I have what can affectionately be referred to as an obsession with fly rods. I own 14 of them currently, and by year’s end I’ll have around 20 – including one from the legendary rodmaker himself, Tom Morgan.
But the amount of fly rods I’ve amassed in my short fly fishing career has helped me identify which rods (more specifically, rod actions and tapers) perform best under certain conditions, and how to match any given rod to any fishing situation. Fiberglass, bamboo, and graphite all have their respective strengths and weaknesses, and I’ll go over each material’s pros and cons in this piece, as well as the fishing situations I believe each material is best suited for.
I have a love affair with bamboo. I own an antique J.S. Sharpe’s of Aberdeen Featherweight Scottie 6ft 4wt rod. It’s one of the last built by Sharpe’s before Farlow bought them. A gorgeous caramel finish and impregnated cane make this rod a true treasure, and it has enough backbone to land 20+ inch trout – although I don’t recommend doing that unless you have a buddy with net downstream.
Bamboo is associated with classic, dry fly fishing – and for good reason. It’s an incredibly supple material that has the ability to lay flies on the water with the delicacy of a wedding day kiss.
Bamboo has a very slow action – even the rods that are described as “crisp” will take some getting used to for those anglers used to casting modern graphite rods and tapers.
I have a 4wt and 7wt bamboo rod. The 7 is for pike, muskie, and the occasional salmon, while the 4 remains in use exclusively for trout. The advantage to bamboo is an unparalleled casting experience. Throwing bamboo is just fun. A lot more fun than throwing graphite, I might add. The precision you achieve with bamboo is unmatched by any rod save for the high-end graphite sticks, and when you’re fishing bamboo you can every head shake and tail waggle all the way down into the cork.
However, bamboo is heavy and lighter-weight rods can be a bugger to cast in the wind. I avoid fishing my bamboo rods in the winter, because the tips are prone to breaking in cold weather, and they require regular maintenance. Ferrule waxing, re-finishing, and ensuring the rod is dry when stored are three things any bamboo rod owner can’t forget to do. Otherwise, the rod won’t last.
I regularly see rods for sale that were built in the 1920s, and they’re still in fishable condition, thanks of course to the owner(s) taking care of the rod.
If I had the money (bamboo is also expensive, but so are graphite rods) I’d switch every rod in my quiver for a bamboo equivalent without a second thought, except for my 3wt Winston IM6 and 4wt Winston WT.
Glass rods are what most “old-timers” learned to fish with. The old Shakespeare, Fenwick, and Eagle Claw rods were staples of hardware stores and tackle shops during the late 60s and early 70s, due in large part to the bamboo embargo during WWII and the rising cost of bamboo rods. Glass was a cheap, reliable alternative to bamboo, and I know tons of fly fishermen in their 60s and 70s who started their fly fishing career with a Fenwick glass rod.
Glass has the same slow, deep-flexing action that bamboo does, and the same ability to cast dry flies with delicacy. However, glass has more of a “backbone” than most bamboo, and is a much lighter material. I have more than a few friends who chase pike and muskie here in Utah with their 7 or 9wt glass rods. Glass is a very capable material.
However, like bamboo, it’s slow action means that it’s more difficult to fish with in the wind. I personally own a Redington Butter Stick (the best production glass rod currently available, in my opinion) and if there’s any hint of a breeze, I usually pack it away and pull out the Winston Boron IIIx.
If you want a bamboo-like casting experience without the price tag of bamboo rods, then fiberglass is the perfect rod material for you. Plus, you can get a glass rod in a variety of colors. Blue Halo makes a wide range of colored-up glass rods, and here in Utah they have a pretty loyal following.
Graphite is the most popular material for fly rods these days, and has been for quite some time. The majority of rods in my quiver are graphite, and my favorite rod – my Winston 8ft 3wt IM6 – is graphite. It’s ridiculously light, versatile, and cheap. Graphite rods range in cost from $50 for a Wal-Mart special all the way to $1425 for a Tom Morgan Rodsmiths’ custom build.
Graphite is a stiffer material, and as such, lends itself well to casting when you’re faced with any kind of wind. Most modern graphite rods have a “fast” action, so you lose that deep-flexing casting action you get on glass and bamboo. Winston, Scott, and St. Croix still make rods with a “medium-fast” action, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a true “slow action” graphite rod in mass production today.
A graphite fly rod is like the .30-06 of hunting – it’s the material best suited for getting the majority of jobs done. Trout, bass, carp, muskie, pike, crappie – you name it, a graphite rod can handle it.
I prefer to buy graphite rods with that “medium-fast” action, and soft tips are a must. If the tip of a graphite rod is too stiff, a sharp hookset or a big head shake from an angry trout is a surefire way to see your tippet snap. Soft tips are the reason that Winston rods are my personal favorite graphite sticks to use.
The great thing about graphite is how light and worry-free it is. Unless you’re fishing in the salt, you don’t have to clean or wax the ferrules. And unless your graphite rod meets a car door, they’re almost impossible to break.
So, to wrap things up:
- Bamboo: It’s the best material if you’re a dry fly purist, love deep-flexing rods, and appreciate fly fishing history. So much lore and intrigue exists around bamboo rods that, for a history nerd like myself, they’re irresistible. However, it’s hard to fish in the wind and requires a lot of upkeep to make sure the rod stays in fishing condition.
- Fiberglass: It’s bamboo at a cheaper price point, with greater durability and less worry than bamboo. The same crisp dry fly action exists in glass rods, but it’s a stiffer material that lends itself to being able to land large fish – even saltwater ones. However, lighter weight glass rods struggle in the wind and aren’t ideal for bigger fish.
- Graphite: The go-to, dependable, .30-06 of fly fishing. Your graphite stick can do everything from Euro nymphing to throwing streamers to presenting dries to picky trout. The problem is the skyrocketing cost of the higher-end models, and the fact that you lose the slow, delicate action that glass and bamboo offer.
What kind of rod you should use depends largely on your fishing style, your taste in rod action, and what your primary target fish is. For trout, I don’t think you can go wrong with glass or bamboo. For bass, muskie, pike, and saltwater fish, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better-performing material than graphite.
But as with all things in fly fishing, it’s your call to make. Don’t take my word for it – go out and test cast a bunch of rods and find the one you like the most.