The vast majority of broken rods are caused by angler error. Here’s what you can do to avoid shattering your fly-fishing dreams.
[by Steve Duda]
It is a place a few miles west of Seattle and just this side of purgatory. Generations of graphite fly rods are packed in their tubes and stuffed into groaning horizontal bins. The rods come from across the globe and wind up here, a few steps from a loading dock overlooking a small bass pond and casting platform tucked behind the Sage Manufacturing facility on Bainbridge Island. It’s certainly a pleasant enough scene until you realize that inside the aluminum tubes, every single fly rod is broken, splintered, or smashed. Aside from graphite, wood, and cork, these tubes contain the residue of anguish, the bitter taste of anticipation dashed, and the memories of fishing trips ruined.
“Do you know how many times people have said to me, ‘You’re never going to believe how I broke this rod.’?” says Paul Johnson. “Well, guess what? I believe it, and in fact, I’ve probably heard it a hundred times already.” Johnson figures he’s worked just about every job in the Sage facility and has seen everything from thousands of snapped tips (the most common break) to rods incinerated by lightning. “They were completely fried,” he recalls. “The rods were unidentifiable except for the reel seat and the guides. The graphite looked like singed hair.”
But how are most fly rods broken? Jim West, who runs the repair department at Orvis, considers the question for a few moments. “Stupidity,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe how many rods get slammed in car doors or snapped by a power window because the tip is hanging out or broken by trying to yank a fly off a log or a branch.”
Tim Rajeff has been around fly rods for his entire lifetime—as a competitive caster, guide, television host, and now the owner of Echo Fly Rods. “Ninety-five percent of our warranty work is from people who admit that the breakage was their fault,” Rajeff says. “Rods only break for one of three reasons: they’re either injured, stressed beyond their design limits, or defective.”
According to Kerry Burkheimer, who builds some of the finest custom fly rods in the world and repairs about 170 per year, “There’s a question mark regarding about seventy of those rods. The other one hundred were slammed in a car door, or a dog ate it, or whatever. I really don’t think that fish break fly rods; anglers break fly rods. There’s often no apparent reason why a rod breaks, but believe me, there is always a reason.”
“The heat of the moment breaks fly rods,” Johnson says. “We all lose it a bit when we have a big fish in front of us that we really want to land. That’s usually when the breakdown starts.”
So how can you avoid hearing the horrible sound of snapping graphite? Well, no one but you can help with the stupidity thing, but there are ways to avoid overstressing your rod while fighting a big fish. By learning what to do—and what not to do—with your fly rod when you’re on the river, you can protect your investment, ensure that your trip is not cut short, and even land more fish. These five angler errors are responsible for a large percentage of the rods coming into repair shops every week. Here’s how to avoid having your rod end up on the operating table.
The most common error is high-sticking—holding the rod at, or close to, vertical while fighting or landing a fish—which bends the rod in a candy-cane shape, causing the most fragile part of the rod, the tip, to bear the brunt of the stress. Anglers in boats make this mistake most often because a fish can swim quite literally right under the angler’s feet, or even under the boat. When a graphite fly rod is bent, the fibers on the top of the bend are stretched, while those on the inside of the bend are compressed. Since the tensile strength (stretch) of carbon fiber is higher than the compression strength, a fly rod almost always fails on the compression side.
When you’re landing large or heavy fish, it’s critical that you take care to note the stress you’re putting on the rod. The closer the rod gets to vertical, the closer it is to failing. A net is invaluable. They don’t just land fish, but they save rods, too. Aside from shortening the time the rod is stressed, a net increases your reach, thus decreasing the stress on the rod simply because the rod is not so close to vertical.
It’s also possible to high-stick the rod when you’re not fighting fish. Countless rod tips are popped by anglers who rig their rods by threading the fly line through the bottom guides and then bend the rod to thread the line through those final guides at the top. Thousands of expensive graphite sticks meet their premature and tragic demise this way—snapped in the parking lot or at the boat ramp moments before the day’s fishing is about to commence.
2. The “Assist” Hand
When a rod explodes in the heat of battle, the culprit is often the angler’s wandering hand creeping up the rod in an attempt to gain leverage and control. Sometimes, it feels as if the rod is bending too much, and you need to give it a hand. What really happens the second you grab the blank is a dramatic reduction in the strength and power of the fly rod.
“If you put your hand up on the rod while fighting a fish, that energy is no longer being dispersed over nine feet because you’ve essentially cut the butt section of the rod off, and now you are asking the weaker sections of the rod to absorb all of that force,” explains Johnson.
Burkheimer concurs: “A fly rod is meant to be loaded in a smooth, progressive arc, all the way down to the handle, which is the strongest part of the entire rod. If that hand goes up, you lose power and you could break your rod. It’s a double whammy.
The simple solution? Fight the fish from the butt of the rod, and no matter how powerful, resist the urge to slide that hand up. Instead, concentrate on applying steady, even pressure on the fish.
Once the initial frenzy of the hookup has subsided, use every available resource to bring the fish under control. Let your reel’s drag work for you. Properly set, the drag will tire the fish more quickly than anything else you can do. Once the fish’s first few long runs have been answered, concentrate on the fish’s head. Your job here is twofold: First, turn his head. Once the fish decides he wants to go one way, you should wait for the perfect opportunity to turn him the other way. Large, powerful fish hate having their direction dictated to them, and if you can turn that fish a few times, it will often become demoralized and quit. Second, get the fish’s head above water. Once the head breaks the surface, it’s time to end the fight. At this point, the fish can usually be quickly brought to net. Sure, it’s a lot to remember, but there’s only one thing that’s absolutely crucial: Keep those hands on the cork!
According to Johnson, delamination is one of the most common—and insidious—problems. “When there has been a shock to a rod, it causes the layer of scrim and the layer of graphite to slip. That’s called a delamination, and it almost never happens without some sort of trauma. When there has been a delamination, that rod will eventually fail.”
Johnson warns that even the most benign bumps and jostling can begin the delamination process, so you should always store a fly rod in its tube; never transport rigged fly rods in the bed of a pickup or jammed into the back of a minivan, and pay attention to how spare rods are stored when you’re floating. Do you really want that $700 stick slapping against an aluminum raft frame all day?
When gearing up, always make sure your rod is secure—leaning your rod against the side of the truck doesn’t cut it. A magnetized holder, which attaches rods to the body of your automobile, is a good, cheap solution. Another alternative is to use your car’s roof rack. Some rack systems, such as Yakima or Thule, need little more than a few short bungees to provide secure storage that’s out of the way of car doors and clumsy fishing buddies. If your car has a factory rack, you can rig effective alternatives using PVC pipe, foam, and a few pipe clamps. For even more peace of mind, companies such as Sportube, Orvis, and Rodmounts sell systems designed to hold and transport rods safely.
4. Fly Impact
According to Rajeff, one of the most common traumas a fly rod can endure is being whacked by a beadhead or other weighted fly during the cast.
“When a fly hits your rod tip, it could be traveling as fast as two hundred miles per hour,” Rajeff explains. “Imagine shooting a BB at your rod. When that happens, you’ve created an injury to some of the fibers in the rod, so when you bend or stress the rod in some way, that one spot fails. Then the rest of the area fails because the injury does not allow the stress to be distributed over a large area.
When you are casting beadheads, streamers, or weighted rigs, be extra vigilant about your casting stroke. Open your loops, or use the Belgian cast, which features a much more rounded motion. Learn to cast using the water load, in which you use the surface tension of your line and flies to load the rod. Not only will waterloading deliver effective, wind-fighting casts, but it will dramatically cut down on false-casting. The fewer false casts, the less chance you have of beaning your rod with that Clouser, Double Bunny, or Beadhead Stonefly nymph. For the sake of rod preservation, it’s important to work on your casting in all situations because the better caster you are, the less likely it is you’ll break a rod.
5. Unseated Ferrules
Another easily avoided rod breaker is an unseated ferrule, which is like a time bomb, says Johnson: “It’s an almost surefire way to break a fly rod.”
“The ferrule sections loosen up during casting, and if a fisherman does not reseat those sections, they will eventually break,” warns Jim West. “It happens all the time.”
If you are casting weighted flies, sinking lines, or a Spey rod, it’s imperative that you check your ferrules regularly. The constant stresses and twisting action of casting will inevitably loosen those fragile connections. Some anglers combat this with a thin coating of paraffin wax or a tacky specialty product such as Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax (www.sexwax.com), which is designed for use on surfboards but works great on fly rods. Spey casters have long used a short strip of electrical tape to keep sections seated, as well.
The Blame Game
Anglers are inclined to blame manufactures for breaks that occur because of high-sticking, wandering hands, delamination, or loose ferrules, but these are all considered user errors. In reality, manufacturing defects are rare.
“Most people are convinced that when a rod breaks, it’s our fault,” says Johnson. “If a rod’s going to break, something happens to it to cause it to break. With the processes and the quality control we do, blems [rods with manufacturing errors] just don’t happen.”
Orvis’s Jim West agrees. “We go through six stages of inspection. Can something get by us? Sure. Manufacturing defects can happen, but it’s very, very seldom and a very, very minute percentage.
Generous warranty programs have been a part of fly-rod marketing since Orvis first offered their 25-year warranty in 1988, and most companies do an excellent job managing their warranty departments—well aware that their reputation regarding service may be the determining factor in an angler’s purchase decision. But knowing that you can get your rod fixed doesn’t help when you’re waist deep in the river, with fish rising all around you. A rod warranty is like life insurance: it’s great to have, but you’d rather not need it.
Steve Duda is a Seattle-based writer.
“I was guiding this gal and her husband on the Deschutes. She was a lot younger and a lot prettier than he was and hadn’t really ever fly fished much. He told me to go and spend some time with her, and he’d go fish the run upstream. Well, within six or eight casts, she hooks a steelhead. Then, right after that, she hooks another one! That’s just amazing, and I’m thinking that this is going to be a great tip. At this point, her husband walks down, and she hooks another steelhead. This is one hot fish. It makes its run, and her husband is giving advice—do this, do that—and then it charges right at her. That fish goes right between her legs and then the rod tip goes right between her legs. Well I’ll be damned if I was gonna reach down there and grab after it. Needless to say, that rod broke.”
“We had one sad customer who sent in five rods, all broken into eight-inch pieces. What happened was that he wanted to go striper fishing, and his fiancee didn’t want him to go. Well, he went. His future wife wasn’t too happy about that, so when he got back, she busted every one of his rods. We replaced them, of course, but in his note to us, he asked us, ‘Can you send the new rods to my parent’s house, please?’”