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Fly-rod ‘actions’- What Do They Mean?

I guess one of the more confusing elements of fly-fishing is the hotchpotch of terms used to describe the “actions” of fly-rods. Hopefully I can dispel some of this confusion and help making a decision on which fly-rod to buy, easier.

Pared right down to basics, the term ‘action’ describes the way a rod bends. But don’t all rods bend the same way I hear you mutter? Well no, they don’t. It would all be very easy if rods bent in one constant arc from butt to tip (parabolic), but most don’t.

They don’t bend in a constant arc because a rod is tapered from butt to tip - the thin section of the rod near the tip bends much more than the thicker mid-section of the rod, which bends more than the butt section.

Rod makers are able to control the ‘action’ of a rod, the way it bends and flexes, by making adjustments to the way the building material is laid-up.

A fly-rod has to perform two main functions, cast a fly-line and help land a fish once it is hooked.

The casting action of the rod is the prime function, and should be seen as being way more important in freshwater trout fishing than its ability to help land fish.

The reason is simple, when fly-fishing you do a great deal more casting than you do fighting a fish. There is a case for calling the sport 'fly-casting' rather than fly-fishing.

To cast well an angler must be able to ‘load’ a rod during the back-cast - that is put the maximum bend in the rod at the end of the back-cast, so when the forward cast is made, the rod, trying to straighten, imparts the maximum acceleration to the fly line, above and in addition to the acceleration the angler imparts to the cast.

This is where a rod action becomes of great importance – choosing the wrong action for the type of casting you will mainly be doing, and that matches your casting ability, can make achieving your casting, and therefore your fishing objectives, difficult.

Back a few years rod actions were generally described as having ‘fast’, ‘medium’ or ‘slow’ actions:

graphic showing rod actions

So, why ‘fast’ action?

Well because a fast action rod does not load so far down the rod, when the rod straightens at the end of the cast the tip moves less distance than the tip of a medium or slow action rod.

So the fast action rod is a rod that straightens faster, than a medium action rod, which straightens faster than a slow action rod.

All that is pretty easy to digest, but things got muddy.

We need to remember that the basic sequence for a good cast is ‘slow – fast – stop dead’. That is, start the casting stroke (forward or back cast) moving the rod slowly as it starts to load, then accelerate the rod tip just before the end of the cast, and come to a dead stop, allowing the rod to unload (straighten) and send the fly-line on its way.

One of the biggest hurdles to teaching someone to cast is to stop the tendency to put too much ‘power’ into the cast.

Men, especially younger men, are a particular problem here. Some have some difficulty coming to grips with the fact that casting is all about timing and very little or nothing about power and strength.

But the development of graphite and carbon fibre rods lead manufactures deep into the marketing jungle of ‘feature-itis’, and miles away from explaining the 'benefits' of the new rods and their actions.

(A quick lurch into Marketing 101 – features are facts - benefits are what the features should do for you. A feature without a benefit is useless crud!)

So we as anglers were assailed from all sides by fly-rod advertising, listing an apparently endless range of features on new rods - but very little explanation as to how these features help the angler. Unfortunately this kind of advertising continues today. Show me the benefits!

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Reading the features you would get the impression that this year’s crop of rods will allow you to cast from here to eternity, with a rod so light you need to tie it to your wrist to stop it blowing away.

These advertisements all featuring 30 something macho men, with carefully manicured 3 day old beards, caps pulled way down, and stony stares hidden behind mega-buck sunnies,(probably gearing up to fish for 5 inch rainbows in a four foot wide stream). The message is clear – if you are not using the latest and greatest rod technology – you are a bunny.

Set against their own marketing messages, I think many rod manufacturers started to run scared of the ‘medium’ and ‘slow’ rod action descriptions, as it clashed with the tone and content of their marketing.

Rod buyers, new buyers especially, felt a medium or slow rod was somehow less effective and powerful at casting than a ‘fast’ rod. After all what gung-ho angler wants a 'slow' rod when there are 'fast' rods on offer.

From my experience when I owned my tackle shop – too many anglers bought fast action rods because they thought it would help them cast further. Faint hope.

So new terms were introduced to make various rod actions more attractive to a range of buyers and satisfy their real needs and wants. That is where the water can get really muddy.

New action descriptions started to creep in; “tip-flex”, “mid-flex”, “through-flex”, “tip-action”, “mid-action”, and “through-action”. There are more. Most of these descriptors were designed specifically to counteract the notion that fast rods were more ‘powerful’ than slower action rods.

Because the fact is no one ‘action’ is more powerful than another.

So what are the key benefits and downsides of each type of broad action category? (And what follows are generalisations.)

First let’s look at casting:

Fast Action Rods (Includes tip-flex and tip-action et al.)

These rods have most of the bend or flex in the top third of the rod. They load faster than most other actions, and un-load faster. Because of this, the arc the rod tip (note: the tip section, not necessarily the whole rod) moves through from loaded to un-loaded tends to be shorter, and things happen faster.

In the hands of a competent or expert caster a fast action rod can produce longer casts than other rod actions. But the devil is in the detail. Read that bit about “in the hands of a competent or expert caster” again.

In general, faster action rods make learning to cast well for those new to the sport more difficult than it could or should be. It is harder to get the timing right and timing is all when casting. The basic casting sequence flows quickly - often too quickly.

In fact, and to their credit, some rod makers do advertise the fact that the fastest rods are more suitable for ‘expert’ casters.

Some anglers (me included) find fast action rods are good for casting heavy shooting-heads, on line-weights over 6wt and on up to 10wt and more.

But, and again, learning to cast heavy shooting-heads before you are a competent caster, on any action rod is difficult.

Casting heavy flies (streamers) and weighted nymphs can be difficult to impossible for less than skilled casters. Heavy flies and nymphs tend to magnify casting difficulties and faults regardless of the action of the rod, and greatly magnify the problems imposed by fast action rods.

Things just move too fast, timing tanks, and a streamer fly hanging off an ear or smashing through a rod is not an unusual consequence.

Medium Action Rods (includes mid-flex, mid-action, et al)

Medium action rods bend most in the top two-thirds of the rod, from the middle section through to the tip. Because of this medium action rods load more slowly than fast action rods, and the tip moves through a greater arc from loaded to unloaded - and just to re-iterate, I am talking here of the arc the rod-tip moves and not the overall arc the tip moves as the angler casts, moving the whole rod.

But in the hands of a new angler this has two distinct advantages over a fast action:

Medium action rods are probably the best option for all-round fishing for newer anglers, in any type of water – streams, rivers and lakes.

But this should not deter skilled casters. Medium action rods perform well in most fishing situations, from short range casting to thumping out a whole-fly-line-off-the-reel monster casts.

Slow Action Rods (includes through-flex, through-action et al)

Slow action rods bend right through from the butt section, (bottom third), of the rod to the tip. As the ‘slow action’ description implies these rods tend to load more slowly than other types.

You could surmise that because a slow action rod loads more slowly it would be ideal for a novice, but it is not necessarily so. Timing when using a slow action rod can be just as difficult as when using a fast action rod. This is back to the power thing again.

When using a slow action rod the timing of the basic casting sequence is critical. It is very easy to try and speed things up by applying power before the rod is ready – usually leading to several loops of line draped around the head, or a pile of line in the water just in front of your feet.

But in the right hands, and this means skilled casters, and many competition casters, a slow action rod can belt out line over huge distances.

The slow action gives the caster greater time (and often distance) to accelerate the rod through the casting stroke, so when the rod is punched to a dead stop the line is moving at maximum speed, there-by achieving maximum distance.

Casting heavy nymphs and streamers is often best accomplished on slow action rods – again, because there is just more time to concentrate on the timing of the cast.

Casting small dry flies or tiny nymphs and midges, over relatively short distances to spooky fishy is often best achieved with a slow action rod.

It is much easier to achieve ‘delicate’ fly presentations with a slower action rod. You can gain, often valuable, time to make minor adjustments to the cast to drop the fly right where you want it, or more importantly where the fish wants it.

Rod Actions and Playing a Fish

Leaving poorly tied knots out of the picture, it is likely most trout are lost by either pulling a lightly embedded hook out of a fish, or, snapping a leader or tippet. Both these issues are relative.

Tearing a size 4 streamer out of the lip of a 14lb brown using 12lb leader or tippet is not hard to do. Just as tearing a size 24 miniscule fly out of the lip of a 10” rainbow is not hard to do even when using a 2lb tippet.

A fly-rod should provide two prime benefits when playing a fish:

So this is where what is called the ‘working curve’ comes into play.

When playing a fish the working curve is the optimal bend in the rod to achieve the maximum ‘cushioning’ while still providing lift and pressure above and below the optimum working curve.

This means that if you were to fix the rod butt in a position that the rod was horizontal to the floor, and apply a weight to the tip so the rod tip is vertical to the ground, this would be your optimum working curve. The rod should be able to be bent deeper into the butt section by applying about 25% more weight, but still hold a good curve when about 25% of the original weight is removed.

In practice the working curve is rarely maintained as a constant.

The lunges of a fish will pull a deeper curve into the rod increasing line pressure, increasing the risk of snapping a tippet or ripping out a hook - or if the fish swims toward the angler the load on the rod deceases and the curve flattens, decreasing line pressure and increasing the risk of a hook falling out.

So again, in practice, an angler needs to be confident that the range of curves either side of the working curve will provide the optimum cushioning while still maintaining line pressure.

The faster the action of the rod, the faster the curve under load moves from within the working curve to lock-up and another lost fish.

When I first started out fly-fishing I was given a great piece of advice by my fishing mentor – “when playing a fish you must use ‘soft hands'”.

This meant wielding the rod softly and slowly, making no sudden moves, and being prepared to allow the rod to follow the fish if it took off, lowering or raising the rod tip as necessary - but smoothly. Any sudden, hard-hands movement can lead to a hook pull or broken tippet.

Also see 'bow to the fish'...

There is another set of rod action descriptors, ‘hard action’, ‘medium action’ and ‘soft action’.

These descriptions broadly match the basic rod action descriptions of fast, medium and slow actions. But the hard, medium and soft descriptors are good to keep in mind when thinking about playing a fish.

A fast action rod (think ‘hard action’) has the tightest range of working curves when trying to a land a fish. It can be difficult to use soft hands when playing a fish, especially when the fish is over 4 or 5lbs, more especially if you are new to fly-fishing.

Because the range of the working curve is so tight the angler is forced to move the rod quickly to avoid putting on too much pressure on one hand, and increasing the pressure on the other hand.

Smoothness goes out the door – and lost fish come in.

So, which rod to choose?

When looking a rack of rods it is imperative that you review what is on offer set against a very honest self-analysis of your casting skills, and the type of fishing you will do most.

In small streams for fish under 2 or 3 pounds (nymphs and dry fly)

A medium to slow action rod. If you are a competent caster move more towards a slower action especially if delicate presentation is important, if new to the sport stay near medium actions.

In rivers for fish over 2 or 3 pounds
(nymphs and dry fly)

A medium to fast action rod. If a competent caster move towards a faster action, if new to the sport stay around medium actions.

In rivers and lakes for fish over 2 or 3 pounds (streamers or heavy nymphs on shooting heads)

Medium or slow action rod. If a competent caster move more towards a fast action, faster the better, or to a slow action rod. If new to the sport same as above, but, and it is a big but, you will need to get tuition to get you up to speed, from a competent friend, fishing club, or paid tuition.

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Article written by Tony Bishop

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