The fly rod is probably the sexiest equipment purchase an angler gets to make. Whether you are thinking of buying the one rod you will use for every application, or a new rod made with modern technological and design advancements to replace an older one, or looking to add to an ever-expanding quiver, nothing sets the pulse racing like the idea of a new stick.
An average fly fisherman will often browse through the websites of every major rod manufacturer for months before narrowing his choices down to three or four that fit his fishing style and budget. He will generally do a lot of reading online, looking for gear reviews in major publications or from small fly shops, in order to see what professionals have to say on the newest, best, and brightest rods on the current marker. He should definitely check out the Yellowstone Angler’s annual Shootouts because, whether he agrees with them or not, they provide honest and relatively scientific analyses of dozens of the most popular rods; their depth and expertise cannot be disputed. And, in the end, if he is wise, he will go to a local fly shop or to a fly fishing expo and cast his final choices. In the end, he knows he will have to live with his purchase, and fishing a fly rod that makes life difficult is a disappointment that must be relived every time that rod is strung up. The mantra “Choose Wisely” is never more appropriate than in this situation.
But one constant exists among almost all trout fishermen today. Without a doubt, nearly all of us will walk over to a rack of rods and pick up the same one first. This does not mean we all gravitate toward Sage or Scott or Orvis. It means we all focus on the same weight and length of rod – the nine-foot, five weight. This rod has become ubiquitous with trout fishing. It is seen as the best overall choice, the consummate middle ground that allows us to fish dries and nymphs and streamers all in the same day. And, it truly is. There is a reason why most people own one and why so many anglers will replace an old five-weight with a new one without thinking. They allow us to be flexible. And if you only have the money for one rod, that is probably the weight and length for you.
But, what if you already have a five weight and you are thinking about a new, more effective rod? Let me provide another angle.
So often, in attempting to be everything to everybody, we lose our sense of individuality, our sense of identity, that certain quality that makes us truly special. And, that is the downside to limiting yourself to a five weight rod when considering a new purchase. So few anglers actually throw dries, nymphs, and streamers in the same day. This takes an awful lot of on-stream awareness, not to mention skill. Take a beginner and watch him struggle to cast a nymph rig after fishing dries all day. Then have him tie on a medium-sized streamer and prepare to dislodge the hook from the back of his neck… or yours. Adjusting like this takes advanced skills and knowledge, and fishermen who rise to this level should really consider whether having one rod that is capable of this type of versatility is worth giving up performance. It is very difficult to find a single rod that is equally proficient at all three types of fishing. I do not know of a five weight that casts dry tiny dry flies on spring creeks and also casts big streamers with sink tip leaders equally as well. Though there are those who would argue with that I suppose.
So, let’s assume your current five weight is serviceable. It casts reasonably well and is free of broken parts. It might not be an $800 “Rod of a Lifetime,” but it does not inhibit your ability to catch fish. If this is the case, consider not buying a new five weight. Think more like a specialist. When you go to buy your next rod, ask yourself, “Under what conditions do I spend the majority of my time fishing?”
Scenario 1: You fish a lot of big water that requires long casts, bushy dries, heavy nymph rigs, lots of size 2, or larger, streamers and sink tips. You frequently fish in winds exceeding 15 mph, target small- to medium-sized bass with poppers or fish frequently on lakes from a boat. Wouldn’t a six weight rod be a better fit? This would allow you to carry more line and larger flies with less effort. It would make wind or long nymph rigs easier to turn over and mend. Casting to and fighting fish under these circumstances might be enhanced by a rod a bit more on the sturdy side rather than compromising your performance fighting a rod with insufficient power. A lot of this depends on the action and flex, but the ability to throw heavier lines will help you cast large flies a longer distance with better line control.
Scenario 2: You fish spring creeks with tiny dry flies that must be presented delicately. You fish small tailwaters with short, light nymph rigs and yarn indicators using 6X or lighter tippet. You occasionally fish small creeks with pocket water that require short, accurate casts. It would seem you have entered the realm of the four weight. With this rod, you will find short casts easier and tight casts more manageable. Because it can cast a much lighter line, your presentations will be much more delicate when targeting spooky fish in clear water. And, it is far more likely to protect these light tippets with bigger fish unless the current is very swift.
Rather than buy a new five weight that splits the difference, why not keep your old rod for a while and buy something on either side that is more efficient under the circumstances you most often fish? Choose a strength and play to it. Plus, if you are considering a new or second rod, it is likely this will not be your last purchase. You have begun the long slide down the rabbit hole of fly rod collecting. As you explore new waters or begin to travel to exotic destinations, your collection will grow. And you will understand how limited a five weight actually is.
Somebody once suggested to me that an angler looking to own more than one rod should consider going even, or going odd. What he meant was we should think about having 3, 5, and 7 weights or 4, 6, and 8 weights. While I find this to be a little bit overly formulaic, I do agree with the general principle. Who says you have to own a five weight at all? Is it a sin to have a four weight rod for certain tactics and a six weight rod for others? if rod lengths and actions are taken into account carefully, having two rods that specialize nearer to the extremes and blend in the middle makes a lot of sense. A few years back I had a buddy who worked in the fly fishing industry in Bozeman and swore at the time that the Hardy Zenith or Scott Radian six weights were the perfect Montana rods. He almost never fished a five weight. But he did own a four weight Scott G2 for spring creeks.
Budget, I realize, is often the deciding factor in purchasing a first rod. If you truly plan on only buying one rod ever, then a five weight is probably your answer if you are a trout fisherman. Rods can be expensive, and you definitely want to get the most for your money. But if you purchase a good quality rod, the resale on the open market is fairly stout. I have owned and sold more than ten fly rods in the past decade. Each time I used the rod for a year or so and then determined I needed to make a change. Sometimes I used the money to invest in a better, more expensive rod. Other times I just went a different direction. Usually, I can get between 60-75% of retail value on resale. I look at it like a car lease. I get to fish a rod for a year and then decide if I want to keep it. It works the other way as well. If you are looking for a second rod, don’t be afraid to turn to the used market. Craig’s List, eBay, even your local fly shop can offer you great discounts on gently used or demo rods.
In the end, if you are purchasing your first rod, there is nothing wrong with a five weight. There is a reason it is the top seller among trout fishermen. It is the sweet spot that covers the most ground. Just don’t get tunnel vision the next time you get the chance to make that big purchase. Don’t get sucked into conformity and tradition and being a generalist. Consider taking a step to either side of the five weight. Lean a direction and then fill in the gap with your next purchase. Rods have come a long way in the past 20 years, and new materials and tapers have made the rods on the peripheral far more enticing. Give them a chance and think more like a specialist. You might just be surprised at how much more effective you become at the sport your love.