It all started with a cane crafted from a deciduous tree. It advanced to bamboo, then fiberglass, to graphite and composites such as Kevlar.
Freshwater fishing rods then started to greatly vary in lengths, stoutness, handle design and reel seats as anglers sharpened their tactics to precision.
Different species and sizes of fish demanded specialized rods. Trolling from boats with rod holders demanded certain types of rods; casting for bass demanded particular qualities in a rod; taking steelhead on a fly demanded certain characteristics in a fly rod.
In short, rods built today host endless variations in order to increase your catch ratio in accordance to your prey. It is best to learn the lingo and styles of fishing rods before you buy your first one, lest you waste your money on the wrong one.
- Types of Freshwater Fishing Rods
- Rod Compositions
- Reel Seats
- Rod Handles
- Now the Hard Part – Choosing the right Rod for the Job
- One Last Note on Fly Rods
Before you start shopping for a rod, know what you need.
First, identify the type of water you prefer to fish. Rivers? Lakes? Ponds?
Then know which species you will be most often seeking and, hopefully, catching.
Also know your budget for a rod. They can range from $20 to several hundred dollars, depending on brand, style and composition.
Want a big tip? Check the action and feel out at a brick-and-mortar store before ordering one you think best fits your purposes at a sale price online.
Types of Freshwater Fishing Rods
Rod styles basically parallel the styles of reels as they pertain to the type of fishing you prefer. Baitcasting, fly fishing, spin fishing and trolling all require different features in a rod to provide the angler with ultimate satisfaction and ease.
Baitcasting, Spinning and Fly Rods
All types of rods can vary greatly in length, all depending on where you fish and what type of fish you seek.
If you are a beginner you might find a 5-foot spincasting rod perfect to fit your spincast reel. If you plan on catching bass, baitcasting rods can range from a mere 5 to 6-1/2 feet.
If trolling for mackinaw (lake trout), big rainbows, walleyes and other large lake fish, a 7-8 foot baitcasting rod might be in order.
For setting a hook hard, as with bass, you want a stout baitcasting rod. If fishing rivers for steelhead, you want a strong butt section, what is called a “heavy action.” However, steelheading with light line during summer when streams are usually clear and low, requires quite the opposite—a baitcaster called a “noodle rod.”
If you wish to catch only panfish, a relatively short, “light action” or “ultralight” rod—of the spinning variety—allows you to feel the fight from butt to tip more enjoyably. You might call it a small noodle rod.
Trolling usually requires a baitcasting or spinning rod that is long enough to easily watch the tip action and keep the line a safe distance from the boat’s hull, transom and motor.
Fishing a small creek lined with brush will require a spinning rod short enough to avoid smacking the brush behind you.
Basically, the longer the rod, the farther you will be able to cast with a baitcasting or spinning rig. Usually, you will be able to handle larger fish with larger and longer baitcasting rods. Fishing in tight spots or while swinging from starboard to port in a boat demands a short rod that stays free of collisions with things or people.
Two features remain constant in baitcasting rods:
1) small line guides or eyes, and
2) a reel seat that situates the reel on top of the handle rather than below it, as with a spinning or fly rod.
The major difference between spinning rods, baitcasters and fly rods revolves around line guides.
- The diameter of guides on baitcaster and fly rod tend to employ a much more subtle taper than that on spinning rods.
- The diameter of the first guide on a baitcaster or fly rod might be less than half-an-inch while it might be up to an inch-and-a-half on a spinning rod.
The contrast in diameters relates to the reel’s spool design.
- A spinning reel releases line in a spiraling fashion and the bail actually misdirects the line from the top of the spinning reel’s spool. An effective cast therefore requires generous diameters in the line guides, especially the first two.
- Conversely, a baitcaster and fly rod release line directly off the spool as rope, cord or wire spools off those large, wooden cable drums you see in construction yards.
The line guides therefore don’t need to allow a lot of play in the line; they are quite narrow in diameter because the path of the line is more direct from reel spool to rod tip.
As already mentioned, rods are made of various types of materials. Most prominent on the market are rods of graphite, fiberglass, composites and, still to a small extent, bamboo or cane—all in that order and for all styles of fishing.
Graphite wins the day because it achieves the level of strength required while keeping the rod’s weight at a level that won’t wear your arm out by the end of the day.
A fiberglass or even a Kevlar rod proves a tick heavier and therefore becomes more laborious as the day wears on—especially true for fly fishing when you are constantly backcasting.
Fiberglass still remains a logical choice when trolling or even still-fishing. It is not quite as brittle as graphite because it is a bit thicker on average. Some who are old enough to have started fishing with fiberglass, or even bamboo, stick with this type of rod for comfort or esthetic reasons; it’s their old pal and they are loyal to it.
Graphite remains somewhat an outlier, happening along in midstream—so to speak—for these well-seasoned anglers.
Overall, however, you will probably find graphite rods the best choice for a variety of fishing.
A reel seat is the portion of a rod’s butt section that secures your reel.
On a baitcasting rig, the reel seat positions the reel on top of the cork or foam-covered handle. On a spinning rig, the seat sits on the bottom side of the rod handle.
Freshwater reel seats usually feature a threaded section on which at least one bolt-like ring screws downward and upward for securing or releasing the T bar at the bottom of a baitcasting reel and top of a spinning reel.
A fly rod commonly locates the rear slot, in which the back of the reel’s T fits, at the very end of the butt section. A threaded section and ring for securing the reel exists at the rear and frontward.
The reel therefore sits nearly at the extreme read-end of the rod. Some fly rods intended for big fish include a few inches between the rear reel slot and the actual butt-end of the rod. This allows better bracing of the rod for the angler.
Some reel seats are made of plastic and some of metal or composites, including the threads and locking rings.
Some rods—you might call them “retro” because they existed most commonly in the early to mid-20th century—consist of only cork in the handle and sport two plastic rings just flexible enough to push over each end of the reel’s T bar and secure said reel.
Reel seats are usually made of materials resistant to corrosion—double-check this on the model you seek—and can vary in length depending on the length of the rod.
You will most generally find either foam-covered or cork-covered handles on rods. Both are extremely light but cork in the long run proves more durable and adds flotation properties to the rod—should you drop it into the water—than a plastic-handled rod.
Note, however, that if the tackle on the end of your line is heavy enough, even a cork-handled rod will ultimately sink.
Cork also allows for easy placement of lure or bait hook into it, should your rod come without a hook hasp to keep the hook from snagging to you or something other while carrying it. You can even sink an extra hook, fly or lure into it for convenience.
A foam handles simply tends to tear or shear more easily.
When fishing for big, strong fish (e.g., steelhead, muskie, mackinaw, giant walleye. bass or trout), choose a handle with extra room from reel seat to the end of the handle.
You can then brace it better to your waist area while reeling and holding it steady with your free hand just above the reel seat.
A short section between the end and reel seat can quickly wear out your arms when a huge fish thrashes at the end of your line.
Now the Hard Part – Choosing the right Rod for the Job
Choosing the right rod is really only difficult if you have no clue what you will be fishing for and where. But, even then, you can default to an “every angler’s” style of rod. Let’s look at the best type of rod in accordance to your type of fishing.
Best Rod for Bass Fishing
Choose a rod—whatever its composition—with a stout butt section and heavy action tip for throwing spinbaits and heavy lures.
Choose a stout butt and flexible tip for throwing plastics (i.e., worms, grubs) and balsa diving lures. Since most of bass fishing happens in a boat, choose a rod short enough to avoid hitting other gear and people crowded inside the boat.
When swinging from one direction to another in a swivel seat—characteristic to bass boats—you definitely avoid ticking off your fishing partner when opting for a shorter rod.
Bass anglers cast a lot, so they usually gravitate to using graphite rods. Baitcasting rods and reels allow bass anglers to best hit tight pockets and restrictive cover on top and bottom of a bass’s favorite haunts.
Best Rod for Walleye
Again, because a boat is more commonly used for walleye fishing, you want to avoid extremely long rods, but perhaps longer than the standard bass rod.
In general, you won’t be swinging to and fro when walleye fishing from a boat. The ideal walleye rod might be 6 to 7 feet with a medium action from butt to tip.
If dragging a bait behind your moving boat, you might even prefer a rod slightly longer. Some walleye anglers prefer lighter-action tips for picking up the bite on a worm-spinner rig.
Graphite and fiberglass rods are most commonly used for walleyes. For walleye fishers, the style of rod is a wash: A baitcaster accomplishes the same advantages as a spinning reel for the most part.
Best Rod for Muskies and Pike
A stout butt with medium to heavy tip works best for these tigers of freshwater that are usually caught on lures.
These fish often require much casting, so length and lightness of rod (i.e., graphite) prove critical.
Also because you cast a lot and in tight places for these species—as with bass—a baitcasting reel works most effectively.
Best Rod for Trout and Panfish
If fishing for small trout or panfish in tight creeks or brooks, use an ultralight rod or trail rod (one that comes in more than two pieces) that avoids brush when backcasting.
These rods feature light action, which equates to a more enjoyable feel when fighting a small trout, bluegill or crappie, for instance.
Bigger trout, which usually equates to bigger waters, will require a medium action overall on the rod, if not medium-light. If needing to feel the bite, a light-action tip might be best. Otherwise, the tip can be moderate in action.
Best Rod for Steelhead
Unless fishing in clear, low summer waters with light lures and bait as already mentioned—should choose a rod with a heavy action or stout butt and moderate action toward the tip for setting the hook while feeling the fish.
If you bounce bottom, as steelheading is mostly done, you don’t want your tip to be too stiff. You need to feel the bottom and any halt or interruption from a steelhead’s mouth.
With the exception of steelheading or salmon fishing during their stay in freshwater, a spinning rod is universally the best choice for trout and panfish. It can cast, present light lures, still-fish and troll.
Finally, when in doubt about what to choose, default to a spinning rod. It can adequately accomplish the task for whichever species you target and in any type of water.
One Last Note on Fly Rods
Fly rods are the red-headed stepchild of rod styles. They feature designs specific to casting in a very different way than with a spinning or baitcasting rod.
If starting out in fly fishing, remember that the size of fish and presence or strength of current will dictate the action, length and feel of the rod in general.
In most every case, a graphite proves your best choice because of its lightness when casting and its relative strength during the fight.