What’s a Fly Fishing Rod? – A Beginner’s Guide

I’ve called myself a fly fisherwoman for more than 30 years and love that I get to use specialist equipment.  I’m a gadget girl! ? The first item you need is a fly rod. Let’s find out what that is. 

A fly fishing rod is a light, flexible rod used specifically for the casting of lightweight fly fishing lures in both freshwater and saltwater.  Fly fishing rods (often made from carbon fiber or fiberglass) allow you to cast with accuracy to waiting fish. 

Fly fishing is a very old pastime that uses lots of specialized equipment.  That may seem overwhelming so let start by exploring the basics of a fly fishing rod, how it works, and why a good fly fishing rod can make this type of fishing so exciting and fun. 

Whether fly fishing for trout, or salmon in New Zealand, USA, Japan or Mongolia, fly fishing is a popular sport for men and women. 

The basics of a fly fishing rod

The type of fly fishing rod you use depends on the type of water you are fishing, the size of the fish, and the particular technique you employ.

A successful fly fishing setup relies on a combination of elements.  The type of rod, the type of line, the reel which holds the line, and the use of various types of lures.   

Importantly, fly rods vary in what is called ‘weight’ and all fly fishing rods are matched with a choice of fly fishing line.  

Matching is specific to the type of water you fish, the selection of lure, and the kind of fish you wish to catch. 

The smaller the #number of the rod, the lighter it will be and will be used in smaller rivers or when fishing for smaller fish. As a beginner, it is easier to learn to cast with a lower-weight rod.

Large fish require a higher-weight rod. Also, these higher-weight rods allow for easier casting in windy conditions.

How a fly fishing rod works

It is the weight of the line and the physics of the cast which allows for the line to be released from the top of the rod.  

The accuracy and length of cast depends on the skill of the fly fisher, using the right casting technique to deliver the lure with accuracy.

However, having a rod that’s a good match to your line will help a lot.

What are fly fishing rods made from?

As a child, I was fascinated by a long fly fishing rod on the wall of my grandmother’s garage that was made of bamboo. I never got to see it used as my grandfather had passed away, but I was intrigued by its length and use. It wasn’t until I was over 30 years old that I got to use my first fly rod, which I still have. It is made of composite materials – including carbon fiber and fiberglass.

Today I prefer to fish with a lightweight carbon fiber rod, but there are other options.

Bamboo or split cane fly fishing rods

These rods date back to the time before fiberglass rods were made in the 1940s. Bamboo fishing rods are an ancient means of fishing in many cultures.

Bamboo is the heaviest material used to make fly rods, and it is the least versatile. However, they are still used by some fishing aficionados and can come at a high price.

Fiberglass fly fishing rods

Fiberglass fly rods are durable, flexible, and brittle which means they are less likely to break.  Some anglers describe fiberglass rods as “whippy” and this flexibility can be useful to successfully land large fish.  

There is a resurgence of interest in fiberglass rods which have been improved since they were first developed.  However, these rods bend differently from carbon fiber rods which means they can be more difficult for a beginner to cast.

Graphite or carbon fiber fly fishing rods

These two terms mean much the same thing. 

Graphite rods are extremely lightweight. The material itself is lighter than fiberglass and bamboo, and it is stronger.  Carbon fiber is five-times stronger than steel and twice as stiff.

If you are a woman (or like me have some minor arthritis in your hands or shoulders), I prefer a light rod so that I can fish all day without getting tired.  (However it is learning how to case well, and the subsequent quality of casting which has the most impact for making fishing easier and so reducing the tiring effect.)

These rods are sensitive which means you get to feel the fishing biting. But they can be known to break if too much pressure is applied which causes the tip of the rod to bend.

How long is a fly fishing rod?

Fly fishing rods vary in length from 8 feet to 10 feet, or even 12 feet plus. The average length is 9 feet. 

Shorter, lighter rods are used for smaller rivers and streams, while longer rods may be required for heavy saltwater fishing or for specific techniques like Czech fishing. 

The length of the rod is useful for getting your fishing lure to the point in the water where it will be attractive to the fish.  

Fish are spooked easily and casting a light line, with an even lighter fluorocarbon or nylon tippet, will allow you to fool the fish into thinking your artificial lure is something they want to eat.

Choosing a Fly fishing Line

Your line will match the weight of the rod.  

This is important because heavier lines work best with heavier, stronger rods, while lighter lines are all that you need for a smaller, lighter rod for fishing for lighter fish and in smaller streams and rivers. 

Lines vary too in how they behave in the water.  Some are designed to be either sinking or floating lines, while others float but have a sinking tip.  

Once you have matched your line to the weight of your rod, the choice then depends on the type of lure you are fishing.  

The fly line has a smooth coating for casting and for pulling it through the water.  At the end of the line you attach nylon (or fluorocarbon) to which you tie on the lure. 

The idea is that the fish will not notice, and therefore not be spooked by the clear nylon or fluorocarbon, and think that the lure is real food swimming or floating in the current. 

When the fish attempts to eat the lure, then the small hook needs to be set, allowing the fish to be slowly reeled in and landed using a net. 

Choosing a Fly Fishing Reel

A fly fishing reel is only used when landing fish.  At other times, it holds the fly line.  However, the weighted part of the fly line only takes up about 100 feet (30 meters) so it is attached to a backing braid.  (The back braid and line are kept on the reel when not in use.)

The best reel will feel comfortably matched to the weight of the rod, meaning more ease with casting and less fatigue. 

Types of Fly Fishing Lures

A fly fishing reel is only used when landing fish.  At other times, it holds the fly line.  However, the weighted part of the fly line only takes up about 100 feet (30 meters) so it is attached to a backing braid.  (The back braid and line are kept on the reel when not in use.)

The best reel will feel comfortably matched to the weight of the rod, meaning more ease with casting and less fatigue.  

Types of Fly Fishing Lures

Types of lures include:

  • streamers or wet flies that imitate small fish, crayfish etc. 
  • nymphs that imitate small aquatic insects (often the immature form of some invertebrates, particularly insects)
  • dry flies that imitate insects found on the surface of the water (such as mayflies and caddisflies)

They are all designed to mimic the natural creatures that live in the water so that fish are tricked into taking a bite, and with that get trapped on the hook. 

In general, if you are fishing a dry fly that sits on top of the water, you would use a floating line.  

Whereas, if you are trying to imitate a small fish, you would use a sinking line that gets the lure down to the spot in the water where the fish are feeding.

Why buy a fly fishing rod?

Fly fishing is an outdoor activity that brings lots of challenges, and excitement.  

People enjoy it for different reasons.  The most common joy is the feeling of outwitting a fish and the thrill that comes with feeling the life force of the fish on my line.  

While some people enjoy eating trout (especially smoked), I prefer to ‘catch and release’ so that I can return to the river knowing that there will always be fish to try to catch.

And on the days that I don’t land a fish, just being on the river is a wonderful experience.