If any aspect of a fly rod and the terminology that goes with it is misunderstood, it has to be about the action of a fly rod. Virtually all fly rods list what their action is – such as mid-action, fast-action, slow-action and so on. Unfortunately, unless you know something about fly rods, knowing what the action of a fly rod doesn’t really do you much good. Moreover, since many people think a “fast-action” must be good because they are, well, “fast action”, more than a few anglers have bought these type of rods only to have unhappy results when using them.
So, before plunking down any money for a fly rod, it is very necessary to understand fly rod action and fly rod flex. Equally important, though, is to understand that the type of fly rod action you want in a fly rod depends ENTIRELY on what you will be fly fishing for and where you will be fly fishing. Plan on fly fishing for monster trout on a big river? Then a fast action may be just right for you. Or do you plan on fly fishing for wary brown trout in some spring creek somewhere? If you do, then a fast-action fly rod is most definitely not welcome.
In short, before purchasing a fly rod, it is absolutely critical that you know more or less what type of fish you will be fly fishing for and where you will be fishing. This Buyers Guide article to fly rod action and fly rod flex will break things down, providing information on what the various “actions” and “flex” of a fly rod are – and which type of fishing situations a particular fly rod is designed for.
Enough said. Now let’s get started on breaking things down a bit.
Fly Rod Action Explained
The action of a fly rod refers to how flexible the fly rod is. If you forget everything else on this website, try to remember this. The action of a fly rod is simply a fancy measure of how flexible the fly rod is.
There are three main “actions” of a fly rod. Fly rods are generally labeled as being “fast action”, “medium action” or “slow action”. To confuse things further, in terms of flexibility, fast action fly rods are also called tip flex fly rods. Medium action rods are often called mid-flex fly rods. Slow action fly rods are frequently known as full flex fly rods. So, let’s discuss what each of these actions means in the real world – which means when you’re out on the river.
Fast Action Fly Rods or Tip Flex Fly Rods
A fast action fly rod is a fly rod that is not very flexible. In fact, a fast action fly rod is almost entirely stiff throughout most of its length – with the only real flexibility occurring in the fly rod near the tip of the rod. In real life, what this means, is that when you are casting, only the end of the fly rod -near the tip – will bend in any appreciable way. The rest of the fly rod will remain stiff and basically straight.
So, that said, what is the purpose of a fast action fly rod? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of using one?
Purpose of Fast Action Fly Rods
Fast action fly rods, due to the fly rods stiffness, are more powerful. And by more powerful, it is meant that the fly rod is able to cast line further than slow and medium action fly rods. The stiffness of the fly rod helps generate more line speed during the cast. The extra speed of the fly line allows for both more fly line to be held up during the cast as well as for the line to be shot further than slower action fly rods.
Additionally, fast action fly rods are also designed to facilitate landing larger fish. A stiff fly rod makes the chore of landing really big fish – and we’re not talking about your average trout here – much easier. A fast action fly rod, due to the rods stiffness, makes it much simpler – if somewhat less fun – to bring in the fish.
So, with that in mind, let’s discuss go over the basic advantages and disadvantages that a fast action fly rod provides.
Advantages of Fast Action Fly Rods
- Longer Casts – A fast action fly rod is ideal where the angler needs to make consistently long casts.
- Landing Large Fish – A fast action fly rod makes it much easier, and quicker, to land very large fish.
- Windy Conditions – Due to the high line speed generated by fast action fly rods, casting in windy conditions is much easier and more effective using a fast action fly rod – especially if used in conjunction with advanced casting techniques that help reduce some of the effects of wind resistance.
- Quick Casts – The stiffness of fast action fly rods allow for very quick casts – something that is often appreciated by advanced anglers since more casts allow for more potential fish to be caught.
Disadvantages of Fast Action Fly Rods
- Fishing Small Streams – A fast action fly rod can be a nightmare to use when stalking wary fish in small streams or spring creeks – places that anglers generally end up needing to make short casts. Fast action fly rods, as they lack the flexibility of slow action fly rods, are much more difficult to cast in conditions that require very short casts. Remember, fast action fly rods are designed for long, powerful casts – not short, confined casts.
- Using Light Tippets – A fast action fly rod, as it is very stiff, is not the best fly rod to be used when fishing for wary trout on light tippets. The stiffness of the fly rod puts more strain on the tippet – instead of helping to absorb some of the strain like slower action fly rods do. As such, if you need to use really light tippets for wary fish, a fast action fly rod is not a great choice.
- Difficult to Use for Beginners – Fly casting is generally learned relatively quickly by beginners. However, for beginners, a fast action fly rod will have a steeper learning curve. Due to the speed of the fly line, beginners will find fast action fly rods more difficult to control than slower action rods. As such, beginners may end up frustrated since many of their casts will not go where they want it to go.
Who are Fast Action/Tip-Flex Fly Rods For?
With these advantages and disadvantages of fast action fly rods taken into account, who is a fast action fly rod for? Basically, if you need to make long casts consistently, fish for very large fish or are always fly fishing in windy conditions, a fast action fly rod is for you. Otherwise, a medium action or slow action fly rod is likely to be a better fly rod choice.
Medium Action Fly Rods or Mid-Flex Fly Rods
A medium action fly rod is a fly rod that has a fair amount of flexibility but is still somewhat stiff. The fly rod bends much more than a fast action fly rod but not nearly as much as a slow action fly rod does. Which, of course, is why it is called a medium action fly rod. In the real world, what this means is that when casting, the fly rod will bend moderately for about half of its length, from the middle of the rod upward to the tip of the rod. The lower half of the fly rod, the half nearest the fly reel, will basically remain stiff.
Medium Action fly rods are the workhorses of the fly rod world. They are by far the most popular fly rod on the market today. Medium action fly rods are also the most versatile of fly rods. They can make longer casts quite adequately, especially in the hands of a good caster, yet function well enough to allow them to be used in most spring creek fishing conditions. Thus, if you plan on fly fishing in a wide range of conditions, from big rivers to spring creeks and everything in between – and can afford/only want one fly rod – then a medium action fly rod is the fly rod of choice.
Additionally, medium action fly rods are generally quite forgiving. Beginner anglers can quickly pick up on using them and begin making decent casts quite quickly. The slower line speed gives beginner anglers more control over where the fly line, and the fly, ends up.
Who Are Medium Action Fly Rods For?
So, who is a medium action fly rod for? Medium action fly rods are ideal for anglers who need these traits in a fly rod.
- Maximum Versatility – If an angler only wants or can only afford one fly rod, the versatility of a medium action fly rod provides the most versatility for fishing a wide range of conditions.
- The Angler is New to Fly Fishing – A beginner angler will find a medium action fly rod quite forgiving. These fly rods are not quite as forgiving as a slow action fly rod, but still quite forgiving nonetheless. Plus, the greater versatility of medium action fly rods will assist new anglers just starting out in the sport.
In short, medium action fly rods are excellent fly rods for both beginner and veteran anglers alike. Unless you need a different type of fly rod for a particular fly fishing condition or situation and can only afford one fly rod, a medium action/mid-flex fly rod is likely to be your best bet.
Slow Action Fly Rods or Full Flex Fly Rods
A slow action fly rod, as the name suggests, is a fly rod that has slow action. This means that the rod is very flexible. While not as flexible as a spaghetti noodle, the difference in flexibility between a slow action rod and a fast action rod is very significant. In the real world, what this means is that when casting, a slow action rod will bend significantly for most of its length – almost resembling a shallow U shape at the height of the backcast.
Slow action fly rods, as they do not generate high line speeds due to their flexibility, are designed for anglers who need to make short and very accurate and gentle casts. As such, slow action fly rods are ideal for fly fishing smaller rivers, spring creeks and other areas that require anglers to make short and accurate casts.
Additionally, slow action fly rods excel in another area – protecting light tippets. All too often, many of the best trout streams have some of the most difficult fish to catch. As a result, very light tippets are needed to fool these trout. As any angler who has used light tippets knows, it is all too easy for the fly to part company with a light tippet.
Slow action fly rods are designed to alleviate some of this problem. The tremendous flexibility of a slow action fly rod allows some of the strain that would otherwise be put on a tippet during a fish strike to be transferred to the rod itself. Because of this, when using very light tippets (in the range of 6x and 7x), a slow action fly rod can prevent many a lost fish due to tippet breakage.
Slow action fly rods are also an excellent fly rod for beginners. The flexibility of the fly rod and the slow line speed allows beginner anglers to have very good control of the fly line, allowing for more accurate casts by inexperienced anglers.
Listed below are the advantages and disadvantages of using a slow action fly rod.
Advantages of a Slow Action Fly Rod
- Protect Light Tippets – Slow action fly rods are ideal when an angler is using very light tippets.
- Very Forgiving – Beginner anglers will enjoy the forgiving nature of these fly rods and the greater control these fly rods provide for inexperienced anglers.
- Short Casts – Anglers who need to make short casts will find slow action fly rods excellent choices. The flexible nature of the fly rod allows for easier – and more accurate – short casts to be made.
- Smaller Fish are Fun to Catch – The flexible nature of the fly rod makes catching even smaller fish a lot of fun. Even a 12-inch trout can seem like a monster on a slow action fly rod – although obviously, it is more tiring on the fish itself since it takes longer to bring them in.
Disadvantages of a Slow Action Fly Rod
- Slow Line Speed – Anglers who need to make long casts will not want to use a slow action fly rod. The slower line speed of these rods prevents the angler – unless they are very experienced – from making real long casts.
- Fishing in Windy Conditions – During windy conditions, slow action fly rods can be a real bear to cast.
- Versatility – Slow action fly rods are ideal for many situations, but lack the all-around versatility that medium action fly rods do. In short, if you can only own one fly rod and want that fly rod to be able to perform well in a wide range of conditions, a medium action fly rod is a better choice.