Fly Fishing Rods: A Beginner's Guide

Jul 9, 2024 | 5 minute read
Reading Time: 5 minutes

So you’re ready to try fly fishing but the options out there seem overwhelming. I guet you – that’s definitely the case with rods! Fly fishing rods come in many different sizes and models, and the market is often daunting for beginners. You’re in luck, however, as I’m here to demystify and simplify the fly rod options to help you find the perfect fit for your first stick.

A group of five fly fishing anglers of both genders wading in a row through the shallow waters of the Eagle River in Colorado on a bright day, with the second woman holding a fly fishing rod
Photo courtesy of Eagle River Outfitter – Fly Fishing

As with surf fishing, baitcasting, and spin fishing, your rod is a key tool. Most anglers own a few rods for different situations, as there’s no one-size-fits-all option. While you’ll likely start with as close as you can get to an all-round model, read on to find out about a few specialty rods to your arsenal!

Understanding Fly Fishing Rod Materials and Types

Before narrowing down the length and weight you’ll want for different circumstances, you must first understand the core materials. Most rods have a blank that’s made from a base material. The blank is treated with resins that add structural integrity and are finished with another coating before adding the guides, grip, and reel seat. Here are the basics…

Bamboo

A view of a traditional, bamboo fishing rod laying down in a shallow-water stream

Fly fishing rods were originally made from bamboo and there are still plenty in small-batch production from master builders. Bamboo rods are split into segments that are then glued together before being impregnated with resin and baked to harden into the rod. Your first rod will likely be a different material unless you happen to inherit a bamboo model. They’re often expensive and made for desired traits to satisfy experienced anglers.

Glass

Fiberglass was a favorite material for building fly rods for years. The material went out of style when graphite hit the scene but has since made a comeback. Glass rods are extremely flexible and the tip can bend nearly to the butt on fiberglass. They’re slow-loading and fun to fish but are not likely to be your first rod, either. Eventually, you may want to own a glass rod for the fun of fishing such a flexible and strong rod.

Graphite and Carbon Fiber

A closeup of a hand holding a graphite fly fishing rod with a colorful line on the reel next to a river on a bright day

Modern graphite and carbon fiber rods are lighter, stronger, and better performing than anything you will find. They come in many models at a variety of prices. For beginners, there’s a large market of budget-friendly rods that perform really well. I fish many of the budget models from brands like Orvis, Redington, and Temple Fork Outfitters on trips around the world, and they’re excellent. 

Beyond the budget rods, you can go over $1,000 at the highest end of the scale. At this point, the rods are extremely light with precise actions and high-level performance. You can really feel the difference, although some less expensive models still come close.

Selecting an Action to Meet Your Needs

The action of your rod will determine where and how the rod loads. This translates to specific fishing styles that you’ll soon understand. Casting into heavy winds and turning over big flies calls for one action while making precise casts with a light dry fly calls for another.

Fast Action

A view from behind of a woman in a baseball cap, standing on a fishing charter in Canada and casting a fly fishing line into calm waters
Photo courtesy of Outsider Charters Inc.

A fast-action rod will be stiffer than others, with the action concentrated closer to the tip. This translates to more power in a shorter, faster casting stroke. Fast-action rods are excellent for streamer fishing, windy environments, and for making long casts with a double haul in only a few strokes. They’re ideal for saltwater fly fishing or freshwater streamers, and big dry fly fishing.

Medium-Fast

This is the action you’ll most likely use for a first fly rod. It has plenty of speed and power for bigger flies but is still soft and sensitive enough for smaller flies and delicate presentations. In other words, it’s your all-around winner for every level of fly fishing experience.

Medium

A group of anglers lined up on the shore of a quiet creek among green trees, casting into the water
Photo courtesy of Thank Goodness I Fly Fish

When you want to slow down the cast and have a longer stroke and load, a medium-action rod is really nice. It loads into the middle of the rod and is a great choice for dry fly fishing. Many bamboo rods fall into the medium category but modern graphite and carbon fiber rods are also built to meet this action. There are a few shorter Bass-style rods that also load into this action with lines that gain distance and power in only a few strokes.

Slow

Many fiberglass and some bamboo rods are made with a very slow, deep-loading action. A few modern rods also are made this way. The slow action is very specific and it offers a traditional feel. It’s not ideal for beginners as the cast is harder to control. You have the benefit of feeling the fish fight through the entire rod, though. These rods are highly specialized and fun to fish on occasion, but you’ll definitely want another kind of rod alongside one of these.

Rod Length and Weight

A female angler casts into the shallow flats of Key West while fly fishing in the evening
Photo courtesy of Michael O’Brien Charters

The next consideration is determined by the species you’re targeting and environment you’re in. For the new anglers out there, a 6 wt, 9′ rod will cover most of your Trout, Bass, Panfish, and general fly fishing pursuits. This is a good size for smaller saltwater species, too, and it can cover plenty of ground in the freshwater realm.

When choosing your weight, think about the species you’re pursuing and the surroundings. The 2–4 weights are great for small stream Trout and Panfish. Your 5–7 weights are great for Trout and Bass with some crossover into Pike and small saltwater tasks. 8–10 wt rods get into bigger Pike, Musky, and saltwater species like Redfish, small Tarpon, Bonefish, Permit, Roosterfish, etc. 

As you creep over the 10 wt rods, it likely means you’re chasing very large freshwater fish or bigger saltwater fish like Tarpon and bluewater species.

In terms of length, 9′ rods are the most common and popular option. This is a great all-round length. Small stream rods will run shorter, however, and some specialty rods like Euro nymphing or spey models will go a few feet longer. For the vast majority of rods, though, you’ll want to choose something in the 8–10 foot range.

Freshwater vs. Saltwater Fly Fishing Rods

The major distinction between these two lies in the ability to endure saltwater. Saltwater rods use non-corrosive components and are extra sealed to protect metals from salt. Otherwise, many saltwater-designated rods work equally well in freshwater environments. If you plan on fishing saltwater, make sure you have a rod designed to handle the elements.

Are you ready to go fly fishing? 

Two men standing in front of a waterfall and high-fiving each other, while holding fly fishing rods and a net with a fish in it
Photo courtesy of Rotorua Trout Guide

After you narrow down the options and find a fly fishing rod at the right price point, it’s time to match your reel and line so you can go fishing! After assembling everything, it’s a good idea to practice casting in a grassy area to work on your technique. With a few sessions under your belt, you and your fly rod will be ready to hit the water!

Do you have a favorite fly rod? We’d love to hear about your criteria and best performing options in the comments below! 

Author profile picture

Zach Lazzari is a freelance outdoor writer, full-time traveler, and adventurer. He drove the Pan American Highway, chasing fish and whitewater across 13 countries, and continues pushing the limits of travel, fishing, whitewater, and hunting. Follow his travels at the Busted Oarlock.

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