A fly rod’s action, slow, medium, fast and everything in between fundamentally effects how we present flies, strike and fight a fish. Obviously the scale of habitat ranging from a small Brook Trout stream to a big, broad Brown Trout river is a consideration. Also the range of techniques to be employed play a vital role as responding to a taught line subsurface streamer eat is different from the blind take of a drifted nymph and more so still from the sip of a dry fly.
In the case of streamer fishing it is really more about payload weight and wind resistance as, once in the water and being striped, when a trout slams it one simply responds with a strong strip of the line with the rod tip pointed at the fish. Typically we knot a stout tippet to our leader to absorb the force of the take and attendant strip-strike. In this case the rod’s action is more about the cast and putting the screws to the fish than about responding to the take or tippet protection, power is the name of this game.
Dead drifting nymphs poses entirely different issues. Variables include the number of flies to be fished and the amount of weight to be added to get them to the desired depth. Some extra rod length is advantageous to hold line off the water and mending what line inevitably is on the surface. Also a deeper flexing, slower responding tip helps form more open shaped, lower line speed loops as tight loops might result in spending more time untangling rigs than drifting them. When line or indicator pause the deeper flexing tip protects the tippet like a shock absorber pulling the hook home with less chance of snapping it with a too abrupt reaction. Then it is game on and the mid-section of the rod’s taper that supports the flexible tip and, with a large trout, even the stouter butt-section apply the power to bring the fish to net with the softer tip going along for the ride while throbbing to the fish’s motions.
It is in fishing a dry fly that the subject of rod action relative to presentation and tippet protection becomes more controversial. Delicacy and how it is achieved is the principle issue but tippet protection too is a debatable subject.
In the summers of the 1970’s, I spent a lot of time on Idaho’s Henry’s Fork. The river was in its hay days and was a magnetic for dry fly aficionados reveling in the fecund overlapping “masking” hatches and the thick bodied, hard running rainbows that thrived there. I quickly learned from both experience, observing and being coached by more seasoned fly fishers there that dry fly presentation on this highly technical river embodied several components. This was the height of the match-the-hatch era and selecting a fly that imitated not only the species of mayfly the trout was targeting but the stage of emergence too and it best be as sparse and flush floating as a natural, was the first order of business. Long 15 – 18’ leaders including 5’+ tippets were the norm. One would stalk, parallel to the bank, quietly and slowly wading downstream until a head of significance was discovered sipping subtly against bankside vegetation. Not getting too close, you false cast downstream, not toward the fish so as to avoid either a flash of light or spray of droplets from line and leader, then execute your cast with a pronounced reach and upstream mend to alight the fly well above the trout, distance depending on circumstances. Some on-water line manipulation was all but always necessitated to assure the fly arrived at the fish’s lie first with not a wisp of tippet ahead of it and with enough leader slack to assure a dead drift. Over the seasons, I evolved a repertoire of in-air line-leader horizontal mends to supplement the reach cast to further enhance the line’s attitude upon landing on the weed bed twisted currents. When well executed and timed to the trout’s rhythm, he might sip in your offering…after all, there were natural duns in front of, next to and behind your artificial. One could spend a long time with one fish changing from floating nymph to emerger to dun to stillborn as the hatch progressed until the trout was hooked…or spooked.
I often fished the Fork with another fly fisher who tent camped in the lodge pole forest along the river as did I and by the late 70’s we both had gone to Scott Graphite rods, he a three and me a five-weight. We both sought the ultimate in delicacy of presentation but through differing methodologies. He would crouch like a heron, elbow high and wrist-cast low line speed, open loops, low mass line unfurling smoothly upon the water. Conversely, using a more compact stroke and a higher mass fly line size, I would generate greater line speed, tighter loops and utilize the expanded air time to articulate the aerialized line prior to it landing upon the water. We both caught fish and were not particularly competitive but would engage in periodic camp fire debates about the efface of our varied techniques. Years later, when his once considered quick Scott was rendered by long use into a limp stick, he took my advice and got a then new G.Loomis GLX. He was amazed both by the casting accuracy and presentation expansion the great new rod offered him and after a decade of debate, converted to high line speed dry fly delivery. I saw him as recently as last June on the Missouri and he was fishing a Sage ONE.
Having started fly fishing in the era of cane and glass rods, I have always thought of slow to medium action rods as “wet fly rods” adroit at swimming a classic wet or modern soft hackle caddis pupae through a run. Contemporary, low mass, sophisticatedly designed medium fast to fast tapered rods provide higher line speed, smoother, straighter, tighter loops and more gravity defying air time to facilitate in-air line manipulation. Also the quicker recovering, crisp tip section is an asset in un-delayed and precise on water mends. I am perplexed when I hear an angler say they “prefer” a deeper flexing rod for dry fly fishing. I can understand loving a deeper flexing rod for personal casting style and many anglers rely upon the feeling of the mass of the rod bending rather than the mass of the line loading the rod to establish their timing. A light, fast tapered rod like ONE for example, feels “stiff” if you are a rod mass movement caster and “lively” if you are a communicate with the line caster.
A deep flexing, slow action, low line mass Circa 3-weight unfurls its light line upon the stream surface providing a feeling of extreme gentleness to the caster while sending mini shock waves to the feeding trout while the super-fast Method 6-weight unfurls it heavy line in the air with a feeling of powerful authority while allowing the angler to follow the leader and fly down with the line with no sensation being transmitted to the trout till he feels the metallic point inside the fly he just rose to.
Regularly, authoritative fly fishers extol the tippet protecting virtues of a softer tipped fly rod. While drifting sub-surface nymphs or swinging a wet fly, the shock absorbing properties of a flexible tip make sense to me. Less so in dry fly hook setting where precision response to the visual take and the trout’s movement immediately thereafter determines if the fly is to lodge in the corner of the trout’s mouth, be pulled upstream out of its mouth or the strike missed due to imprecise angler/rod timing. Here, a quick responding and counter-flex free recovering tip is again an asset. One “slip-strikes” a dry fly, that is the line is held gently between the thumb and middle finger encircling the cork grip and when the rod is raised to come taught with the fish, line controllably slips through those fingers providing a finger touch sensitive response to the fish and the degree of force with which it responds when feeling the hook. In extreme cases not uncommon on rivers like the Delaware and Missouri when fishing from a drift boat, obstacles preclude getting as close to a rising fish as one might like. The down and across with a reach cast and mend followed by feeding slack into the drift accompanied by additional current reacting mends can see a lot of line go out the rods tip-top…occasionally the whole line leaving nothing but colored string in your hand when that big boy in the tail out eats. That is a lot of line/water friction to overcome with anything less than a rod of stout stuff and crisp tip response. Even then, extra-long drifts, though highly rewarding, are infrequently successful. The same principles apply though to a 35 to 50’ conventional drift as to a 100 footer just without the excessive current drag on your line.
So, commencing with that early, Harry Wilson, 5-weight Scott Graphite (“G” was the letter the serial # started with standing for, you guessed it, graphite) a fast and sophisticated rod in its original late 1970’s day compared to contemporaries like Orvis 1st generation graphite, Fenwick HMG, Tom Morgan’s Winstons and the Leonard Golden Shadow and progressing through Orvis Western 8’9”/#5, Sage RPL#5, seminal G.Loomis GLX#5, Redington Nti”Nano”#5, Albright EXS#5, Hardy Zenith#5, Sage Z-Axis#5 and now ONE#5, I sequentially selected the newly developed rod providing the optimal combination of attributes tailored to my dry fly technique. With each new generation of material science and ever more sophisticated design, rods in this category have become lighter, more capable and, importantly, increasingly communicative with the movement of the fly line. Not sitting still myself and often inspired by a new rod’s enhanced adroitness, I have experimented and added new line manipulation variations to the existing repertoire, expanding my responsiveness to diverse dry fly presentation opportunities.
I do not wade as well as I used to and am not quite as strong and nimble as in my younger years but my eyesight remains sharp. I believe I execute fewer, more deliberate casts and certainly leave unmolested some rising trout that do not quite pique my curiosity. However, as long as wild trout grow to good size in fine spring creeks and well managed spring creek like tailwaters and elite rod designers keep improving upon technical dry fly rods, I intend to continue to refine my presentation style in pursuit of inducing a wily old brown to rise to my artificial fly as if to a natural mayfly.