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Are Top-Tier Fly Rods Worth The Cost?

Top-of-the-line rods cost a ton. Do they merit their price tag?

11 mins read

Top-tier fly rods command staggering prices. The newly-announced Winston AIR 2 (which I’ll have a review on posted here in short order) retails for $1,095.00. The Orvis Helios 3 starts at $949. The new Hardy Ultralite LL is *only* $785, and my favorite 9′ 5wt, the Douglas Sky G , is $795.

While Winston isn’t the first company to offer a production rod with a four-figure price tag (that honor belongs to the Loomis Asquith), their move into that territory is indicative of where the fly rod industry is headed. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the next flagship rods for Sage and Orvis top the $1,000 price tag.

Of course, these high-priced fly rods aren’t the only ones available, and I’d wager they’re not even the bestsellers for many rod companies. So, it’s fair to ask if these fly rods are actually worth their asking price?

The short answer? Yes.

The long answer? Let’s dig into the topic a bit more.

Why Fly Rods Cost So Much

First off, it’s important to understand why flagship fly rods are so expensive. While plenty of factors go into the final price, what you’re really paying for boils down to this:

  • Cutting-edge graphite and resins
  • Optimized graphite patterns
  • Weight reduction
  • High-quality components
  • Research and development

A few years back I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Winston factory in Twin Bridges, MT. They showed me the actual rolls of graphite from which their rods are built, and it really put into perspective for me just how much gets invested in building a high-end rod.

Expensive rods use the latest and greatest graphite and resin technology. In layman’s terms, they pick graphite materials that are as light and strong as possible that produce a desired rod action.

The graphite comes in huge rolls, and it has to be cut into certain shapes and wrapped around steel mandrels. The mandrels are machined to produce an exact taper when graphite is rolled around them and the resin is cured. You can read more about the process in this fantastic article by Jim Lepage over at MidCurrent. 

The pattern in which the graphite is cut and wrapped around a mandrel largely determines the line rating and action of the rod. A bit more graphite here, or a bit less there, results in a rod that’s vastly different from what manufacturers are aiming for.

This all ties back to extensive R&D. Making mandrels that have the correct taper isn’t cheap. Determining that taper prior to making mandrels requires extensive engineering, as does the process of layering graphite in patterns that produce a certain action. This is where rod designers make their big bucks – they’re the ones responsible for this entire process.

Creating a new rod from scratch can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. To give you a good idea of how long the process lasts, I fished an early prototype of the now-discontinued Winston Nimbus a full 6 months before its release. The rod I fished and the rod that Winston pushed out to consumers was different – and different in a good way.

This is a fairly brief overview of what drives costs up for fly rods, but it should shed some light on why they command such high prices. If a rod designer spends two years working out the kinks of the next flagship stick for a company, the company has to recoup not just the cost of material investment, but the salary for the rod designer as well.

But Does It Matter?

The next natural question in this discussion is whether all that matters. Does the placement of graphite on the mandrel, the use of high-end resins, and nickel silver reel seats and exotic wood inserts, really warrant the high cost of a top-tier rod?

Yes. Yes it does.

Fly fishing is in a fantastic spot right now because we have so many great mid-priced rods. My best friend Lander Crook has fished tons of my fly rods – everything from a custom Tom Morgan Rodsmiths to an entry-level Fenwick – and one of his favorites is the Fenwick Aetos. It retails for $189, and it’s one of my favorite rods, too.

The Douglas LRS is only $250, but last summer, I reached for that rod over others in my quiver more often than I expected.

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With all that said, these great entry and mid-level rods don’t hold their own when compared to the flagship sticks.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that cheap – or less expensive – rods aren’t good. Some of them are absolutely fantastic. But they’re in a different tier of performance entirely when compared to a rod that retails for $900+ .

And that’s the difference maker – performance. If you want a tool that performs at the highest possible level, then a $900 fly rod is a great investment. But not everyone needs that $900 rod – hence the huge market for mid-priced rods.

Before you write off getting an expensive rod, though, you should be aware of just why I believe they’re worth the money.

What Great Fly Rods Do

Top-tier fly rods do a few things better than any of their lower-priced cousins. For starters, they’re almost always lighter in-hand. That leads to decreased fatigue while you’re fishing.

You’ll probably hear words like “dampening,” “oscillation,” “swing weight,” and “tracking” thrown around often when discussing fly rod performance. Great fly rods are ones with fantastic dampening, little-to-no oscillation, low swing weight, and smooth tracking.

But what does all that mean? Let’s dive into it:

  • Dampening is how we describe the vibration of the rod tip at the end of a casting stroke. Rods that dampen quickly will have tip sections that quit vibrating shortly after you finish a cast. This improves accuracy by keeping the rod tip straighter throughout the entirety of your cast.
  • Oscillation is the tendency of a fly rod’s tip to travel in an elongated oval when casting. As much as we focus on trying to keep the rod tip moving in a straight line during our cast, the tip itself is likely making a long, but noticeable, oval. This is caused by the side-to-side movement of the fine, thin tip sections of a fly rod. Oscillation is natural, but great rods reduce is to have a minimal impact on casting.
  • Swing weight refers to the weight you feel when casting a fly rod. It’s a difficult thing to measure, but it’s noticeable when on the water. A heavy swing weight makes the rod itself feel heavy as you move from a forward to back cast. Low swing weight reduces the fatigue you feel from casting all day.
  • Tracking goes right along with oscillation and dampening. It describes how straight the tip of the rod travels during a fly cast. Rods that track straight are inherently more accurate than rods that don’t.

So, fly rods with high price tags almost universally excel at each of these performance aspects. The Douglas Sky G, for example, dampens exceptionally quickly, oscillates little, tracks straight, and has the lightest swing weight ever measured in a 5wt, according to George Anderson.

The Sage X is light, with a surprisingly stiff backbone that handles nymph rigs and big streamers with surprising ease.

In short, expensive fly rods take all the characteristics anglers look for in a high-end stick, and makes them all work together. That’s why a top-tier fly rod is worth the cost.

Here’s the catch, though – it’s not worth the cost for everyone. If you don’t fish often, you’ll be more than happy with a mid-priced rod. If you’re on the water more than 20 days a year, though, you might find that an expensive rod helps take your fly fishing game to the next level.

Or, you might not. You don’t need an expensive fly rod. One of the best anglers I know fishes with a Cabela’s Three Forks and a Shakespeare knockoff of the Pflueger Medalist. It’s what works for him, and that’s fantastic.

That should be your ultimate goal. Find something that works for you, and stick with it. All I wanted to say here is to not write off expensive rods as overpriced. Some of them are, yes, but by and large, they’re all fantastic products that could be the rod that works for you.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and guide from Utah. He’s the Lead Guide/Owner of The Utah Fly Fishing Company, the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spener_Durrant. 

13 Comments

  1. This is highly misleading article. Nothing in this article will help any angler catch more fish. A reference to George Anderson’s Yellowstone rod shootout further diminishes any credibility. His test categories have no relevance to actual fishing conditions. No serious angler casts a 4 weight rods 60 feet to rising trout, but then again, few actually read Gary LaFontaine.

    This article should come with a disclaimer, that as someone in the industry who tests prototypes for different companies, you can’t bite the hand which feeds you. It’s a shame that rod reviews have come to this. We would create better anglers if articles actually tested real fishing scenarios – tight-lining, aeriel mends, casting a 30 foot sink tip, instead of catering to imagination and ego.

    • David,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and reply to the piece. I think you’ve misunderstood my intent here, and/or I didn’t communicate it clearly enough.

      Do I have problems with George Anderson’s shootouts? You bet. Casting distance categories shouldn’t be weighted the same, because it’s rare to throw 70 feet with a 5wt. But overall, George’s reviews give us a lot of good information.

      I didn’t write this piece to help anglers catch more fish. I wrote it to explain why a top-tier fly rod costs so much. I’ve written extensively on different methods of fishing, and I hope that information helps some anglers.

      If you’d like to chat further about the topic, let’s do it. There’s no ego on my part here. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment.

      • Thanks Spencer, there is no ego on my part either, only the desire to educate anglers. As responsible, accomplished ambassadors to fly fishing our voices should be used to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. Any article about expensive rods, no matter the intention, immediately sucks the oxygen out of the room and inhibits objective analysis and discussion. In turn, it’s created this false feed back loop, where manufacturers and reviewers are forced to discuss the latest high modulus carbon, swing weight, and other details which are secondary to pursuing trout, thinking that is what will drive rod sales. I reject that entirely, and if more time and consideration were given to rods and design functions sales would go up, and anglers would be much more satisfied.

        As for George Anderson, he has minimal helpful information to provide. Apart from his unrealistic shootout categories, he clearly mentions repeatedly why he is biased towards fast-action rods, and that he help helped Douglas with one of their recent rods. Is it a coincidence that one of the Douglas rods finished first? Why is that everyone in all the fly shops I stop by knows about the Yellowstone Shootout, but very, very few have read arguably the best trout blog around – Troutbitten? This article is one of the main reasons. The rods will sell themselves if we all take care to educate anglers first.

      • My hope, I guess, is that all this information on what goes into making a fly rod does help folks make an objective decision for the rod that’s best for them. Knowing what manufacturers are talking about when referring to oscillation, tracking, etc., helps the angler better cut through the marketing BS.

        When I’m reviewing gear, I like to focus on what makes that particular rod really exceptional. Sometimes, it is the high-modulus graphite. Other times, it’s the intangible “feel” of a rod. I view that as my role as a writer and gear reviewer – I need to tell folks why a rod excels at a certain task. But I agree – it’s all secondary to the tactics of chasing trout.

        George has made a name for himself in the fly fishing world and more than earned his keep. He’s been a great teacher for years, and at least he tells us up front that he prefers fast-action rods. I agree that his shootouts leave something to be desired, and it is a shame that Troutbitten doesn’t get read as often as it should.

        To wrap it all up, I think part of educating anglers is giving them the info to make an informed decision on gear. That means understanding why one rod is lighter than another, and how that translates to rod performance. Then, when an angler decides they’re going to chase primarily trout with dry flies, they’ll know they want a rod with a soft tip, strong mid-section, and a light overall weight (the kind of rod I’d pick for that fishing). Rods will certainly sell themselves, but I hope to educate folks on rods and gear in general, so that they can make the most informed purchasing decision possible. And since I don’t get commissions or any kind of payment from these rod companies, I don’t have a vested interest in pushing folks to one over another. I’d rather someone find the rod that fits them best, than the rod that’s most expensive.

  2. Excuse me, but I’m a pretty damn serious angler and I have made 60 foot casts with my Winston 8’9″ 4 wt LT to rising trout. And I read Troutbitten, if that has any relevance at all to this discussion. I find the Yellowstone Angler equipment reviews quite interesting. I have owned many fly rods…Winston, Scott, Loomis, Sage, Redington, T&T, TFO…and I’m sure my biases and opinions will be argued with. Everybody’s different in the sport, and I don’t think we need credentials to have a valid opinion about what we like.

    • Kerry –

      Thanks for taking the time to reply. I appreciate your comments. As you said, we’re all different in this sport, and you’re right – we don’t need credentials to have a valid opinion on what we like. The whole point of this discussion thread was, I think, to explain that I’m not saying you have to have a fancy fly rod to have success in fly fishing. Instead, you need to focus on what works best for you.

      In that same vein, some of us will regularly throw a 60-foot cast with a 4wt rod to rising trout. That’s an impressive feat, and one I certainly mess up more than I do so passably.

      Again, thanks for your input, and reminding us that it’s more important to find what we like, than what other people like.

  3. I’ve been building fly rods for over 50 years, worked for a bamboo rod maker, and yes, not all fly rods are created equal. But a fly rod’s performance is just one of many variables. Chief among these variables are the angler’s casting abilities. Most anglers would be better off buying a $250 rod and getting casting lessons. The high-end rods are like expensive sports cars–most anglers, and I include myself, don’t have the ability to get the most out of them.

    My mentor, Walton Powell, could cast the entire length of a 5-weight line, just standing there, using only his arms–no huffing and puffing or exaggerated body movements. Me? I might get 65 feet with the same setup.

    In the same vein, the “shootouts” are interesting, but to be more useful, we need a “blind” test of rods across all price points, tested by anglers of average abilities.

    Best,

    Joel

    • Joel – thanks for the comment. I agree 100% – blind tests with average anglers would give us a better idea of what fly rods are best for average anglers. Shootouts have a ton of great info in them, but the casting categories are where most of us disagree on how to rate a rod.

      Thanks again!

  4. My problem is that the manufacturers, by necessity, expect us to believe that this years model is the best you’re ever gonna find! Except last yrs model made the same claim. How much can one sharpen a pencil? After all, it’s still a pencil. Are the top tier models this year that much better than the top tier models of ten or more years ago? Noticeably? I own several top name brand rods that I’ve had for many years that were great back then, and are still great.

    • Mike,

      That’s a really valid point. I think it puts the onus on the manufacturers to only push out new rods that really are great. I will say that the difference between the Orvis Helios 2 and the H3 rods was night and day. That was a true example of “this rod is better than our last flagship rod.” That’s not to say the H2 wasn’t good – it was. But the H3 is that much better.

      The same goes for the Douglas Sky G. The Sky was an outstanding rod. The Sky G is probably the best production 5wt on the market right now, in my opinion.

      But, I’m like you. I have some old Winstons from the 80s that are heads-and-shoulders better than some of the stuff companies are pushing today. It all boils down to finding and fishing what you like.

      • Thanks for your insight. Interesting that the H3 is that much better than the H2. But I think that the manufacturers hype every year, (and it seems Orvis is the worst year in year out) makes at least myself very skeptical of their claims. BTW, always find your articles enjoyable.

      • Oh, it’s definitely good to be skeptical. You shouldn’t ever buy the hype, just because it’s hype. But in some cases – like the H3 – the hype is warranted. And thank you! I’m glad you enjoy the writing.

  5. Mr. Durrant,

    Very nice article. Thank you. I think the goal is to find a rod you really love to fish with. I have several nice rods. One is a Douglas Sky, 9′ 5wt, the one before the Sky G. It is absolutely my favorite rod and the one that is in my hand 90% of the time I fish. Most of the people that are commenting on catching fish mention trout. I seldom fish for trout. I know there are lots of trout anglers out there but there are also lots of us that fish for other fish in the rivers, lakes, ponds, and in saltwater. I try to cast as many rods as I can just to see what’s out there. I’m a long way from any real fly shop so I seldom get to test cast rods but when I do it’s a very enjoyable experience. Some of the lower cost rods are surprisingly good. There are lots of pretty girls but when it’s time to choose a wife usually the choice is fairly easy.

    I help our club teach beginners to cast. We use rods that I believe were discontinued in 1996. They were a quality rod back then. Those 25 year old graphite rods do an excellent job of allow beginners to learn the basics. Some older rods were poor. Others were very nice casting instruments. I would expect a good rod purchased now would be a good rod in 25 years. If it puts a smile on your face when you cast it then it’s a good rod.

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