Imagine going fishing without a fishing rod. Unless you’re into spearfishing, using a net, or bow fishing, you’re likely going to have a bad time. The question is, what type of fishing rod should you choose? That is a great question. There are thousands of variations out there, with hundreds, possibly thousands, of manufacturers. Between spinning, bait casting, trolling, fly fishing, casting, and ice fishing rods, there’s a massive selection to choose from.
I’m not claiming to be thoroughly versed in every aspect of fishing, but I know my way around a lake. I’ve bought my fair share of rods over the years and am going to help you simplify the process of choosing the right rod for the right fishing situation. Any angler can go into a big box store and walk out with a cheap fishing combo and head out to the local pond. I did this when I was a kid. There’s something about saving a little money and learning the basics with a setup you’re not too worried about damaging. Why spend $100 on a novice setup when you can gain the same experience for $45?
Fishing can become a very technical endeavor. Electronics that will operate your boat for you and lures that seem to be designed by NASA scientists to move through the water in such a way that they hypnotize the fish into jumping straight into your net without you having to do anything other than buying the lure and making that first cast. The drawback to these devices is the user manuals are so thick you’ll throw your back out picking them up. Let’s try to simplify the pursuit of catching fish by breaking down the different rod types and finding what will work for you, the angler, and the specific type of fishing that you want to do.
I’m going to cover:
- Fishing Rod Construction – What’s in a fishing rod? What do you call that part I just snapped off and want to replace?
- Action vs. Power – What do they mean?
- Spinning Rods – These will also include ice fishing rods.
- Bait Casting Rods – These rods are unique and designed specifically for a bait caster reel.
- Fly Rods – There are several varieties, lengths, and purposes
Fishing Rod Construction
Fishing rods are not built equally. Some are made of fiberglass, some carbon fiber, while others are bamboo. I have a rod that’s part wood, part graphite, and all amazing. It’s my favorite ice rod, and it’s named the Green Hornet. I purchased a replica from the film Grumpy Old Men and upgraded it to be a decent fishing rod. I also have a St. Croix ice rod that I tend to use as my go-to. It’s constructed of carbon with a cork handle.
The basic setup of a fishing rod is the rod blank, the reel seat, the handle, and the guides. The blank is what makes up the length of the rod. This can be made of all sorts of materials, but the usual construction you’ll find is fiberglass, carbon fiber, or a fiberglass/carbon fiber combo. The shop takes metal sheets, shapes them into the proper length, and creates a mandrel. The mandrel then has the fiberglass, or carbon fiber resin poured on it, which then undergoes some pressure and heat treatments to become a rod blank. These blanks make up the different sections of the rod.
Guides are added after the final layer of fiber is finished in the creation process. They are typically made of steel or chrome-plated brass. I’ve built a few rods using tungsten carbide guides and liked the feel of them. Place them on the rod blanks and tape them in position, then nylon thread is wrapped around the guide and the blank to tie it securely to the rod. Lacquer or resin is then used to coat the guides to seal the thread thoroughly.
The base of the rod typically has a steel or aluminum shaft that connects the blanks to the handle and reel seat. I prefer to use cork handles, though there are synthetic foam rubber options available. The reel seat is made of aluminum, chrome-plated brass, or sometimes plastic (best to avoid plastic reel seats) and then attached to the handle of the rod.
Now you have a fishing rod.
Action vs. Power
Action and power are two of the most important decisions you’ll make when choosing a fishing rod. The action of the rod is where it flexes or bends. The faster the action, the higher the bend. A slow action will bend much lower in the rod, making the rod stiffer. Moderate actions flex closer to the center of the rod.
- X-Fast – action rod will flex at the very top, making it popular for bait fishing with worms or jigs.
- Fast – Fast-action rods are popular due to their balance of a fast tip and overall sensitivity, along with their ability to provide a sturdy enough backbone to fight the fish.
- Moderate – Moderate action rods are a bit stiffer, but what they lack in feel, they make up for in casting distance and variety of lures you can use. These are ideal for treble hooks and make great bass rods. They have a lighter hook set because the tip doesn’t dip as much when the fish initially bites.
- Slow – These rods bend near the butt of the rod, so you’ll see a full rod bend when fighting a fish. They’ve been falling in popularity due to the other rods becoming more user-friendly. You’ll typically find these rods in the Ultra-light power class and some fly rods.
The power listing of a fishing rod is determined by how much it takes to bend the rod. Different power levels handle specific ranges of lures and line weights. The easiest way to choose rod power is by determining what lures and line strength you will most often fish with. I typically fish with line between 8lb test and 12lb test for bass with lures weighing between 3/8oz up to 3/4oz. Trout fishing is much different. I use a line from 2lb to 6lb and lures from 1/16oz to 3/8oz. Therefore, for bass fishing, I use a medium power fast action rod, whereas, for trout, I use either an ultralight power, medium action, or a light power, medium action rod. Catfishing requires a medium-heavy power fast action rod.
Spinning rods can range in length from 18 inches to over 12 feet. Ice fishing rods tend to be very short, while salmon rods range from 8-12 feet. The price range is anywhere from $10 to over $1000. The main things to look for in a spinning rod are the action, power, and build. If you’re targeting bluegill and crappie exclusively, you won’t need a 9-foot rod that’ll handle a 40+ pound salmon. A 6’6” fast/light rod would do the trick just fine. Ugly Stik sells a dock setup that’s perfect for bluegill and can hold its own with crappie. Plus, it’s only about 3 ½ feet long.
Bass rods vary in build quality, though you can get a reliable one in the $40 – $50 range. If you want to spend the money, G. Loomis, St Croix, Shimano, and Penn offer spinning rods for over $500. There are reasons to purchase an expensive rod, though learning the sport only requires that you have a fishing rod that will allow you to cast, feel a bite, and catch the fish. The nuances of an expensive rod don’t really come through until you have enough experience to feel the difference.
Trout rods are typically in the $30 to $50 range and are between 4 ½ feet and 7 feet, depending on what type you’re fishing for. Mountain ponds and lakes you need to hike into are perfect for a small, portable ultralight setup, whereas fishing for lake trout or browns will require a bigger, sturdier rod. I love taking my ultralight backpacking into the Rockies and fishing those tiny beaver ponds for native brook trout and cutthroat. I must sneak in because they are easily scared off, so I crawl in as quietly as I can, then either flip a worm in or toss a small Roostertail out there and do a slow retrieve. It’s usually a first cast connect. The perfect way to get some breakfast. If they aren’t interested, I switch to my 3wt fly rod. More on that later.
Spinning rods have a few things to watch out for. If you already own a quality reel (see our types of fishing reels article) and don’t want to replace it, be sure to check the new rod for compatibility. Some rods are only compatible with a few reel companies. Others are universal. Check the handle quality. If the cork feels thin or like it could easily peel off, it is, and it will. That’s a cheap manufacturing step. Some manufacturers will put the foam rubber down and coat it with almost the same cork that’s used to line your kitchen drawers. Don’t fall for it, or you’ll soon have a nasty-looking handle.
Be sure the guides (often referred to as eyes or eyelets) are straight. Everyone makes mistakes. Even the big guys. I had a very expensive rod sent to me that had a guide out of place. I sent it back, repaired it, returned it to me, and included a fly box with 20 flies. That turned me into a lifelong customer. I don’t mind the mistake just so long as they correct it.
Bait Caster Rods
Bait caster rods are built for accuracy, strength, and endurance. If you’re wondering when you’d want to use one, consider what type of fishing you’re doing. Are you casting heavier jigs and crankbaits? If so, this is the rod for you. If you’re still a novice angler, spend the extra time in your backward learning how to cast the reel. It’s worth watching some YouTube videos as well. Bait casters can drive you crazy if you’re not ready for them. Bird’s nests can ruin any fishing trip.
The reel seat is on top of the rod instead of underneath like a spinning rod. This placement lines it up with the guides and allows for perfect casts with unbelievable accuracy. You can fine-tune your reel and get it set exactly how you want it to eliminate that dreaded bird’s nest as much as possible, though it will happen from time to time. Stop the spool by pressing your thumb down to keep it from free spinning and letting the line go after the lure hits the water. That’s where the nests come into play.
Choose a rod that feels comfortable in your grip with a reel attached. Most reputable stores will allow you to connect a reel to test the rod’s feel. If it doesn’t feel right in the store, it’ll feel worse on the water. Make sure the reel feels right when you retrieve the line. I reel a spinning rod with my left hand but prefer to reel my bait caster with my right. It’s a personal choice but test it out before spending the money. You can’t switch the handle position on a bait caster like that of a spinning reel.
Typical rod lengths are between 6 feet and 7 ½ feet, with most coming in at 7 feet. With the accuracy of the cast, the size will let you get your swimbaits and soft plastics right into the cover and nail those big bass hiding there.
Fly rods work differently than traditional rods. First, they’re far more flexible. That’s required to build the momentum to cast the fly. Since flies weigh next to nothing, you can’t just cast one out with a normal cast. To get around this issue, fly rods use a special type of line, cleverly named fly line, that has enough weight to carry the fly to its intended destination. The rod needs to be cast enough to build momentum in the fly line and then released forward to send the fly forward to its target destination.
Fly rods are available in several lengths and are sold by weight. The weight is the recommended line weight the rod manufacturer determined to be appropriate for the size. I have a few fly rods ranging in weights from a 3-weight 8 ½ foot rod to a 9-weight 9-foot four-piece travel rod I use for tarpon fishing when I travel. The larger rod breaks down and fits nicely in my luggage.
Fly rods range from $40 to well over $3000, depending on your taste. I’ve found that you can catch just as many trout in an alpine lake with a cheaper fly rod and reel combo as you can with a $500 rod. There’s not a huge reason to spend big until you’re completely comfortable with casting, catching, and understanding that most trout just aren’t that smart. They are typically just looking for an easy meal, and if you can present the correct type of food to them, they’ll eat it. Don’t overcomplicate the process, and you’ll be fine.
The biggest issue you’ll encounter with fly fishing is the cast. Learn how to cast, then practice. Practice some more. Keep practicing until you no longer sound like you’re using a bullwhip. Once you’re past that stage, you’ve got yourself into the elite club of everyone that fishes with bugs. Try to learn as much as you can about the different types of insects in the rivers and creeks you fish and when they hatch. It will enhance your fishing tenfold.
Another type of fly rod is the Spey rod. It’s a casting technique that requires a specific rod. Spey rods are typically between 12-15 feet in length. Spey casting is primarily used for steelhead and salmon, though anglers catch all sorts of fish with the technique.