Guest BloggerChoosing: Michael Vorhis, Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come.
The debate as to whether size matters has long raged…and nowhere more prominently than among fishermen, in their eternal quest for yet another perfect fly rod. As the years go by we acquire wands we claim are tailored to a variety of precise uses, and those with no obvious specialty we label “backups” or “in case a buddy comes to visit” or whatever else might justify adding them to our collections.

But there’s a layered series of misconceptions held by many as to which rod size is a match for a given size of fish. In particular, many fishermen I meet seem to think the purpose of a short rod on a small stream is to give the little fish a chance. They envision feisty bouts of courage and wit against diminutive denizens, all courtesy of the shortness of the wand. Since they cannot change what lives in their stream, they attack the problem by scaling the rod length down, on the theory that doing so will approximate the sport enjoyed against monster steelhead on legendary western rivers. They call it “giving the small ones a chance.”They may have arrived at the right conclusion in a very roundabout way, but their reasons for thinking it are usually incorrect. First, a short rod is used by the wise man on tiny streams for only two reasons: Easy packability into remote wilderness or into luggage (and since seven-section 9-foot rods exist these days for carrying up high mountain gullies or through airports with equal ease, this reason is nearly obsolete), and ease of use amid low, overgrown creek canopies. A short rod was never intended to let little fish fight better or longer. We know this because use of short fly rods on tiny woodland streams far pre-dates C&R ethics, and because a short rod affects the escape odds of all sizes of fish equally.
So does a short rod give little fish a chance? No more than it gives big fish a chance…but yes, it can, although not in a way that will give you more sport. Let’s take a quick look at why:
Long rods–long thin flexible cantilevers–will let a little fish pull against the light resistance of the rod’s tip. So you might think, “Oh, hey, you’re right, it’s the long rod that gives small fish a better chance!” But ultimately those long cantilevers also keep the line taut and the hook embedded. So while a fish can pull, the system is working relentlessly against its long-term prospects. Naturally that’s why flexible rods were invented to begin with.
But (materials and taper profiles being similar) the shorter the rod, the closer to a hand line it becomes. A hand line absorbs minimal shock and minimal surge. So, sans long cantilever, a fish that leaps and runs and charges the boat has a better chance of winning its freedom. The small fish’s best hope lies not in the fact that the miniature rod is flimsier but in the fact that it’s not. It’s a glorified hand line. This, rather than it’s appearance of whispy delicacy, is the reason why a short rod gives a fish better odds. Scaling down the length doesn’t liven up the fight, but it can most certainly see the line go too taut and too slack and let the fight come to a quick, disappointing halt. And that’s not what we want.
For fly fishing, a six-foot rod is considered quite small. Obviously (unless it’s a “boat rod” or is made by Home Depot) a six-foot rod still has enough length to supply sufficient cantilever effect…in some conditions…or they wouldn’t make them. But not in all conditions, and in principle the concept still applies. And tiny department-store “travel rods” (usually in the spinning gear section) make the hand line analogy more than apparent.
You might be tempted to object, “But a long rod amplifies your leverage against the fish!” Nothing could be further from the truth. The heel of your hand is the fulcrum and the fish is pulling on the far end of that long lever arm, not you. Your index finger has literally got the short end of the stick. The fish is the one with the leverage, and the longer the rod, the more leverage it has compared to you. Now that feels sporting.
So along with other flex-affecting parameters, length does matter. And the next time you consider picking up a micro-miniature rod, a cute little thing, do it for the beauty of the windings or because the vegetation overhang on a certain creek forbids something longer. Those are good reasons. Or if you enjoy sudden failure with no warning and a landing net that rarely gets wet, buy that little rod so you can tell a lot more “one that got away” tales. But don’t do it to “feel the lengthy fight of the fingerlings” or to “give the little ones a sporting chance.” You’ll give them all an advantage, big and small alike, but it won’t feel as sporting as your light-action 9-footer would.
Just say, “Long cantilevers are good.” And repeat.

4 Comments

  1. When I started fly fishing in the late-1960’s, short rods were in vogue largely due to being popularized by the late Lee Wulff. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that is at least part of the reason why Cumberland Valley regulars like Charlie Fox and Vince Marinaro embraced short rods, and that culture still exists among old-timers in the area to this day. This didn’t seem to make much sense considering the tall-grass meadow environment, complex currents and drag-adverse wild fish in streams like the Letort Spring Run. Wulff was noted at the time for catching large Atlantic Salmon on 6-1/2 foot bamboo trout rods. He said that this was not a stunt, and that he could beat a big fish faster on a short rod than a long one. Maybe that was also a factor in helping the Letort anglers keep hooked trout out of the cress beds.

  2. Thanks for that historical perspective Mary.

    > he could beat a big fish faster on a short rod than a long one.

    I don’t doubt it, as long as he could keep his line tight. The fish has far less leverage with a shorter rod… and if the short length is compensated for with extra backbone, it’s even more of a fish-horsing machine. As long as the line can be kept tight.

    Several times annually I have the unusual pleasure of trying a completely different kind of fishing with a guy I know who motors his tiny boat a mile out into the Pacific in search of Ling Cod…which can be huge and which are eating machines. A hunk of squid is lowered a hundred feet down, and once the take happens the fight is all in the vertical.

    The last time out on such an excursion, I noticed that my 7-foot thick “boat rod” gave the fish a huge advantage over the much more flexible rod of a guy in a nearby skiff. When he hooked one, his rod would literally double over, to the point that he was lifting those big ones with a lever of half its original length.

    I, on the other hand, was using a rod that remained 7 feet long through the entire fight. I was lifting fish that were hanging off a 7-foot lever. Even the 22-inch “small ones” felt like elephants to me–a fight would take 20 minutes and would exhaust me to the point of needing another beer. 🙂

    Meanwhile that other guy was just lifting 28-inchers up with comparative ease, since his rod had flexed and curled to where the “lever” was only maybe 3 feet long. Since lever length amplifies work exponentially, I was thinking I had the world’s largest Ling Cod on every hook-up, but in fact I never came near an impressive catch that day. And I went home beat to death.

    In that case there was no risk of a line going slack or breaking, so a shorter or more flexible rod would have been a tremendous advantage to me. When the fight is in the horizontal dimension, though, extra rod length gives fish the leverage but ultimately anglers the better odds (comparing rods of significantly differing lengths anyway).

    It’s all just math (I know, I know…is nothing sacred?).

    – Mike

  3. Although the logic is sound, I believe that in this day and age, rod length has little to do with the ability of fish to escape the fight. Rod length is an important decision when it comes to presentation and both long and short rods have distinct advantages, thus distinct disadvantages. For any given line weight appropriate to the fish and situation, rod action on the other hand does play a significant role in the fight, regardless of rod length. Fast rods (think Orvis Tip Flex) don’t protect tippets as well as slow rods (think Orvis Full Flex), but the fast rod, if the fish is hooked solidly, will subdue a fish much faster than a slow rod. Slow rods, regardless of length, are really fun to fish because they prolong the fight and make little fish seem big, but they have some disadvantages in fast water that cede advantage to the fish. It’s the action, not the length that matters. As I have been learning with tube flies, hook shank length is also an important leverage issue. The longer the hook shank, the more leverage the fish has as the fulcrum of the first lever is the hook eye. This is why in tube flies for steelhead and salmon, you see large flies, but the use of very short shank, wide gap hooks. Those 3X-4X long streamer hooks actually cede some advantage to the fish. Of course all this rod length and leverage stuff becomes moot if you just put a lot of rods of all sorts in your quiver.

  4. Again it’s mostly verifiable math. Any discussion of the effect of a certain attribute (such as length) naturally assumes we keep all other things the same…else nothing is discussable. So my discussion of rod length was not a comparison of whether a flex profile is more or less important than a length. A flex profile is certainly extremely important but is a product of a number of factors, including length. (It also includes taper, and materials…of which modulus of elasticity is one aspect.)

    Yes, flex plays a big part–huge, no denying. But that’s a much broader discussion, given that length is part of it. Isolating length so that one can look at its stand-alone impact, the effect of the lever arm’s length, by itself, still does have an undeniable role. The math is straightforward. No other attribute can fully compensate for a given length’s strengths or weaknesses. It’s quite provable, and this is why rod blank designers select not only a material but also a given length as an initial decision, before defining the various flex profiles they’ll construct for that length.

    Valid reasons for an angler selecting a shorter rod length ideally should have nothing to do with scaling length to match fish size. Shorter fly rods are for other purposes–low overhead canopies, weight, cost, historical, emotional, etc.

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