Best Fly Fishing Rod for Trout – How to Choose Complete Guide

When choosing a new fly rod for trout, the factors to consider are the type of water, fish size, rod weight, action and length, the reel and line, personal preference, and other conditions such as wind. 

Then your budget, personal preference and experience will help make the decision.

The reality is that many trout anglers will end up owning several rods to suit the various types of fishing they enjoy. But we all need to start with our first new rod.

Let’s cut through the confusion by going over the various factors. And I’ll try to keep it simple. 

Your choice – trout or other fish species?

Here in New Zealand, most freshwater fishing is for the two introduced trout species (rainbow and brown trout) and chinook salmon.  

There are also about 35 populations of native freshwater fish, many of which are nocturnal and not targeted; as well as other introduced fish such as perch, rudd, tench, and koi carp. 

Here in New Zealand, most freshwater anglers fish for trout, which are resident in most of our rivers and lakes made easily accessible by our public access and land laws.

So if you are keen to take up freshwater fishing, trout fishing is the most logical and popular option in New Zealand.  

You can read about Why Trout Grow Big – Especially in New Zealand here. 

What type of freshwater fish are you wanting to catch?

Are there rivers in your area that hold trout? Or will you have to travel hours by car to get to the nearest trout-holding waters?

Or maybe there are smaller brook trout living in nearby steams, but once or twice a year, you will take a road trip to try for more adventure and bigger fish.  

Here are some things you can do to get to know your area.

  • Do some research on the waterways in your area.  
  • Join a local fly fishing club, or find an online option. 
  • Visit a fly shop or sporting goods store that sells fly fishing equipment.
  • Check for any fishing regulations on trout fishing.  
  • Look for blogs, videos and podcasts on trout fishing. There are plenty.

Once you know what type of fish you are likely to catch, you can start to weigh up the other factors.  

Where do you plan to fish for trout?

Trout like small waterways, such as small water such as streams or spring-fed creeks, and big water like large rivers and lakes of all sizes.

When considering the best fly rod for your purpose, reflect on the type of waterway you will be fishing.

In general, smaller streams and rivers require smaller rods, both in weight and length.  

But if you’re after big trout like steelhead, then you’ll be looking for a heavier weight rod that can handle heavier nymph rigs and big streamers.  

Fun Fact:
Steelhead are trout. Rainbow trout and steelhead are the same species, but they have different lifestyles. Steelheads are anadromous fish is born in freshwater, spend their adult life in saltwater, then return to freshwater to spawn. By contrast, resident rainbow trout never leave their freshwater homes.

Again, it’s by talking to experienced trout anglers that you find out the most. And, the great thing is most anglers like to share their knowledge and are very encouraging to beginners. 

Luckily, from our home, we don’t have to drive more than two hours to get to some of the world’s best fly fishing locations. 

Even if we don’t catch fish, the surroundings are beautiful and restorative, both mentally and physically. 

Not all the time we spend fishing is about catching fish. Catching is truly a bonus!

Fun fact.
Catching is a bonus. We retired to our house by the beach about three years ago where I thought there would be lots of fish in the nearby river, only 5 minutes away.  But sadly I’ve discovered we need to travel for an hour or two to where we can have a greater chance of catching trout.

 Now we’ll get to the technical aspects of choosing a fly rod for catching trout.

Rod weight

Importantly, the weight of the rod relates to the weight of the fly line fitted to that rod.  

Fly lines are graded by the weight in grams in the first 30 feet. (Here’s the AFFTA Official Fly Line Specifications & Weights chart.)

It is recommended that the rod, line and reel match, and are usually the same weight.  

The weight of the fly line is the mechanism that creates the energy during the casting stroke to present the fly to the desired location.

As opposed to relying on the weight of your rig and bait as you do with a spinning rod, fly fishing is about utilizing the weight of the line.  

Your bait is a lightweight lure on a lightweight tippet, designed to mimic an insect or small fish. 

As a result, it is not heavy enough to help cast the line. 

So when you cast, you are relying on the weight in the line.  

The fly line propelled by the energy transfer through the rod launches the fly to your desired position.

Rods differ in weight depending on the fly line weight. 

Choosing the right rod weight relies on the combined choice of rod, line and reel.

Heavier weight rods help catch bigger fish, often using large flies, while lighter rods are for smaller fish on light lines with small flies.

Here’s a chart that shows matching the rod weight to the fish size. 

Weight #1 to #4 Panfish and small trout
Weight #5 to #6 Rainbow and brown trout, small salmon
Weight #7 to #9 Steelhead, big New Zealand trout, salmon
Weigh #10 to #14 Saltwater fish species
Rod weight to fish size

What size fish live in the waters near you? 

Having the right rod combo means improved casting. You will be able to cast with more distance and more accuracy. Also, cast bigger flies.

Longer casts are great on big water like lakes for larger fish or where you need to get your fly across to the opposite side of the river. 

Read about why the most popular rod for catching trout is the #5-weight fly rod

Fly Line

As well as different weights of fly lines, trout anglers use different sorts of lines used for the variety of techniques and flies available.

Floating lines

Floating lines are used with dry flies and nymphing but can be used in almost any circumstance when paired with a sinking tip.

Sinking lines

Sinking lines are used for wet flies and also for nymphing, especially in calmer waters.

Floating line with sinking tip

These can be useful for nymphing and also with wet flies and streamers.

Shooting-head line

The line’s main weight is in the first few feet, making it easier to cast over a longer distance. The disadvantage is a lack of accuracy.

In my guide to choosing a 5-weight fly rod, I’ve written more about pairing a line either up a weight or down a weight, called overlining and underlining. 

Fly lines match the type of rig you chose. Your rig consists of a leader, usually nylon or fluorocarbon, a tippet and the lure or fly.

Heavy lures are bigger or weighted flies used in deep, fast waters that require heavier lines to get them through the air. 

While smaller flies, such as the micro dry flies on a #18 or #20 hook used for dry fly fishing, require a lighter line and leader – hence a lighter weight trout rod. 

Rod length

When fishing for small trout that live in small streams and creeks, you may want a short rod that won’t get hooked up in the trees and shrubs along the stream edge.

That’s where a 7-foot rod may be the perfect rod with the next best rod being an 8-foot or 8-foot 6-inch rod.  

These rods will help you make close, controlled casts and land small fish easily by casting short distances.  

You can have a lot of fun in creeks, streams and small rivers where young, juvenile trout can be caught.  

Small waters are the best way to introduce children or beginners to trout fishing as you don’t need to know how to make the perfect cast with the fish in close range.  

Naturally, short rods are lighter, so less tiring to use. 

But if you’re fishing for larger trout, then you switch rods to one a more suitable length. 

A 9-foot rod is the standard length for trout anglers, which will allow you to cast a longer distance for the same effort. 

With a 9-foot 5-weight trout fly rod, you can cast from 10 feet to 50 or 60 feet. Most fish are caught between 15 and 40 feet. 

When fishing for different species of fish (steelhead, large trout or salmon) the best fly rod weight is likely to be a #6 to #8 weight rod. These are usually around 9 feet in length, though they can be up to 10 feet long. 

A longer rod has four benefits:

  • Ease when roll casting
  • Better line management in drifts and less drag
  • Easier mending of the line on the water providing more prolonged natural drifts
  • Extra leverage for fighting and landing fish

9-foot rods are the most popular, and there is a good reason why. Graphite rods, in particular, give you distance, control and flexibility. 

Here’s my full guide on the length of traditional trout rods.

Rod action

Now here’s something that has taken me a while to get my head around.  

Rod action refers to the bend in the rod. Where it bends is key to this as well as the overall construction of the rod.

Faster action rods are stiffer and have a lot of tip flex, making landing fish more fun.  But casting a fast-action rod requires greater line speed and more power to achieve a longer cast.

Then you have medium-fast action rods, which are also stiffer with the bend reaching further away from the rod tip. 

Medium-action rods bend most about one-third the way down the rod. They are easier to cast, allow for more accuracy and are more forgiving.

Here’s my article on Selecting as a Fly Fishing Rod for a Woman.

Rods come in both graphite or fiberglass

While fiberglass is older technology, you can still buy fiberglass fly rods which tend to be a soft action since they bend further down the rod.

Graphite fly rods, made from carbon fiber, are lighter and the most popular option for trout anglers.

The use of carbon fiber means the rods can have a swift action. These are expensive rods and often used by experienced fly anglers.

And then there is the split-cane rod used by the old-timer trout angler, such as my great-uncle used one hundred years ago. These tend to be slow-action rods.

2-piece rod or 4-piece rod?

Twenty years ago, it was most common to have rods that came in two pieces.

The thinking was that any additional joins (called ferrules) interfered with the rod’s flexing ability.  

However, as the technology has improved, most of today’s rods, made from carbon fiber or graphite, come as four-piece rods. 

The key difference is that four-piece rods pack down smaller and are easier to transport.  

The other advantage is that if one piece breaks (most likely the tip), you can more easily replace that section. (Some rods are sold with a spare tip, while others come with a lifetime guarantee.)

You can also purchase shorter 5-piece or 7-piece rods specifically for backpacking. 

Backpackers often fish in the backcountry, where there are smaller rivers and spring creeks.

Many of these are 5-piece, or 7-piece rods are shorter rods making them an excellent rod for this small stream fishing.

Choosing a reel for your new fly rod

The purpose of the reel is to hold the line that is not in use.

Also, it needs to work well when winding in surplus line when you catch a fish, and it must provide a good adjustable drag system to provide tension again a trout that is making a break for it. 

Matching the reel to your rod and line weight is about finding one that is a good balance. Neither too heavy nor too light.

The reel must be able to hold the selected backing and fly line. 

Reels come in various sizes and weights.  

Usually, a reel designed for a 4 weight line will also work with a 3 weight or a 5 weight line.  

Reels are frequently made for multiple-sized lines.  You will see numbers such as size 3/4, 5/6 or 7/8. 

The reel quality does not matter so much for small fish. But when fishing for steelhead, large trout or salmon, and therefore using a heavier line and rod, you need a more robust reel so you can manage the fight.

You can spend a fortune on a quality reel, which may last you a lifetime.

But if you’re starting, go for a budget option and upgrade when you know what will help you catch more fish. 

Will it be windy where you plan to fish for trout?

Here in New Zealand, a small island nation at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, we can get lots of windy days, especially in springtime, our prime trout fishing season.

I have two choices, stay home or try to find a spot on the river that is not too windy. It depends on how I feel on the day and how much my mental health needs the fresh air. 

But there are several options to counter the wind. 

Rod action

Try a medium-fast or fast-action rod. These rods require more line speed and power, but the line will cope better with the windy conditions, even when using lighter tippets. 

Overline your rod

Use a heavier line by overlining your rod. Line manufacturers often make lines already a half-size heavier than the standards prescribed. The extra weight helps less experienced anglers cast and moves the leader and fly through the air with greater power. 

Increase rod weight

Go up a rod size which will help you punch into the wind. While many fly fishing anglers prefer a 5-weight rod for most river and weather conditions, moving up to a 6-weight rod will help you make more accurate and longer casts in windy conditions.

Change the leader

Shortening your leader will allow you will be able to control your rig more easily. And there is less chance that you will snag yourself as the fly whips past your body. Every angler has a story of getting hooked by their own equipment.

Simplify your rig

You’ll make your life more difficult if you try to cast tiny flies or huge steamers into the wind. 

Instead, choose a single medium-sized fly underneath a small indicator. You will have fewer tangles and less frustration. Also, go for longer drifts, so your fly in the water longer and your fly will spend less time in the air. 

Practice your casting

Practice your casting technique to counter the wind. There are unique casting tactics to cope with wind, whether behind you or coming directly into your face. My favorite casting videos come from the legendary Joan Wulff.  

Learn how to ‘double haul.’ 

Learn how to ‘double haul’ your cast. This technique is excellent for achieving longer casts but will also help with control due to the quicker line speed. 

Choose a small stream where there is more cover

Think about the wind direction and the amount of protection provided by the surrounding landscape and vegetation. Also, small streams rely on shorter casts. 

Your Budget

As a beginner fly fisher, your best option can be a rod combo for a reasonable price.

A good choice could be to get your first rod, reel and line for less than $200 (in a market where costs range from $50 to $1,000).

There is nothing wrong with this setup to start you off.

There are plenty of other things to spend your money on – flies and fly boxes, vests and backpacks, waders and wading boots, nets, amongst others.

Fly fishing is a gadget girl’s dream. I know, I am one.  

But buy yourself a new expensive rod when you know what you’re doing, and the difference the right fly rod will make. You might even catch more fish!  

My initial advice is to give fly fishing a go! Get some exercise and have fun.