Cutthroat Chronicles: Does the Rod Make the Angler?

The inspiration for this column may or may not have come from the infamous line, “The wand chooses the wizard.” But bear in mind that in addition to being a fisherman, I’m a novelist/columnist/reporter/jack-of-most-trades-writer. And writers are notorious for also being voracious readers – to the point that they sometimes neglect writing projects in favor of finishing a good book.

So even if Harry Potter isn’t your thing (I’m a nerd – I love the series) the theme of the above-mentioned Wizarding quote is actually applicable to fly fishing.

Today’s fly fishing industry would have you believe that if you own a better, more expensive rod, you’re going to catch more fish. More big fish, most importantly. And, you’ll join an elite club of fly chuckers who wave around a rod-and-reel setup that’s worth roughly what I spent on my first car.

The truth of the matter is, that’s just not the case.

Fly rod

A great fly rod won’t make you a better angler. It won’t suddenly improve your casting or mending abilities. And the big fish in the river certainly aren’t going to be more apt to taking your fly because it was presented on a Scott Radian as opposed to a Redington Voyant.

My best fishing buddy, “Mysis” Mike, fishes a $100-dollar off-brand rod and one of the oldest Pflueger Medalist reels I’ve ever personally seen. In our entire time fishing together, I’ve only twice caught more fish than him. He consistently does better than me, and his whole setup cost less than $300. Meanwhile, I’m swinging around my Winston BIIIx and Abel TR-2, still not able to catch nearly as many fish as Mysis Mike.

But there’s a huge difference between Mysis Mike and myself – he’s been fly fishing for going on 30 years now. I’m just a young punk who manages to look like I know what I’m doing when I’m out on the water – and that’s if I’m lucky. You can ask anyone who’s fished with me, and they’ll tell you the same thing – I’m a decidedly average fisherman

If Mysis Mike had my rod and reel setup, he’d probably even catch more fish – but the reason for that wouldn’t be the $800 rod and $300 reel in his hands. It’d be because he has a thorough, deep, instinctual understanding of fly fishing that I just don’t have yet. With a better tool in his hands – and there’s no doubt at all that more expensive rods are better – Mysis Mike would be even more of a pleasure to watch fish than he already is.

To use a metaphor, it’s like sticking a 16-year old boy who just got his license in an Aston Martin. The kid knows how to drive a stick shift, and obviously wants to go fast in a fancy car, but he’s not going to have the instinctual feel for driving a car like an Aston Martin in the way that James Bond would. You could stick James Bond in a Honda Civic and he’d still outrun the bad guys – in part because he’s James Bond and also because he can drive the hell out of any car he happens to be in.

It’s the same thing with fly rods. Lefty Kreh could go out with a $50 combo and probably outfish just about anyone on any given day. But give him one of the best rods in the world, and he’s going to make the thing sing.

In essence, what I’m getting at is it’s the angler that makes the rod, not the other way around. Once you have a firm grasp of the nuts-and-bolts of fly fishing, a nice rod can change your fishing experience, in the sense that with a nice rod, it’s easier to get your fly where you want it, mend line, and set hooks. But you can only notice it’s easier on a nicer rod if you understand fly fishing from a riverbed-up perspective.

The nice rods that I own and fish regularly certainly make my fly fishing easier, but that’s only because the rods are better tools for the job. My skills have improved marginally since I started fly fishing a decade or so ago, to the point where I can appreciate how well a rod tracks, and know if I’d rather have a line cannon or big-loop-throwing floppy stick.

In the end, choosing a rod comes down to personal preference. I’ve offered to sell Mysis Mike my Sage VXP (it’s too fast for my liking these days) multiple times. He just shakes his head and keep reeling fish in on his Three Forks, grinning like the fish-drunk angler he is.

Another good friend of mine, Ryan McCullough, fishes Winstons almost exclusively. Ryan is a dry-fly purist – literally, that’s the only fly he will fish – and he swears by the ability of a Winston (an a click-and-pawl reel) to deliver the ultimate trout fishing experience.

As for myself? My tastes are varied. I fish my BIIIx more than any other rod, but it’s a 9’5wt and in my opinion is the best 9’5wt rod currently available. But I also still fish my $70 2-piece Redington Crosswater. In fact, it’s my favorite rod for fishing nymphs. I own glass and bamboo, both short rods bought with high Uintas streams in mind.

Fish next to a fly rod

But the only reason I’m able to appreciate what each rod in my quiver does well is due to the fact that I’ve spent enough time on the water to identify when certain conditions merit a certain rod. By no means am I proclaiming myself to be an expert (remember, I’m an average angler at best) but I’ve thrown enough rods to get the rod to work for me, instead of the other way around. And that should be your goal with any rod you buy – make it do the work for you, instead of forcing the rod to work as you want it to. Once you’re to that point, it’s time to start poking your nose down the rabbit hole of buying nicer, more expensive rods.

Spencer is a fly fishing writer based in Utah. His writing has appeared in Hatch Magazine,’s outdoors section, On The Fly Magazine, The Orvis Fly Fishing Blog, and in the Standard-Examiner. If he’s not on the river, he’s at home tying flies or writing.Connect with him on Twitter  or Instagram