Back in the early 1990's my mom bought me my first fly rod—a used Daiwa 7-weight. It was basically a "bargain-basement special" complete with foam grip, plastic reel seat, and no fighting butt. Aside from it being of less-than-premium status, it performed well enough and allowed me to hone my casting and fishing skills for the first year or so. While that rod is long gone and somewhat forgotten, one thing still sticks in my mind: that foam grip was mighty comfy! That old stick was the first and last fly rod I've personally owned that didn't come with a cork handle. Why? As many fly anglers know, the vast majority of mainstream fly rod manufacturers seem to simply ignore any other material options.
Photo Courtesy of Redington
I'm definitely not a "cork hater." Other than one casting and one spinning rod, my current quiver of rods all sport cork handles. It's a material that provides good grip, nice feel, is attractive, and cleans up relatively easily. Conventional offshore saltwater rods have always embraced foam-type grips, and the bass rod market has a broad selection of "alternative" grip materials ranging from foam to even carbon fiber. The best part is that rods featuring these grips can be had at many price points so consumers can easily find a rod that fits their expectations and budget.
Why are so few fly rods available with alternative grip materials? My personal guess is that fly anglers are thought to just overwhelmingly prefer the traditional look and feel of cork. It's understandable, but I honestly think today's fly anglers—especially with so many younger guys in the sport nowadays—would be very open to trying something new. As I've hinted at, there are some fly rods currently offered with non-cork main grips. In my eyes, the most prominent at this moment are the Redington Vapen Red and Redington Vapen Black which are equipped with very cool non-slip polymer handles from WINN Grips. I fished one of these rods in the past and thought the grip was functional and very, very comfortable. Other prominent non-cork offerings I can recall include rods from G-Rods, Cam Sigler, and a few from Bass Pro Shops like the new HEAT Stage 1.
Photo Courtesy of Redington
Materials like foam can split, be harder to clean, or get dented. However, cork has its own similar set of negatives like losing filler, splitting, or taking on a "used" look after just modest usage. In short, no material is perfect for everyone, but I just wish there were more choices available to fly anglers. Even if alternative grip materials were reserved solely for more modestly-priced rods, it would make the market so much more interesting and fun to liven it up with a whole new variety of choices. A material such as a high-quality foam has a wonderful firmness and feel to it and in my opinion is more comfortable to hold than cork.
I hope someone from just one rod company reads this and it at least sparks some interest. With IFTD 2017 in the not-so-distant future, I'll be covering every square inch of the show floor looking for what's new and different. Cork may currently "rule" when it comes to fly rods, but I don't think it necessarily has to!