The primary difference between fly tackle and conventional tackle is in the line itself. A conventional outfit throws a lure of a given weight. A fly outfit casts the line itself, which in turn carries out an almost weightless lure.
You'll find rod length and line weight printed on the rod just forward of the grip.
Information on the length and line weight of a fly rod is usually printed on the rod just forward of the grip. It will look something like 9' #6.
"Line weight" can run from #1 or #2 on the lightest end and up to #14 or #15 on the heavier end. Line weight does not refer to "pound test" but to the physical weight of the first 30 feet of fly line.
A rod rated for a #4 line is designed to cast and "load" a 4-weight line. A heavier line would bend (load) the rod too much; a lighter line would not load the rod enough.
The lightest line weights are only practical for very small flies, small fish and complete absence of wind. The heaviest line weights are designed for billfish, tuna and other fish that can attain weights well over 100 pounds. Most of us live in the middle of these two extremes, within 5- and 9-weight territory.
If you are going to start (as most folks do) angling for trout, bluegill or farm pond bass, your first rod should be a 5- or 6-weight. Very often an angler will add an 8-weight rod later to cast larger flies in a stiff breeze and to pursue larger quarry like bigger bass, inshore saltwater fish, northern pike or steelhead. Think of your 5-weight as doing the same job as your conventional spinning outfit with 6-pound test. Your 8-weight fly outfit does the job of your baitcasting outfit with 12-pound test.
The best all-around fly-rod length is 8-1/2 to 9 feet. Shorter and longer rods are specialty tools for specific circumstances. Because of length, fly rods are designed to break down into 2, 3 or 4 sections (sometimes more) for convenient transport.
Quality & Workmanship
Once you have narrowed your search within a certain length, line weight and price range, you can compare quality and workmanship.
A fly rod should have at least one guide for every foot in length. Most 9-foot rods actually have 10-11 guides, including the tip top. A rod with too few guides simply won't cast or fish well.
Cork grips are the standard, but there is a wide range in cork quality, even in higher priced rods. Poor quality cork breaks down more rapidly through use. Higher grade cork has less pock-marks and variation in color. Poor cork uses "filler" material to disguise holes and imperfections, and this will be visible on close inspection.
Poorly made rods will often have dried drops of finish around guides and other places where a finish coat has been applied.
Reel seat hardware will vary. Plastic reel seats and stamped parts are less expensive than metal and machined parts.
If you narrow your selection down to a couple options, feel free to be subjective; pick the one that looks the coolest or feels the best -- whichever one you think you'll be the happiest fishing with. After all, the most important thing about your first fly rod is that you actually get out and fish with it.
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Read Selecting a Fly Rod: Part 2