Here’s a hypothetical: you have $350 to spend on a new fly rod. Do you buy a brand new mid-market design from a top U.S. manufacturer like Sage or Scott, a top-end design from a foreign importer like Redington or TFO, or a used top-end rod from a few years back? What are you really getting with your money?
I’ve spoken extensively to rod designers about this type of question over the past several years. I doubt any of them would go on record with their truly candid thoughts, but here’s the takeaway: 90% of rod design is in the taper, and the last 10% has more to do with advancements in the resin field than any kind of “pixie dust” or “carbon nanotube additive” that you might hear marketed.
Let’s start with the newest of the new: a high end American rod like the Scott Radian or Sage One. What you’re truly getting here is a rod blank which is tapered by one of the four or five most experienced rod designers on the planet (Jim Bartschi or Jerry Siem, in this particular case). They have access to the absolute latest, strongest, and most importantly the lightest resins and carbon fiber. Lighter, stronger materials = less materials needed to make a rod, and lighter-weight rods are more responsive and subjectively feel crisper in the hand. They have a lower overall weight and are tapered to create the lowest-possible swing weight with existing technology. Swing weight is the perceived weight when casting; it is what an angler actually feels. Thus, the hottest, newest fly rod can feel like a lightsaber in your hand: all grip and nothing above it; just you and a strip of pure electricity connecting your mitt to the line, which you can shape and groove at will. For this, you pay $700+. As each successive rod generation is released, the total overall weight and perceived swing weight of the rods get a tick lighter; the tapers just a hair more refined. Typically, last year’s top-end rod is redesigned with lower-cost materials and finish components and re-released at a mid-market price point. But in terms of disruptive technology, there hasn’t been anything truly new–something that would improve over last year’s model by more than, say, 10%–really since the advent of carbon fiber itself. The newest rods are thus just the latest in a long string of slight to modest improvements over their predecessors, in a timeline going back to the 1980s.
Now consider the foreign imports. What’s really going on here is that offshore manufacturers started several years ago with direct clones or “knock offs” of late-90s/early-00s American-designed rods, typically using inferior grade resins and carbon fiber and thus using more of it. Remember lighter, stronger materials = less materials needed and a lighter weight; here the opposite is true. In the 15-20 years that have elapsed since that foreign “knock off” start point, however, the overseas guys have in some respects set out on their own. Their designers have developed their own skills to the point that they no longer must simply knock off an American taper; they are capable now of designing their own tapers to adjust for the inherent needs of their particular typically lower-grade material supplies. Today, overseas-made rods are most likely (and I am basing this conclusion on the final listed weight of the blank because no one will acknowledge it) still using slightly inferior grades of resin and lower, less-expensive grades of carbon fiber. They may not use as many sophisticated mixing techniques as American-made rods (for example using faster, lighter, stronger, higher-modulus carbon fiber nearer the tip of a rod). An overseas-made rod remains likelier to use the same medium to low modulus material from tip to butt. But remember, 90% of rod design is taper, and that’s why overseas imports can often go toe-to-toe with the best American rods in objective categories like maximum total distance and accuracy of presentation. Where they lag behind is in the subjective categories like perceived swing weight, fit and finish. Today, most of the high-end foreign imported rods are going to cost you from $250-350.
But remember this, too: a master violinist can rock Paganini on a dimestore violin or on a Stradivarius. Given a choice, he’s going to pick the Strad every time. Meanwhile a beginner might only be able to squeak out ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on either violin, and it doesn’t really matter which he chooses. Objectively, both violins can get it done, but it takes a master to wring the pure notes out of the Strad. A beginning fly angler agonizing over which rod to get is kind of like that beginning violinist: he really ought to work on getting past ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ first, then worry about the rod.
The final category is the one where I continue to believe we get the best bang for our buck: last year’s greatness. Fly rod design does not change as rapidly as manufacturers would like you to believe. If you could get ahold of a garage-kept 1995 Toyota Land Cruiser with 15 miles on it, you’d have a bad ass ride, but it would still get about 10 mpg and ride like a Sherman tank. Not so the great fly rods of the 1990s. The venerable Sage XP, Scott’s exquisite G series, even rods like the Loomis GLX: These rods have all the ability to hit the *objective* benchmarks–100 foot casts, putting a fly in a teacup–if you have the ability to wring those casts out of them. In that respect all three of our rod categories are the exact same: objectively they would all benchmark within 10% of each other if each were handled by a master fly caster. But the models of yesteryear continue to have the subjective advantage over their imported competitors: the fit and finish was exquisite back then and nothing has changed now. Their perceived swing weight and total overall weight is in line with that of the newest foreign imports (or in some cases the old domestics may still remain lighter). Even better, certain manufacturers (especially Sage) have accelerated their product cycles in recent years, meaning you can pick up an “old” TCR or Z-Axis (both fantastic rods) which actually have less than ten years on them. And these rods often go for the same average price as their imported competitors (say $250-350), sometimes with ridiculous aberrations like the $150 Sage TCR 590-4 I saw recently. If you trip over a price that low, buy the rod. I guarantee you’ll love it.
Bottom Line: The newest, hottest rods are wonderful but you pay a substantial premium. Foreign, imported rods are objectively about the same as domestic rods now, but they continue to lag behind subjectively. Finally yesterday’s domestic-made thundersticks are the sweet spot for cost/benefit: all the objective ability plus substantially all of the subjective qualities of the current top-of-the-line U.S.-made rods. In short, buying gently used (or recently discontinued) gets you the just about the best of both worlds.