Differences between high-end and mid-priced fly rods
September 2010

Almost a year ago I became the proud owner of a state of the art 9wt Scott S4s fly rod.  It weighs a mere 4.1 ounces, is smooth, fast, loads quickly and is a dream to cast.  The soft tip and light weight make it extremely versatile.  I have been so enamoured with this rod I posted a review on this website.

On the down side, I have broken my 9wt twice in the last 10 months; both times ostensibly my fault.  On the first occasion I gilled a kahawai while fishing from my kayak and failed to release sufficient line before placing the rod, facing directly away from me, on the deck. This action created hair-pin bend pressure on the tip and produced the inevitable result, a broken rod tip.  On the second occasion I hooked-up close to my feet on the Tongariro and upon lifting the rod it broke at the tip in classic high stick fashion.

Fortunately I have a back up stick: a TFO Axiom.  Although it is twenty five percent heavier than the Scott S4s and nowhere near as much fun to cast, it has done more time on the kayak and the Tongariro ... and is yet to break.  Similarly my three Loomis GLX trout rods have been workhorses for the past 14 years, have travelled internationally, been dropped down cliff faces, clobbered with tungsten beads and bent by a great many fish - and I have yet to break one.  

So where could the problem lie with my latest high-end rod?   

Leading manufacturers are on a perpetual quest to produce lighter fly rods, as all things being equal, the lighter the rod the more efficient it is as a casting tool.  By way of example Sage (Xi3), Scott (S4s) and Loomis (NRX) have all introduced fast action 9 foot 9wt rods in the last 12 months, weighing less than 4.2 ounces.  The trend has also been toward softer tips to reduce swing weight, smooth casting, improve presentation and load the rod more quickly.

Although the new generation of light, fast fly rods are a joy to cast, the blanks need thin walls and are constructed with stiff ultra-high modulus graphite, both of these factors increasing fragility.  Even though manufacturers use high tech resins and/or wraps (know as scrims) of other materials, such as glass fibre or lower-modulus graphite to reinforce the blanks; state of the art rods are just not as tough as slightly heavier thicker-walled rods constructed with lower modulus graphite.  

To put ultra-high modulus into perspective, the revolutionary high modulus IM6 graphite, introduced to the rod-building industry in the 1980s, is rated at 38 million modulus, while the stiffest graphite fibres used in the production of current cutting edge rods have ratings around 80 million modulus.

The most recent innovation aimed at protecting and reinforcing ultra-high modulus graphite fibres involves the inclusion of nano silica particles in the epoxy resin. Loomis NRX (Nano Resin X) rods released in August 2010, are reputed to be 15% lighter and 20% stronger than their previous flagship models, the GLX series; but only time will tell how tough they prove to be.  Other manufacturers, including Hardy (SINTRIX) and St Croix (Elite), are also making use of the nano resin technology developed by 3M.  Scott, Orvis and Sage, on the other hand, having done some preliminary tests decided that at this stage the nano silica resins do not offer sufficient advantages to warrant new models constructed of it.

 In September 2010 I purchased two inexpensive TFO Professional Series fly rods (a 5wt and a 7wt) for my partner. With medium-fast actions I figured they would be easier for her to cast than my Loomis GLXs or the TFO Axiom.  While the finish and components are not at the level of my Scott S4s or Loomis Streamdance, they are excellent given the price.  Even though the hardware may not last forever, it is certainly good enough to provide many years of trouble free service.  And letís face it with technology developing at the present rate she will probably upgrade the rods in a few years anyway.  

Testing the TFO Professional Series fly rods on the Tongariro, I found them to be incredibly forgiving, smooth, and easy to cast, with surprising reserves of power in the butts for fighting strong fish and making longer casts.  Weighing in at 3.8 and 4.3 ounces they are not the lightest rods on the market, but on the water did not feel at all heavy and I enjoyed with fishing them !  Another pleasant surprise with the TFO rods is that they have a life-time no-questions warranty.  As parts are interchangeable the repaired rod is in most instances available within a week, which beats waiting 8 weeks for a factory repair.  Most top manufacturers produce excellent mid-priced rods, built with lower modulus graphite blanks and cheaper hardware than used on their high end models - the Sage Vantage, Loomis Xperience and Scott A3 series being good examples.

The gap in performance between medium-priced and top of the range fly rods is a lot narrower than it was a decade ago.  Recent developments in resin, taper and other aspects of rod action are easily applied to cheaper lower modulus rods, with little additional cost.  While modern medium priced rods are usually a little heavier than top end models, they cast almost as well and are invariably a good deal tougher.  Toughness is an important factor when you are in the backcountry and a broken rod could ruin a trip and waste a lot of effort.  In future I will be taking a much more serious look at mid-priced rods and weighing up the trade-offs, before leaping in at the top end.  I wait with anticipation to see if nano silica resin technology changes this perspective.