At one time or another most of us fly anglers have sat around the bar drinking microbrews, kicked back at the coffee shop slurping a cup of joe, or got together at the lounge for a pink martini (no judgments here) and had a rousing discussion about which fly rods we think are the best. And for many, that rod is likely the the most expensive rod currently in their quiver. Let's face it, if you drop some serious coin on any piece of equipment, you are likely going to get as much mileage out of it as you can. Even if that means simply talking about it. But, are expensive fly rods really that much better?
We have come across that question more and more in recent years. It seems that the market for fly fishing rods is becoming more complex and the number of brands and manufacturers is growing by the day. Anglers are getting lost in the flood of options and with prices ranging from $40 to $1300 for a fly rod, the question of whether or not there is a increase in quality and performance with each increase in dollar is an important one. How do you know if you are actually getting a better product by spending more. Or are you just wasting money.
So, are expensive fly fishing rods really that much better? The short answer is yes - to a point.
There is a huge list of factors that contribute to one rod being "better" than another and we won't try to cover all of these (that would be about as dry as reading a "how to" on toenail clipping). Instead we will share our thoughts based on decades of angling with every type of rod ever built in just about every kind of water and condition that you can think of. We will be focusing on the biggest segment of fly rods, the carbon rod and only comparing based on price. After all, comparing fiberglass and carbon would be like trying to compare arctic grayling to queen fish. We won't discuss the different weights or lengths either. We will only focus on the question "does more money equal a better fly rod" through the entire spectrum of price. In other words do they actually perform better.
We have broken the range of fly rod prices into 3 categories to help simplify the analysis. Here is our take on the subject.
This category has probably the most options. Dozens of companies offer a relatively inexpensive fly fishing rod to the beginner or casual fly angler. Prices usually range anywhere from $45 to $150. All of these will be manufactured with carbon fiber/graphite. This category may have the wides variation in performance quality. Our grading scale in this category ranges from "I wouldn't use this rod to poke a fire" to "this one has a permanent place in my rod quiver".
Most anglers buying rods in this category often don't have the skills or experience to really be able to tell the difference and that is unfortunate. They feel fine about a inexpensive purchase initially but after a season or two of experience they are now finding their first rod to simply be inadequate. Their ability to cast has now outpaced the rod. This is usually a function of the quality of the carbon used in the rod blank, the balance of the rod blank construction, the dampening of the rod, the resin used, the quality of the materials used in the grip and real seat, and a number of other factors. This price point is a competitive market and you can bet that rod sellers are pricing as low as they possibly can. Therefor, if the rod costs more, then it simply cost more to make it, and therefor you are getting better quality.
There is a difference in quality compared to cost in this category. Spend the most money that you can afford in this category. There is absolutely an improvement in rod quality compared to dollar spent. The cutoff is right around $150.
We lumped together fly rods costing $150 to $499 in this category. This category of fly fishing rod cost is by far the most difficult to navigate. Over the last 10 years we have seen huge improvements in carbon fly rod building technology and a vast increase in the number of manufacturers using these technologies. It used to be that there were only a handful of good quality rod makers out there, but not anymore. Even overseas manufacturers are creating advanced tech rods and we have seen an increase in outsourcing of rod manufacturing even by the big brand name companies.
Because of this it is very difficult to tell the difference between one rod and another. This is the category where research, testing, and patience can really pay off. We believe that if you are purchasing a new rod in this category, you probably can't go wrong with almost any brand. But each angler has their own opinion and "feel" when using a rod and their own budget, so spending some time testing rods that you are interested in can be hugely helpful. At some point though you are going to find yourself standing there trying to decide if the rod in your right hand actually feels like it is $175 better then the rod in your left hand. If you are ever in this position, we recommend going withe the less expensive rod. Odds are that there really isn't a big difference (at least not for you), so why spend more. Now days you can purchase a rod at around $150-$250 that will blow your mind and won't break the bank.
Don't spend more money simply because you assume that there is some significant hidden benefit to the more expensive rod. There probably isn't and you are simply buying a rod from a company that thinks there brand is worth $175. On the other hand, if you have a longer cast, smoother loop, more sensitivity, or generally better grip and real seat with the more expensive rod, then by all means go that way.
This category is where things just get silly. You can spend your child's college fund on a new setup here. If you are wealthy or a guide who gets new rods delivered to your doorstep every Spring then you will probably defend this category until you are as blue in the face as a Trevally. But, then again, those folks aren't reading this article. For the rest of us we find ourselves gazing glassy eyed at the big brand racks at the local shop with price tags around $1000 hanging on them wondering, "is it really nirvana or would I just be getting fleeced". For most of us a $1000 investment is pretty serious and we would have to use all of our charm and negotiation skills to get it passed our spouse.
These rods usually come with some really pretty marketing materials proudly displaying the latest in fly rod technology (usually proprietary) and how this will transform you cast and help you land bigger and increasing numbers of fish. There may be some truth to this. Let's face it, advancing technology is REAL and that technology is not cheap to research, design, and implement. So we won't down play the need for this part of the industry and we won't discourage folks from buying these rods. After all, someone has to support all that science. But from a actual practical fishing standpoint this category of fly rod price is the least beneficial for the average angler. Most of us (K&E Outfitters included) really can't feel the difference or actually perform at a higher level simply because we jump from a mid-range price point to a high-end price point. There are some who certainly can tell the difference. Professional guides, competitive casters, and some lifelong anglers with a very refined set of skills are some examples. And then you have the guy who simply wants to be able to brag about the blankety-blank XPR 2000 rod that he fishes with. These guys will always tell you the rod in their hand feels comparable to petty a bunny while benching 200 lbs. But that is not most of us.
In fact, there are some down sides to owning and using a really expensive fly rod. Constant worry over damage. Do you travel with it or not (it might get screwed up by customs or TSA). Do you ever let anyone else try it (probably not). And the list goes on.
Don't bother (unless of course you are rich or a professional of some kind getting a deal). It just won't translate to a significantly better experience on the water. Instead invest in the mid-range rod that seems to feel the best to you and fits in your budget.
Beginners and casual anglers: Don't spend more than $150 on your new fly rod.
Experienced anglers with real lives: Don't spend more than $499 on each rod in your fly rod quiver.
Anglers (>50 days a year), Pros, Wealthy: Consider rods pushing $1000 but be sure to compare them to rods less than $499.
That is a down-and-dirty opinion on rod cost vs. quality. Some of you will find this helpful and reassuring while others will already be ordering their second pink martini and teeing up to let loose on why this is all wrong. However, as folks who design and sell fly rods ourselves we give this stuff a lot of thought and make a promise. We will never offer a fly rod at a price that goes beyond its actual functional value. In fact, we believe that our new Silhouette and Shadow series rods may be the one of the best values in the mid-range rod category currently available (shameless self-promotion).
See you on the water!