If you’re in the market for a new fly rod, new to fly fishing in general, or just don’t spend a ton of time drooling over gear (I may or may not have a problem with this myself), then you’re likely not intimately familiar with the subtleties of fly rod actions, which action is best for certain fishing styles, and why it all matters in the first place.
Generally, fly rods fall into three categories: fast, medium-fast, and slow. The thing that’s tricky about fly rod actions, though, is that they’re really fairly subjective. For example, an old-timer used to throwing 70s-era fiberglass could pick up a Redington Classic Trout – a decidedly medium-action fly rod – and think it felt a bit too fast. Conversely, someone who started fishing at the advent of the Sage Z-Axis could pick up a Winston Boron IIIx and call it, “slow.”
While there’s definitely wiggle room for how an individual angler interprets fly rod action, the majority of the fly fishing community agrees on what’s fast, what’s slow, and what falls right in the middle. Today we’ll define the different rod actions, and give a few examples of their intended uses so you can see what type of rod will best suit your fishing needs.
Best for: Streamers, nymphing under an indicator, larger dry flies, and lake fishing. Most popular action of rod due to ease of casting and a “do-it-all” attitude.
Get a fast-action rod if you: fish lots of lakes, larger rivers (the Green, Colorado, Henry’s Fork, Snake) multiple species, and multiple rigs in one day.
The Sage X, Sage Method, Winston Nexus, Scott Radian, and Orvis Helios 2 are examples of fast-action fly rods. These rods are designed to load line quickly, generate high line speeds, throw tight loops, and theoretically be more accurate because of their torsional stability. Torsional stability refers to how much a rod wobbles horizontally during a cast. Too much and the accuracy falls into the toilet. Too little and the rod loses its feel on both the forward and back cast. However, it’s easy to overdo the stiffness of a fly rod and create something that’s more a lifeless broomstick than a casting tool.
Fast-action rods generally only flex in the top ¼ of the rod, and generally have softer tip sections to compensate for stiffness in the other three rod sections. The softer tips should help protect lighter tippet, but finding a rod that actually accomplishes this feat isn’t easy.
The new Sage X does a great job of combining fast-action and a sensitive tip, as does the Scott Radian. Of the two rods, I’m partial to the X – but that’s just another example of subjective preference.
Best for: Nymphing under an indicator, European nymphing, large-to-small(ish) dry flies, and smaller streamers.
Get a medium-fast rod if you: fish small to large rivers (Logan River to the Bear River in terms of small to large), small to medium ponds, or fish a dry-dropper rig consistently.
The Redington Classic Trout, Winston AIR, Sage MOD, and Redington Crosswater are examples of medium-fast rods. These are rods that are still lively, but take a bit longer to load line on both the forward and back cast. The rod bends in the top 1/3rd, which allows for wider loops that land a bit softer on the water than the laser-loops of a fast-action rod. Medium-fast rods are a happy medium between the fast and slow actions. While they don’t perform as well in the wind, medium-fast sticks are great for dry flies, smaller flies, delicate presentations on clear water, and handling the occasional large trout.
Best for: Small dries (size 16 – 32) to medium-sized dries, small nymph rigs, streamers size 10 and smaller.
Get a slow-action rod if you: fish dry flies primarily, fish tiny to medium-sized creeks, fish clear water consistently, rarely fish lakes.
Orvis’ Superfine Carbon, most any bamboo rod by modern or classic craftsman, the Redington Butter Stick (and comparable glass), Sage Circa, Scott G2, and the Winston Boron III LS are great examples of slow-action rods. While the Winston could fall into the medium-fast category, when loaded with a modern line it bends deep enough that it feels slow to me.
These rods are, for all intents and purposes, instruments for the dry fly fanatic. Size 26 midges on Silver Creek in Idaho? Grab an 8’ 3wt Superfine Carbon. Wary high-country cutthroat in Utah’s Uinta Mountains? The Winston Boron III LS 7’ 2wt will deliver. A slow-action rod is meant to gradually unfurl a back and front cast, letting an angler feel every wobble of the fly line, leader, and finally the fly as it sails through the air before landing on the water. Slow-action rods do take more casting skill to use, as your timing needs to be perfect or you’ll end up with tailing loops.
Slow-action rods generally don’t have the backbone to horse in huge trout, though I’ve landed some nice 20” browns on a Superfine Carbon a time or two. These rods aren’t for the wind, but in the hand of an adequate caster they can shoot line as well as a fast-action rod, often landing with more grace. They just don’t perform as well at long distances.
Overall, the fly rod you choose should depend on a) the type of fishing you’ll do most and b), what type of rod action best suits that fishing. Choosing the right rod can make a world of difference in how many fish you catch.
Spencer is a novelist, fly fishing and outdoors columnist, and sports writer from Utah. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.