Identifying Trends in Fly-Fishing Gear Development
The Julian calendar might mark January 1 as the beginning of the new year, but for the fly-fishing industry, the new year begins with September’s annual Fly Fishing Retailer World Trade Expo. For three harried days in September, roughly 1,200 buyers (representing about half that number of fly shops) look at, try out and make buying decisions on the products 300 or so exhibitors have to offer. All the players are there, from the largest manufacturer to the smallest, from the oldest to the first-timer. Expectedly, you’ll find enough rods to populate a forest, and reels aplenty to pave a stream bottom. Row after row is filled with lines, leaders, flies, clothing and accessories beyond description.
Possibly of more importance than specific new products, though, are the trends – some real, some apparent – that develop at the show. We’ll defer to this magazine’s ongoing New Products department for reporting on specific products. Here, we’ll try to identify pathways leading in new directions. To that end, the following is in no way intended to be an inclusive review of all that’s new.
One can always expect to see new rods at the trade show. Fortunately – at least so far – manufacturers don’t rush to bring out new models just because the calendar is about to roll over. New products reflect technological improvements, refinement and diversity of actions. And probably most significant to anglers, more and varied price points.
Nice Prices. Many maintain that the most significant trend at the show is that rod manufacturers continue to develop exceptional fly rods at modest prices. While some of these have been available for a number of years, in many cases they were given less attention at the show than their premium-priced cousins, plus the fittings and actions often suffered. Also, such rods typically were available only in the lighter saltwater line weights, seldom in 10-weight and higher. Travel rods of three, four or more pieces in those same weights were even tougher to find. Now more than a few great-looking, moderately priced rods are available, and many – make that most – have nice actions and high-quality fittings. For frugal shoppers or individuals unsure of whether saltwater fly-fishing will appeal to them, these rods deserve serious consideration.
It’s not news that most premium fly-rod companies (Sage, G.Loomis, Orvis, Scott) offer lower-priced rods, and the number of models continues to expand. Considerable credit should go to companies such as St. Croix, Cortland and Redington, leaders in expanding these value-priced offerings in recent years. They and lesser-known makers such as Temple Fork Outfitters and ADG are producing some wonderful rods priced under $200.
Nice Actions. In addition to broadening price points, manufacturers have expanded the variety of actions available for saltwater anglers. The typical saltwater rod has a faster action for bucking the wind and delivering larger flies, as well as a stiffer butt for fighting fish. But the wind doesn’t always blow a gale, flies aren’t always sparrow-sized, and not all fish are leviathans that never get closer than 100 feet. And as surely as conditions vary, so do anglers; thus that ”typical” saltwater rod won’t work for every angler or every place. Many anglers prefer rods with more moderate actions. Under less-than-extreme conditions a fly-fisher will make fewer false casts with these, thus getting the fly in front of the fish more quickly.
Powell Rod Co., for instance, introduced its Tiboron series (named for the titanium and boron used in the blanks), and the rods are true cannons. They also complement perfectly the moderately fast action AXS series so well received when introduced last year. On the more moderate side of the action spectrum are the Temple Fork Outfitters four-piece rods and Redington’s expansion of its Wayfarer series into seven-piece models, including a sweet 8-weight.
Anglers typically use those midsized rods, 7- and 8-weights primarily, in both salt water and fresh water. And those weights reflect the diversity in anglers’ preferences. The Sage XP, introduced last year as a crisp freshwater rod, has found favor in salt water. Similarly, as some Sage fans favor the XP over the RPLXi, expect some Scott fanatics to prefer the new freshwater S3 over the STS for salt. The new Orvis T3, as with the earlier Trident, has models of ”tip-flex” and ”mid-flex” varieties, broadening their appeal. So what’s the point? Don’t place too many limits on your search for the perfect rod.
Tough Sticks. Technological improvements can come in flying leaps, or they can shuffle along, the forward progress being barely evident. We easily recognize the leaps, as when fiberglass replaced bamboo or when graphite replaced fiberglass. The shuffles, no less important over time, can be more difficult to spot. Consider adhesion, for example. Early bamboo rods were assembled with animal hide glues, which worked but not as well as they should, particularly around too much water. Later glues pretty much fixed that problem, but unless you’d had a rod delaminate, you probably never appreciated that improvement much. Today’s high-performance graphite rods are tough, yes, but manufacturers continue to tinker toward subtle improvements in their constant struggle to balance durability against performance.
Recall that graphite rods are built with a thin sheet mixture (called prepreg) of graphite fibers and resins. A pattern is cut from that sheet of prepreg, rolled on a tapered steel mandrel, wrapped with heat shrink tape and heated in an oven to activate the resins, binding the fibers together. The proportions of fiber and resin can vary as can the modulus of the graphite and type of resin. (There’s more to it, but that’s another story).
Rod manufactures continually work with graphite suppliers to develop better resins. The better the resin, the more tenacious the bond and the tougher the rod. But again, the rod builders have choices. With better bonding technology, they can use less resin, yet achieve a bond as strong as before. Or they can use a higher-modulus (and generally more brittle) graphite, and hopefully the new resins will hold it together. Now you’ve come full circle to balancing durability and weight.
Some material improvements are made quietly; others are heralded. Most will recall the ”modulus wars” of a few years ago (”My rod has 50 million modulus graphite!” ”Well, mine has 60 million!”). There was plenty of hype, but it was based on real improvements in the material. Last year from Redington and again this year from Orvis, nano technology was promoted. The idea was that the microscopic (”nano” is a prefix meaning 10 to the ninth power, or one-billionth part of) particles were incorporated into the resin to improve the bonding of the graphite fibers. Redington used nanotitanium, and Orvis nanoceramic, and the resins were different as well. Both, though, were indicative of ongoing research to produce stronger resins, better bonds and thus tougher rods.
It would be hard to cite this year’s trade show as one that heralded life-changing news in the world of fly reels, as relatively few true technological breakthroughs or innovative products were introduced. What was important, however, was the cheap stuff and the big stuff.
As with rods, more manufacturers introduced saltwater-quality fly reels at affordable prices. We all crave a finely machined and finished reel. They are as durable as they are handsome – built to last through several lifetimes of hard use. But many anglers seek a reel to last perhaps only one lifetime or a few lifetimes of moderate use. Or perhaps some manufacturers are just sharpening their pencils, scratching their heads and coming up with ways to offer top-quality reels at reduced prices. Call it competition.
A prime example is the new St. Croix large-arbor reel. Here’s a fully machined anodized aluminum reel with ball bearing-smooth operation and an oversized composite disc drag for $210 or less. CA Harris also introduced its excellent, but quite affordable, saltwater line of reels. There are price points, and there are values. Some would argue that Ross’ Canyon Big Game series will stack up against any premium reel, at one-half to two-thirds the price of many.
While reels of virtually every variety were introduced at the show, some of the most innovative and interesting came at the big-game end of the spectrum. Tibor’s new Pacific model captured the attention of any angler who chases fish offshore with a fly. This monster holds 500 yards of 50-pound Micron backing.
Lines & Backing
Line makers will say, with some degree of truth, that any old rod will do – it’s the line that casts the fly. Whether you agree or not, you must recognize that line makers are no slouches, technologically speaking. That technology has produced an industry dedicated to continuously improved performance.
You’ll find plenty of healthy competition among the line manufacturers, and we reap the benefits. Slicker, longer-lasting, higher-floating lines result from improvements in line coating chemistry. Makers vary the core and coating materials to provide lines that better achieve specific performance goals (temperature ranges, sink rates and so on) and others that offer more versatility across a wide range of uses. Although a seeming contradiction, companies are pushing both general-purpose and directed-purpose lines. They’re also making huge strides in colors, introducing new lines that provide more stealth on the flats. Some feature innovative finishes that anglers can easily see but that are nearly invisible to fish. At least one line even glows in the dark, a boon for nighttime striper, tarpon and snook fishermen. Backing is a ho-hum topic to many, but it regularly saves the day when big fish are hooked. Dacron-type backing ranks as the longtime standard, but the newer gel-spun poly backings are quickly gaining favor. More companies have entered that arena, and makers continue to improve the material’s applicability to fly-fishing with better knotting properties and brighter colors for visibility.
As the last link between the angler and his quarry, the leader is expected to deliver the fly properly, help fool the fish, maintain strong knots, and thwart sandpaper lips and sharp teeth during the heat of battle. That’s a pretty tall list of demands. Developments continue to come in achieving multiple, and at times conflicting, objectives such as strength, suppleness and abrasion resistance. Similarly, we’re seeing improvements in fluorocarbon – improved strength per diameter, improved knot strength and more limpness in smaller diameters for improved presentation.
More specialty leaders and suppliers have come into the game. Fluorocarbon has been used as shock tippet in big-game leaders for several years now. It works well. And with more anglers pursuing toothy critters such as barracuda and sharks, we now have leaders with titanium wire bite tippets (the new Streambase Leaders, for one). We also have multistrand, nylon-coated stainless wire in tests from 5 to 50 pounds that’s easily knotable (TyGer Leaders). I, for one, will not shed a tear if I never have to tie another haywire twist.
A few of us in the over-50 contingent have memories – likely not overly fond ones – of adapting various surplus military bags for use as gear bags. Those old canvas bags might wear forever, but they’d stay wet about that long, too. Today, not only are the materials vastly improved, but the designs are better as well. Designers have given us bags adaptable to a wide variety of situations, and others that are specific to a situation. Or what many consider the best of both – modular systems that allow the angler to add or remove components to fish for New England stripers one week and Bahamian bonefish the next. William Joseph is a prime example.
Saltwater anglers tend to carry a lot of rods, and vehicle transport and storage can be problematic. Enter RodMounts, with a variety of magnetic, vacuum and hanging bracket mounts to hold rods inside or outside of vehicles. Another company, Sport Tubes, showed off a unique product that allows anglers to store fully assembled and rigged fly outfits on top of their cars in lockable containers, protected from the elements and from theft. More and more anglers are chasing snipes, er, stripers all night, and that takes light. And both hands. Flashlights can now be relegated to backup duty, thanks to improved designs in headlamps. The Zipka from Petzl, a neat LED light on a retractable cord, can be mounted on the head, arm or wherever.
Anglers tend to ooh and aah over new rods and reels, but without the proper clothing, the fishing all too often becomes secondary to being miserably hot or cold or wet. Clothiers continue to seek out and incorporate new fabrics and designs here, too. Never have we been able to be as comfortable in such a wide a range of temperatures and humidity. And that’s the old news. What’s new is that we are getting more crossover gear – shirts and pants that are equally comfortable and fashionable on the flats, at the cocktail bar or even at the office on Friday. These shirts subtly combine style with functionality, without screaming, ”I’m a fishing shirt!” Patagonia, Ex Officio and new-to-this-market Simms have handsome offerings.
If you want to make a bolder statement, join those at the show who were wearing the colorful print shirts (from The Day’s Catch). These are 100-percent cotton as well, vented and cool by any definition.
The clothing story could be a novel, with chapters on neat new wading sneakers from Simms, ”engineered” fishing caps from Tilley and more. Don’t bypass the clothes on your way to the hard goods.