With approx. 44 million Americans who list fishing as their preferred leisure activity and 15 million more who fish salt water (according to the Superstudy of Sports Participation conducted by American Sports Data, Inc), recreational anglers outnumber participants in most other outdoor sports. It takes a mix of patience, skill, finesse and brawn to land the catch. And to do just that anglers need the right equipment for the job.
But the choices of rods, reels, line and tackle can be perplexing because fishing is location-specific. What works in one spot may be ineffective down the bay or up the creek. What you use also depends on the species you fish for, the technique and on the venue. Mooching for salmon near the shore requires different gear than trolling for billfish on the open ocean or casting for trout on a placid lake.
At the risk of oversimplifying, we've assembled some basic criteria for selecting fishing rods, in the hope of providing guidance to novice anglers. Armed with this modest education, you'll be better able to discuss your fishing needs with one of our experts, who will know more about the local conditions, species, and what kind of tackle works best.
What they do
Fishing rods extend the angler's reach and leverage for casting lures or bait, and absorb the shock of a fish when it strikes. Rods are essential to casting and presenting the bait or lure to attract fish. Once a fish hits, the rod is used to set the hook, play and land the fish. Typically, rods also hold the reel and guide the line on and off the spool.
- Rod or blank essentially describes the pole.
- Guides are the loops attached to the rod to direct the line and are made of lightweight and strong metals such as aluminum or titanium. Inside, they are lined with ceramic or plated with chrome to keep line friction and abrasion to a minimum. A feature we like in powerful rods are roller guides with bearings to ensure the line comes off the spool smoothly when the big one strikes.
- Tip-top is the guide at the top that is attached to the rod with a sleeve so it also protects the tip.
- Grips are what the angler holds in his hand. Good all-around rods have grips of synthetic EVA foam, casting rods have cork grips.
- Seats hold the reel. Casting rods usually have trigger reel seats to accommodate light and compact reels while offshore fighting rods have sturdy lock washers for a conventional reel. Heavy-duty saltwater reels are clamped to the seat with bolts and screws.
- Butt is the fitting name for a rod's inboard end, the one you hold while fishing. So-called through-butt or blank-through-handle construction extends the rod all the way through the handle for added strength and sensitivity. On offshore fighting rods, look for butts that are cut out and covered with a removable cap so they fit into the gimbal of a fighting harness.
Types of Rods
- Spinning/casting rods are used for active styles of fishing where the angler casts and retrieves the bait or lure frequently. They tend to be light and have ergonomic features such as long handles that rest on the inside of the forearm during the casting motion to prevent fatigue and increase casting accuracy. Ring guides of graduating diameters reduce the spiraling motion of the line as it passes to and from the reel. On casting rods, the bottom guide is larger to accommodate the line as it comes off the reel. They tend to be light and sensitive with ergonomic features that support active fishing techniques, e.g. a light cork grip and a long butt.
- Conventional rods are a bit stiffer and range from 6' to 15' in length, depending on the application. A trolling or fighting rod will be shorter and sturdier than a rod used for fishing from piers.
- Specialty rods are designed for specific techniques such as surfcasting or fishing with downriggers. Fishing with downriggers is best done with a flexible rod of approx. 8' to take up slack line quickly after a fish has struck and the line is released from the weighted cable.
What to look for
- Fresh water vs. salt water: The stick does not care where it is being used, but the components do. Make sure you choose a rod that is designed and outfitted to withstand corrosion. Guides and tiptops have to be made from non-corroding materials such as stainless steel or graphite, which makes saltwater rods a tad more expensive.
- Length: Obviously, the longer the rod, the farther the reach and the longer the cast. You may have noticed the super-tall poles of 15 feet or more used by surfcasters who need to clear rocks on the jetty and the surf line with their casts. On the other extreme, trolling for large tuna or other big game fish, the rods are stiff and short, simply because they are not used for casting long distances or clearing large objects. In between these two are spinning/casting rods that typically range from 5.5' to 7'.
- Action describes the way a rod bends and depends on the amount of taper, or how fast the rod's diameter changes from thick to thin. Fast tapering rods offer more action meaning they start bending farther down. We like rods that bend more near the top because they are better for bait casting and offer good sensitivity to feel the fish especially when fishing around obstacles or in shallow water.
- Power describes the energy or force needed to bend a rod. The shorter and thicker the rod, the more power to pull up the catch. For practical reasons, fighting and offshore trolling rods are stiff and powerful with very little bend. We recommend less power in casting rods because it helps setting the hook firmly without ripping it out of a soft-mouthed fish like salmon, bass or trout.
- Fiberglass vs. graphite and composites: Fiberglass is the most economic material for fishing rods offering a good compromise between light weight, sensitivity, longevity and price. E- and S-glass are two common varieties of fiberglass, which are combined with polyester and epoxy resins to create durable, lightweight fishing rods. One step up in sophisticated materials is graphite, which is lighter, stiffer and more sensitive but also pricier than fiberglass. We like graphite casting/spinning rods because they are light and nimble, which is good for longer and more active fishing.
- The perfect fit: No matter what type of angler you are or what kind of fishing you engage in, we strongly recommend matching rod, reel and tackle for an enjoyable fishing experience. Lighter equals better and more fun. Using oversized line on a light that is too strong for the rod in use may cause the rod to break. Conversely, light line on a heavy rod and reel won't work because it will either break or get fouled on the spool. If this sounds like a lot of science there is an easy alternative:
- Combos: Instead of piecing rod, reel and tackle together individually, combos are pre-configured so all components match for specific types of fishing. There are combos for almost any fishing technique. Combos appeal to novices and parents looking for inexpensive ways to introduce their children to the sport or the casual fisherman who wants simple, efficient and cost-effective gear, ready to "just" go fishing. A typical entry-level combo could be a 6'6" medium action rod with a spinning reel and 12 - 20 pound test.
Venue, targeted species, technique and personal preference have a lot to do with choosing the rod that is best for you. West Marine has put together several selections of rods to cover most of your fishing needs.
For experienced anglers buying fishing rods is a matter of personal preference much like the purchase of a pair of shoes: to be right, it has to feel right. Some of them even build their own rods, meticulously customized to their style, need and liking. But for starters we believe, you can get excellent rods off the shelf. To select the best rod, first consider where you'll fish and what kind of species you target. This is the first step for making a good choice. For example, if you fish fresh water, you won't need a rod designed for ocean fishing. If you cast for smaller species like trout, we recommend light-to-medium action graphite casting rods with light tackle. If you're trolling for large tuna, a powerful offshore rod from fiberglass with heavy-duty tackle will be your weapon of choice. Active fishing styles need light rods with ergonomic features that make it easy to cast often and far. The heavier the fish, the sturdier the rod needs to be. The components will change, too: guides will no longer be graphite loops but rather stainless-steel rollers with bearings. On fighting rods butts are stout and have cutouts to fit into the gimbal of a fighting harness. Our best advice is to match rod, reel and tackle to ensure a most enjoyable fishing experience and improve your chances of making a catch. Novices or casual anglers may prefer pre-configured combos so they spend less time assembling the gear and more time fishing.