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How to Choose a Fly Rod

It’s an overcast day in June, the mayfly hatch is thick, and there is a ‘pig’ (really big fish) consistently rising 40 feet away.

After a long, slow stalk you are finally in position to cast. All you have to do is place your fly in the perfect position to drift into the fish’s feeding lane. Too many false casts and the fish will scare; overshoot the cast and you’re going to ‘line’ the fish (spook it by having the line float over the fish before the fly). However, you’re not worried because you have just the right rod in hand to cover the distance and deliver a soft presentation.

For the beginning fly fisherman, especially those looking to catch trout, that rod will likely be a 9-foot, 5-weight, medium-flex rod. This is a universal size, and I have caught everything from wild trout to carp out of a drainage ditch. That being said, if you already own a rod or two and are looking for something for your first trip to Alaska or the Keys, getting outfitted with the correct, specialized rod will make a trip a lifetime that much better.


Fly rods are rated by weight. The weight indicates the size of fishing line that matches the rod. Generally you can line up or down by one size, which is why a 5wt is the best universal size for a trout rod. Most people think about fish species when it comes to choosing a weight and while that works just fine, I would also encourage you to think about the size of fly you are going to be throwing, and the intended use of the rod. Even though trout on the Provo River run a little small, I use a 5wt rod to help turn over the strike indicator, split shot, and multiple flies I’m often using. If I am headed north to Idaho to throw small dry flies at large, selective trout, I will have my 4wt in hand. As a general rule on rod weights:

  • 1-4: sunfish and small trout, small streams
  • 4-6:  general trout, larger streams and rivers
  • 6-8:  bass, carp, light steelhead, salmon. and saltwater
  • 8-10: winter steelhead, salmon, and saltwater
  • 10-14: big game


Fly rods act as a lever, so length is a very important aspect when picking a fly rod. The longer the rod, the easier it will be to get more distance on your cast, mend your line, and fight fish. However if you are on a smaller stream you will want a shorter rod to navigate overhanging brush and for added precision when casting at close range.  As noted before,the standard trout rod is a 9ft 5wt rod. This length lets you get the distance, accuracy, and line control needed in most trout situations. There are some rod models that are longer than 9ft for fishing out of a float tube or other special situations. Also, two handed spey and switch rods are growing in popularity and range anywhere from 10-14ft long.

dan fly flishing
Dan shows off a beauty.  Photo by Dan Gates.

Rod Features

There are other features to a rod that might make it the best choice for you.

  • Number of pieces: These days most rods come in two or four pieces. Four-piece rods are becoming the standard as they are easy to pack and travel with.
  • Materials: If you are a saltwater angler you will want to make sure you are looking at a rod with guides and reel seats that will not corrode in the saltwater environment. Many rod makers offer saltwater-specific rods featuring anodized aluminum or other salt-water-friendly materials. Most rods these days are composed of a graphite compound, although fiberglass has been making a comeback in recent years. Fiberglass is very soft and well suited for light delicate presentations, small streams, and smaller fish.

Specialized Rods

Spey rods are two-handed rods mainly used for salmon and steelhead. Spey rods allow you to use two-handed casting techniques to cover a lot of distance on big water. They are generally used to skate or swing flies for these sea-run species. Switch rods are a great tool, and can be thought off as mini spey rods. However the design of these rods allows you to fish one or two-handed techniques for trout and smaller steelhead. They work well for swinging streamers and nymphing on larger rivers.

Tenkara rods are growing in popularity, but they’re a different animal since they are reeless, and feature a fixed length of line attached to the tip. They are extremely supple and require a different set of techniques and line.

In Conclusion

Among Expert Gearheads there are plenty of people who love nothing more than discussing fly fishing (myself included). So if you have any other questions about rods, or anything regarding fly fishing please get in touch with us.


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