Nothing fires a discussion among fly fishing’s faithful more than the subject of fly rods. They are, after all, the most significant tools of the trade, and what’s more, fly fishermen love to argue.
The right fly rod feels like an extension of your arm; flies appear precisely where you’re looking (as if by magic), and landing trout is a pleasure.
Naturally, one man’s great fly rod is another’s pool cue or noodle, and yes, it’s just barely possible that my own personal bias has entered into the construction of this list, though just in case there are some questions about sanity choices, I wanted to lay out my criteria.
The Underground’s Scientifically Derived Criteria
First, no current rods are included. History may decide the Orvis Helios or Winston Boron or Sage Z-Axis might be the most bizarrely named best fly rods ever, but I’m leaving those discussions to history. New rods are just that (new) – and they simply haven’t been around long enough to make the list.
Additionally, short production runs don’t really count. I truly believe the very best bamboo fly rods ever made are being built right now (by names like Ream, Brandin, Thramer, Johnson, Karstetter, Wojnicki, Raine, etc), but let’s face it – the combined lifetime output of those builders equals about one month’s production of Helios fly rods, and while I love my built-by-still-living-guys bamboo fly rods, they’ll never be cast by enough people to truly matter.
Similarly, no boutique rods really made the list – even though I could make a very cogent argument for the inclusion of a Steffen Brothers or McFarland glass rod or the little-known-but-much-lamented East Branch “classic” graphite. There simply aren’t enough floating around the fly fishing universe.
Then there’s the question of history; many will argue that today’s rods – the result of all sorts of materials and taper improvements – are the defacto “best” rods. Instead, I’m picking history’s best fly rods; the rods that set the pace in their era.
And finally, there’s the little issue of what “best” really means, and because I play with words for a living, I’m willing to suggest “best” is simply a reflection of criteria.
One rod may be lightest, another may cast beautifully, and another may be cheap. Which is the best?
Well, that’s why you’ve got the Underground. (We Report, We Decide.)
Of course, it’s possible the assembled Undergrounders have different ideas, and if you can write a solid-but-snarky justification (see below), I may create a followup “Underground Reader’s Choice” post (and who doesn’t want to be famous)? Naturally, saltwater and spey (two-hander) fly rods are wholly underrepresented in this list (with one exception), and I want to say right now that I’ve managed to avoid the slightest twinge of guilt about that.
The Dozen Best Fly Rods of All Time
Leonard Model 50(DF)
Sure, no two Leonards seem to cast anything alike and the craftsmanship varied widely over the decades (hell, it varied widely over the course of hours), but as Uber Rod Geek Rich Margiotta pointed out, the Leonard Model 50 set the early standard for light-tipped, Catskill-style dry fly rods – a remarkably enduring style of taper that’s still happily consumed by the masses today. And hey – you gotta start somewhere.
The Paul Young Perfectionist (7.5′ 4/5wt)
In truth, almost any of the Paul Young semi-parabolic rods could qualify for the Desirable Dozen; I picked the Perfectionist because I own the taper. The Para-15 is probably more famous and the better all-around rod, but the point here is that Paul Young created a more fishable version of the somewhat touchy full-parabolic tapers loved by Charles Ritz. A marketing whiz and astute businessman, Young also found a way to convert cosmetically challenged cane into a useful stuff via his “ring of fire” flaming process, and the Underground hates waste, so we find ourselves here. It’s perfection on a stick.
The Payne 100 (7.5′ 4wt)
It’s widely accepted that Payne consistently produced the best, long-lasting, most-consistent bamboo fly rods, and that even in the era of supercomputers, nanotechnology and widely available pizza, the Payne 100 taper simply can’t be improved. Over the course of decades, Payne bamboo fly rods have captured the hearts of fly fishermen for their castability, gorgeous finish, and elegant durability, and while the Payne 100 is a great example, it’s only one in a long of great examples of Payne workmanship. This is one time Payne is gain.
The Fenwick 7.5′ 5wt Feralite Fiberglass Fly Rod
In truth, the 8.5′ 6/7wt Fenwick glass rods were more popular, but everyone who’s been in fly fishing since the 70s has probably owned one of these chocolate brown beauties – wonderful fiberglass fly rods that brought a smooth-actioned, lightweight (for the time), glass-ferruled, great-fishing fly rod within reach of almost everyone. That the classic glass Fenwicks are experiencing something of a renaissance – along with an uptick in value – is hardly a surprise. Though heavy by the standards of today’s weight geeks, they’re still smooth fishing rods. What can brown do for you?
The 8.5′ 5wt IM6 Winston Fly rod
A classic that’s still available for sale (albeit at an amazingly inflated price), the IM6 Winston fly rods are testament to Tom Morgan’s influence on their design; light tipped and very smooth, they are superb all-around trout rods, and what’s more, they’re just plain fun to cast. And you don’t have to be a Winston partisan to believe the 8.5′ 5wt might be the “troutiest” rod in existence. Taken as a whole, the Winston IM6 fly rods may have logged more water time than any other fly rod on the market, and rightly so. Summary? The IM6 is still IMpressive.
The Loomis IMX 9′ 4wt
I’ll just say it: I’ve never cast a Loomis fly rod I particularly liked, but in an astonishing display of editorial integrity, I’m going to list a Loomis IMX, which is the rod line that – for better or worse – helped fuel the fly rod industry’s armsÂ race. I’m not at all sure the truth path to fly rod salvation lies in high tech, but I do know it’s a marketable differentiator, and that “new” continues to be the mechanism by which fly rods are made “obsolete” in the market’s eyes – and therefore ripe for replacement. As rods got faster, lighter line weights became commonplace, and with the rise of indicator nymphing, longer, lighter rods became popular. Hence the IMX 9′ 4wt – a rod I wouldn’t own, but a classic I must acknowledge.
Sage LL 389 (8’9″ 3wt)
Edging out Sage’s 490 LL, the 389 might have been one of the best spring creek/light fly fishing rods of all time, so naturally, Sage – marching to the tune of “more technology is better” – just had to discontinue it. Incredibly smooth, suggestively limber and an amazing fishing tool, the 389 remains one of the few rods that everyone from the bamboo fiends to the techno-rod-geeks can comfortably rave about. Inside dish from more than one industry source suggests Sage’s new line of “progressive” fly rods were designed to cast and fish like the much-missed Lightline rods, a bit of circular manufacturing that should amuse you, assuming you’re not paying today’s higher prices for “yesterday’s” action.
The Scott Heliply 8’8″ 8wt Saltwater Fly Rod
Sure, I’m totally winging it here; I know saltwater fly rods like Nestle knows ethical business practices. Still, I have it on very good authority the Heliply was one of those rods that was oddly discontinued, then forcibly brought back through the efforts of masses of keening saltwater fly fishers. In an era when “saltwater fly rod” was fast becoming code for “enjoy your tennis elbow,” the Heliply 8wt was a breath of surprisingly bendable fresh air – the reason the Heliply still enjoys a cult following.
Any Reasonably Tapered 8.5′-9′ 6wt
Sure, I’m cheating with this one, but that’s what writers do when they’re trying to make a point. The 6wt rod used to occupy trout fishing’s comfortable middle ground – the rod you’d toss in the truck when you weren’t absolutely sure what you’d be doing all day. Today, a 6wt is a borderline saltwater stick, and if you’re fishing a 6wt on the river and run into one of the “I fish a 2wt for everything” crowd, you’ll be viewed as something of a terrorist.
Funny thing is, the laws of physics have yet to be revoked by fly rod manufacturers (they seem to have successfully escaped the laws of economics), and a reasonably tapered 6wt will do everything from to throwing streamers and busy dries to fishing #22 midges with a reasonable amount of delicacy. I was tempted to award this slot to the “original” IM6 Winston 6wt or the Payne Canadian Canoe 6/7wt bamboo fly rod, but Ian Rutter pointed out the original G-series Scott was better than both, and I’ve learned not to disagree with people who let me stay at their house. Your choice.
The Eagle Claw Trailmaster 7.5′ Pack Rod
Just when you think we’re going to zig, we zag. The Trailmaster? A cheap pack rod that was also available as a spin/fly combo? That’s the one. Yeah, I know it’s clubby and awful, but it’s been available for pretty much forever, it was very affordable, and it probably introduced more conventional tackle fishermen to fly fishing than any other fly rod (remember, “best” is in the eyes of the beholder).
Today it’s available in a 98% graphite fly rod only version that looks pretty conventional, but for most of its life, it was a cheerful, happy yellow that belied the suffering that lay ahead for those attempting to learn fly fishing on their own. A great fly rod? Maybe only the way we define it (so sue me).
The Diamondglass 8.5′ 4wt Fiberglass rod
Sure, like a genius artist, the rod was largely underappreciated until it died (in the production sense), but we’re already seeing a healthy aftermarket in used models, and yes, the Underground has standing orders from two fly rod aficionados should I decide to sell my spare blank. Unbelievably smooth – and perhaps the best “technical” small fly rod in existence – this beauty may have been pure Plain Jane in appearance and construction, but the heart and soul of a rod lies in its taper, and this one has a halo and wings.
The 8′ 4wt Tom Morgan Favorite/8′ 4wt Scott G-Series
Another dual winner, this is an homage to the 8′ 4wt trout rod – perhaps the ideal rod for small to medium sized trout fishing. The Tom Morgan Favorite (that’s still available today from Winston as the “TMF”) is perhaps too soft for the current market, but it’s still a fine rod – as is the 8′ 4wt Scott original G-Series rod (since “updated” into a “crisper” fly rod with the G2 series [e.g. - even Scott rod enthusiasts are addicted to speed]).
The Almostas: The Rods That Didn’t Quite Make It
The runners-up list that didn’t quite qualify for the Dirty Dozen, but demanded a mention anyway. Most of these are simply historic rods; others were great, but didn’t quite make the list.
The Phillipson 8.5′ 5/6wt bamboo fly rods
I didn’t want to overload the list with bamboo, but let’s face it: Tommy likes the 8.5′ Phillipsons. I’ve cast the other heavy-hitter 8.5′ bamboo fly rod tapers, and none – not even the Payne 204 – measures up.
The Shakespeare Howald Process fiberglass fly rods
Pioneers in the hollow fly rod world, the Shakespeare Howalds were not pretty, not light, and not particularly durable (they had a tendency to saw themselves to pieces through extended use), but they were among the first good fiberglass rods to appear. We remember them thusly.
Phillipson Epoxite Registered Midge (6’6″ 4wt)
OK, this really only made the list because I badly want one (I just can’t afford to buy the few that are available). Still, it’s a defensible choice from a development standpoint; Bill Phillipson worked closely with 3M on several innovations, and pioneered the technique whereby synthetic rods are formed (on the mandrel) under high pressures, eliminating weakening voids in the blank. Thus, the Epoxite midge – in addition to its twin tips, gorgeous appearance, and homage to the ultra-short “midge rod” craze – also represents a technological highpoint in glass rod manufacturing, and the (sadly) near-final chapter in the Phillipson Rod Company saga. (Gifts of Epoxite Midges accepted by the Underground, and I’ll even let you name the replacement rod for the list.)
The San Francisco-era fiberglass Winstons
Just because, damnit.
Fenwick HMG Graphite fly rods
Those new to fly fishing are often surprised to hear that Fenwick was a leader before they faded into what amounts to cheap rod obscurity. Their classic glass rods made the “Dozen Best” list, and these HMG graphites were among the first affordable graphite fly rods. Frankly, I still find their willowy actions enchanting, but after their initial burst of popularity, they faded from the market (like the company). Too bad.
The Chico-era Powell Light Touch
Before the Powell family fragemented the name – and Charles Schwabb burned his fingers trying to resurrect it – the smooth-casting Powell Light Touch fly rods were wonderful fly rods that just missed the fashion tastes of the post-movie fly fishing generation. Too bad.
I was tempted to erect a Hall of Shame for the wholly mediocre, wildly overhyped rods that bedevil us (and yes, I’m talking to you, Sage RPL+ parking lot rods), but perhaps I’ll leave that to my readers.
Have at it, Undergrounders. Make your case for the “Next Dozen Best Fly Rods Every Built” in the comments, and we’ll see about a Part II.
See you at the rod rack, Tom Chandler.