Every year the big rod manufactures market “new technology” to us. The truth is little changes in the industry from year to year. It’s also true that there is no shortage of great rod blanks on the market…and some not so good. I’ve settled on some excellent blanks I’m comfortable building on and recommending, and that I fish myself. Building a great custom rod requires great components and sound craftsmanship. There’s another element though: it’s color. I don’t buy in on the notion brightly colored rods spook fish. Standing in a trout’s line of sight waving a stick is probably more the issue. Enough about the blanks, let’s talk about the components on my fly rods.
When it comes to fly rod guides, I generally use Snake Brand for freshwater rods, and REC Recoil guides for dedicated saltwater applications. I’ve tried many others, as evidenced in many of my demo rods, but I keep coming back to these premium US made guides. The quality control of the manufacturers is excellent. They are dependable and require less prep work (that’s me spending billable time having to file down problem areas). Thread wraps nicely over the guide feet and that makes for a clean, smooth finish. I will use RECOIL single foot guides on request but my default is double foot snake style. There is no discernible difference in performance and weight really.
While I use Snake Brand and REC for running guides, I exercise some latitude with the stripping guides. This is the guide closest to the grip where the line enters the guide train. On trout weight rods, it’s generally just one, while heavier power rods sport two. I tend to stick with a modern Fuji-style guide, Alps and Fuji being my favorites on my personal rods. I will occasionally use traditional stripping guides like those found on vintage-styled fly rods. They look great but I have found they are less dependable on heavier power fly rods, especially those with jewel agate inserts. Drop a piece of agate on a hard floor and you’ll understand my logic. So I generally limit those to my 3, 4 and 5 weight freshwater fly rods where I believe they are best suited.
I make all of my own grips. The style and material options are many, and they include natural cork, agglomerated cork (sometimes referred to erroneously as composite cork), carbon fiber, fiberglass, and a hybrid weave of the two. The last three are laminated to a urethane foam core. My personal favorites are agglomerated cork and the hybrid carbon fiber/fiberglass skinned foam core. Why foam core? Urethane foam cores are more sensitive than cork, firmer and less fatiguing in the hand. Some of you purists shutter at the thought of anything but the finest grade of natural cork, but carbon fiber-skinned, urethane foam-core grips are incredible. I can see why these are not in mass production on every rod though. A lot more labor goes into the production and so you’ll generally only find these on custom rods.
Some rods just cry out for cork, birch or rattan grips. As for natural cork, a premium flor grade is the only natural cork I will consider. The cork most used on mass-produced rods looks good on the fly shop rack, but it’s generally a lower quality material and heavily treated with a cork wood filler that looks like hell after a season. The filler falls out and must be reapplied. I don’t use it.
The grip is the connection between caster and rod and it’s important getting the shape right. I’ve made a conscious decision to use more agglomerated cork vs. natural flor grade. Agglomerated cork is extremely durable and comes in a variety of attractive colors and patters. I love it as a custom builder. Cork is a sustainable material, and agglomerated cork is compressed from the bits of bark left over after those natural cork rings are stamped out of the cork bark. With a cork oak tree taking decades to produce the premium flor grade, the use of agglomerated cork is an environmentally sound alternative that uses cork that would otherwise go into other products. Nothing is wasted in cork processing. The natural resins in the cork oak bark bind the cork pieces together and the colored cork I use is dyed with natural dye. Very little about rod manufacturing is environmentally friendly, except for sustainable cork.
I typically apply an oil finish to agglomerated cork to bring out the colors. The carbon fiber, fiberglass, and hybrid grips get a thin water-clear modified urethane finish that won’t scratch or crack. My grips, with proper care, will last the life of the rod. Occasionally wash your grips down with a mild detergent.
I’m sure I have a few in the shop, I don’t actually use one myself and most anglers I know don’t either. When high sticking with nymphs I like to move my rod hand up a little and rest my index finger tip on the blank so I can feel the bottom fly or drop shot tapping the bottom. A hook keeper just gets in the way in my opinion. Many anglers just hook the fly to the stripping guide (the Fuji style is perfect or this) and wrap the leader down around the reel foot. This keeps the leader outside of the tip and ready to deploy with less hang ups. So, my default design doesn’t usually include a hook keeper. One thing I started doing a few years ago is embedding a small neodymium magnet in the grip. It makes for a convenient and novel place to park a fly when changing on the stream.
I only use the best CNC-machined reel seats from Alps, Bellinger, Lemke, REC and occasionally window-style seats from American Tackle. The style of the build and customer preference dictate which we’ll select. Most of my personal trout weight rods are built with an Alps RA701 reel seat machined from 6061-T6 aluminum, the same material used in the upper and lower receivers of many AR-15 style rifles.
I test new products often, but these are the ones that keep showing up on my rods.