There's a pretty standard protocol most folks go through when selecting a new fly rod. The rod will usually be held, flexed, cast, and maybe briefly looked over. After a little contemplation and possibly a lot of encouragement from a store associate, the rod will then be purchased. All might seem fine and dandy, but did you get the best one the store had in stock? Did you spend money on a rod that has a slight defect? While you obviously can't perform a full inspection when initially ordering a rod, when purchasing one in-person (or when your rod is delivered) it's best to take your time and really look things over. Besides the "obvious" tests and checks that are performed, here's a few other things (along with some personal examples) that can be looked at which may have been ignored previously.
1.) Ferrules– The ferrules (where the pieces of a rod join together) always deserve an inspection. Take a look at them, make sure there's no errant epoxy blobs in the way, and feel if the ferrules fit together smoothly and tightly. When holding the assembled rod, you can also flex it back and forth to feel for any "tick" in the blank which may indicate the ferrules don't quite seat perfectly. While this is likely not a big deal and would probably go unnoticed while fishing, I'd personally rather buy a rod that didn't have this issue.
Personal Experience– Years back, I ordered a new 5-weight fly rod. Upon receiving it, I gave it my customary inspection before removing any of the tags or plastic from the handle. What I found was a ferrule that was slightly warped and would not fit together smoothly with the other piece. The rod was exchanged.
2.) Guide Wraps/Epoxy– The guide wraps and epoxy work may look fine from a distance or with a quick glance, but look at each one closely and you may find otherwise. What I mainly look for here is poor epoxy application, heavy-handed epoxy work, or epoxy drips that may have run down onto the actual guide or insert.
Personal Experience– Not a fly rod, but still worth mentioning since it was somewhat recent. Last fall, I ordered a new spinning rod. Like I mentioned previously, I thoroughly checked the rod before removing any tags or labels. Around the very first guide nearest the handle, I noticed it made a creaking sound when lightly wiggled. I went in for a closer look and discovered the epoxy at the base of the guide was not applied properly and had separated from part of the guide foot. The rod was sent in for repair.
3.) Cork Filler– Cork can look great from afar, but get close and you may see a lot of filler used to fill the gaps. When new it may still appear nice and clean overall, however this filler can come out over time and expose the unsightly gaps it once filled. Avoiding filler may be hard depending on what rod you choose, but you can help strengthen the entire handle with a cork sealer like the one I wrote about here.
Personal Experience– Awhile back, I fished a 7-weight fly rod owned by a friend. This particular rod was known for its mediocre cork quality and his rod reflected that—big time! The filler had mostly all fallen out, exposing pits all over the grip making it look like the craters of the moon. If he had sealed the cork when the rod was new, it may have really helped preserve the grip.
4.) Alignment– Look straight down the rod blank from the butt to the tip to check the overall alignment. Is the blank straight? Were the guides wrapped straight? It's not abnormal to have a blank with a slight curvature to it, yet it supposedly doesn't impede the performance. With that said, if it's a harsh bend off to one side I'd rather get a rod that isn't so crooked—even if it is just purely looks. As far as guide issues go, I have yet to run into a problem with crooked guides on a fly rod, but there's always a first time!
Personal Experience: I've owned several rods with slight curves to them, but one rod I ordered was so distinctly crooked that I just couldn't live with it. The rod felt fine, but it was just one of those things I knew would continually bug me! I swapped the rod out for one that was easier to live with.
Some flaws are purely cosmetic, while others can affect performance or functionality. As a slight exception, I will usually cut some slack for minor issues when it comes to cheaper fly rods. These rods often use cheaper components and may not receive as much care during construction, so I'm not quite as picky with these sticks. When it comes to the high-end stuff, though, in my opinion there's no excuse for lack of quality. Take your time and choose wisely—you'll be happier in the end!