There are many fly rod varieties found in the marketplace today, and one of the principal question I encounter again and again is: what’s the difference between machine vs. handmade rods for fly fishing.
Before I answer that question, let’s talk about fly rod vocabulary.
For starters, fly rods today are mostly made from graphite. The great bulk of use of a fly rod (roughly 95%) is for casting the line/leader and fly in the most accurate and quick fashion possible, and with a minimum of physical effort. The main component of a fly rod is the rod blank, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of different rod blanks made with different degrees of stiffness.
- “Fast” Fly Rods: The stiffest style of a fly fishing rod is called “fast” or “ultra fast” – and a fast, or ultra fast fly rod only bends the top 25-33% of the rod.
- Medium Fly Rods: The next stiffness level of fly rods is called medium. Medium-flex fly rods bend from the top down through 60% of the rod’s length.
- “Soft” or “Slow” Fly Rods: The lowest level of stiffness in a fly rod is the “soft” or “slow” rod. This rod bends through most of its length 85% plus.
How does the stiffness factor translate to performance and feel of the fly rod?
The stiffer the rod, the more power there is to propel the line. With a fast fly rod, you get a lot of power for casting, but in going for the power, you can sacrifice feel and sensitivity for accurate casting, i.e. you can cast far, but not as accurately as you might want. With a slow rod, you get a lot of bend and finesse but you may tire more easily. With a medium flex fly rod, you get the best of both worlds, i.e. a rod with power to cast over to that still pool that’s 40 feet away, and a rod that helps you accurately cast, and then “feel” when the fish is biting or inhaling on the fly.
Since every fly rod has a blank as the main part of the rod, in a fast, medium, or slow flex, what’s the difference between the fly rods on the market today?
In addition to being defined by stiffness (power vs. finesse), fly rods also can be categorized by how they are manufactured. There are three types of fly rod production, and the language describing them can get a little “muddy” and confusing.
The three types of fly rod production are:
- Machine-made fly rods
- Machine-style fly rods
- Handmade, hand-fitted fly rods
All of these production styles of fly rods have their pros & cons. Check out what it really means for machine vs. handmade rods.
What Is A Machine-made Fly Rod?
The most common type of fly rod is the machine made rod. Ranging in price from $100-$500, machine-made fly rods are made on an assembly line using machines. The volume of the fly rods produced number in the hundreds/thousands each day. Each production run makes a specific kind of rod, and they are all the same for that run. Machine-made rods are good and inexpensive because they are mass produced. A machine-made fly rod is the typical starting point for most fly fishermen and women. Some anglers are perfectly happy with these rods while other anglers find themselves wanting more functionality not offered in a mass produced fly rod. The key attributes of a machine made fly rod are: inexpensive cork grip; inexpensive reel seat; small stripping guide; low-cost, two-footed snake guides; a minimal number of guides on the rod; and lots of winding threads usually multi colors. All models use the same materials. The rod blanks lengths (8-foot, 8.5-foot, or 9-foot) are the only variable. A very basic level of quality assurance is performed on each rod.
What Is A Machine-style Fly Rod?
A machine-style fly rod is a rod that’s actually handmade, but to the specifications of a machine made rod. These handmade fly rods use the same style of components as an assembly-line fly rod, just a higher quality component. In this category of fly rods, you’ll find high-end rod blanks, reels made with exotic woods, chrome or titanium snake guides, higher grade cork grips, LOTS of thread, and sometimes extra layers of thread varnish that forms a thick ring around the rod similar to the rings on a night crawler worm. All of these extras contribute to a handsome finished fly rod. A machine-style fly rod typically will have a higher level of quality assurance than a machine-made fly rod, and you can find more variety in the length, line weights, and functional purposes of these types of fly rods. It’s common to find lengths varying from 7-10 feet, line weights between 3 (small beaver pond fishing) to 9 (saltwater fishing). The “action” (flex and feel) of machine style rods usually are much better than mass-produced rods.
What Is A Handmade Fly Rod?
Custom-designed, handmade fly rods are the next level of fly rods built for a high level of performance and feel. The same high-end reel seats with wooden inserts with high-grade cork grips also are used on handmade fly rods. In addition, handmade fly rods make use of high-end rod blanks used for machine-style fly rods, but the difference is that the positioning of single-foot guides on the rod is carefully mapped out to improve the rods flexing and alignment. Making a handmade fly rod involves careful evaluation of the rod’s flexing potential and that’s a more labor-intensive process that requires expert knowledge of rod performance and flexing.
Another aspect that distinguises a handmade fly rod from other options is the type and placement of the guides along the rod. The guides are what marry the action between the line and the rod. This “marriage” is the transfer of energy that the rod flexing creates into the speed of the line moving through the guides. The reduced friction from this approach helps the line to flow out of the rod and on to the water’s surface. Snake guides have several points of friction and do not allow for a precise alignment that loop guides provide. Attaching and aligning single-foot, loop guides are more demanding tasks and takes ongoing adjusting during the production process for it to be correct. In addition, handmade fly rods feature rod components that are carefully hand-fitted, often multiple times to make sure the components are properly installed in the rod. Components that are hand-fitted include: reel seat, reel, cork grip, and the guides. The result of a handmade production process results in a balanced blend of power, finesse, and feel.
There are many types of fly anglers at various stages of development of their casting and fishing skills, and that will determine whether someone wants a machine-made fly rod, a machine-style fly rod, or a handmade fly rod. In addition, many people start with a machine-made fly rod, and as their fly casting and fly fishing skills increase, they move on to a higher grade of fly rod. Hopefully, this article helps you understand the difference between machine vs. handmade rods!
About The Author:
Rocky Bob Knowles is a master fly rod designer & builder, and a master angler with a lifetime of fly fishing, fly rod building, and outdoorsman experience. He is the founder and president of Rocky Bob’s Fly Fishing Rods, and hand makes fly rods, one on a time, at his studio in Denver, Colorado. Bob Knowles can be reached at: 720.810.9763; firstname.lastname@example.org; or www.RockyBobsFlyFishingRods.com