Rods, Reels & Lines, Oh My!

Please forgive my analogy to the famous “Lions, Tigers and Bears” line from the Wizard of Oz, but this is where your venture into the world of fly fishing can get somewhat complicated and confusing. Never fear, your mentor is here (and not behind the curtain).

I’ll give you suggestions about choosing your first fly fishing rod, reel, and line. First, though, here is a brief description of the development of the fly fishing rod.


If you read my page titled “Brief History of the Start of Fly Fishing” you would have noted that the earliest references to the making of fly fishing rods were found in the first published book in English written in 1496. This book entitled “The Treatyse of Fyshynge with an Angle” not only contained details on how to make a rod, but also lines, hooks and even flies.

Jumping forward to the 1960s, my neophyte days of enjoying the sport of fly fishing, my first fly fishing rod was a “glass” (actually fiberglass) rod.  These rods came in various levels of quality and price. Because of the way the fibers crossed each other in the glass rods they where flexible but strong. They seldom broke even under the pressure of a large fish.

As I’ve said, there are a lot of good and not so good rods to choose from. One of the several ways I found of determining the quality of the rod was by counting the number of guides (those wire-like hoops that the fly line goes through). A better rod would have far more guides than a cheap one, providing a smoother passage for the line. Also, a better rod had a more substantial grip, reel seat and locking rings (the rings on the reel seat that are used to hold the reel).

The highest quality and most expensive rods in those days (and still today) were made of bamboo. At least one manufacturer used only the best pieces of Tonkin cane, also known as tea-stick bamboo imported from China. The bamboo segments with which these rods were made were carefully selected for color uniformity, and were impregnated with resin which made them completely waterproof and impervious to extreme heat or cold. Finally, once assembled, the natural surface of the cane was buffed to a high polish resulting in a glossy finish that was in the rod and not on it. These rods are truly works of art and things of beauty, but they are heavier and stiffer to cast.  Many a sore shoulder can be attributed to a full day of fishing with these beauties. In addition, the good ones are very expensive; ranging in price from one to several thousand dollars. I would not recommend considering bamboo as your first fly fishing rod.

About 30 years ago, a remarkable innovation in rod building came along in the form of carbonized fibers, and thus was born the graphite rod. Combined with layers of woven fiberglass for strength the graphite rod’s chief advantage was its lighter weight; not because graphite was lighter but for the reason that not as much material was needed. This allowed use of lighter fly lines which made for less strenuous casting, a real benefit to most part time fly fishermen and especially fisherwomen. I would recommend graphite for your first fly fishing rod. Even they come in a range of quality and price. I’ll address that soon,

Fly rods are classified by the weight of the fly line you will want to use. That’s dictated in part by what type of fly fishing waters you will be visiting, the kind of fish you’ll be catching, and the type of flies you’ll use. For example, if you live in proximity to trout streams of medium to small size and that’s where you will do most of your fishing, you’ll want to look for a 2 through 6 weight rod of from 7 to 8 1/2 feet long. For larger streams or rivers a 7 through 9 weight rod would be appropriate. Here’s a chart with suggested weights and rod lengths for different waters and kinds of fish:

As you can see, lines and rods range in different sizes for most situations. For the smallest flies and spooky fish choose the lighter line size, and for distance, windy conditions and air-resistant flies a larger line size. If you’re fishing from a small boat, canoe, float tube, or drift boat you would want longer rods. They would be better for mending lines (see casting) in different currents. Also, they would provide an extra edge in distance.

I’d like to tell you true story about a rod I own. Notice in the above chart that there is a number two line size. Several years ago I purchased a rod that is only one ounce in weight, 6 ½ long, and calling for a 2 weight line. The combination of rod, reel and line was so light that you hardly knew it was in your hand. I used it for the first time on a  stream in Central Pennsylvania that was known for having some good size trout. After a few catches of smaller trout, I managed to entice a 23 inch rainbow into taking a grasshopper pattern fly. Well, that baby sure gave me a fun fight. That trout took me all over that stream and the rod performed well, but when he finally tired out a little bit and I tried to land him with my net, I soon realized that my rod holding arm wasn’t long enough to make up for the flex of the rod that bent almost double. I just couldn’t get that fish close enough to the net to land him. If it hadn’t been for my fishing buddy doing the netting honors, I’d still be fighting that guy. I’m still wary of using that outfit when there are big fish to be caught.

Before we start talking about your first fly fishing rod purchase let me offer a suggestion. If your new interest in learning to fly fish came as a result of having a friend or acquaintance that’s already enjoying fly fishing, you could ask him or her if they would consider lending you one of their fly rods to practice with. I don’t know any fly fisher who wouldn’t hesitate to accommodate such a request. That will give you a chance to get a feel for casting and could be a big help in choosing the right fly rod to buy. But, before we talk about choosing your first fly rod, a discussion of fly reels is needed. You’ll soon see why.


Now that you have had a primer on fly rods, it’s time to discuss fly reels. Reels perform two primary functions. First and foremost they are the receptacles of the fly line and when attached to your fly rod, provide a balance of weight to allow proper casting.

A secondary function fly reels serve is as a brake to the fly line as it leaves the reel when stripping line or fighting a heavy fish. For example, if you are fishing for a big game fish such as a tarpon, salmon, steelhead or a bonefish; a good brake, or drag system as it is called, is essential.  With the drag set properly just below the breaking point of the leader, the line will go out when the fish runs while at the same time keeping resistance on the fish to tire it down so it can be brought to net.


There are three types of reels: the single action, the multiplier and the automatic. The single action reel is designed as a one for one operation; one turn of the spool winds one spool length of line. This is the most common reel used for fly fishing today. The multiplier reel is just what its name implies. The line will spool at 1 ½ to 3 times for each turn of the handle. This type of real reel comes in handy when fishing big waters where it’s necessary to make long casts and have long drifts. The obvious advantage in those circumstances is the ability to retrieve the line faster for the next cast. Here is a picture of a single action reel on the left and a multiplier reel:

Single action and Multiplier reels

The automatic reel while still available to purchase, is no longer commonly used for fly fishing. With limited line and backing capacity and a closed spool, it has a built-in spring that acts much like a window blind. When an extended arm is depressed, the spool automatically rewinds the line. Because its drag system is not very adjustable, it is not as easy to fight a larger fish. It also makes the process of stripping line for casting more difficult. I do not recommend this reel for fly fishing, as the other two options are more current and effective. Here is a picture of the automatic reel for your information:

Automatic reel

Like all fly fishing equipment, reels have a wide range of quality and price beginning from as low as $20 and escalating to as high as $900.  The price of the reel is dependent on the size of the reel and quality of the drag system among other things. Also, keep in mind that size selection would depend on the type of fishing and weight of the fly line you’ll be using.

Reels are made from various materials including injection molded graphite and machined or cast aluminum. The latter two usually have varied degrees of coatings.

I prefer to use the single action reel with the capacity for an exchangeable spool. That way I can use one reel with additional spools of different weight fly lines. Here’s a picture of a reel and additional spool:

Reel and extra spool.

Here are other single action reels lined up in the order of line weight and size. Starting from the left is a reel for a 2 weight line and ending on the right with an 8 weight. The 2 weight reel is the one that I use with the one ounce rod that I described in my discussion of rods. The 8 weight reel is used on my 10 foot, #8 rod that I use for steelhead fishing in the Lake Erie tributary streams.

Comparison of various size reels

Before leaving this discussion on reels, let me say a few more things about the function of a reel to slow down or brake the fly line as it leaves the reel. This brake or drag, as it is known in reel nomenclature; becomes more important depending on the type of fishing you will be doing.

When fishing mainly for small trout or panfish, the drag is a less important function of the reel.  Even when fighting a larger trout you can control the line by either holding it against the rod or by palming the edge of the reel to slow it down. Some form of drag is needed to control the fly line that you strip or pull from the reel in preparation for casting. Without drag you run the risk of tangles when too much line leaves the spool as you are stripping it.

The drag system in better reels becomes much more important when fishing for larger game fish that can make strong runs that strip a lot of line from the reel. It can be the difference between catching or losing a good fish. I have experienced many such runs with steelhead even to the extent that the entire fly line is pulled from the spool. That’s what is known as “getting into the backing”. You’ll learn about backing in my discussion of fly lines coming up.

As stated in the beginning of this section on reels, one of their primary functions is to be the receptacle of the fly line. Let’s examine the subject of fly lines next.


Fly lines range in overall length between 75 and 150 feet and are made to either float or sink. A sinking line can be full- slow sinking, full- fast sinking or just sinking tip. One instance for using a sinking line would be lake fishing or fishing in very deep holes in a stream. Since you can achieve the same sinking effect with weights added to a floating line’s leader, that’s the one I recommend for your first. The floating line provides the best results in almost all cases.

Let’s now look at the various line designs. There are three main types; 1. The level line, 2. The double taper (designated by initials (DT), and 3. The weight forward (WF). As its name implies, the level line has the same diameter for its entire length, while the double taper narrows at about the length of 12 feet at each end. The weight forward has a larger diameter for about a third of the front end before tapering to the tip. For your first fly line I recommend the weight forward line because of its ease of casting.

Now let’s talk about backing and why you need it. Because of the way that reels are designed, fly line alone would not fill the spool. So, one reason for backing is to provide a base for the fly line. Another reason has to do with what happens when you encounter a long hard run by a larger fish such as a steelhead. Since it is possible for such a fish to pull all of the fly line out of the spool, it’s a matter of necessity to have extra line in the form of backing.

Backing line is for the most part made of Dacron that doesn’t rot or weaken when wet. Its length and strength depends on the weight of the fly line. For fly lines from 2 to 4 pound weight the average backing would be 50 yards long and 20 pound test. Fly lines between 5 and 8 pound weight could call for 80 to 150 yards of 30 pound test. You would need up to 300 yards of high quality Gel Spun (smaller diameter with higher strength) backing for fly lines of 11 to 12 pound weight. Such lines are mainly used for big game fish such as Tarpon, Salmon, Strippers and yes even sharks.


Now that you know all about rods, reels, and fly lines it’s time to talk about leaders; that clear monofilament or blend of nylon polymers that connect your fly line to the fly you will be using to actually catch fish. They are either made in one piece tapering from the heavier butt section that connects to the fly line to the lighter end known as the tippet, or in knotted sections each of a smaller diameter until the lighter tippet end. To further explain  the term tippet, think of the very end section of a leader which determines it’s breaking strength. I’ll address this in greater detail in the next paragraph. Leaders can range in length from 7 feet to as long as 12 feet depending on rod length and the type of fishing you are doing. Being clear, they are intended to be as invisible as possible to allow you to present your fly as an insect unattached to any line.

Leaders are designated by the tippet breaking strength. This is stated as the size number followed by an X. For example, here are samples of leaders and breaking strength stated as their pound test:

  • 3X = 8 pound test (breaking strength)
  • 4X = 7 pound test.
  • 6X = 3 ½ pound test.
  • 7X = 2 pound test

Note that these test weights may vary depending on the manufac-turer and designated type of material such as fluorocarbon (a type of tippet that is most invisible).

Leaders are priced about $4 to $10 each. I would start with one each 4X, 5X, and 6X. You will be able to continue to use leaders even after break-offs of part of the tippets that are bound to occur by tying on new tippets. Spools of tippet materials are made for this purpose and it would pay to buy at least one spool for each weight leader. You can also use different size tippets to change the pound test of a leader.


For your first rod I recommend a mid priced ($100 to $200) graphite 5 or 6 weight with a medium action, either 8 ½  feet  or 9 feet in length. Such a rod will be available in 2, 3 or 4 sections. For traveling by air a 4 piece rod will be less than 3 feet when broken down and will fit nicely in a checked duffel bag.  Such a rod would cost less than $120.

Match the rod with a light weight machined aluminum reel approximately 3 ½ inches in diameter. That size reel will be able to hold up to 80 yards of 20 weight backing plus the WF Floating fly line. You should be able to acquire such a reel with backing and line installed for less than $150.

Now, for the really good news. Many dealers offer a combination package including rod, reel with backing and line installed for less than $200. For your first outfit that can’t be beat. Click on the logos of companies on the right to find just the right deal for you.



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