Choosing A Fly Rod

Video fly fishing weight

So you’re interested in learning the fly fishing basics and how to fly fish, and now you have decided to pursue the sport and purchase some equipment. If you’ve read my earlier article on the essential equipment to get started fly fishing, you will know that one of the first main purchases is the fly rod. However, if you’ve browsed online or through your local retailer, you will no doubt have noticed that there are a multitude of options that you could spend your hard-earned money on. How do you decide between them all? In part one of this article I’ll give an overview of two of the key points to look out for as well as some helpful tips to help you in choosing the right fly rod for starting out.

1. Fly Rod Line Weight

As you’ve browsed through catalogs or fly shops, you’ll probably have noticed there are weights applied to the different fly rods and you’ve most likely been scratching your head about what those mean. The basic premise behind this is that different styles of fishing and different fish species will typically require a different type of rod, not taking into consideration the length. The difference is determined by the weight. There are a few main items to understand when choosing the right fly rod.

Fly rod weights range from 0 (now even 00) through 14, 0 being the lightest and 14 being the heaviest. The lighter line weights, 0 through say 3, will apply to fish species such as small trout and panfish. These fly rods can also be used for close-quarters types of fly fishing, whether it is a small stream or even a very closed in brushy type of river. The lighter line weights typically come in shorter rod lengths that help facilitate this type of fishing.

The middle line weights, 4 through 7, I consider to be multi-purpose fly rods. These can be used for any type of fish from the smaller trout and panfish to larger trout, bass, and other average sized fish. A fly rod in these line weights is generally used on any medium-sized stream or river and lakes. It is pretty much an all-around weight that can be used in a variety of places.

There are exceptions to these first two line class groups. Fly rods that are up to ten or eleven feet in length and rated for a line weight of 2 or 3 are becoming more and more popular due to new techniques emerging on the fly fishing scene. These rods utilized very lightweight lines, yet they still have the backbone and power for the angler to use them on the larger streams, rivers and lake. I say this only to make you aware of them, as you will come across them in fly shops across the country now. They are much more of specialized type of fly rod though.

Fly rods in the 8 through 10 class are used when you are dealing with larger lakes and rivers, and for when you plan on encountering larger fish species. These fly rods are typically used when targeting steelhead, largemouth bass, pike, musky, and then on in to various saltwater species such as bonefish. The rods in this range are designed to be used with larger and heavier flies as well as they give you a much more powerful rod in order to help with casting those heaver flies.

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The heavy class rods in 11 through 14 are saltwater rods. They are brutes. Designed primarily for fish such as marlin, swordfish, tarpon, and other such hard-fighting fish, these fly rods can take a beating and help you land that fish of a lifetime.

When choosing the right fly rod, deciding the correct fly rod line weight is something that you have to determine based upon the type of fish you are targeting and the areas in which you will be fishing. My general recommendation for fly fishing for trout is to start with a line weight of either 4 or 5.

2. Fly Rod Action

Fly rods are created today using three main “actions” as they are called. These are fast, medium, and slow, which is basically a term to describe how the rod bends and flexes. These will sometimes also be referred to as tip flex (fast), mid flex (medium), and full flex (slow). When choosing the right fly rod to get started, some key differences need to be understood before purchasing.

Fast Action Fly Rods

A fast action fly rod is a rod that is very stiff and primarily flexes and bends only in the upper 1/3 of the fly rod, hence why they are also known as tip flex rods. These are powerful rods and designed to provide a high line speed for longer casts and tighter loops in the fly line during the cast. A fast action rod can also help facilitate landing larger fish quicker due to the extra power and stiffness that you will get in the base of the fly rod.

Medium Action Fly Rods

A medium action fly rod is one that will flex and bend primarily in the upper 2/3 portion of the fly rod. This gives you a balance between the fast action and the slow action. The line speed for longer casts will not be as good as a fast action rod due to the extra flex you will get, but longer casts can still be achieved easily. However, you do get some extra sensitivity that helps to present softer casts to spooky fish. A medium action rod will also be more forgiving for beginner casters as it will not create as tight of a loop that can lead to problems early on. Fly rods with this action can cover a wide range of circumstances and is considered a good all-around rod type.

Slow Action Fly Rods

A slow action fly rod is one that flexes and bends almost all the way to the handle of the fly rod. This type of action will more closely resemble that of a bamboo or fiberglass rod in the way that it feels and casts. A slow action rod is not designed for long distance casts. They are built much more for the close-quarters casting required by smaller streams and also those places where a delicate presentation is required to help prevent spooking fish. Another benefit of having such a flexible rod is when you are using a very light leader/tippet. The extra flexibility will help prevent snapping that light line when setting the hook on a fish or casting. A slow action rod is another good alternative for a beginning fly fisherman.

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There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of action. I’ll discuss those in particular in a future article. My recommendation for a fly rod action is to go with a medium action rod when starting out. As you progress, learn and perfect your casting and fishing methods, you’ll begin to develop a preference for a specific rod type. The fly rod manufacturer Orvis has put together a great intro on their specific fly rod actions that is very useful

Rod weights:

Fly rods are measured and sized using a ‘weight’ (wt) system called the AFTM (Association of Fishing Tackle Manufacturers) number. The AFTM number is written on modern rods above the rod handle and this number represents the flyline weight, which will “load” the rod correctly (See casting) based on the manufactures recommendations.

Orvis have a good link to comparison charts which compares the target fish species, line (rod) weight, and hooks sizes. This should help narrow down your required line weight but this is discussed briefly in the following paragraphs. To summarise; the lower the AFTM number the lighter the flyline is.


These rods come in shorter lengths (6’6” to 8’6”) and these are ideal light trout and panfish rods. For small creeks, the shorter lengths will work best. If you’re on slightly bigger water or lakes, but the fish tend to be smaller, then going slightly longer on length could be helpful. For nymphing, going longer (9’ – 10’) is essential for line control. This is true for all size rods.

This AFTM weight range is ideal for:

  • Creeks/small waters

  • Smaller sized fish

  • Delicate dry fly and light nymph fishing


This is the most common weight range for getting in to the sport. The most classic of beginning trout rods would probably be the 8’6” 5wt. 5wt and 6wt rods in all lengths are great for mid-sized to larger trout.

This AFTM weight range is ideal for:

  • Beginners not sure what their speciality is yet

  • Mid to larger sized trout

  • Light streamer fishing

  • Nymphing (10’ recommended)


This is where we start to get in to some heavier stuff. Most guys going after bass, smaller pike, steelhead (both Pacific and Great Lakes), salmon, larger trout, inshore saltwater, and more. The possibilities really open up with this weight of rod.

This AFTM weight range is ideal for:

  • Larger freshwater fish species and smaller inshore saltwater.

  • Large streamer, popper, and minnow patterns

  • Sink tips and heavier payloads (weighted flies + sink tips + additional weight for sink)

  • For casting in heavier wind conditions

  • Heavy nymph rigs (10’ recommended)

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Any number of fish can be taken on a heavy fly rod up to 14wt. Once you get to this size stick, you’re going to want more specialized recommendations, preferably from an experienced guide or someone else familiar with your specific fishery. These size rods are most common for warm saltwater environments; tarpon, mahi mahi, tuna, roosterfish, snook, etc. But there really is no limit to what you can make happen on a fly rod! You can even expand to ling cod, halibut, sharks, and more.

Rod length

Rods come in a variety of different lengths. So choosing a rod length can be daunting to say the least. The two main things that decides the length of the rod, which will suit you best are:

  • The fish that you will be targeting.

  • The location of where you will be fishing and what type of conditions you expect to encounter.

If you are fishing a small river/ stream that has lots of trees you will probably be best with a short rod (7- 8ft), as they are easier to control when casting and they are also less likely to be broken when casting in heavy bush. However, short rods will not be able to generate fast line speeds so they cant cast as fast as longer rods and they will suffer in strong winds.

Longer rods (9-10ft) are best used when there are not a lot of trees or heavy bushes on the bank. A longer rod will make it easier to mend the line when dry fly fishing and they perform stronger in windy conditions.

There are longer rods than this which are used for Salmon ???

What about sea fishing?

Rod action:

Now to move on to the next thing to consider. You know what size rod you want, but what for action? Most casting instructors would agree that for a beginning trout fisherman, a medium action rod is best. When starting out on heavier gear, having a more medium/fast action would be ideal, given the added weight of the flies and other factors.

What is “action?” A medium action rod will be slower to “snap back” to straight than a faster action rod. This is known as “recovery,” how quickly the rod recovers. A medium action rod will help a more novice caster feel what the rod is doing, and give them more forgiveness in their cast. The faster a rods action is, the less room for error there is.

It is important to put the correctly rated flyline on your new rod as the rod action can be affected by installing a lighter or heavier line. If you were to put a 8wt line on a 5wt fast action rod you would make the rod action slower. If you were to put a 5wt line on a 8wt rod you will probably find that the rod failed to bend properly and your casting would suffer.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>