When choosing a new rod I can be extraordinarily indecisive, which isn't helped by the breadth of choices available. Identifying what sort of rod is the easy bit: deciding which rod is hard if you approach the problem with an open mind. There isn't another area of my life where I spend so much time on making a decision, so the condition must be fishing specific. In that respect, the possibility of writing on this blog about my choice is almost certainly a restraining factor, because I had to practice what I preach about being methodical and trying before buying.
When I wrote Springtime - Swallows, Primroses and Salmon Rods on how a novice should go about buying a rod, I opined that the middle price range was where you would find the best combination of performance, quality and price. That remains my view: the marginal gains at the top of the market are just that, marginal. You don't get double the performance for twice the money, or even an extra 20% for that matter. Those marginal gains are dwarfed by the cast-to-cast variability of normal mortals like me. Conversely there are some excellent rods in the lower price range (the Shakespeare is outstanding at its price) but there are more design and quality compromises in that zone, and hence greater risks of disappointment. Working to a tight budget does, however, focus decision making admirably.
There is no Holy Grail of the "Best Rod in the World" because this is not an objective business. The winner of the prize is the one that suits you best, within the parameters of your physique, casting style and proficiency. The only person who can tell you what's best for you is a very highly experienced casting instructor who has spent several hours watching you casting a wide selection of rods and lines. Everyone else's views are just opinions - no more than that - irrespective of their enthusiasm for a preferred brand. For all those reasons my strongest recommendation on choosing a rod remains "try before you buy", because that's the only way you'll know that it feels right. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that you ought to like a rod because its 'good', expensive, made by a prestigious company, or your friend has one. I suppose it's a bit like falling in love: you don't know the real thing until it happens. When 37 years ago I met the striking young woman who became my wife I was completely decisive (and right), which proves that this current indecision on rods must be just another one of my fishing oddities.
Defining the Requirement
|14 footer conditions
Flesh Dub at +24"
I do most of my fishing on the Ure. When the water's up on Thoresby a 14 footer is an appropriate and more relaxed solution to the demands of sinking tips and weighted tubes. On Bolton Hall you don't need that power at any water level, but a light 12 footer isn't good higher water conditions. On those grounds a 13 footer seemed a sensible compromise.
|Not 14 footer conditions
Upper Bolton Hall at +15"
- An arbitrary budget cap of £500. You have to draw the line somewhere.
- Try before buy policy. This is based on bitter experience: I once bought a premium rod at a great price on the grounds that it was an unmissable deal. Fine, but the rod didn't suit me, so it wasn't a good deal after all.
These constraints ruled out succumbing to temptation in the form of the £800 Loop Cross S1, which in its 13 foot guise is highly praised; or anything from Sage. The Loop's popularity is evident from the paucity of examples in the used marketplace: only one has featured on SFF in the past year. When it did appear I hadn't had the opportunity to try one and thus was reluctant to punt £500 in breach of my policy.
The whole process took over a year to complete. At first I took every possible opportunity to try rods - friends, acquaintances and friendly dealers were very obliging. This was slow: at this pace it would take me 2 years to cover the field: after a full season I had identified one good contender and eliminated 5 others. In parallel I sought opinions from experts whom I trusted in order to identify which rods were so far removed from the requirement as to make testing unnecessary: this eliminated a further 5. By the end of the 2014 season I had reduced the field by about 80%. Obviously this level of pedantry is out of the question if you're buying your first rod or you have an urgent requirement, but I was in no hurry and had a completely open mind. Anyway, it was educational and interesting. The most important thing I learnt was that the verbiage used to promote rods is utterly uninformative and sometimes downright misleading. There's no consistency or standard lexicon: just a random phrase generator, which seems designed to confuse the angler. My advice is to disregard the words altogether.
The first year gave me a baseline contender, the Vision Cult 13' 2" #8, the little brother of my favourite 13' 7" #9. It's a joy to cast and an ideal novice rod because it tells you everything that's going on, which is a huge help in establishing and maintaining your timing. It loads easily, even when underweight, and met the Ure roll casting requirement perfectly. If I didn't find anything that I liked better the Cult would do nicely, especially as I got it at a good used price.
When I was hunting the Cult my local Vision dealer, whose opinions I respect and trust, suggested that I should try the new MAG. Actually I had previously ruled it out because all the sales material emphasised "fast action" and someone else had told me that the MAG 14 was pretty stiff. On those grounds I was very wary, but a satisfaction/buy-back deal overcame my reluctance. What then ensued was a head to head trial between the Cult and the MAG. Every time I went out I fished both rods with identical rigs of line, leader and fly, down the same pools and from the same places on 3 different rivers - Ure, Dee and Deveron - in the full array of weather and water conditions.
But in reading what follows please bear the following in mind:
But in reading what follows please bear the following in mind:
- These are my own subjective views. I am not qualified to reach objective, substantive conclusions. What suits me may not suit you.
- I'm not a great caster, but can cover all of the water on the rivers I fish most often. My impressions are therefore based on my style and technique, with all of their limitations.
- As I fish smaller rivers, mostly with limited back-cast space, my first choice lines are all shooting heads with a head length in the range 37-42 feet, matched to the requirement I defined above. I saw no point in testing the rods with lines that I do not own or seem likely to use.
- Owing to variations within manufacturers' ranges (yes, they are inconsistent), anything I say about 13 footers cannot be translated to the bigger or smaller models.
MAG Initial Impressions
|You're unlikely to lose it!
Vision are nothing if not eccentric and the MAG maintains the tradition. The eye-blinding orange carry-tube hits you as it emerges from the wrapper. The tube is triangular, which means it doesn't roll about in the car, but it seems more flexible and thus less strong than its cylindrical predecessors. Through the Cult I'd grown to like Vision's delightfully simple 'stow in the tube' system, so the emergence of a conventional rod bag from the tube was a surprise.
The MAG shares the top price point in the Vision range with the functional Tool, but is entirely conventional in its aesthetics. The rod is nicely finished in a pleasant green colour with a semi-matt finish. The tape ribbing is less pronounced than on the Cult. The rings are Pacific Bay and whipped more sparingly. The general effect is understated, which suits my taste.
The understatement does not, however, extend to the reel seat. The good news is that it's down-locking. Although there's only one nut, it never came loose at any time during the trials with a variety of reels in hard usage. The gold finish and natty wood seat are not to my taste: I'd much sooner have grey or black. Taste apart it's a great improvement on the Cult in every functional respect. With the down-locking the MAG balances nicely with a range of reels, including my Guru and Rulla.
The slim handle is a striking feature, which suits me admirably as I have small hands (Size 8 glove). It follows roughly the same profile as the Cult but with a reduced diameter that you really do notice when switching between them. Vision have also tried something different with the MAG: the cork rings in the primary top hand grip zone are arranged with the grain laterally, rather than longitudinally aligned. I don't know why they've done this, and the net effect isn't an improvement in my view.
|Vision MAG 10' #3/4 Trout
Frustratingly there are no alignment marks. Which raises the obvious question: if Vision put them on the MAG trout range, why not on the salmon rods?
On the Water
|Posing on Upper Kirk
The next session was a long spring day on the Bolton Hall Water of the Ure. This was the real test of the core roll cast and versatility requirements. Needless to say the Cult excelled here, but I rapidly discovered that it didn't like being over-lined. It says 29-34g on the rod and unusually, that's the fact. In contrast the MAG, also marked as 29-34g gets into its stride at 34g and handles a 37g AFS with ease. Its roll cast performance was excellent across the spectrum and improved up to the 37g point. It lacked the Cult's responsiveness at very short range and when under-loaded, but by no definition could the MAG be described as 'very fast' or synonymously 'stiff'.
The final stage was the week on the Deveron. This started as an exercise in 'far and fine' in very low water, which played to the Cult's strengths. Then the rain came and I spent the next 5 days roll casting off steep banks with medium and fast sinking leaders and weighted conehead tubes in winds of up to 30 mph. In my view the Cult was working at its limits in my hands; or more likely, the deficiencies in my technique had curtailed its limits. In particular its flexibility in the back-cast didn't give me confidence in my ability to control the process and place the anchor reliably. In contrast the MAG excelled in the challenging conditions. With the 34g Scandi head it told me what I needed to know during the cast: not as loudly and clearly as the Cult, but perfectly audible even with my imperfect casting ear. Its steely core inspired confidence both backwards and forwards. I was delighted with the distance it sent the line across the wind with a little extra bottom hand. With minimum effort it increased my expectations of the water I could cover from the bank. The search was over: I had found my 13 foot rod.
Bottom LineIn my opinion the MAG 13' a very impressive rod that combines pleasant flexibility and a genuinely through action to deliver excellent feel and power on demand with Scandi-style heads. Its very wide line weight window gives added options, especially for short range fishing. Whether it's right for you is another matter. But if you've gained some casting experience and are looking for a 13 footer to cope with a wide range of fishing conditions similar to mine, then I unreservedly recommend that you include the MAG in your 'must try' category before you buy anything else. If on the other hand you're just starting, do try a Cult first.
I've now used this rod for 5 years on rivers large and small in Britain and Norway; in high water and low; with floating and sinking lines; and with every combination of tip and fly you can imagine, and some you can't. During that time it has been my go-to rod for everything except the smallest waters. Even in my imperfect hands its casting performance is extraordinary. I tested it, and myself, to my limits in Norway on the Gaula in high water, with thousands of Spey casts of every type, right and left handed. On that evidence I am in no doubt that this wonderful rod is exactly the right one for me.
It is possible that if you spend twice the money on a Hardy, Loomis, Sage or Loop Cross you might achieve the same level of performance, provided the rod suited you. But at the £500 price point, nothing else came close.
Sadly the MAG is no longe sin production, but if you ever get the chance of a used 13 footer, go for it. However, please do bear in mind that the excellence of the 13' doesn't guarantee the same characteristics at 12, 14 or 15 feet.