If you’re an experienced angler reading this you may already know the answer to the topic of today’s discussion. However, I have a strong feeling many people reading this don’t fall into that category and have on more than one occasion heard the term “fast action” or “medium action” and thought to themselves, ‘What in the hell? All I want is a fly rod I can take to the river and catch a fish with!’
If you’ve ever found yourself in that situation — or if you’re in the market for a new fly rod but don’t know what makes the most sense to add to your line up — then I highly encourage you to read on!
It’s no secret that fly rods come in all shapes and sizes these days and with the continued advancements we’re seeing in rod building technologies, the corresponding actions are getting more and more refined. This can be confusing to interpret for any angler out there, regardless of skill.
But back to the question of which action is right for you? In my opinion, the short answer to this is simply going to depend on the type of fishing conditions you’re going to be facing. Now I’m sure some of you are already thinking that both angler skill and angler preference are major factors as well and you’re correct — I’ll be sure to touch on this as well.
For the sake of keeping things simple though, let’s take a 10,000-foot view of this topic and break fly rods down into the three most dominant categories (slow, medium, fast) and where I find their most useful applications to be.
It seems most rod companies tend to shy away from the phrase ‘slow action’ these days and use terms such as ‘full flex’ or ‘presentation taper’ to categorize these type of rods. Additionally, you’re usually going to see these rods predominantly offered in sub 9’ lengths, with rods down to 6’ long not out of the question. To the newer angler, the first thing you’ll likely notice when picking up a slow/full flex rod is that it seems a little ‘noodly’ when giving it the ol’ fly shop wiggle. When casting, slow action rods are going to flex/bend all the way down to the cork grip when loaded.
Why you would want it: DRY FLIES. Fishing dry flies is the primary reason manufacturers still produce slower action fly rods. These rods do not generate nearly as much line speed as their faster counterparts, which is ideal for situations where soft, quiet presentations are key. A slower action fly rod is going to have a tremendous amount of ‘feel’ throughout the casting stroke, allowing the angler to have utmost control over his or her presentation.
Why you wouldn’t want it: Big water where long casts and big mends are the norm. Heavy winds and big nymph rigs/streamers are also not going to be ideal for a slow action rod.
The ‘All-Arounder.’ Medium action rods — also often called moderate action — are a great all around option, especially if you were only going to have one rod in your quiver. The flex pattern of a medium action rod is going to equate to it bending about 50-60% of the way down the rod when it’s loaded. These rods are going to still offer plenty of ‘feel’ while offering more backbone to deal with wind, bigger/heavier flies, and larger fish.
Why you would want it: The first category of anglers that would likely benefit from a medium action rod would be beginners. Additionally, most entry-level rods or starter kits on the market today are going to feature a medium action rod. The reason for this is two-fold:
1. Going back to the mention of ‘feel’ in the previous paragraph, newer anglers will enjoy this action of rod because it will help them sense when the rod is loaded easier than if they were learning on a fast action rod.
2. If this is going to be the only fly rod an angler owns (which is likely true of a beginner), the versatility will allow the angler to have his or her bases covered to a larger degree than if they just had a slow or a fast action rod. While it may not be the best techy spring creek or big water streamer rod, it will at least allow them to get the job done.
That said, medium action rods are by no means just made for the beginner. Anglers with a slower casting stroke, or (just like the beginner) want a versatile rod that can be used for nymphs in the morning, dries in the afternoon, and twitching around a streamer in the evening hours — but don’t have the ability to swap rods throughout the day — could likely benefit from a medium action rod. I personally find myself constantly reaching for a more moderate action rod to fish my home water on the South Platte. This rod still has plenty of backbone to handle a large trout and the softer nature of the tip helps me better keep big fish buttoned up with the small flies and light tippets required on this river.
Why you wouldn’t want it: Anglers with a fast casting stroke or who fish in notoriously windy places may feel underpowered with a medium action rod. Big rivers where long casts with heavy flies/rigs (again, possibly into the wind) may fish better with a faster action rod.
I feel the fast action rod craze is on a slight downhill trend compared to a few years back, however I think it’s safe to say most ‘advanced’ anglers reading this likely own more fast action rods than anything else. As you might guess, fast action rods are going to have the least amount of flex and arguably, the least amount of feel. However, with the loss of ‘feel’ (again my opinion) they are also going to have the most power, by far. Most fast action rods on the market today are going to flex between about 60-75% of the way down the rod when loaded.
Why you would want it: Fast action rods are great for anglers with a quick casting stroke, those who need to battle wind, make long casts and/or cast heavy flies. Fast actions rods are also great to use out of a drift boat where there’s not a lot of time to set up for your next cast and being quick and concise is key. Throwing streamers are also best done on a fast action rod and nearly every ‘streamer’ or ‘big game’ rod on the market today will feature a fast action. All saltwater rods are going to fall into this fast action category as well.
Why you wouldn’t want it: Any place where a delicate presentation is required is not going to be ideal for a fast action rod, or will at least require some additional technique. Additionally, fast action rods are generally going to be the least effective at protecting light tippets and small flies due to the power they generate. Does that mean you can’t fish 6x and a size 22 on a fast action rod? Absolutely not. I still do it quite often. Just know that a fast action rod won’t absorb big headshakes and last minute runs from a fish quite as well as a rod with a slower or more moderate action.
In the end, the ‘best’ action of a fly rod is still going to come down to an angler’s personal preferences for the water they’re fishing and how it feels in their hand when casting. I’ve said it for years now, but I wish there was a way when testing rods at the shop with customers that I could cover up the labels of each rod and make the blanks the same color. In my opinion, this would inevitably lead to customers picking a rod based on what feels best with their casting stroke and in their hand.
That said, there’s still no denying that certain actions of rods will always perform better in certain situations. I hope this breakdown of rod actions and their various pros/cons has helped demystify the rod action topic for a few of you and makes your time on the water much more enjoyable and efficient.