Choosing the Correct
Components and Blank
We're all familiar with the adage, 'you get what you pay for', but we also know there are products out there that are overpriced for what you're actually getting. Fishing tackle is no different, there are 'bargains' that aren't even worth the time it takes to carry them out to your car, and there are products that cost so much they should make the fish jump into your boat. Rods and reels are two of the most expensive components of fishing tackle and are therefore the most scrutinized purchases we make. Selecting a good rod can be a bewildering experience for someone who wants the most for their money. We ask questions like "What makes this rod so expensive?" and "Is this $300 rod really twice as good as this $150 rod?" With the unbelievable array of good rods available to serious anglers today it's easy to find a great rod that is perfect for what you want to do with it. However, at the same time, you could end up with something that might not be right and you'd be spending some good money for something that you won't use. Make no mistake, the most expensive rod you own is the one you never use. Even if it was cheap it was a waste of your money if it stays at home leaning in a corner. Conversely, you may have a rod that cost a lot of money but if you use it every time you go fishing and you love it then it was money well spent.
The return you get for the money you spend on your rods will vary with how often you fish, how serious you are, if you fish tournaments, and other factors. In general, the more your rod costs the more sensitive it will be, the more responsive it will be, and the more accuracy you will be able to achieve. A quote from Gary Loomis, the developer of arguably the best rods being built today, puts some light on the subject, "I can build a rod you can't break, but you wouldn't want to fish with it". There are rods out there that claim they won't break but you won't see any of them on the decks of serious bass anglers or in the hands of any tour pros because they demand rods that are light, sensitive, and powerful. Sure, those rods cost more, but for those they're worth every penny.
A good rod may not instantly make you a better angler but a poor rod will be a limiting factor for any angler. Your rod is a tool, and a good craftsman will always do better work with a good tool. A good rod will allow you to feel much more of what's going on with your lure. For instance, you'll be able to tell if you're dragging your jig through mud, sand, rock, sticks, etc., and more importantly, you can detect the lightest bite, which can often be hard to detect.
Part of being a good angler is the ability to place your lure exactly where you want it, often as quietly as possible, and a good rod will definitely help your casting ability with more responsive graphite and perfectly engineered actions. The ability to create actions for specific techniques only comes with rod building expertise and the ability to use the best materials, which adds considerably to the expense. As a general rule then, a good rod will help and a poor rod will hurt your fishing ability.
When you're shopping for rods, certain terms will be used to describe the materials used in building the rod and how it flexes. Different people use some of these terms in different ways, but lets try to define a few of them for our purposes.
Fishing Rod Terms and Parts
This describes how much of the rod deflects (bends) when you put pressure on the tip. A fast action rod will bend in only the top third or less of the blank, a medium or moderate action will bend in the top half or so and a slow action will bend starting in the lower third of the rod. Sometimes slow action rods are termed 'parabolic', meaning the bend of the rod is similar throughout the length. This description is subject to the type of rod you may be talking about at the time; a fast action fly rod or steelhead rod will bend much lower and more easily than a fast action bass rod.
Most bass rod actions are fast to very fast because this action generally provides better sensitivity and faster power for hook setting. By faster power we mean the rod 'shuts off' faster, or the bend ends higher on the blank, which means you don't have to move the rod as far on the hookset to get into the stiffer part of the blank. Fast action rods are great for most applications where a short to long casting distance is involved and single hooks are the rule, such as worm and jig fishing.
Medium and medium-fast rods will usually provide a little more casting distance and still provide adequate hook setting power. These actions are often used for applications that involve treble hooks, such as crankbaits and top water lures or other reaction baits such as spinnerbaits. The 'bite' of a treble hook is not as deep as a big single worm hook and it is easier to tear the hook out of a strong fish, plus the slower action will not pull the lure out of the fish's mouth before it fully engulfs it. The type of lure you use will usually determine the action of the rod you should use.
Often used synonymously with "action", taper describes not only the thickness of the rod but also the thickness of the wall of the blank and where along the blank less material is used allowing more bend. For our purposes taper is the same as action.
This describes the strength of the rod or it's lifting power. When someone says this rod has a lot of backbone, they mean it has a lot of power. Power ratings are usually describing as heavy, medium heavy, medium, etc. Power is closely related to the line strength; heavier power rods will handle heavy line weights and lighter powers will be good for light lines. It is fairly important to keep your line test within the limits printed on the rod since a heavy power rod will snap light lines too easily and heavy lines can snap a light rod. Power ratings vary by the type of rod described; a heavy bass rod and a heavy offshore rod will definitely not feel the same. One might be rated for 25lb line and the other for 80lb line.
The type of water you're fishing will help determine the power of the rod you should select. Thick, heavy cover will require a strong rod to get the fish out before it can tie you up. Clear, open water will often require thin, hard to see lines in order to get bit, meaning you will need a lighter power rod.
Related to modulus this is an idea that reflects the ability of the entire rod to flex under load and release the stored energy in the cast. As we will see below, a finished rod may be the result of different layers of different material, all of which contributes to the responsiveness of the rod. One thing is for sure, the lighter the rod, especially the tip, the more responsive it will be. As Gary Loomis puts it, weight is the deterrent to performance. Overall, the higher the modulus the more efficiently it will store and release energy, which gives you the ability to flick an accurate cast on a lower trajectory.
This is the most common material used in building rods today and was first introduced in the 70's by Fenwick. These days graphite is produced using extremely high temperatures in a two-part process, one to create tensile strength and one for stiffness. Temperatures sometimes exceed 3000 degrees! Generally, the hotter the furnace in each process the more tensile strength and stiffness the fibers have, which means you need less material to build a rod, and the rods you do build can be lighter and more sensitive.
High tensile strength is sometimes called high strain, and the stiffness is known as tensile modulus or just modulus. To build a rod with high modulus and without high tensile strength creates a brittle rod. That's how some brands can advertise high modulus graphite rods with a cheap price; not all the expensive steps in the graphite making process are completed, giving you an inferior rod.
To reach these extreme temperatures costs a lot of money and the best graphite is very expensive. The parallel graphite fibers created by the heating process are then incorporated into sheets with a resin. You can reduce the cost of materials by using more resin and less graphite, but you end up with a softer rod. You'll need to add more material for a stiffer action, resulting in a heavier, less sensitive rod.
Another layer of fibers is laid onto the sheets of graphite fibers and resin perpendicular to the graphite fibers. This second layer, called the scrim, is almost always fiberglass. There are exceptions to this. Some of the most expensive blanks use propitiatory materials instead.
The best rods get their specific actions by using a variety of materials, and by using layers of different graphite and/or fiberglass. It's not that difficult to produce a graphite rod, and more and more rods are being built offshore, many in huge plants in China. As we've seen, a material can be called graphite but not exhibit the weight, sensitivity, and toughness that characterizes the best rods on the market today.
This material has been used to produce rods since the 50's and has come a long way since then. Glass is noted for soft actions and toughness, and is used to build some great rods. Many anglers prefer glass rods for throwing crankbaits or other applications where a medium to slow action is required. Some rods are built with a combination of graphite and glass, enabling rod designers to produce some great actions. Most ice fishing rods are made of fiberglass too. It provides the softest tip while still giving you the backbone to set the hook.
IM6, IM7, etc.
These are trade names for particular graphite produced by the Hexcel Corporation. These numbers are not industry standards or an indication of quality, especially since other companies use the designations to refer to graphite not made by Hexcel. At best, they allow you to compare the quality of the material used to build different rods by the same manufacturer. You can be confident that the IM7 rod would use better graphite than the IM6 rod if both are made by the same manufacturer. It's more difficult to say the same about rods from two different companies, since they could be made from material from completely different manufacturers.
As stated above, modulus refers to the stiffness of the graphite, not the amount of material used or the number of graphite fibers incorporated into the sheets. Buying a rod based solely on the modulus rating is a mistake because other factors must be considered. For instance, you don't want the stiffest rod for light line techniques or cranking. In addition, other qualities must be incorporated in the graphite itself and the rod must be designed correctly to ensure the best performance and durability of the rod. The other components that go into a quality rod can also add significantly to the cost.
Most of the guides you will find on rods today feature a metal frame and a ceramic or titanium ring that the line passes through. This ring can vary greatly in price, and one single guide can cost in excess of $50 or as little as a couple of bucks. Silicon carbide (SiC), Alconite, Hardloy, Hailoy, Titanium, etc. all offer a super smooth surface for less friction on the line during the cast and the retrieve. Less friction means longer casts and less heat, and heat kills when it comes to fishing lines.
A rod with more guides on it will generally cast better and cost more than the same rod with fewer guides. With more guides the rod will bend more consistently throughout its length, allowing it to utilize all the power for longer casts and fighting fish. The Fuji Concept and America Tackle Microwave Guide Systems are the best examples of this development on rods today.
You need to have a comfortable and lightweight handle with sufficient grip, even when it's wet, that will transmit the delicate vibrations of a big Walleye picking up your Leech, and cork fits the bill perfectly. A nice, new, fresh, clear, high quality cork grip is a beautiful thing! However, the quality of cork varies greatly along with the price. Most rod manufacturers base the grade of cork used in their rods on the overall cost of the rod; you will get the best cork with the most expensive rods.
EVA is another popular choice. You may see it on low end rods but make no mistake; there are different grades of EVA as well. Many anglers pursuing big fish such as Musky, Northern Pike, King Salmon and Sturgeon prefer EVA. It’s light weight, comfortable, and delightful to have in your hand all day. I purchase most of my EVA in blocks. I turn it to my specifications. It comes in many colors which really help with making a truly custom rod.
The reel seat holds the reel on the rod. Typically, your hand placement is on the seat. Every vibration, tick, and thump if felt through this. It's a very important part of the rod! Ergonomic seats help with fatigue and all day fishing. What's beneath the reel seat is just as important. Many rods from a big box store, particularly those made offshore, will have cardboard, rope, or particle board as spacers between the reel seat and the rod blank that will dampen vibration and can tear easily, especially when it gets wet, allowing the seat and the reel to rotate on the rod; not a good thing! I have repaired very expensive rods that are built this same way. I exclusively use dense core, fiberglass or graphite arbors.
When you take all these factors into consideration it's easy to see why the best rods cost so much money. This is especially true of modern rods, since anglers demand fast, crisp actions, the lightest weight possible, and the ability to take a beating on the deck of your boat, in the rod locker, or in the back of your pickup. I can promise you that a custom rod built by a crafter who has the correct tools and knowledge about your specific application can produce a rod that will exceed anything off a shelf.