Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some thoughts and musings on soft or ‘slow’ fly rods

Author’s note: The LP referred to in this piece is the 33 rpm Long Play record. Audiophiles have re-discovered that although technology and innovation gave us easier, more durable, and more compact systems of recording sound, the LP remains unbeaten for its fidelity. I thought this made an apt and easy analogy to the soft rod.

I have been pondering on the subject of soft or slower-action fly rods lately.
This musing was accelerated when Orvis came out with their new Superfine Glass fly rod. A fine crisp smooth-casting rod for small streams, I show it and demonstrate it often to anglers. I guess I expected a sort of ‘Eureka’ reaction of revelation and epiphany. Instead, most people wore a sort of quizzical expression as they felt the action of the rod.
One angler was holding and wiggling the rod like an angry cat attached to a buggy whip. One guy almost hit the ground with the rod tip, and another guy whacked it back and forth like it was a broomstick, and he was attempting to harass a piƱata, or swat an angry wasp nest. I had to keep grabbing the rod from people’s hands and telling them “Whoa, slow it down…. Take it easy slugger, let the rod do the work.”

Clearly something was amiss here. The action of a fine soft fly rod was forgotten. Anglers were acting like they had never sampled something like this before, and were puzzled at the taste. These rods have been around for years though. Most fiberglass rods, many cane, and a majority of early graphite rods possessed a smooth and softer action. How come people were so completely lost and puzzled when holding a new and improved version of something that had been a staple of angling for a hundred years?
Then, doing what I am apt to do, I sat and thought deeply about it until the pieces started to come together.

First, what defines a slow or soft rod, vs. a fast rod?

 Ask ten people and one will get twenty dissimilar and conflicting ways of trying to describe the bending properties of a fly rod. I define Slow and Fast as properties of the recovery rate of a rod. Take a rod, and with a stiff hand, make it bend as in a cast. The quickness that the rod dampens and does not continue to wiggle back and forth in action and reaction, but stops is a gauge of rod speed. Relative flexibility is a measure of rod bend. Does it bend into the handle, bend only at the tip? Stiff rods bend at the tip, softer rods bend all the way into the butt. A soft rod may have a fast recovery rate, but be soft and full-flexing. A rod can also be stiff and slow at the same time. The discussion and physics of this, and resulting endless differences of opinion, and methods of description could take up whole libraries and the rest of the reader’s lives, so let’s for the sake of brevity let this very abbreviated description stand for us.

Soft rods load deeper into the blank than do stiff rods, and a caster has to slow down when casting them. The preverbal metronome has to be set a bit longer. As the bend in the rod is deeper, these rods tend to be very good at casting short to moderate distances, and they are easier on light tippet. They telegraph the pendulum and lever action and feeling of casting a fly rod right into the hand of the angler, as well as telling the caster when to push the rod foreword through this same easily discerned communication to the hand and arm. Soft rods are better at roll-casting as well. They are ideal fish playing tools. They do most of the work in casting and playing the fish. They also excel at throwing large flies. The rod is a spring, and the more flexible a spring is, the easier it is to make it work or load it. Less effort.
Stiffer rods are better long distance tools. They achieve a higher line speed and have better lifting power than do softer rods.

What does this mean?

It means that like a gun, no two rods are exactly alike, and like hunting, the situation and the game decides the tool or weapon. I would not hunt Lions with a .22 like I would not use a soft rod to try to try to cast to tarpon and get a solid hook set. Likewise, I would not use an elephant gun to hunt rabbits like I would not utilize a super-stiff cannon of a rod to ply an intimate stream.
There is a place for a soft rod as well as a stiff rod in the quiver of the fly angler..
Except…. Except that for the most part soft rods in the past twenty years have been relegated to the underground or the closet. With the notable exception of some limited rod offerings here and there, a tool has been taken away from the mainstream market.


Nobody wants a slow car, or a soft anything. In the time of faster is better, and more power equals ‘Good’, marketing seized the horse by the reigns and took us all in the direction they wanted. We were sold “Innovation and New is good, and what you have now is old and outmoded or outdated.” We were sold a fast car, a more powerful tool, an instant microwave oven, and our songs on digital devices, and most everyone never stopped to wonder why, or what may have been eclipsed? We just got on the innovation express and went rocketing into a better future. Much of that is O.K, and even progressive. I want options, but this train only went non-stop and one way.

O.K…..Companies have to sell new stuff. Thus marketing not only is targeted to new anglers taking up the sport, but also to current anglers that already have their equipment. As this sport market in fly-fishing is quite limited, and competition for the buying dollar is fierce, people have to be made to believe that their old rod will no longer perform right, and that this new and better rod will help them catch more fish. With each successive year, rods got lighter and faster, until some rods could only be properly cast by experts using a double-haul and holding 40 feet of line in the air. Somewhere in here, with the new lightness and faster action enabled by new resins and graphite, and the relentless message of marketing, something got lost..

In a world where everyone drives a formula one racing car to work, there has to be a place for a station wagon. Proving this is as easy as a perusal of fly fishing magazines, where anglers of years past seem to have cast rods considered laughingly heavy by today’s standards, and managed to cast all day without their arms falling off. They also seem to have landed huge fish on those soft rods. Maybe they were just blissfully ignorant or just lucky in those smiling black and white pictures, or perhaps they just went fishing with what equipment they had, and knew enough to make it work properly. They may have spent more time fishing then sitting on internet chat rooms and fly fishing forums trying to find the magic bean through an endless cycle of rods bought new and soon sold in a quest for some ideal more in tune with advertising and life-style than reality.

Where was I…?

Oh yea. So, the industry keeps people buying faster and stiffer rods each couple of years. The Fenwick HMG becomes too slow, and the Sage RPL becomes the rage. The older Orvis rods go in the closet in favor of the T3, and then the RPL is no good anymore and letters and numbers start replacing names more and more until anglers like myself become kind of confused and depressed, and on and on it goes. Rods are 10% lighter, 10% stronger, and 900% better. Even veteran anglers start to doubt their favorite rod and sip the marketing Kool-Aid wondering what they are missing.

As this is happening, there develops a sort of reactionary element of underground anglers that may be just stubborn, but also may be wise enough to understand the different fly rod actions and wish for some alternative to the race to the weightless rod that won’t bend at all. They lurk in internet forums and casting clubs, and gather wherever others are who are growing to treasure the old softer rods of graphite, glass, and cane, such as the Orvis Superfine. You have to look closely to find them though, as they don’t tend to be loud, and often blend in with the background.

To those of us that belong to this fraternity, what was old and discarded has now become new and desired again. Like the LP record, soft rods were eclipsed by ‘New’ and ‘Better’ technology, but in the eyes of connoisseurs remain the finest in feel. Now at auctions and rummage sales we can be spotted, wearing our best (or worst) fishing hat, rooting around in garages and dark corners for treasures, sharing guilty glances with those looking through stacks of old records looking for a rare LP recording of Reiner conducting Scheherazade, or at least a decent copy of Miles Davis.

Soft rods carry quite a few myths. Most say they are all slow. This is not true. Part of the problem came about in the years of crappy production cane and glass rods flooding the market. Most of these were indeed slow, and the angler might want to take a streamside nap after making the cast to allow his or her rod to stop wobbling and damping. Many say they are not distance tools, and they are both right and wrong. Where the needed distance is over 50 to 60 feet consistently, I would prefer a stiffer rod, but in seriously reality, most casts outside of the salt are less than 40 feet. A softer rod performs fine here.

There are those that state that a softer rod is inherently a less accurate rod than a stiff rod. Really? The two most accurate rods I own are a custom built cane and an Orvis superfine. Hmmmm.
Softer rods are also more sympathetic to the caster. They are easier to load and cast. Softer is really a relative term here, as a progressive taper rod will be softer than a tip-flexing rod, but faster than a full flex taper. However, I have had multiple students show up for private casting classes sporting the newest super fast and stiff rod, and were unable to cast it at all. Then I handed them a more progressive taper and softer rod and ‘Hey Presto!’, they could cast. That stiff rod now became a very expensive dust gatherer.

Getting back to the beginning again, after watching angler’s reaction to the excellent new Orvis Superfine Glass, something else became apparent to me: Anglers are not feeling the rod load. They are not letting the rod do the work and have to a certain extent lost the ‘feel’ of casting and the action of a fly rod. They are used to one thing, and that is whip the stiff broomstick forward and the line goes out. They have commented “I don’t like soft rods. I hate flexible rods, etc. etc”. A lot of time this can be fear of change and the unfamiliar rather than preference.

The challenge to a good fly caster is to pick up any rod and feel its signature power and timing and adapt the stroke to fit the rod, fast or slow, soft or stiff. A good caster can take a soft rod and make it purr like a racecar by using a smooth acceleration to a stop, avoiding jarring and sharp movements, and utilizing the off hand to haul the line and increase line speed without increasing rod load. Damping the recovery can be increased even further by how the hand grips the rod.

But even marketing runs out of room at some point, or they catch a whiff and scent of what is being discussed in the dark cellars of the underground. Today it is getting increasingly difficult to come up with a way to make rods stiffer and even lighter, and equally difficult to provide a reason for the angling consumer to purchase them. One can see this as rod manufacturers keep introducing rods of different goofy colors with strange reel seats, space-age looks, and wild graphics. In the car business the saying goes that you can tell when sales have stagnated because more and more balloons and ribbons and banners get put out. I think this is the same thing in fly-fishing. One way to capture a new (old) market is to go retro, and those rod companies are paying attention to the underground, and have started to offer a new line of rods that combine the lightness new technology offers, with the feel and bend that the older fly rods had.

My eyes got opened by an old Orvis All-rounder. My cannon of a six weight that I used for bass on smaller river can deliver a tight loop at 60 feet plus and hit a dime, but when used to fish in an area on my local river known as the ‘Braids,’ couldn’t load at the short and obstructed casting that was needed. I cast Joe’s All-Rounder and a light-bulb went on. After I obtained one of my own and fished with it for a couple of months, I found that I could adapt my casting to any needed distance with this rod, and it roll-cast and delivered big flies like no other rod I ever cast. I then broke out other softer rods and had the same experience. Curiosity can pay off if one closes one’s eyes to all the hype out there and just feels the rod load. Feel it bend: bend like a fly-rod again.

Now the generation of anglers that have never tasted this wine need to have the courage to question things, and pick up a rod like the Orvis Superfine Touch or Superfine Glass, and see what has been hidden behind the yellow curtain all these years.

Soft rods are coming back, and like the LP, the sound will be like nothing else since.