How To Choose The Right Fishing Rod

By Lenny Rudow

Ready to arm yourself for some serious fishing? Choose your weapon carefully!

Spearing the catchPhoto: Pat Ford

Walk into any tackle shop, and you'll see rows of shiny new fishing rods. Some will cost no more than a bag of bloodworms, while others are more expensive than the newest iPhone. Choosing the one that's right for you is a serious challenge.

Truth: Serious anglers look at fishing rods like serious golfers look at their clubs. Each is an individual tool with its own purpose, and you need a selection. This article will help you pick a rod with purpose.

Get In On The Action

Let's make sure everyone's on the same page. Fishing rods have a few basic characteristics. There are one-piece rods, which generally perform better than multiple-piece "break-down" rods but are a lot harder to transport and store. There are graphite rods, which are light and tend to perform well, but they also break more easily than rods made out of fiberglass. Rods are rated to different "weights," ranging from ultra-light to heavy, which describes their strength — just how much backbone they have. And there are rods of different "actions," which determines how they bend.

Choosing between one-piece or break-down rods and between fiberglass or graphite rods depends upon your priorities and is fairly straight-forward. Do you need to stow your rods in a small cabin? Then break-downs are in your future. Do you value longevity and ruggedness over sensitivity? Then fiberglass is the right call. Choosing an appropriate weight of rod is also not too difficult, since rods are rated to particular line strengths and lure weights. Pull a rod down off a tackle-shop rack, and you'll find the rating printed just above the grip. Match that stated rating with the size of the fish you plan to go after and the lures you'll be casting. Choosing the right action, however, can be a bit trickier.

There are three basic categories of actions: fast, medium, and slow. In a nutshell, the action describes how the rod bends. A fast-action rod bends in the top third. A medium-action rod bends in the top half. And a slow-action rod is parabolic — it bends from stem to stern. Each of these actions has its own pros and cons. Fast-action rods offer maximum sensitivity and fast hooksets, but they aren't the best for long-distance casting. Slow-action rods cast farther, and they have a lot more give, so they also tend to prevent hooks from ripping free. Medium-action rods seek the middle ground.

Which action do you want? If you only throw top-water plugs, a slow-action rod that provides long casts and some give to keep those thin treble hooks in place will serve you well. But if you ever intend to try vertical jigging with metal spoons, which requires a lightning-fast hookset, that slow-action rod is going to lose you a lot of fish. Every fishing situation is a bit different; when you add construction material and weight class into the equation, you can see how one or two rods simply aren't going to fulfill all your needs. Remember: golf clubs.

Picky, Picky

Let's say you've decided to try jigging for the first time. Your heavy fiberglass trolling rods and slow-action top-water rods are completely inappropriate. You know you need a new rod, one with a fast action to make those quick hooksets. You decide to opt for graphite over fiberglass to maximize sensitivity, and after asking around, you learn that most of the jiggers in your area use 12- to 15-pound-class gear, so you head for a tackle shop that has a large selection of light- to medium-weight fast-action graphite rods. There you find the display racks that hold the appropriate rods. Congratulations: You've pared down your options from hundreds of rods to dozens of rods. (If you don't have dozens to choose from, the tackle shop is clearly too small.) What next?

It's time to consider several different details that, taken together, help determine each rod's overall quality.

Now let's look a bit closer at those guides. They'll be either plain steel rings or rings with inserts, usually made of ceramics. Those inserts are important because they dissipate heat and reduce friction. Both factors are important for reducing line wear, so most of us will want guides with inserts. But there's a downside. If the guide gets stressed or bent, the insert may pop out. If you're tough on your gear and merely toss it into the V-berth after a day of fishing, or if you plan on handing off your rods to kids and beginners on a regular basis, you may be better off with simple metal guides. This explains why many charter boats, which carry inexperienced anglers regularly, often opt for nearly indestructible fiberglass rods with stainless-steel guides.

Next, check out the reel seat. Most are made of graphite today, and most are more or less of equal quality. For average angling, there isn't too much to worry about here. But anglers using heavy tackle in search of big fish should consider upgrading to stainless-steel or aluminum. In the long run, it'll hold up better to heavy use and abuse.

Grips are another consideration. Most are either EVA foam or cork, and which is best is really a matter of personal preference. Some people feel cork is the tiniest bit more sensitive. But it also tends to deteriorate faster, at least cosmetically. The bottom line? This is more a matter of personal preference than anything else; try both, and see if you like one better than the other. As a matter of note, I just turned around and took a head count of cork vs. foam in my own selection of 34 rods; I have 16 with cork grips and 18 with foam. When I'm choosing a brace of rods on the night before I go fishing, I don't even look to see what kind of grip a rod has when I choose it.

The Moment of Truth

So now you've decided on the basics, and, using the above information, you've whittled the field down to half a dozen or so rods. It's time to make a final decision. But before you can make it, you need to get a feel for each individual rod. Its weight and action may have been rated by the manufacturer, but your idea of "light" and the manufacturer's could be a little different. Ditto for action.

In an ideal world, you'd spend a day fishing with each rod to see how it feels in your hands, with your favorite reel on the seat and favorite lure dangling from the end. Of course, this is impossible. So do the next best thing. Take your reel with you (or try a couple of reels from the tackle shop's stock), and put it on each rod. How does it fit? How does it balance? Then have a friend or tackle-shop employee stand in front of you with an outstretched hand facing palm down. Bring the tip up under the person's palm and apply some pressure. How does the action feel? How quickly does the tip spring back when you release the pressure? When you gently tap their hand with the tip, how much sensitivity does the rod deliver?

Wait a sec — don't half the rods in the store come with reels? Yes, but the vast majority of the rod-and-reel combos out there are relatively low-cost packages that won't satisfy die-hard anglers. If you're looking for a beginner or intermediate rig, by all means, feel free to buy a combo. But do so knowing that you're most likely buying a combination that was matched up with price point and profit in mind, not maximum performance.

Wait another sec — are you really shopping for just one rod? I mentioned a moment ago that I had 34 rods hanging on the racks around me. They cover ultra-light-, light-, and medium-weight casting in saltwater, light- to medium-weight jigging, ultra-light freshwater fishing, and (in a somewhat limited way) offshore fishing. I don't have nearly enough rods, and I utilize many of them for purposes for which they really aren't ideal when I do other types of fishing. In a perfect world, I think I'd need somewhere around 60 or 80 rods to completely address all of my own personal needs. Of course, I don't live in a perfect world. I'm not rich, and though my wife is very understanding (forgiving?), you can only push things so far. I'm betting you don't live in a perfect world, either, which means you'll need to figure out how many rods you really do need. Finances, the diversity of your fishing tastes, and your marital status will all come into play when making this decision. Just remember: golf clubs. 

BoatUS electronics editor Lenny Rudow is a fishing expert and the senior editor for

— Published: June/July 2016

Find Your Spine

Every rod has a spine — its strongest section, running from the butt all the way to the tip. Mass-produced rods rarely have the reel seat and guides lined up along this spine. It takes time to figure out exactly where the spine lies, and most manufacturers simply don't bother with it when building low-end rods. Fortunately, you can pick up a rod and determine just how much care the builder took, if any, when it came to finding and lining up the rod's components along the spine. Simply hold the butt of the rod in your right hand, and place the tip of the rod on the floor. (If it's not carpeted, putting down a towel or other soft item would be in order, first). Then place your left hand between the rod's first and second guides and apply enough pressure to bend the rod slightly. Now slowly turn your right hand back and forth to roll the rod on its tip, while pushing down gently with your left hand. As the rod rolls, you'll be able to feel a point at which it offers the most resistance to bending. Bingo — there's the spine. When you have the rod bending directly against the spine, look at the guides, reel seat, and grip. Are they properly aligned? Probably not. Grab another rod, and try again. And again. As you reach for pricier and pricier rods, you'll find more and more of them that have all the parts aligned along the spine.


A Word About Roller Guides

Penn Ally rod guide roller

Roller guides help reduce line wear when the line's under intense pressure. Typically, they're used only for heavy-duty offshore trolling. Unless that's your game, stay away from them — they do more harm than good if they aren't properly maintained, and every season they need to be disassembled, cleaned, and lubricated. In fact, they require so much attention for a relatively modest gain that even many offshore trollers eschew them in favor of guides with high-quality ceramic inserts.


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