Over the past few years I have muddled along with a few different fly rods, primarily using the (criminally underrated) Cortland Brook 8’6″ 5-weight as my all-around rod and the Tenkara Rod Co. Cascade as a dedicated small stream/backpacking rod. These rods have made for excellent companions.
But the gear bug spares no one, and I’ve been getting sick of packing multiple rods on every trip. With all that in mind, I began thinking about a single rod solution for the types of fly fishing I primarily encounter in Arizona. Many very long dinner conversations later I came up with a working list of the characteristics such a rod needs. Then my wife told me to shut up and go buy the stupid thing so she could stop hearing about it. Victory!
Unlike most everything we do here (see: Marmots, butts, etc.), this seemed genuinely useful to the broader community so I decided to do a write up with my final decision. Think I’m wrong? Think I’m right? Let me know in the comments below.
LET IT BEGIN:
THE PERFECT ARIZONA FLY ROD MUST BE SHORT
Arizona is a very pokey place.
And while notable exceptions due exist (Hey there, Black River), casting on most of our streams is a tight, nasty, pokey affair.
Rods over 8 feet need not apply.
THE PERFECT ARIZONA FLY ROD MUST BE REASONABLY POWERFUL
Most Arizona fishing is small stream/small fish biased. However, sometimes this happens:
Think that’s a once in a lifetime event? Go read Ben’s “Small Stream Gems” over on Arizona Wanderings. We’ll wait.
If you fish Arizona long enough you are going to run into big fish. And when you do, you need to be prepared for it. While plenty of people have caught monsters on 0-, 1-, 2-, and 3-weight rods, those long fights are awfully hard on the fish. That being said, pulling this little guy…
…or this little guy…
…on an 8 weight wouldn’t be very exciting. The right answer then, is a boring one– stick with the classic all-around weights, 4 and 5. They are classic for a reason.
THE PERFECT ARIZONA FLY ROD MUST BE AT LEAST 3 PIECES
All Arizona’s best fishing holes are hidden behind hikes like this:
You are going to need a rod that breaks down.
THE PERFECT ARIZONA FLY ROD MUST BE VERSATILE
I have written a great many words about Tenkara rods. I love their simplicity, I think they are perfect teaching tools, and on small streams a reels are more of a hinderance than a benefit.
That being said, even a true tenkara lover like me must recognize that there are limitations. Rods that are small enough to work well on small streams, like my beloved Tenkara Rod Co. Cascade, just don’t have the reach you want on most water. The standard 12 foot tenkaras solve this problem, but are too unweildy for the tight quarters casting. Buy a tenkara, use a tenkara, teach people on tenkara, just don’t call tenkara perfect.
THE PERFECT ARIZONA FLY ROD MUST BE A BEATER (AND HAVE A GOOD WARRANTY)
As Mark points out over on TroutBumming, much of Arizona’s best fly fishing requires light canyoneering.
I regularly encounter holes deep enough, surrounded by canyon walls steep enough, that the only options are scrambling or swimming. Sometimes you will be smart enough to put your rod away before attempting such a thing, but swims can start on accident (the OH-GOD-THAT-IS-DEEPER-THAN-I-THOUGHT swim) and I am almost always too lazy to break down my rod before a scramble. I admit this is dumb.
Many rods are legitimate, heirloom quality works of art. While such things unquestionably have their place, tossing them up on a ledge you are kinda-pretty-sort-of sure you can climb so you don’t have to swim a freezing cold hole is not one of them. It’s just a matter of time until a rod exposed to such abuse is lost or broken. You need a rod you wont feel bad about abusing.
On that note, buy from a reputable manufacture with a long history of good customer service. You are going to need it.
AND THE WINNER IS…
This is by no means and exhaustive list, but my final choice came down to two options.
First up, the Echo Glass 7’4″ 4-Weight. The Glass is beautiful without being pretentious, well thought out, reasonably priced, and has a stellar warranty. Plus, buying an Echo supports a company that works hard to build entry level products that aren’t a poor-person penalty box, a quality I deeply admire. Unfortunately the Glass was literally impossible to find in the Greater Phoenix Area (EDITOR’S NOTE: Phoenix, land of 0.0000005 fly shops per capita), and the closest stand-in I could find was the Reddington ButterStick, which was too slow for my casting stroke. Unfortunatley the Glass remains an intriguing mystery.
Which brings us to my choice– the Orvis Clearwater 7′ 0″ 4-weight.
I’ll be writing a full review of the Clearwater after the end of the season. Suffice it to say that this is Orvis’ rod in the $200 price range– decidedly above entry level, but made abroad and lacking the obsessive attention to detail that Orvis is known for. It is a classic graphite blank, with a fast-but-not-absurdly-fast action, and a stereotypical cork reverse half-wells grip. And since you are going to ask, the blank is hunter green and the wraps black. Not that the fish care.
My back injury has limited my time with the rod thus far to one quick afternoon and a lot (read: half and hour or so daily for a month) of backyard casting. As far as casting notes go, 15 feet is excellent as long as you keep your rod speed up, 25 feet is nearly perfect, 50 feet it has the power but there is a noticeable decline in accuracy. And yes, it will cast a whole line. There are better tools for that job, but with a good double-haul 75 feet plus casts are possible.
One thing to note, however, is that I would not consider this rod beginner friendly. Short rods of reasonable power have always been, and will always be, an expert’s tool. Patience is the key here– watch your back-cast until you learn the cadence of the rod and resist the urge to make up for the lack of length by adding power too early in your stroke. It’s not hard, but it takes practice.
So is this the answer to my Perfect Arizona Fly Rod conundrum? I won’t know until I’ve fished the hell out of it. But so far, things are looking good. If you need me in the meantime, I’ll be fishing.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.