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.
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.