The selection of a good rod and line combination can be challenging. I commonly get requests from clients to check their rod and line combination and help them out with proper set up. With the increasing variety of rods and lines on the market, rod and line selection is becoming even trickier. I am going to go over a variety of rods and lines in this article and review possible combinations and their potential use.
Let’s first have a look at rods… The good news is that rods are getting better and better over the years. Many mid-range rods today will out-perform high-end rods from 10 years ago. The bad news is that there are so many to choose from that deciding on the right rod is becoming a bit over whelming. In order to narrow things down let’s categorize rods into groups.
We can qualify a rod as “fast” or “slow” actioned. The speed of a rod is determined by two main aspects; it’s taper and the material it’s made of. The stronger the taper, the “stiffer” the rod will feel. Very mild tapers, or even regressed tapers will cause the rod to bend further down into the bottom end of the rod, and thus slowing it down and making it feel “softer”. Rods that are built with a mild taper, or regressed taper, are often labeled as “full flex” or “parabolic action” rods. In order to give these type of rods sufficient speed, higher quality, “faster”, graphite will need to be used. For most rods a “progressive” taper will generally work best. This means that when you load the rod lightly the relatively soft tip will be able to bend and propel the line. As more line is let out, the rod bends further down towards the but section. “Full flex” rods bend towards the butt earlier in the cast. This type of rod lends itself more for slower casting styles, Skagit style casting, and water born casts. The speed of the line and rod of this type is slower. In order to fully load this type of rod, a slightly heavier line is normally used.
Burkheimer rods are a good example of a typical north american style rod.
On the other end of the spectrum are the much faster, progressive action, Scandinavian style rods. Not only Scandinavian rods have fast, progressive actions, but in order to keep things simple we will use these rods as a typical example of this style of rod. This type of rod will bend less deep when loaded. This makes them faster, and makes the effective length that acts as a lever for the cast longer. Generally this type of action lends itself better for relatively lighter loading, faster, airborne, casts. The typical Scandinavian single spey style cast is a good example. Longer lines are also easier to manage with this type of rod, due to the longer effective lever for lifting long bellies.
The Guideline LXi 12’9″ #7 is a good example of a typical scandinavian fast actioned rod.
There are strong proponents of either type of casting style and accompanying rods and lines. Each have their benefits and disadvantages. Generally I feel that the slower actioned rods for Skagit style casting have a smaller range of application than the faster, progressive actioned, scandinavian style rods. When I fish I often use both airborne and waterborne casts in order to adapt to varying conditions. Slow rods, that are fitted with a heavy Skagit head are not very forgiving for airborne casts. Progressive tapered, fast rods, on the other hand can handle waterborne casts just fine. So, for all-round use I prefer a fast rod, with a progressive taper.
At this point, let’s have a look at lines. These days there are a great variety of lines to choose from. The most popular style of line is the Skagit line. This is a shooting head that is rather short and has short tapers so that it loads up the rod quick and turns over heavy sink tips. For waterborne casts this is useful. The heavy head will pull the sink tip out of the water with little effort. Another benefit of the Skagit head is that it is easy to cast. It loads a rod very easy and is short. Skagit lines will enable beginning casters to be able to cover water that would not be easily covered with other types of lines. Paradoxically the Skagit head can also be a disadvantage for casters who are trying to improve their skills. The Skagit lines are so forgiving for casting errors that it is easy to adopt poor casting technique and create bad habits. From a practical fishing point the Skagit head also limits itself to the use of waterborne casts. It is not to say that airborne casts cannot be done with a Skagit head, but they are very awkward to execute compared to lines that have longer tapers, such as mid belly lines and Scandi heads.
A classic Skagit shooting head: Airflo’s Skagit Compact.
The next line in order of popularity is the Scandi head. The key difference with a Skagit head is that the tapers on these shooting heads are longer. That creates a shooting head that is more stable in the air. Tighter loops and greater speeds can be generated. The longer front tapers also make airborne or “touch-and-go” casts easier to execute. Generally the are much lighter than Skagit heads. They are not as good at lifting heavy sink tips out of the water and turning over very big flies, as Skagit heads are.
A classic Scandi shooting head: Guidline’s Scandi
The last category of lines are mid- and long-belly lines. These lines are much longer. They require good casting skills because longer lengths of fly line have to be dealt with. Since less line has to be stripped back into the guides, these lines are useful for covering big water. They do not handle sink tips well, and are mostly used in full floating versions.
A classic mid-belly spey line: Airflo’s Delta Spey
Here is an image that shows the basic makeup of long belly, skagit and scandi lines.
Now that we had a look at the types of rods and lines that are available, let’s have a look at how we can best combine these. Skagit heads work well with both fast, progressive tapered rods and slower, full flexed rods. Scandi style shooting heads work better with fast rods. The speed and leverage that is needed for airborne cast is easier to achieve with fast, progressive rods, than it is with slower rods. Mid- and long-belly lines work better with progressive tapered rods and also need longer rods.
Of course these are generalities; there are many exceptions to this categorization. For example, there are some good rods for mid- and long-belly lines that have a full flex action. The increased flex is compensated for by the use of very fast graphite and thicker walls near the butt section. There are other exceptions but in general the above is a good guideline to start from.
So, for fishing, what are the “best” rods? If I would have to choose only one rod, I would choose a fast actioned, progressive tapered rod. It will handle all line types well, and more importantly, both airborne and waterborne casts.
We have not discussed the length of the rod yet. The longer the rod, the longer the line it can handle. However, if the rod to line ratio is too big there will be a tendency to lift the anchor on the cast. Short Skagit and Scandi heads usually work well with a rod between 12′ and 13′. Long Scandi heads work well with rods between 13′ and 13’9″. Mid- and long belly lines work well with rods between 14′ and 15′. Again, this is a broad generalization and there are many exceptions. But it is a good starting point.
The other thing that we have not discussed yet is the line weight rating of the rod. For steelhead the most common rod line weight rating is a #8 rod. This is a good all-round rod. For smaller rivers and smaller fish a #7 is good. For big rivers and long lines a #9 is nice. One thing that causes much confusion is how different manufacturers rate their rods. You will see that a european rod for Scandi style casting can be labeled as a #8 rod, but the actual line weight that is recommended by the manufacturer will be much lighter than a north american #8 rod designed for Skagit style casting. A good rule of thumb is this: for beginning casters and Skagit style casting, stick with the line weight recommendation of the North American, Skagit style rods, and go one line weight up for the European style rods. For intermediate and advanced casters and Skagit style casting, go one line weight down for North American, Skagit style rods and stick with the line weight recommendation of the European style rods. For beginning casters and Scandi style casting, stick with the line recommendation of North American rod manufacturers, and go one line up for the European rod manufacturers. For intermediate and advanced casters and Scandi style casting, go one line weight down for North American rod manufacturers, and stick to the recommendation of the European manufacturers.
To end this very simplified review of rods and lines let me make it even simpler and recommend some rod and line combinations that I like. It may help you to figure out a good starting point.
– My “bread and butter” rod and line combination is an fast actioned, progressive tapered rod, in the #8 line class rating. The length can be roughly between 12’6″ and 13’9″. I rig that rod up with a Scandi shooting head. The Scandi line that I prefer is a DDC Connect multi-tip shooting head from Guideline. I like it because it is a line with a relatively short front taper. I often refer to it as a “robust” Scandi head. It handles wind and heavier tips and flies very well, yet performs airborne casts nicely. I use the floating head and combine the head with a variety of 15′-18′ tips, up to type 8 or T11.
An example of a good “all-round” rod; Guideline LXi 8/9 13’9″
– I will often fish with 3 rods rigged up. The above rod will be the rod I use the most. For a second rod I will have a Skagit head with a heavy tip, usually T14 in either 15′ or 18′. The rod I use for that line is also a fast actioned rod in the same line class and length. Sometimes I will use one of my older North American, full flex, style rods, in which case I underline those rods by one line class.
A fish caught on a classic Skagit setup; Burkheimer #8 13’4″ with Guideline 500 grain Skagit head and 15′ of T14
– For the third rod I will often have a dry line rigged up. Or a floating head with a light tip. Again I use a DDC connect for that line, with the floating tip and a very long tapered leader of about 18 – 20′ and a dry fly. I use that line on a 12’9″ #7 rod.
A fish caught on a DDC connect with a light sink tip.
For more advanced casters who are looking for something more specific here are a couple of considerations:
– With rod materials getting better all the time, it is now possible to fish quite light short rods that still will handle long distances. One rod that I fish extensively is a 11’6″ #8 Switch rod. I use it mostly with short Scandi heads, like the new 4D lines from Guideline. This is a very versatile rig that fishes very well.
A small hen caught on a Guideline LXi Switch rod (11’6″ #8) and a Guideline PT shooting head (scandi).
– For intermediate casters who want to improve their casting skills I suggest to utilize airborne casts and longer lines more often. This will force you to be more exact with your casting technique. I nice rig for this is a long belly line with a fast actioned rod around 14′.
I hope this helps with the daunting process of rod and line selection. Keep in mind that rod and line combinations are something personal, and will vary greatly from angler to angler. Also remember that this article uses strong generalizations. There are so many rods and lines out there that it is impossible to review the full spectrum in detail. If you have a chance to try out a rod and line combination do it, and don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of lines and rods.