Wednesday 28 September 2022

The Hero and the Emperor on Arndilly


Dawn view over the Spey from Tominachty

First morning - Piles Right

Through the kindness of a friend I spent three days in mid-September on the beautiful Arndilly beat on the Spey.  It is one of the most perfect stretches of water that I've ever fished, ticking all the boxes and set in the stunning countryside of the Lower Spey just downstream of Craigellachie.  The icing on this superb cake was sharing Tominachty House with a diverse, social and fun party, spanning all ages from 28 to 91.

Pot of gold perhaps
75 yards wide
W-profile pool with shallow bar in the middle
The fish here are within 15-20 yards
The wide river and its clear banks provided the ideal opportunity to try a big rod and a full Spey line.  Although confident that I could cover all the water required with the 13' 6" XO and a Scandi head, I was keen to try the classic method.  The experiment was not, however, without trepidation and fear of embarrassment as I hadn't used a full line since 2007.  Fortunately, with the ghillies' efforts focused on the youngest and oldest members of the party, and the handy bends in the beat, I had plenty of opportunities for unobserved re-learning of the technique.  That said, when in public view or on the right bank, I tended to funk the challenge and reach for the XO!

I took two 15 footers from Guide Fly Fishing spanning the price spectrum to try at Arndilly.  A Sage X #10/11 (RRP £1300) and a Vision Hero 14' 7" #9 (RRP £480).  The test lines comprised a mixture of Rio and Century Speys of 55' and 65'.  I'd already done some practice in Yorkshire with grass leaders, but water would provide the acid test from which I could draw valid conclusions once I'd got my technique properly sorted.

This report concentrates on the Hero for two main reasons: first, unlike the Sage, the Hero is an unknown quantity in the marketplace; and second, its price is more consistent with the ethos of this blog.  My impressions of the Sage can be found at the end of this article: at this point it suffices to note that it's a very fine rod, which suited my casting and physique very nicely.  Before reading further, you may find it helpful to have a quick scan of my report on the 13' 7" Hero to pick up the general points.

Vision Salmon Hero 14' 7" #9 - Overview

The big Hero shares the same tube colour and compartmented stowage design as the rest of the range.

It's pleasantly light in the hand, tipping the scales at under 10 oz, and well balanced without any hint of tip preponderance.  I used a 230 gm Rulla as the test reel, which was slightly light: something around 260-280 gm would be perfect.

The colour scheme is uniformly black and understated in all respects, which I like as I've never been a fan of bling.  The quality of finish is excellent.  The cork is very good for this price point, without excess use of filler, and nicely finished.

The fit and spining of the blanks is excellent.  With a light application of candle wax on the joints no taping was required, and the alignment of the sections remained perfect throughout the 3 days of the test.

The star of the show is the reel seat.  It's a value engineered version of the XO, with a lovely chunky clamp and slim lock nut running on a coated thread.  The locking is absolutely bomb-proof and remained tight throughout 3 days' fishing.  In my view it's the best in class at this price by a comfortable margin.

On the water

Cobble Pot
Quiet, secluded and very fishy

Cobble Pot became my favoured test range, with the added benefit of being sheltered from the swirling and sometimes gusty upstream wind.  At the head it's 35 yards wide, expanding to 60 in the middle and beyond.

The first step was to relearn the technique and especially the paramount requirement for keeping the D-loop clear of the water in the single Spey (thank you Robert Gillespie for the image of the 'rising plane').  This demanded a much more energetic back cast than is necessary with a Scandi head, and to increase the challenge, a more precise placement of the anchor.  After about 15-20 minutes I'd reached a level of competence sufficient for basic testing.

In the process I encountered some interesting paradoxes that arise from differing line profiles at common weights.  For example, the 65' Rio with a nominal head weight of 39 gm loaded the Hero more comprehensively than either the 55' Century at 46 gm or the old model 55' Rio at the same weight.  Nevertheless, both the 65' Rio and the 55' Century were very satisfactory matches with the rod.

The second point I rediscovered was from historic discussions during coaching with Alan Maughan, was that the back cast can be as searching a test of a rod as the forward.  Success requires certain features that in turn demand design compromises.  First, for the rod to be most efficient in the back cast it needs to employ the flex in all four sections progressively.  That needs some firmness in the tip to drive the flex down through the length (a too-soft tip may do all the bending), but not so much as to reduce sensitivity, as you really do need to know what's going on.  Second, it needs to recover quickly for the transition from back to forward cast, while retaining the flexibility to load deeply for the delivery, which is especially important with a full Spey line as the delivery phase is significantly longer than with a shooting head.  And third, it must have the innate power, a balance between flexibility and rigidity, to move a very substantial mass of  line with a lot of 'water stick' with enough velocity to form a full airborne D-loop, and then deliver it over a long distance.  It's a complicated design brief.

Back in my early days I used some truly horrid 15 footers - Greys, Shakespeare Oracles and a Daiwa - and the occasional nicer (and much more expensive) examples, notably by Loop.  The common deficiency at the budget end of the market was excess rigidity with a consequent lack of feel.  There are very few rods like that around any more, although the Maxcatch SkyTouch 15' I tried in March was truly ghastly.  In stark contrast, the Hero was wonderful.  Once I'd grown accustomed to the length and the extra demands of full lines, it was absolutely delightful, bringing the line off the water consistently into a good D-loop, placing the anchor regularly, and delivering the fly entirely satisfactorily.  The Hero certainly made my life easier, a real confidence builder, that helped me break through the trepidation barrier into enjoyable fishing. 

With the 46' foot Century I was able to shoot 25-30 feet of line and deliver a respectably straight result, and with the 65' Rio about 20-25.  This meant that I was presenting the fly at something over 30 yards, which was ample for the upper section of Cobble Pot.  The more I practised, the greater the enjoyment.  And of course the bonus was not having to strip in large amounts of running line before recasting.  Once I'd worked the fly round to the dangle there was usual one full 3' strip remaining and I was ready to go.

The greatest delight came in the combination of the Hero with the 65' Rio line.  With the momentum of a big dynamic D-loop going backwards, the transition into the forward cast loaded the Hero fully, and created a feeling akin to that of overhead casting, with the 'push me - pull you' of both hands working in concert absolutely to the fore.  The sensation was marvellous and the result extremely satisfying as the line flew out parallel to the water, the perfect casting experience.

Bottom line

If you are going to fish big wide rivers like the Spey with nicer clear banks, then a 15 footer with a full line is a highly efficient option and a worthwhile investment.  For those starting out and unwilling to splash over £1,000 on the Sage X, I see little point in looking at anything else other than the Hero.  You're unlikely to find anything better for less than twice the money, and for an entry level rod, the big Hero is an exceptional performer.  Indeed, I liked it so much, I bought the demonstrator.

The Emperor - Sage X 15' #10/11 - Overview

At £1300 I reckon that one is entitled to be picky and if justified, a little critical, when compared to an assessment of an entry level rod like the Hero.  Sage don't do bling - a positive in my book - but their utilitarianism does verge on the austere.  Everything is beautifully made and neatly finished, although in my opinion the cork isn't as fine as the XO.  My first gripe, common to all Sage two-handers, is the absence of alignment marks, which would only require about £1 worth of additional work.

The combination of aluminium tube and bag is standard, but at 15' the dimensions off the sections demand an eccentric stowage regime in order to get the bagged rod into the tube.  The sections don't go into the bag in a simple left to right progression, but rather  offset and alternating upwards and downwards to match the bag dividers.  If you don't get it right, it won't fit into the tube.

My next niggle is the reel seat.  It's simple and functional, but it feels too light and skeletal in relation to a big rod.  The thread on this demonstrator is already showing quite a lot of wear and required some silicone to achieve satisfactory operation.  The locking nuts are adequate, but fall short of the ease of use of the Alps or even the Hero.  It is below the quality of everything else on the rod and in my book rather lets it down.

In its defence, it did keep the reel secure for the three days, albeit it took me a couple of wiggles to get a satisfactory initial seating of the Lamson Guru.

On the water

Soux - 75 yards wide and all the room in the world
but most fish are within 25 yards

On the first day I christened the big X 'The Emperor' on account of its absolute power and dominance of the line.  From the first cast I took an immediate liking to this rod, in a way that I never did with the shorter Igniters I'd tried over the previous two years.  Where those felt tippy and stiff, the X delivered a lovely through action and hand feel: it's a much more forgiving proposition.  Even when underloaded with the 46 gm Century it provided great feel and a really enjoyable casting experience, shooting 25-30 feet of running line.  With longer and heavier Rio lines it was in its element.

From my personal perspective this is an outstandingly good rod that suited my technique and physique admirably.  I loved its ideal blend of through action, feel and power.  It stood out head and shoulders above the various Sage double handers I've tested in the past decade.

Bottom Line

It's a great rod and I really enjoyed using it over the three days at Arndilly.  But at £1300 I wouldn't buy one.  It's too expensive to justify against the limited amount of big-river fishing that I am likely to do in the seasons remaining to me.  Other wealthier and younger anglers with more seasons ahead of them may well reach a different and entirely understandable verdict.

Below the Bog
In two hours more than a hundred fish showed in this pool
Not one showed the least interest in a fly!


  1. May I ask, did anybody else in the party try the Hero and did they enjoy it as much as you? Thank you

    1. No, largely as a result of me keeping out of view. Charlie tried the Sage because that was what I was using when he found me at work, but not the Hero.

    2. Thank you. The Hero is around the right price point for me too, all things considered. A very useful review.

  2. Pretty much exactly my opinion of the X 14' #8 Michael. A lovely rod that surprised me as I always thought Sage were fast rods. Reel seat and no alignment marking annoys me. I can't seem to get enough purchase on the reel seat locking rings and I am always checking to see if they have loosened which they don't but they don't give confidence. I found this season I have been using this rod more than my 14' #9 Marksman T.....praise indeed!

  3. Sorry , when I say "fast" actioned above I mean I expected the rod to be a lot stiffer and less through actioned.

    1. Like you was was surprised, based on my previous experience with the Igniters, that the X offers such a pleasant through action.