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Fly Rods - Law of Diminishing Returns?

The post - and the title - come from a Wisconsin Fly Fishing Message Board post started by a friend and suggested as a blog post by another friend. This is my take on the subject of fly rod prices - your opinions may well be different from mine.

Bamboo Fly Rods and wicker creels
Fly rods are sexy - some more than others! (Gerard Haines photo)

The quick and dirty summary is that fly rods are really damned expensive and at some point paying $600, $700, a $1000 or more for a graphite fly rod becomes something not all of us can or want to do. Does a $1,000 rod cast 3 times better than a more reasonably priced rod? Could most anglers / fly casters get value out of a premier fly rod? Do I need a $1,000 rod to make 30 foot casts? Don't get me wrong, I love the feel of a fly rod that can very quickly and easily make me the limiting factor in how well the rod casts. I am not always as willing to pay for it.

Rob Hoffhines bamboo fly rod, a creel, and flies
Another Herb Haines photos of a Rob Hoffhines rod - he is much fancier than I am...

I am certainly not the first to attack this question. Nor am I probably the most qualified to do so. There are no shortage of rod "shootouts" and the question, "What is the best X weight fly rod?" gets asked so often online it has become a running joke for many. The best for what? If I am looking for a rod that is mostly going to be used to fish dry flies on small streams where a 40 foot cast is a long one, do I really care about shootout winners? What they are looking for in the shootouts may not be what the typical angler is looking for, certainly not what the spring creek angler is likely to be looking for.

Expensive rods do have that wow factor that will impress your buddies. Are you comfortable showing up with a $200 rod when everyone else has one of those hotshot $750 to $1000 rods in their hands? It’s also nice to look down at your rod and appreciate the craftsmanship as well as its performance. But is that high priced rod really $400-$600 better? Only you can make that decision.

-George Anderson, Yellowstone Angler 2019 4 Weight Shootout


The question becomes, do you really want to pay for that "cool factor"? To impress your friends? Is it really worth it?

Watch the video above...That - when cast blindly - the judges have a harder time discerning some of the rods is hardly surprising. Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug - more expensive, must be better! I am certainly no oenophile but I enjoy a glass of wine. In trying to understand a bit about wine, I quickly found out that many factors affect perceptions of wine. And cost is most certainly one of these factors. Tell someone they are drinking a $100 or more bottle of wine and they are likely to rate it highly. But when less expensive wines are blindly presented with more expensive bottles, many people prefer the less expensive wines. Of course, one can argue that with fly rods and wines, that there is a visual aspect that is important. And I am sure the "showing off" factor is pretty important too, even if it is not done consciously.


Fly Rod Prices


Sage fly rods have long been the standard for many American fly anglers. Their top of the line rods start at over $1000 and most models are well over $600. Scott, G. Loomis, Winston, Orvis, and Hardy - among others - all have graphite fly rods for around $1000. Scott recently came out with the Wave which is getting great reviews (example 1, 2, and 3). The marketing is around the fact that it is a sub-$1,000 rod. It will cost you a cool $675 at MSRP - is that the new mid-priced? But in a world where a new G. Loomis Asquith retails $1,175 - a full $500 more - and the saltwater versions fetch another $100 on top of that, I guess $675 has become a mid-priced rod.

What you are paying for in a fly rod is the research that goes into the rods, the material and the components, the labor to build the rod, and of course the advertising. More expensive rods tend to be made in the USA and that is important to many of us. Folks fishing bamboo have been paying those prices - and then some. But bamboo rods generally hold their value much better than graphite or fiberglass rods. And the fact that they are (at some level) made by hand, labor costs are significantly greater. So the $1,000 or more rod you buy will likely be able to be sold for nearly as much, maybe more if you buy the right rod.

8'6" 4 WT Hardy
My most expensive rod - about $700 IIRC. An 8'6" 4 WT that is a pretty good all-around Driftless Area rod.

At what point is a $1,000 fly rod worth it for the average angler? That $1,000 graphite rod is worth about 25% less the moment you fish it and in a few years, it is worth maybe half of the purchase price. Sure, for most of us that does not matter as we never plan to sell rods.

Bamboo rod on fence post
Certainly a lot sexier than any of my graphite rods... (Herb Haines photo)

Performance


Without question, the performance of fly rods has never been better. In fly rods, performance is certainly in the eye of the beholder. In the "shoot outs", the faster rods almost always tend to place high on the list and heavier and slower rods tend to score near the bottom. Few bamboo rods would likely place high in the shoot out ratings.While there are scores for close-in accuracy, distance casting is given greater importance.

Driftless Area stream
Your standard Driftless or Central Sands stream - sidewalk to street wide - is very rarely going to allow you to cast much more than 30 or 40 feet.

Do I really need a $1,000 fly rod to make 20 to maybe 40 foot casts? Probably not. Sure, there are times that it is nice to have a bit more line speed to punch through a headwind or when you have super-spooky fish and need to push a cast 50 or 60 feet but stealthy wading often works about as well. For the Driftless, what I value more than anything is accuracy, being off by six inches or a foot is going to put you off "the line", and the ability to present a fly delicately.


Value for Money


Stealing a little language from our British friends, what am I getting for my money? Again, this is quite subjective. Fly rods are quite personal and what works well for me, may not be your cup of tea. The rods that win the "shoot outs" may not be the rods you really want for many fishing applications. Spending two, three, or even four times as much for a fly rod is almost certainly not going to deliver two, three, or four times the performance - however you might go about measuring that. In reality, fly rod performance is essentially an unmeasurable variable. And even if a number can be put on performance - as the shoot outs do - those numbers are quite specific to the caster. I can not do what George Anderson can do with a fly rod.

If one looks at a fly rod as an investment, it is almost always a poor one. The minute the plastic is removed from the cork, the rod just lost a significant amount of value. The exception here is that bamboo rods and *maybe* the odd graphite or fiberglass rod can hold or even increase its value. But few of us are looking at a fly rod as an investment, it is a fishing tool that we plan to use. To me, it is not something I much concern myself with.


There are a ton of great, mid-priced fly rods today. From the companies like Temple Fork Outfitters (TFO), Echo, and others that make mostly lower and mid-priced rods to some of the offerings like the Orvis Clearwater which always receives great reviews or the lower priced offerings of "the big guys" - Sage, G. Loomis, Scott, and others. Likewise, the Fenwick Aetos, a sub-$200 road, always rates as one of the best "value for money" fly rods. And there are always a number of older used rods for sale that were once the newest and best fly rods at the time. And I would suspect with the COVID boom in new we have seen in fly anglers, the used market will probably heat up again.


My Suggestion


It is pretty simple - buy and fish what makes you happy. A fly rod should be fun! I have friends that enjoy fishing some of the best bamboo rods made either today, decades ago, or both. Others take joy in fishing bamboo production rods that were lovingly restored to their former glory. Yet other friends enjoy fishing the top of the line rods - some have brand loyalty, others don't. Yet others fish more "budget conscious" rods.

PHY Midge bamboo Rod
Herb Haines photo of PHY (Paul H. Young) Midge - a classic bamboo taper

I mostly fish Wisconsin's Driftless Area and I am making 20 to 35 foot casts the majority of the time. On rare occasion, I need to be able to punch a cast out to 50 feet or more or through a strong breeze and it is nice to have a rod that can do that. I can also plan ahead a bit and choose a rod for those conditions. I am not grabbing my fiberglass rod on a day I probably have to cast heavier flies or I have to cast into a stiff wind. Most of the time I am choosing a three or four weight rod. Increasingly, I am becoming a fan of rods that are not as fast. This is part of my evolution as a caster. I began as a quite aggressive caster, maximizing line speed, thinking accuracy comes with line speed (it does, to some degree). You will figure out what works for you. Nothing will teach you more than getting out fishing as much as you can.

A Northern Wisconsin River - fishing for Smallmouth bass
Smallmouth Bass fishing on a larger Northern Wisconsin River - maybe a place for a "shoot out" winning rod?

I do get away from Driftless trout once in awhile and fish trout elsewhere, throw frogs on the Mississippi River, and do a fair bit - but not enough - stream/river smallmouth fishing. I do not get to do this enough to have invested in very good rods for these pursuits. I fish an old 8wt. Sage XP which I bought twenty-plus years ago on a half price sale as they were upgrading to a new model. I have always been a bargain hunter when it comes to fly rods - though I will say that my most fished rod is my most expensive one - a Hardy Sintrix. Even that is a far cry from the $1,000+ rods you can buy.

Herb Haines photo
If you haven't figured it out, a good bit of this post is a good excuse to post some of Herb's great photos. Thanks, Gerard!

I do not begrudge anyone buying expensive rods. Nor am I going to look down my nose at anyone preferring to spend their money on Echo, TFO, or any number of other "budget conscious" fly rods (I own a couple myself). One thing I will always suggest, try before you buy! Try a friend's rod, visit a fly shop, go to a Trout Unlimited or other gathering and cast some rods and see what you like. And don't go "hero" right away, cast that rod how you will be fishing it. How does it make a 15 to 20 foot cast might be a better test than seeing if you can cast a fly line with it.

Above is another view of the question - not surprisingly a fly shop thinks it is worth it for you to buy more expensive rods. Take from that what you will...


I have not yet taken the bamboo plunge (nor do I see it happening any time soon) but the photos by Herb Haines certainly make it look about as good as can be. Thanks again for the idea for the post and the photos!

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