Wednesday 25 September 2019

Vision XO 13' 6" #8 - Yar in Excelsis

Sharp-eyed readers of J1W might have spotted something in my last post about the week on the Coul fishings of the River Conon.  I'm showing the picture again at a larger size.  The Danielsson LW5 reel is familiar enough and has previously featured in my writings.  It's the rod you haven't seen before.

Following Trout & Salmon's rave review of the Vision XO 13' 6" I was keen to get my hands on an example to see whether it lived up to the hype.  A coaching session on the Ure with Brian Towers - one of the testers - further whetted my appetite.  In his opinion it was one of the most remarkable rods he'd ever handled.  With that in mind I laid siege to my local friendly Vision dealer.  After a brief negotiation the rod shown above travelled up to the Conon for a week's intensive use.

A bit of background

The XO range is Vision's first foray into the premium segment of the rod market.  Over the 20 years that they have been designing their own range of products, Vision built an excellent reputation in the mid-price range with successive generations of rods that offered casting and fishing pleasure at a sensible price.  Their naming, branding and packaging may seem a bit eccentric, but the underlying theme was their consistent adherence to a fuller action than you usually encounter in some other Scandinavian brands.  They considered that bringing the entire length of the rod into the casting and fishing equation was not only more efficient but also more pleasurable for the angler.  From the early days of the GT and Catapult models, through the Cult, MAG and Tool you could detect this clear design intent.  Of course there were variations from the centre-line, with the softer Cult and firmer MAG and Tool actions reflecting opposite boundaries, but the basic feel was consistent.  The XO action is faithful to that tradition.

It isn't easy to design and manufacture a double-handed salmon rod down to a price.  You have to make compromises and hard choices.  In the mid-price range you see this immediately in areas like the quality of the cork and the choice of fittings.  Some years ago I tried to explain all this in detail in Rod Value - Where the Money Goes.  Because salmon rods are generally made in relatively tiny quantities, the hidden sunk costs are disproportionate.  If, say, you want a range of 4 rods - 12, 13, 14 and 15 feet - you need one or more of each for prototype testing. These are one-off bespoke builds and correspondingly expensive.  And you may not get it right first time, which adds more time and cost.  Quite soon you're looking at serious money, all of which the company has to recoup in sales margin.

Many anglers baulk at the price of salmon rods, protesting that the manufacturers are ripping them off and making a fortune.  In fact the reverse is the case.  Very few salmon rod brands make a sensible profit, several lose money (Hardy was losing plenty before it was bought by Pure) and others like Loop rely on enthusiastic and philanthropic owners.  Once you've delved into the manufacturing economics you realise that by and large you get what you pay for.

What makes the XO different is that for the first time Vision chose to make a rod up to a standard without any compromises, which explains the £899 price tag.  That poses the question, is it worth the money?  Obviously a lot of other people think so: the 13' 6" #8 is currently the fastest selling rod in Vision UK's range and to date not one has appeared in the used market.  But for me the question was simpler: is this a truly great fishing rod, blessed with the magic quality of "yar".

First look

In common with other premium rods the XO comes in a well-engineered screw-capped protective alloy tube.  The weight alone suggests that it could protect the rod from the most severe impacts.  Inside is a neatly machined buff rod bag.  It all reeks of quality, but personally I just love the ease and convenience of the compartmented tubes in which their earlier models arrived.

The real delight comes when you take the rod out of the bag, culminating in the butt section.  The down-locking reel seat is conservatively decorated with curly birch wood,  but in all other respects entirely functional.  The two-nut locking is bomb-proof and didn't move at all in a week's fishing.

In a bit of cunning I first detected in the MAG 13, the base of the butt is ballasted.  This allows the rod to balance with a lighter reel and achieve a lower overall weight of rod and reel than would otherwise be the case.

But the ultimate delight is the cork. It is so smooth and tactile it's almost erotic.  The first time I held it I was struggling for an appropriate metaphor.  My current experience as an enlightened, modern nappy changing grandfather steers me away from the classic 'baby's bottom' analogy on the grounds of unpleasant collateral.  The same modernity makes me wary of possibly sexist references that might upset any female readers of this blog.  But make no mistake, any supermodel would be jealous of its smoothness.

When a carbon rod is made the resin impregnated cloth ('pre-preg' as it's known) is wrapped around a steel mandrel and then held tightly in place by heat resistant tape to ensure consistent adhesion between the layers during the heat curing process.  On completion of curing the tape is removed, leaving a slightly ridged outer surface.  Most manufacturers remove this surplus - you can machine carbon like metal - to give the blanks a smooth gloss finish.  As you can see here, Vision have chosen to omit this process.  They've done this before: the Cult was only partially machined. However, on the XO the ridging is much more pronounced, which jars slightly on first inspection as your thoughts stray from supermodels to lugworms - a major mental shift.  Outwardly it's typical Vision eccentricity, but I suspect there are some good reasons for the choice and that final retail price wasn't a determinant.  Consider these points.  First, when you're striving to make anything as light as possible, the less machining you apply, generally the stronger it will be.  Second, when you're making prototypes to test the action of a rod you don't want or need to spend money on cosmetic finish.  But once you've got the action just how you want it to be, why take the risk of removing material and possibly changing something?  And in any event, like all Vision's little quirks, you cease to notice it very quickly.

The rings and whipping are everything you would expect at this price point.  The colour and decor is extremely conservative.

The titanium bendy recoil guides are an expensive luxury, but seem to be what wealthier customers expect nowadays, even if they rarely if ever put their characteristics to the test.

So, it's beautifully presented and finished.  What's it like as a fishing rod?

On the River

Upper Boat Pool
Coul Fishing
This pool presented a nice easy start, beginning with a very short line to clear the water under my feet.  At this height most of the fish in Upper Boat are on the flow line and the near side, so no great effort was required.  This was convenient because fishing from the left bank with a blustery downstream wind meant that I spent most of the morning casting left hand up.

The first thing that strikes you is a feeling of extraordinary lightness in the hand.  The extra 6" makes it feel bigger than the 13 MAG, but it's lighter.  Indeed, it's nearly 20% lighter than the 13' Tool, itself no bunter in the weight stakes.  

Compared to the 13' 8" Cult, a mere 2" longer and to date my choice for larger rivers, the XO is much lighter and in the first minute you discover that it is far, far more responsive and dynamic in every phase of a cast.  I love the Cult dearly, but by goodness, it really does feel pedestrian in comparison to the XO.  In my earlier tests of the Onki and Tool I used the analogy of the BMW 320 and 320M to compare their feel and performance.  On that scale the XO is the full M3, but thankfully with the savage bits removed (and a beautiful handle added).

New Pool
Lower section
It was only later that I had the opportunity to explore a bit more distance.  Towards the tail of New Pool the fish are more spread across the width than they are at the head.  The tall tree on the far bank marks the start of a succession of lies on and beyond the centreline, which require a a cast of some 30 yards to cover.  You are limited in achieving that by the depth by the near bank: once you're a couple of yards out, the minimum for any sort of a D-loop, the water is at the top of your thighs and the conditions underfoot dissuade you from venturing further.

So, you're thigh deep, casting left handed double Spey in a nasty wind, using a 13' 6" rod with a 15' sink tip and a tube fly, and you, a very ordinary caster, wish to go to 30 yards?  With a sceptical ghillie watching?  Relax, look up, lighten the grip, slow down and don't apply power too early and blow the anchor.  Feel the load and stop!  
Oh yes, yes, yes!  (and repeat for 20 minutes).

"What length is that rod?" the ghillie enquired.  
"13 foot 6", I replied with a self-satisfied smile.  
"That's something really different (or words to that effect).  When you get to the bottom of the pool can I have a try?"  

I'm not sure which provided him with the greater amazement - the rod or its £899 price.

Junction Flats
Coul Fishing

On subsequent days, further down the beat when and where the wind direction allowed, I could use single and C Spey casts.  At Junction Flats with the wind over my right shoulder it took no effort whatsoever to hit the wall on the far side.  Of course in casting everything always works better with less effort.  Nevertheless, the sensation of the rod loading right down to the butt was utterly delightful.  The XO communicates clearly and precisely: you know exactly what's going on at every stage.  For me that's an absolutely essential quality in a salmon rod, especially as it helps me to detect and correct my frequent errors.

Gallander's at +2' 6" and rising
Friday afternoon
Coul Fishing
The sternest test of the XO's performance was on the last day, in a big pool, with rising water and a weighted MCX Dark conehead at the far end of a 15' sink tip.  The far bank is more than 55 yards away.  I was less than 2 yards out, thigh deep in heavy water and difficult ground underfoot (not conducive to relaxed casting), with a stiff wind downstream and slightly into my face.  The lie I needed to cover was more than half the way across: its back edge is just visible at the extreme right of the photo.  I couldn't cast square owing to the uneven weight of the flow between me and the lie.  Around 60 degrees was the most I could allow if the fly was to be moving sensibly as it passed over the lie.  After 5 days with this rod I was confident that I could pull it off.  Relax, look up, 3 good loops of running line on the bottom hand, and  hope the D-loop doesn't catch on the grass (only one did thanks to the strimming by Head Ghillie Ian Menzies).  On about the tenth cast I felt the kick of a very big salmon, which when it showed was clearly a 20+.  The full story was recounted in Coul Fishing and need not be repeated here.

Summing Up

Over the years I've owned a wide variety of brands of salmon rod from bargain basement to premier league.  Some suited me well and I loved them, others were complete dogs with which I never achieved happy union.  Price was never a good guide to affection, and the worst rod I've ever owned was the most expensive (albeit I bought it second hand).  The mid-range Vision rods have in most cases always served me well.

The XO is a truly beautiful fishing rod that I really enjoyed using.  Day after day in all conditions it put a beaming smile on my face.  For someone of my age with a seriously bad back its lightness is a real boon.  Its communication and feel through your hands is a delight.

Is it a "game changer"?  No, fishing is still fishing, and performance gains are incremental.

Did it help me catch any. more fish?  No: of the 9 I hooked, 7 were within easy range for the 13 MAG, so arguably would have been hooked anyway.

Did it help me cast miles further?  No, not miles, but perhaps a useful few extra yards beyond what I could achieve with the Cult.

But the real secret was that with the additional confidence it engendered I relaxed more and as a result cast better and further with less effort, thereby gaining more pleasure from my fishing.

According to Tracy in the musical High Society, the definition of 'yar' includes the words quick, responsive, taut and agile.  On that basis the XO 13' 6" is 'yar' in excelsis.  Sometimes you find things that are just so beautiful to use and deliver so much joy that you just can't resist them.  If I'm lucky I may have 10-12 seasons of salmon fishing left to me, so why not maximise the joy?

I bought it.


  1. There is something about buying a new rod and a new bike; a feeling that never goes away. I don't blame you for buying this one ! An interesting article . Thank you

  2. A much better read than any review in T&S. I really like the look of the rod and agree that sometimes its about maximising the joy. Dare I suggest a Saracione to go with the new rod...

  3. I I bought this rod ahead if the 2020 salmon season. I love the rod. It's very light and I can use it all day long. I have done some of my longest and best casts with this rod. My biggest fish so far with the XO was a 99 cm female salmon. I am keeping this rod!

  4. I got here much interesting stuff. The post is great! Thanks for sharing it! Find a buyer for my used fishing rod

  5. Always a great read and full of useful information. Can you please tell me which weight of Scandi head worked best for you with this rod, thanks, eliot.

    1. Rio Scandi SVT #8 at 34 gm is absolutely on the spot for me. If you wished to load it more deeply then it would handle the 37gm #9 Scandi very well indeed.

  6. Thanks MCX, I have been using a 37-38 gram Rio AFS and Scandi versitip on my Oracle Scandi 13'9" for five years and may now be approaching a rod upgrade! This may be too "good" a rod for me, so may look lower in the Vision range and try to get a loan session, cheers, E.

  7. A very useful and enjoyable read. I am a fan of Vision too! Thanks for sharing your experiences.