SELECTING A BAITCASTING ROD
Part I: Rod ratings and characteristics
Selecting the rod that will give you the best results for your personal use seems pretty simple and most people pay little attention to it. They’ll often concentrate on the reel and if it’s offered as a combo, will take just about any rod that comes with it. This is a big mistake, as an unsuited rod will really mess up the combination, whatever the qualities of the reel itself.
Before going any further, a clarification of terms is in order, since being able to understand the specifications of a rod is a basic prerequisite to choosing the right one.
There is a tremendous amount of confusion in this area, with the use of “ACTION” being the main contributor to this major mix-up. If you take a peek at some of the top tier rod companies' sites, say G·Loomis, St.Croix, Falcon or All Star, you’ll notice they use both POWER and ACTION to characterize their rods, and believe me, its not for the fun of it! Briefly put, the POWER of a rod is determined by the amount of force it takes to bend it, whereas its ACTION (also correctly known as taper in some cases) describes the shape of the bend. At one extreme, a slow action rod will bend almost uniformly from the tip to the handle, while an extra-fast one will do most of the bending in the very tip section of the rod. The All Star site (http://www.allstarrods.com/how_choose_rod.htm) provides a good explanation – with a picture). While POWER is generally given as a weight: ultra-light, light, medium, heavy and extra-heavy (with smaller in-between increments), the ACTION is generally described as a speed: slow, moderate, fast and extra-fast. So you can have your typical medium-heavy POWER rod with anything from a slow to an extra fast ACTION, with a tremendous difference between them. To illustrate how the two should not be used interchangeably, think of the very POWERful surf casting rods that have a MODERATE ACTION, while many freshwater ULTRA-LIGHT (POWER) rods have an EXTRA-FAST ACTION!
I fully realize that many manufactures and resellers only mention ACTION while actually referring to POWER and thereby completely skip any info about what is really the rods’ action. One of the very largest retailers actually takes the specs for POWER from manufacturers that give both and calls it ACTION. One huge disservice to their clients if you ask me!
To further complicate selecting a rod, both of the above ratings vary between manufacturers; St. Croix’s rods, for instance are known for understating their rod’s power by half a “notch”, so their medium-light will generally be the equivalent of other companies’ medium rating, for example. But in most cases, the variations in POWER ratings are not documented and the given rating is at best an iffy proposition. Even worse, some of the less expensive lines of rods aren’t even consistent between their own ratings of different models! Throw in the frequently total absence of any information about ACTION and the odds against getting what you’re expecting are getting pretty long…
A rod’s indicated lure weight range is perhaps the most useful information you’ll run into, even if it’s still somewhat inaccurate; most manufacturers will be somewhat optimistic as to how light a lure you can actually cast and you should take rods claiming to cover a very wide range of suggested lure weights with a large grain of salt. Top tier rods are usually more reliable in this matter.
As for line weight recommendations, I find them pretty useless: at best, they are second-degree extrapolations about the size of lures you’ll be using assuming the latter will match the size of fish you’ll be targeting. At worse, they’ll lead you to believe you shouldn’t use lighter lines than “prescribed” (pure hog wash) and eliminate a large range of small diameter but high strength superlines (heavy duty hog wash)!
The higher end of the above ranges do have some general use in that they may have some bearing on manufacturers’ warranty. They’ll also give you an approximate indication of the point beyond which your rod would be overwhelmed by too much lure weigth or even break on the cast. This would also be a concern when using extra strong line and trying to manhandle large fish … or trees!
All this is why I never buy a rod sight unseen unless I’m dealing with a top tier manufacturer (normally quite consistent in their ratings) whose rods I’m already familiar with. Otherwise, I absolutely have to hold the rod in my hands and actually “play” with it before I’ll buy it.
1 – Manufacturers:
While some companies are recognized leaders in the field and give you excellent quality rods, an X-Mart special may also be an acceptable compromise for you. Generally speaking, a more expensive brand will give you less weight, a wider choice, better quality components (blank, cork, guides, reel seats, etc.), more sensitivity and a better warranty. But if you get the power and the action wrong for you, you’ll have a fine rod … that you’ll forever regret buying and come to hate. So going by brand alone is a no-no.
2 – Length*:
On the plus side, a longer rod will give you more casting distance; on the minus side, a long rod will be heavier, more cumbersome, require more energy for the cast and will decrease your accuracy (except when “flipping”, as this technique has its own particular requirements).
3 – Power*:
A more powerful rod will enable you to cast heavier lures, control bigger fish more easily, and be more resistant to breakage; on the other hand, it will be heavier, require more force on the cast and will be a severe handicap for casting lighter lures. Of course, if you’re trying to horse a lunker from thick vegetation and flip it right into your boat, a more powerful rod will be the proper tool. This also assumes your arms are in top shape to handle the job, otherwise it would be useless. At the other end of the spectrum, a light power rod will be able to cast much lighter lures effectively and would be the right choice for finesse type fishing.
4 – Action*:
When casting, a softer rod will require less energy on your part for a given distance, making it a good choice for those who may have problems with their casting arm(s). It will also give you more distance for a given effort, since a longer section of the rod will be working for you on the cast. On the downside, your accuracy will suffer somewhat and you may wind up hitting the saucer instead of the proverbial cup. It will also help in avoiding backlashes when first using baitcasting equipment, especially if you’re used to the “snappy” casting motion of a spinning outfit.
When working a lure, a fast tip makes it easier to control the jerks and pops of a surface lure, but will be more difficult to handle the hook set when using crank baits (this is the reason why some still prefer glass rods for crank baits, as they generally have a slower action than your typical graphite rod).
A softer rod will be more forgiving when fighting a fish, as the shocks are better absorbed along its length. It will also give you a larger margin for errors in keeping the line taut; on the other hand, this “forgiveness” will work against you when attempting to set the hook, as more of the shock will also be absorbed. The same thing is also true on a micro scale, as some sensitivity will also get lost on a softer rod
Note: all of the above will warrant careful consideration according to the way you fish. For instance, if you’re a “cross-their-eyes” kind of a hook setter and want the maximum amount of force to get transmitted, you’ll want a stiffer rod, especially if you’re using mono. This type of rod is usually preferred when fishing worms and other texas-rigged plastics to get a good hook set even when the plastic’s in the way.
5 – Weight*:
There are no real advantages in weight per se, and a heavier rod will be more tiresome and less sensitive than a lighter one. It’s often the price (!) you pay when getting a less expensive rod. Conversely, you’ll be glad you were using a light rod at the end of a long fishing day and remain at the top of your form even after many hours. Lightness is also closely associated with sensitivity.
6 – Sensitivity*:
Sensitivity is always a plus, enabling you to better feel what the lure is doing, whether its operating properly vs. running askew, what it runs into (bottom, structure, cover, etc.) and detecting a fish’s most subtle touch. But as a general rule, the price of the rod generally follows its sensitivity pretty closely, as it will depend on lighter and better materials, which in turn will cost more. But if your fishing arm’s good and strong and you use a superline, you can get away with a somewhat cheaper rod and still retain a reasonable amount of sensitivity without breaking the bank.
7 – Toughness*:
Toughness, of course, is always a good thing, as it constitutes a sort of built-in guarantee against accidents. On the other hand, for a rod to be really tough, it will tend to be heavy and insensitive. Gary Loomis once said: "I could build a rod that you couldn't break, but then you probably wouldn't want to fish with it." The senior anglers among you probably remember those solid fibreglass rods that could be tied in knots and wouldn’t break. If you get right down to it, a broom handle would be pretty inexpensive and you could bang it anywhere you want, close doors on it, step on it, grab it from any part to haul fish in and generally treat it as a … broom stick. But if you use your rod for its intended purpose, today’s rods can be both sensitive and tough.
8 – Materials:
a) Rod blank materials: The days of the solid fibreglass rod are long gone, thank God! They were unbreakable, but universally heavy and insensitive. While some modern rods are still built from better grades of E-glass and especially S-glass, they are generally favored mostly for their slower action as moving bait rods. Almost all rods made today are graphite, which makes them lighter and more sensitive. With most marketing departments having a field day touting the high modulus of the graphite used in their rods, there’s a large amount of hype involved here. While it’s true that a higher modulus will generally result in a lighter, more sensitive rod, for a given weight and power, the bonding materials and the assembly process also play a very large part in the matter. A higher modulus doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality, at least when comparing different manufacturers. This is somewhat similar to the number of ball bearings in reels: within a company, more bearings are usually associated with the better reels of a given type, but some companies will put a ridiculous number of cheap bearings in reels with loose tolerances and iffy assembly. One should also consider that a lower modulus rod (such as s-glass rods) is considered my many knowledeable anglers at the best tool for crankbaits and such because of their moderate action and recovery rates. These can mean the difference between a fish throwing the bait when it goes into its “jump and shake mode” and staying buttoned up.
Finally, you also have to remember that very light and sensitive rods are somewhat like thoroughbred horses: supreme performers, but prone to “injury” if not handled carefully. For this reason a significant part of the premium prices for these rod is actually a form of insurance against breakage, as reflected in the warranty.
b) Handle materials: Except for the lower end rods that use EVA and salt-water rods that often use Hypalon, today’s handles are almost all cork. Since more than 80% of all cork produced in the world comes from Portugal anyway, don’t be too impressed with terms like “Premium Portuguese Cork”; as they’re meaningless. While there is some standardization in cork grades, this is mostly of interest to rod builders and I won’t get into it here. On the other hand, you can get a good idea of the quality of a cork handle by looking carefully at the amount of filling involved. A high number of large pits in a handle, even if apparently well filled and giving a smooth surface will inevitably come back to haunt you when the filling starts to fall out.
c) Guide materials: There is a significant difference between various guide materials in weight, hardness and “slipperiness”. However, the terminology is a real jungle as manufacturers come up with their own names and only a few can be truly identified and compared. In my opinion, this is not a very reliable way to identify a rod’s quality, as even the top materials may be misleading since there are many grades and the guide assembly and finish play a role. For my money, Fuji’s Alconite is the most cost effective choice, after which the bang for the buck goes down drastically as the price increases. Unless you’re much more of a nut than I am, Gold Cermet guides, for instance (that can set you back as much as $50 each!) are from a different galaxy! For most anglers, even the less expensive guides available today should prove quite adequate; and if you’re concerned about weight, just consider that the difference in the amount of epoxy used on the guide wraps probably has more impact on the overall weight of the rod than the weight of the guides itself. Those wraps that are coated with gobs of epoxy and look great to some are not a sign of quality!
Even though Fuji is a well thought of manufacturer, you have to remember that they carry a whole line of guides of greatly different grades and materials. So if a rod company touts its Fuji guides without specifying which type and model, chances are it’s more hype than a true indication of top quality. The same goes for the so-called “Fuji New Concept Guide System”: Since Fuji didn’t get a copyright on this, and the “concept” itself only refers to a combination of size, number and spacing of guides, you may run into all sorts of variations, some of which can be misleading.
7 – Number of pieces: Multi-piece rods have long been considered as the black sheep of the flock. For a long time, they were substantially heavier than their single piece brethren and had a noticeable flat spot at the ferrule that held the pieces together, which played havoc with their action. But over the years, things have improved very much and today’s multi-piece rods can be excellent, with very few people being actually able to tell the difference. While some will say the difference is still evident, I’d be willing to bet that in a double-blind test they’d be hard put to tell them apart anymore when comparing similar models of good quality. So if you want the convenience of a two-piece rod or a three-piece traveler rod, don’t be put off by the lingering bad reputation and go right ahead. Just make sure you join the pieces together firmly and enjoy.
Ye Olde Fishingelbow
 Some manufacturers use a numbers system instead of words to the same effect
* Please remember that for everything discussed here, “other things being equal” is implicit.
You can also refer to the “Superlines” article for more on how your line choice will greatly impact your total fishing “package” characteristics. Last but not least, extra sharp hooks will need much less force to dig in and hold, thereby giving you a bit more leeway in how strong and stiff your rod needs to be.