Are Expensive Fly Rods Always Worth It?
What are the differences between a "cheap" or more affordable fly rod and a high-end one? Is an expensive fly rod always worth buying?
I see questions like these come up quite a bit. Fly rods have undoubtedly come a long way over the years, and even some of the less expensive fly rods are pretty incredible these days. When buying a new fly rod the old saying "buy the best you can afford" is still advice to consider, but a higher price does not always mean you're automatically getting a rod that casts and fishes better than everything else costing way less. From the components and materials to the overall design, many things come together in the construction of a fly rod. How the rod is built as a whole, your level of casting skill, and the fly line you choose all matter a great deal in what kind of performance you'll get.
Let's look at some of the differences you'll find between expensive rods and those costing less...
Since most fly rods are crafted out of graphite, we'll stick with that material for this section. To make things as confusing as possible, graphite is and has been rated using all kinds of designations such as IM6, IM7, 30 Ton, 40 Ton, 30 million modulus, 40 million modulus, etc. What's different here is that fly rod companies usually don't advertise the graphite ratings like you'd find with, say, conventional bass rods.
Out of all the rating designations out there, modulus and tonnage are the most standard ratings folks go by. These refer to the relationship between a fishing rod's strength and weight — a rod with a higher modulus or tonnage rating uses less material to achieve the same stiffness as a rod with a lower rating. Being able to craft the same type of fly rod with less material should result in a rod that's lighter and more responsive.
Costlier rods will use higher-rated materials and also use special technologies (Sage's Konnetic HD being a good example) for added performance. Because of these factors, higher-end fly rods can offer the pinnacle of performance and be simply awesome to use. I've certainly fished ones that were incredible, but I've also had a few experiences with similarly high-priced sticks that were mediocre at best. As previously mentioned at the beginning of this article, the included material and tech is just one part of a larger design puzzle. In relation to materials, many other aspects like the resin (what binds graphite fibers together) also come into play in determining how good a rod will truly be.
There are different materials and styles of fly rod guides. Snake guides are usually the typical stainless wire, curvy style found on most rods, but some manufacturers opt for single-foot guides for a hint of weight reduction. Some of these wire guides can also be found made from titanium.
Stripping guides have a little more to them since they consist of both an outer frame and an insert ring. Like the material used for snake guides, stainless frames are most common but titanium can be found on pricier rods. Stripping guides are usually a pretty standard design, but a tangle-free "swept" design as found on rods like the Douglas SKY and discontinued Loomis PRO4X ShortStix series exist, too.
Stripping guide inserts (the inner ring) also have different levels of quality and performance. While a cheaper ring should generally be fine, a more expensive one such as the top-quality Fuji Torzite will be harder, smoother, thinner, and lighter than an insert that's on a lower level.
Better fly rods should use higher quality guides that are lighter, stronger, and slimmer, but it can be tough to tell for sure if the extra money you're spending is truly giving you a guide upgrade. Like I mentioned in the "Graphite/Construction" section above, fly rod manufacturers don't always advertise the guide types put on a specific rod. On the flip side, the guides used on conventional rods are almost always openly advertised, so it's easy to see who's using the better stuff. I'm usually not concerned with fly rod guides as much as when I'm shopping for a new casting or spinning rod, but it's still nice to know.
As rod price increases, cork quality usually follows accordingly. Cork can be graded in various ways with the higher-level stuff usually being labeled with something like an A or A+ rating, or it is often referred to as "Flor Grade" cork. Although all cork generally winds up looking quite aged after a lot of usage, it is still nice to start off with the best quality you can get. Lower grade cork won't be as tight or clean in appearance and will often have many cracks/voids which are patched in with filler. In my experience, this filler has a tendency to come out (sometimes pretty quickly) which will lead to a grip that's not good to look at and certainly not as nice to hold all day. Pro tip: I like to use U-40 cork sealant immediately when I get a new cork-gripped rod. Read more about it here.
Fly rod reel seats are usually either made from all aluminum or they can sport aluminum hardware along with an "insert" that's usually made of graphite or wood. Reel seats found on nicer rods will generally be more refined and may offer more intricate designs and higher quality insert materials. Something I really like to see on rods that have two up-locking rings (such as on saltwater fly rods) are gaskets between the rings which helps them tighten down with a much nicer, more secure feel.
The vast majority of tubes that come along with fly rods are either pvc/plastic with a fabric covering or bare aluminum. When you pay more for a rod, the tube often has an above-average aesthetic which is a nice added bonus. This could be just an aluminum tube with an interesting finish to it, or possibly even one made from graphite. The type of rod tube is of little worry to me, but a cool tube just helps round out the whole package nicely.
While style is subjective, price really doesn't dictate how fancy or basic looking a rod is. There are some pretty sweet-looking fly rods that don't cost a whole lot, while there are some very plain ones that command top dollar. Likewise, higher price does not guarantee perfect workmanship, either. I have seen and fished with several high-end rods over the years that had cosmetic imperfections ranging from minor to defects that made me wonder if quality control even exists! If you can't inspect a rod yourself, you can usually get a feel for any consistent workmanship/quality issues of a particular rod series by reading several different reviews or browsing related forum posts.
Many high-end rods can indeed feel and fish at whole new levels, but a big price is not always a guarantee of big performance. While you'll likely get a rod that uses some great materials and tech, sometimes rods that cost less can be just as good or even better. Also remember that the chosen fly line and your casting skill factors in to rod performance, too. If you can't test and inspect rods in person, do as much research as you can from as many unbiased sources as you can (like us!) which should help you make a solid decision. My best advice is to always be open to rods from more than one price level and go from there!
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