Wednesday 24 August 2016

Rod Choice

Recently a friend sought my advice on the purchase of a new salmon rod.  R has fished for salmon for 1 or sometimes 2 weeks per year for the past 16 years or so, using the same 15 footer that was the tackle dealer's default option around the time he began.  He runs his own business, splitting his time between London and Yorkshire, with correspondingly little slack in his diary.  On the other hand his children have flown the nest and he is looking forward to increasing his fishing.  Thus R neatly fits the model I had in mind when I started writing Just One Week.

On those grounds it might be useful to describe the process we went through to find the right rod.  It's based on the decision model I laid out in the Springtime post of April 2013, modified to suit the difficulty of getting our diaries to match and the demands of communicating by email.  Unsurprisingly it displays my hallmarks of boring pedantry (well, I call them thoroughness and systematic thought).  In an ideal world I should have preferred to hand him over to an experienced casting instructor devoid of any specific brand loyalties and with far greater technical knowledge than my own. That ideal would, however, have taken months to achieve, if at all, so I judged it better to press on with what was feasible.

Please note that there are no photos in this post in order to preserve R's anonymity.

Step 1 - Framing the Requirement

The first step was to frame the requirement and factors within the simple email question and answer template shown below:

What size of river covers 80% of your fishing?  Select from
Allness, Brora, Deveron, Findhorn, Ure, Tyne, Dee, Spey, Tay.
Have fished all of those but the 80% bracket covers the Deveron/Findhorn/Ure range.
Wading preference & confidence?
A serious historic heel injury following a fall generally limits my wading to knee depth in most water conditions
How do you rate your casting?
Adequate for the rivers I fish
Are you equally confident with both hands?
No: right hand predominant
What are your preferred types of casts?
Waterborne anchor
Do you use heavy tube flies, fast sinking tips and/or sinking lines?
Yes, on occasion
What type of line do you use on your current rod?
Rio Windcutter 2 (47’ head)
Have you tried any other rod/line combinations recently that you liked?
Loop Classic Spey 14’ #9 with Rio AFS

The responses provide the basis for a series of deductions covering the full system of rod and line:
  • The river size points towards rods in the 13-14 foot range, probably matched to lines with shorter head lengths.
  • The wading limitation also impacts the choice of rod length.  In the first instance, if you do a lot of deep wading a longer rod is helpful.  More importantly in this case it determines the desirable head length of the line.  This is because shallow wading reduces the back-cast space and room for forming the D-loop, especially in a downstream wind, which is the prevailing direction on much of the Findhorn and Ure. If you wish to keep a 50' head Spey line clear of the bankside vegetation in a Double Spey or Snake Roll cast, you need to be about 30' offshore, probably in deep water or standing on fish.  With a 35' Scandi head it would be no more than 15'
  • The modest statement of "adequate" suggests that a rod with an easy through action that communicates effectively will boost his confidence and performance. The requirement to cover the bigger pools on the Ure running at +18" with sink tips and tube flies suggests that a 14 footer would be a better option than a 13, even if this leads to some 'over-gunning' on the Deveron. The easy action inference is reinforced by the responses to hand balance and cast type.  First, the greater flexibility of the easy action rod absorbs some of the excess right hand effort.  Second, if you're not a competent and confident caster, working left hand up with a stiff and uncommunicative rod is no fun whatsoever (I've tried).
  • The sinking lines and tips question is all about the rod's versatility, and in particular its ability to extract and pick up the sunk portion of the line, whilst allowing for limitations in the user's technique.  I've tried some rods that perform quite well with floating lines, but for whatever reason, make really heavy weather of getting a sunken line up, out and into the D-loop.  In my inexpert hands, genuinely through action rods seem to do this best, because they bring the progression of the entire blank into play.
  • As its name implies, the 2005 Loop Classic Spey was the epitome of a through actioned rod.  It would cast virtually any line well, and with the AFS comprised one of the easiest casting combinations available. Sadly the Classic went out of production in 2010 and 14 footers rarely appear in the used market. Loop brought a through action back into its model range in 2016 with the Evotec Cast, but even with a major discount at John Norris the price is above R's target.
  • The £400 budget is more than adequate to get a really nice rod to suit the individual. The best rod in the world is the one that best suits you, not the most expensive or prestigious.  There are some excellent new rods available in this price range, including the Shakespeare Oracle Spey, which I recently recommended for another friend. However, in this case it was easier to meet the 'try before you buy' rule for a busy man with a week on the Deveron looming with a readily available selection of used high quality 14' rods rather than driving hundreds of miles hunting around retailers for examples of new budget models.
By the end of this phase I had a good idea of what might cover the requirement and spent the next week selecting and acquiring a suitable selection of rods for testing.

Step 2 - Acquiring Sample Rods and Lines

Step 1 allowed me to reduce the field of possible solutions to a manageable level and to focus on a specific type of action.  In the event I obtained six 14' rods, but was unable to get hold of either a Mackenzie G2 or an LTS in the time available.  After further thought I removed the 2 stiffest contenders, leaving 4 that spanned the requirement in descending order of flexibility:
  • Guideline LPXe (so popular that it's almost a de facto standard)
  • Vision MAG
  • Hardy Marksman 2T
  • Vision Cult (the most forgiving rod on the market)
For reference the Loop Classic would have fitted somewhere between the Cult and the Marksman.

The line selection was easier as I have a range of Rio #9 lines in my box, with head lengths down from the 55' Unispey, through the 45' Short Spey to the AFS and Scandi at 38'.  For the reasons described above I didn't bother deploying the Unispey.

We were ready to start testing, but then hit a problem.  The demands of R's business meant that we couldn't arrange the 4 hours needed to get to a river to test on water.  The fallback option was to use the meadow beside his house, with some 'grass leaders' tied to simulate and provide the essential anchor.  As a result I spent a couple of happy hours making up a couple of grass leaders using 40lbs nylon.  It was time consuming but simple to make up a 14' leader with a double blood or uni-knot every 8-10 inches with the tag ends sticking out to catch the grass.  I discovered that the uni-knot was much quicker: as this leader was never going to fight a fish you could cheat and just do 2 turns. Even with that 30% saving, tying 20 double uni-knots became a little boring towards the end.  Putting a simple loop top and bottom was light relief. The last step is to trim the tags to match the length of grass in the test area, which takes a bit of trial and error, so start long and reduce progressively until you get the feel and effect you want.  The 40lbs nylon gives you nice stiff tags that stick out and provide the anchor resistance.  It's not perfect but it's good enough and does give a consistent result.

Step 3 - Try before You Buy (on grass)

The test routine involved starting with the outer markers (LPXe & Cult) and working inwards, with a combination of roll and change of direction jump roll casts.  Initially all rods were rigged with appropriate Rio Scandi heads.  The impressions, comments and decisions recorded below are R's, not mine. Most importantly, R had no preconceptions as to rod choice and approached the trial with a totally open mind (which of course makes him a rarity amongst salmon anglers).

LPXe  From the outset this felt uncommunicative and very unforgiving of deficiencies in technique.  Re-rigging with a heavier AFS head didn't change things much, which led to the Guideline's first round elimination.

Cult  The difference in feel and communication after the LPXe was immediately apparent in an enjoyable session, so the Cult went through to the second round.

Marksman  The 2T was an instant hit on the basis of feel and reassuring firmness where needed (especially in overhead casts), which took it straight through.

MAG  When the technique was right there was a great feel and the line flew, but the MAG was rather unforgiving with a very narrow margin of error, which reduced confidence and caused its elimination.

The final was a simple head-to-head between the Cult and the Marksman.  After 15 minutes there was no doubt that R preferred the Marksman: the smile on his face said it all and sealed the decision.  I was slightly surprised because my assessment of his technique suggested that he might like the Cult best.  However, the magic ingredient of 'feel' which is specific to an individual and a rod is an intensely personal thing, so I was delighted to have a happy user.

To be absolutely certain I suggested that he should take it up to the Deveron, which at Carnousie demands a wide range of techniques, use it for the week and on return let me know if he was still happy with his choice.  Unfortunately it looks like the water will be so low that I shall need to lend him a 12 footer as well.

Final Thoughts

This practical example underlines the importance of 'try before you buy', even if the 'try' is limited to casting on grass.  It is very dangerous to make assumptions about salmon rods: the maker's marketing verbiage is designed to sell them rather than impart accurate information to the customer; the words have no consistent definitions; the biggest variable is you; and the critical issues of feel and communication are highly individual.  All 4 of the rods tested are 'good' in absolute terms - liked by lots of anglers, well engineered and functional.  A good caster could work well with any or all of them.  If you canvassed a random sample of 100 salmon anglers, a majority would probably state that the LPXe is a good rod, and also that you wouldn't go wrong buying one, largely on the basis of anecdote and accumulated reputation.  But in this case it was absolutely the wrong rod for the user: it just didn't suit him.  Testing always trumps opinion and reputation.

The second point is "the danger of the deal".  The retailers sell rods and cash flow is king.  The last thing they need is money tied up in slow or non-moving stock.  Superseded stock is the slowest moving of all, especially when it's one of the less popular models in a range (the Hardy Marksman 2S is an example).  The harder it is to shift, the lower its price will be, but some rods aren't a good buy at any money because they don't suit you or your needs.  EBay and the classified sections of on line forums are littered with barely used rods being sold by disappointed punters who fell into the deal trap. Being boring and methodical is much cheaper and happier in the long run. Trust me: I'm from Yorkshire.