing. It lifts them from the water with authority, controls them in the air, and reliably delivers the narrow-diameter, high-density lines that can overpower softer actions. This is a reasonably easy rod to cast, provided there’s enough load on it, and it seems to me well suited to anglers who habitually fish a little longer line—on bigger rivers, for instance—or plumb the depths with sink-tips or full sinkers. Eleven 4-piece models, 3- to 8-weight, run $335 to $365.

L.L. Bean Pocket Water

L.L. Bean Pocket WaterThis series of short, light rods is expressly designed for small streams—and they’re spot-on for the purpose; the moderate action lays out line effortlessly at close range. You can feel these rods working during the casting stroke—in ways reminiscent of fiberglass, though they’re graphite. At the same time, they aren’t limp or weepy—they have a bit of quickness that helps in forming tighter loops, which are an advantage in placing a fly beneath overhanging cover or threading a cast through breaks in the foliage. And the short length is a big advantage on brushy streams.

Don’t underestimate the fun to be had fishing small water. During a day working the pockets of a Pacific coast stream with the 7 ½-foot 4-weight, plucking out seven- to eight-inch cutthroats, I was surprised by a 17-inch sea-run cutt; it felt like a miniature steelhead on this light little rod. When I came to more open water along a rock-face pool, the rod easily reached out the 35 feet I needed to cover it. It’s great fun to cast, light as a hopeful mood, scaled perfectly to its function, and nicely priced. Four 4-piece models, from 6'6" 3-weight to a 7'10” 5-weight, run $195 to $210.

Redington Torrent

Redington TorrentI fished a 9-foot 4-weight Torrent in Montana last season, and there’s no mistaking what this rod is—fast and stiff, with lots of power. It handles a wide range of fly sizes and types, produces high line speed for defeating the wind, and has good range and the backbone to handle larger trout. The shaft has the strength to lift line smartly off the water and lay it out again quickly, and it proved a serviceable boat rod. With the rated line weight, I thought it fished most comfortably at medium distances and beyond, where there was some load on the shaft.

At shorter range I found it, as I do most stiff rods, somewhat lifeless in the hand and requiring casting energy incommensurate with the distance. To me this rod performs better with a 5-weight line, which increases its versatility and decreases the amount of casting effort close in with no discernible loss in range. For some anglers, particularly inexperienced ones, a 6-weight line might be even better. Even then, this is one for anglers who like the feel of speed and power in the shaft. Ten 4-piece models, from 3- to 10-weight, run $249.95.

Orvis Clearwater

Orvis ClearwaterThis third incarnation of the Clearwater series, using design features drawn from the high-end Helios rods, rises significantly above previous versions. The rods are lighter and the shafts are noticeably more responsive, answering more closely to the caster’s hand and offering a better feel for what the rod is doing.

I fished an 8 ½-foot 5-weight, and despite the fast, “Tip 9.5” flex index designation, the rod is more moderate than the rating suggests. It still delivered crisp, tight-looped casts off the tip, like a faster rod, but did it handily at closer distances. It offered good range and a wide window of practical fishing distances. Though not my first choice for industrial-strength nymphing, it excelled with dry flies and handily drilled even overscaled hopper/dropper rigs into the wind. This is a nice choice for anglers who prefer a little quicker action, but still need a rod that delivers the goods inside 20 feet. Great balance in the hand, a lovely smoothness in the shaft, and a responsive tip make it a pleasure to fish. This rod is my pick for the sleeper of the season, offering a level of performance I wasn’t anticipating at an attractive price. Twenty 4-piece models, from 2- to 12-weight, run $198 to $225.

Sage ONE

Sage ONESage ONEThe Sage ONE may be a bit immodestly named, but after fishing an 8 ½-foot 5-weight for a month, I found there wasn’t very much to be humble about. This fast-action rod isn’t stiff, clubby or lifeless. It delivers nimbly throughout its considerable range and responds equally well to more relaxed or more energetic strokes. I used this rod with nymph/indicator rigs, dry/dropper setups and streamers, and while it handled them easily—and the wind as well—the rod really shines in dryfly fishing, where precision can be crucial.

Sage unveiled the ONE to claims of improved casting accuracy. No rod can make the angler a more accurate caster; the most it can do—and Sage has succeeded—is minimize obstacles to accuracy in the rod itself, such as poor tracking, excessive vibration or an action that necessitates an overly aggressive stroke for the distance. This rod puts the fly right where you point it.

Anglers who lament the disappearance of the Sage SLT rods (I’m one) should take note; while rather different in action, to me the ONE is reminiscent of the easy precision of that bygone classic. Twenty-two 4-piece models, 3- to 10-weight, from $715 to $740.

Scott A4

Scott A4These new rods replace the A3 series as Scott’s offering in the mid-price range. I fished the 8 ½-foot 5-weight on a number of trips; this is a fairly stiff rod, though I hesitate to call it “fast,” since it doesn’t require an excessively energetic stroke. Some swing weight in the tip responds nicely to a more relaxed style of casting and enables the rod to deliver at shorter distances. Yet the tip isn’t floppy or wobbly; it has the juice to throw tight loops at fairly high line speeds. The result is a rod that capably handles big, bushy flies; headwinds; dry/dropper and indicator rigs.

The sweet spot on this rod is right where most trout are caught, between 20 and 45 feet, and within that window it’s easy to cast, particularly for being on the faster side. What it doesn’t tolerate well is an overly aggressive arm to achieve distance; the rod has good range, but push it too hard or too fast and you get some bounce in the tip. The component package—reel seat, grip, guides—is unusually good for a rod in this price class. Twenty-one 4-piece models for lines 3 to 12; $375.

St. Croix High Stick Drifter

St. Croix High Stick DrifterSt. Croix teamed up with noted angler Kelly Galloup on these new rods designed for nymph fishing. High-stick nymphing is all about drift control and, in more localized holding water—pockets, current tongues and seams—about accurate delivery. The 9 ½-foot 4-weight I fished served both purposes efficiently. The rod has the power to throw a heavy string of nymphs and indicator as accurately as such stuff can be thrown, but still enables a more open loop to keep all these flying objects from tangling. The length gives enough reach for good line control, but the light weight, particularly in the tip, allows you to comfortably hold the rod high, keeping line off the water and minimizing drag. And while stiffness in the butt allows for the quick hooksets often necessary with high-sticking, the tip still cushions the finer tippets used on small droppers.

The rod did seem to be limited in short-line presentations with light nymphs; it’s a little stiff for accurate, short-range casts. But the rod is really designed for more typical high-sticking with heavier flies, wind-resistant indicators and split-shot. Definitely a specialty rod but well suited to its purpose. Three 4-piece models, 9½ to 10 feet, 4- and 5-weight priced at $430.

Ted Leeson’s most recent book is Inventing Montana: Dispatches from the Madison Valley (Skyhorse Publishing;