As an angler without sight, understanding rod characteristics is extremely important. Just as my white cane conveys information by extending my reach, like a fishing rod, it also serves many other purposes. The following is a breakdown of the characteristics that make different rods better suited for accomplishing specific goals.
Fishing rods perform six basic functions:
- Extend the angler’s arm to launch baits further and more accurately;
- Position and manipulate baits to impart action to simulate actual pray;
- Visually indicate through movement of the rod tip that a fish has contacted the bait;
- Transmit tactile information conveyed by the fishing line down the rods blank to the hand;
- Leverage for setting hooks quickly and effectively; and,
- Controlling the movement and ultimate capture of hooked fish.
All of the six above functions demand different characteristics in how a rod performs, which is why the design, formulation and building of fishing rods has become a highly evolved form of engineering.
With so much choice it’s becoming quite the challenge to select a fishing rod. Never mind the best rod, or a rod that will meet all your needs, I’m talking selecting a rod that will match the specific fishing style and species of fish you want to target. There probably exists a single rod that could meet many of the fishing applications you plan to pursue, but as with all professions, there exists different specialty tools for a reason.
Rod manufacturers have capitalized on the different techniques and fish species pursued by recreational and sport anglers to introduce to the market rods for every conceivable application. These manufacturer recommendations can take the guess work out of selecting the right rod, but that doesn’t mean a technique-specific rod can’t be used for more than one purpose. They are a great idea when your local tackle store has plenty of each technique-specific rod in stock, but what happens if they are sold out or never bothered ordering the rod you traveled to the store to try first-hand? Consider the following when combing through your existing rods prior to going out and buying yet another stick to add to your collection.
Lawrence and Moby fishing on the Ranger 620
Power ranges from ultralight all the way up to extra heavy. This refers to the ability of the rod’s blank to lift dead weight. If you’re planning on swinging Bass into the boat weighing up to 6-8 lbs, you want a rod that will be able to perform the job without it bending all the way through to the handle. The rod should curve comfortably under the load you expect to lift and still leave room for a bit more when that trophy fish makes that sudden lunge.
Keep in mind that these power ranges are repeated as you move up the fish ladder. A medium-heavy Bass rod has little in common with a similarly ranked rod designed for fighting Muskie, just as a medium saltwater jigging rod has nothing in common with a medium-powered jig-fishing rod meant for Walleye.
Manufacturers repeat these power ratings throughout their various species-specific rod designs because, if they didn’t, we would have everything from ultra-ultra-light all the way up to extra-extra-extra-heavy, making rod selection even more confusing. Assess a rod’s power according to the size of fish you expect to catch. Don’t get too concerned over the species-specific marketing used by manufacturers to sell rods.
Thankfully, different manufacturers use similar ratings to avoid adding even more confusion when comparing brands. I won’t get into the different proprietary materials, formulations and processes used by manufacturers to differentiate themselves from their competition, but let’s just agree that cheap rods are cheap for a reason, and expensive rods are generally made with the very best. Thus, you are likely to get the most for your money by selecting something in the middle price range $100 to $200).
So why is selecting the correct power relevant? It has to do as much with avoiding breakage to under-powered rods when stressed beyond their tolerance, as it does with the rod’s ability to control fish during the capture process. Under-powered rods are unable to make a significant enough impression on a fish to be able to turn their heads back towards the boat, dock or shore. Rods bent to their maximum have nothing left to aid anglers to land trophies, and put the onus 100% on the reel’s drag.
No doubt, fighting fish with light tackle can be both exhilarating and challenging, but can also overly tire fish to the point of either experiencing heart failure, or unable to recover after the release. Not a big issue if you plan to eat everything you catch, but how often is that the case?
Alternatively, too strong a rod will result in lost fish. We’ve all hooked fish that manage to wrap the line around a solid object and then use their brute strength to simply yank the hook from their mouth. Fish will do the same thing when being played on rods that are vastly over-powered. . The rod should flex at least half way down the blank. Even when catching fish in heavy cover at short distances, you want the rod to give a bit to absorb a fish’s thrusts while you lift and swing the fish out from thick cover and into the boat.
The action of a rod references the degree of taper throughout a rod’s blank or shaft. Moderate action rods bend almost uniformly or parabolically throughout their entire length. Extra fast rods taper much more aggressively in the top third giving the rod a stiffer bottom two thirds in relation to their much softer tip area. Moderate fast and fast are two additional intermediate categories that further differentiate moderate rods from extra fast. Knowing which of the four possible actions to use for different fishing applications will both simplify rod selection, and increase your catch rate.
Moderate action rods are generally used when trolling with downriggers. The ability of the rod to bend almost 180 degrees when the line is clipped to the downrigger allows the rod to quickly pick up slack the moment a fish bites causing the line to be released from the downrigger’s line clip. Moderate rods also prevent powerful fish from using their significant strength and aerobatic skills to shake free of hooks, such as when playing Salmon or Steelhead in rivers.
Moderate action rods offer little control over fish, and are commonly used when fishing vast open bodies of water, or rivers where it’s possible for anglers to follow their fleeing fish either up or down stream. They also provide anglers with a more fight-like experience since the bend in the rod means the angler has to pull just as hard as the fish at the other end of their line to narrow the gap, if not harder. Finally, charter guides often select more moderate rod actions for their less skilled paying customers to both lessen the chance of hooks being pulled, and to accentuate the fish fight; leaving customers with an inflated impression of a fish’s actual power.
Moderate-fast rods have much of the uniform bend that moderate rods offer, with slightly more stiffness in the bottom half of the rod. Their purpose is to give anglers the bend needed to effectively use smaller hooks such as those commonly found on crankbaits to catch big fish. They provide enough bend to prevent a fish’s powerful lunges and headshakes from straightening out fine-wire hooks or pulling them from their mouths. The slightly stiffer lower blank section gives the angler sufficient control over where a fish wants to go, by allowing the angler to use the rod as a lever.
The problem with moderate or moderate-fast rods is that they have little ability to transmit the feel of the bite all the way along the rod to the handle. The Bend in the rod absorbs sensations being telegraphed up the line much like springs on a car’s suspension. These are great rods for retrieving crankbaits where fish pretty much hook themselves, but far less effective when an angler needs to detect subtle bites and execute powerful hook sets to sink home stronger single prong hooks.
At the other end of the equation are fast and extra fast rods. These are rods designed more for both telegraphing tactile information to the angler’s hands, and for imparting lightning fast hook sets before fish spit the bait. So what’s the difference between the two?
Fast action rods have actions that are better suited to fishing reaction style baits with larger hooks, the exception being crankbaits with fine-wire hooks. Buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, frogs, spoons, spinners, and swimming jigs, to name a few. The idea being the bait is in continuous forward movement causing pursuing fish to first attempt to injure their pray prior to taking the bait into their mouth to be consumed. The rod needs to bend enough to convince fish that they are in fact impacting the forward momentum of their pray, and that the bait doesn’t possess bionic strength. The fish has to be able to come up from behind, grab the bait and turn back towards their home base.
Fast action rods allow fish to turn 90 degrees to the angler before the angler sets the hook. If the rod is too fast and doesn’t allow this turn to occur, setting hooks is made near impossible since the hook set simply pulls the fish towards the angler before the fish’s body is turned and water resistance can be employed to execute an effective hook set. Without this resistance the fish simply glides forward until it realizes its mistake and releases the bait from its mouth. Setting stronger hooks made from thicker wire requires that fish be positioned at a right angle to the angler so water resistance generated by the fish’s body braces the fish while the hook is being set.
Extra-fast rods have slightly thicker blanks 2/3 the way up the blank, and then taper quite quickly at the tip. The rationale behind the thicker blanks is to provide the angler with more instantaneous hook-setting and responsive fish handling abilities.
The thinner more flexible tip on an extra fast rod does two things. One, it works as a visual indicator to the angler that subtle activity is taking place at the end of their line, and two, it prevents fish from sensing an unnatural resistance to the bait when tasting, smelling or feeling with their heads and mouths.
People commonly assume the tip on extra fast rods are better at telegraphing tactile information to the rod hand. True, they are better at doing this than moderate or moderate fast rods, but in reality, their thinner more sensitive tips visually display more than they transfer.
Extra Fast action rods excel at fishing when the presentation calls for slowing things down and fishing more vertically then horizontally. Dropshotting, jigging and most live bait presentations are best accomplished when using extra-fast rods.
Whereas fast action rods excel at setting hooks on fish that are engaged in pursuing moving baits, extra-fast action rods are better suited for hook sets when fishing vertical presentations. Being positioned above fish means they are already positioned at right angles to the angler eliminating the need to allow time for the fish to turn, such as when fish are pursuing baits presented more horizontally.
Two piece rods possess a joint section where the rod overlaps. This slightly stiffer area of the rod is commonly believed to reduce a rod’s effectiveness by as much as 10% due to the lack of uniformity in the rod’s bend. This is more problematic with shorter rods then with longer fly rods that commonly possess three such over-lapping connecting sections.
If not properly assembled, two-piece rods can separate under load, twist causing line friction, or break at the joint. However, when properly assembled two-piece rods work quite effectively, and have the added convenience of being able to fit more easily into a vehicle for transport, which reduces the chance of breakage.
Much can be written about different rod grip styles and handle materials. Synthetic materials often out-last natural corks, both because of rough handling and rod holders on boats, but cork just feels so much nicer to the hand. Graphite rapped handles are the lightest and transmit tactile information the best. Rods with wrapped graphite handles also cost the most, with cork coming in a close second. However, on cold wet days there’s no beating cork for warmth and grip.
Lawrence’s mother standing on the edge of a river fishing with the boys using bamboo rods
Lighter rods mean less fatigue to anglers throughout the course of the day. Of course, this is irrelevant when using rod holders. What’s more important is the balance of a rod once you have attached the reel. With reels getting lighter and lighter rods are having a hard time keeping up. A properly balanced rod and reel should possess a tipping point just ahead of where the reel attaches to the rod. The further up the tipping point, the less comfortable the combination is to use. The muscles in the arm shouldn’t be fighting to hold a rod tip up as this only interferes with the hand’s ability to feel incoming tactile transmissions being sent up the line and down the blank to the handle. Thus, don’t always reach for the lightest reel on the market when selecting a new winch for your lever.
What strength line to use with a rod has to do with the application for which you intend to use the selected rod and reel. Think of the size of fish you intend to catch, the conditions you plan to fish in, and choose the line, rod and reel accordingly. The outfit should feel properly balanced in your hand, cast comfortably, and properly control the fish you’re targeting. The reel you selected for the rod should have sufficient capacity to store, retrieve and play out under drag the line you’ve chosen without breaking or binding the line, or even worse, getting spooled.
Lure ratings are slightly more complicated. It comes down to the tip of the rod. The tip should bend slightly after you tie on a bait. Not enough bend and there will be little control in casting accuracy and distance. Too much weight and the rod’s tip will be bent fully, making it difficult for the rod to cast accurately. At most, the rod should engage no more than half way down the blank during the cast.
Once the bait is in the water and slack line taken up, the rod’s tip should still have sufficient room to easily bend either up or down without engaging the power range of the rod. This will allow fish to move in any direction after grasping the bait in their mouths without immediately feeling resistance, but still change the feeling of pressure in the rod’s handle by increasing or decreasing the bend in the rod’s tip. It will also allow the tip to perform to its maximum potential as a visual bite indicator.
Being able to quickly apply personal experience and knowledge when assessing a rod’s characteristics means no longer having to look at the specifications and marketing claims of the manufacturer. By applying the information found in this article you will be better able to select rods that will appropriately meet your specific needs. Who knows, it may just help you keep the number of rods in your boat, garage and basement from expanding into a regular forest.