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Bass Rod Bonanza!

Fly Fish Ohio Looks At Four Hot New Bass Fly Rods From Sage, Scott and St. Croix That Don’t Follow the Trend

Product Review by Joe Cornwall

Photos By Jim Stuard

"If a man finds that his nature tends or is disposed to one of these extremes..., he should turn back and improve, so as to walk in the way of good people, which is the right way. The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other."  — Maimonides


The golden mean is often thought of as the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.  To the Greek mentality it was an attribute of beauty.  The Greeks believed there to be three components of beauty, those being symmetry, proportion, and harmony. Something disproportionate was evil and therefore to be despised. Plato said, "If we disregard due proportion by giving anything what is too much for it; too much canvas to a boat, too much nutriment to a body, too much authority to a soul, the consequence is always shipwreck." 


I wonder what Plato would have thought about the constant quest for “faster” fly rods?  Perhaps he would have added “too much speed to a fly rod and the consequence is a soul-less compromise.”  The fly rods we examine here - the Sage Smallmouth, the Scott Warm Water Special 806-3 and 808-3, and the St. Croix Legend Ultra 898-4 – all follow a middle way.  Each of these brilliantly designed rods refuses to measure up to the industry “standard” 9-foot length or the relentless quest for faster action.  Each offers its own take on the concepts of power and speed without ever leaving a comfortable level of expected utility.  Neither long nor short, neither exceptionally fast nor annoyingly slow, these rods embody a performance potential far beyond their median outward appearance.  Rest assured these fine tools handily break away from the confines of compromise, perhaps prompting an attentive angler to mirror Phocylides’ observation; “In many things the middle have the best - Be mine a middle station."


To understand what makes this quartet so unique we must first examine the most obvious of their similarities.  Each of the fly rods reviewed is under 9-feet in length.  Three of them are 8-feet.  Why?  Putting aside claims of tournament legality, the practical answer is given to us by trigonometry and it is simple - accuracy.  Assuming the distance to the target, the length of the fly line and the length of the fly rod describe a triangle, then all other factors being equal an error in delivery of the fly to the target will be proportional to the percentage of difference in the length of the rod.  An 8-foot rod could improve accuracy over a 9-foot rod by as much as 12%! 


Though the mathematics is complex and fraught with variables, the empirical results are easily understood.  The variable of length is not of concern to the angler alone - think about golf.  A pitching wedge is undeniably capable of greater accuracy than a 5-iron.  The 5-iron is, on the other hand, capable of hitting a longer ball by virtue of its greater swing radius and attendant increase in head speed.  A 9 or 10-foot fly rod, like the 5-iron, is capable of achieving greater casting distance than an 8-foot rod of similar action, at the expense of accuracy.


Why is this important?  Because many warm water fish species are ambush predators.  Ambush predators capture prey by stealth, not by speed or necessarily by strength. Bass usually hide motionless and wait for prey to come within striking distance. Placing a fly a foot outside of their optimum range means it may be out of consideration from the very start.  Whether we fish for smallmouth bass or largemouth, snook, pike or pickerel, we are entering a game of quickly calculated odds.  If the odds aren’t in the predator’s favor, then there is no take.  Upping the odds for the angler is often a matter of accurately delivering the fly to a precise target on the first try.


But length alone doesn’t describe the personality of each of these sticks.  Each of these is as different from the others as they are from the scores of de rigueur 9-foot competitors that fill the fly shop shelves.  The four rods examined here exhibit traits that range from Herculean authority to lissome agility.  Certainly at least one will fill a gap in your arsenal.  As the old saying goes; “To be successful, you need to have the right tool for the job.”





The Sage Smallmouth

After working with a small, tight-lipped group of serious bass anglers, we've developed three rods that can drop a hair frog or an air-light diver with pinpoint accuracy and hardly a ripple on the water. From a fly fishing perspective, we’re talking about effortlessly pushing big, wind-resistant bugs into tight quarters.”  The next line in this marketing copy goes on to say Sage developed their line of BASS rods at 7’ 11” because of tournament limitations.  Indeed it is true that FLW rules and regulations limit any fishing rod to a maximum of 8-feet in length. There is some ambiguity regarding the use of a fly rod, the rules do not specifically name fly tackle as being permissible.  Then again, neither do they name them as being forbidden.  So the big mystery then becomes when will we see a top ranked B.A.S.S. contender grab for a fly rod?


Forget the question and forget about tournament rules.  Looking at this product simply as a tool for fishing, Sage has developed a series of three fly rods that are unlike anything else in the industry. These rods are so unique they come packaged with a matching line, a line that is intended for use with that model of rod and that rod only!  In the case of the Smallmouth, that line is rated at 290 grains and offers a very special extreme weight-forward taper.  Inclusion of the line is deserving of special kudos as this packaging of the rod and line as a system ensures you’ll experience the right action when you grab for this powerful and efficient tool.


The line may actually be the one component of the system that has proven to be a drawback - at least from a marketing perspective.  There are many involved in the sport of fly fishing who possess misplaced loyalties to tradition. It’s myopic to look at this system, see 290 grains, and think that somehow this is a 10-weight fly rod.  It’s not. This rod has as much in common with a typical saltwater 10-weight as the 400 horsepower engine in Mercedes truck has with the 400 horsepower engine in a Mercedes SL-Class roadster.  The only similarity is the number!


So what is the Sage Smallmouth really like?  Too appreciate this rod, immediately forget subtle!  In the hand it is lighter than expected for its formidable line rating.  Finished in a glowing golden-yellow with red wraps and black trim, the rod is anything but subdued.  The svelte full-wells grip features near faultless cork, a useful fighting butt and a solid, double-locking aluminum reel seat. The guides are oversized and the epoxy finish work shows excellent attention to detail.  This is an exceptionally well-built fly rod!


I was fortunate to have Jerry Siem, the fellow who designed the rod, give me a quick demonstration at the 2007 Fly Fishing Retailer trade show.  Those few minutes have stayed with me, burnt into my memory.  I’d never seen an inverted Belgian cast, but that’s what Jerry used to skip the fly along the water with all the ease of a boy skipping a rock.  It was mesmerizing.  Jerry was quick to point out that the Smallmouth and Largemouth (and the Bluegill, by extension) is not designed for false casting, double-hauling and distance tournaments.  This is a rod designed to deliver a large, very air-resistant fly to a precise target from 20 to 60 feet away.  Once the fly is there the rod allows unfettered control of the line and the retrieve.


Other writers have called the Sage Smallmouth a “fast” rod.  It’s easy to come to that conclusion if you’ve never cast anything more serious than a 9-foot 5-weight graphite trout rod.  Waggling this one in the shop will tell you as much about its performance as kicking the tires of a Mercedes SLK55 will tell you about its quarter-mile acceleration, which is to say not much at all.  In actual use this rod isn’t as fast as you might be lead to believe.  It’s responsive and very powerful.  The line speed is actually kept in check by the line's mass and the air resistance of the fly.  Don’t tie on a size 8 wooly bugger! To understand this fly rod system, tie on a size 2/0 Tap’s Bug.  What you’ll feel is massive momentum, responsive feedback, and iron-fisted control.  Casting this rod is fun.  I especially liked using this rod to fish fly and spinner combinations.  In fact, this is the first rod I've ever cast that was completely at ease with Tom Nixon's fly rod spinner baits.  I'm certain if he'd had a chance to fish one, old Tom would have approved!


The Sage Smallmouth and the Sage Largemouth are designed as a fish fighting levers.  Both of these rods are designed for “lean into them and see what breaks” brawls.  Bass, snook, pike and other ambush predators are highly likely to turn into the very tangles where they hunt when they feel the pinch of the hook.  The battle is about gaining control, getting the fish’s head pointing away from thick cover, and moving the fight into open water where it can be quickly and efficiently (and humanely) ended. Bass aren’t marlin. There aren’t any epic 3-hour battles and the design of a good bass rod should reflect that.  The Sage Smallmouth is a great bass rod and is a highly capable performer under these demanding conditions.  A 15” smallie will put a respectful bend into the rod, but there’s plenty left over for when things get hinky.  Think of it as a reserve of flame-breathing, ground-pounding horsepower for those moments when you most need it.  And if you don't think you'll ever need it for a 3lb fish, well then I guess you've never caught a 3lb bass!


I haven’t tried any other floating line on the Smallmouth beyond the Rio-manufactured Sage-branded line that comes with the rod. Together the two are such a fabulous match that it seems meaningless to play around with other lines.  More manufacturers should be as specific about matching a line with their rod!  I did spend a few hours tossing streamers with a 300 grain sink-tip line.  While the rod was happy to oblige my curiosity, it proved to be a pretty ordinary rod for that application.  I like the shorter length for working from a boat, canoe or kayak and the tough design delivered lot’s of confidence for deep work.  But it is with the 290 grain Smallmouth floating line that the rod really comes alive for me.


This series of rods from Sage is such a pleasant surprise.  While I’ve only fished the Smallmouth, I can appreciate the family resemblance of the Largemouth and the Bluegill.  These are rods that are designed to deliver large, air-resistant flies on-target with one false cast. They are serious fish fighting tools, pretty to look at and completely in-tune with their intended task.  This might just be the first really new idea in fly rods since the introduction of graphite!  Bravo Sage!


The Sage Smallmouth is 7' 11"with a four piece configuration.  It weighs 3.5 ounces and comes complete with the matching 290 grain bullet-taper fly line and a rod/reel case.  MSRP is $395.


Click Above For The Fly Fish Ohio Rating System






The Scott Warm Water Special

The 806/3


I owned the Sage Smallmouth for months before I had a chance to handle a Scott Warm Water Special.  The whole time I was waiting for the Scott I kept thinking what a bummer it would be to have to fish an ultra-fast rod that’s more about the marketing than the application.  I’d heard the Scott bass rods were very fast, so much so that they weren’t much fun.  I’d heard lot’s of things – and none were true. The Scott Warm Water Special turned out to be very special indeed!


It would be difficult to choose two rods that are the same length, that weigh about the same, that look similar and are designed for chasing the same species of fish but that ended up being more different.  The Scott Warm Water Special and the Sage Bass rods, beyond both being fly rods, have almost nothing in common.


The Scott fly rods use a more traditional progressive taper and are designed to work with “standard” fly lines.  I found the 806/3 to work well with a variety of weight-forward designs.  I also cast a double-taper 6 and 7 lines with this rod.  I finally settled on a Scientific Anglers bass bug taper WF6 as a great partnership.  While the rod was certainly capable of handling a variety of line sizes and configurations, it was at its best with something solidly in the 6-weight category as defined by AFFTA.  In other words, this is a true 6-weight rod and not some super fast stick that is labeled a 6 but is really more useful with 7 or even 8-weight lines, as is so true of many other premium offerings from the big name vendors.


This rod had no problem casting “off the tip” to targets up close, and it displayed an uncanny ability to track my casting stroke and deliver the fly precisely where the tip of the rod was pointing.  For those of you who play golf you already know this can be a problem!  We all tend to play to our strengths while ignoring our weaknesses.  I have a tendency to cast with a bit of an open stance and with the rod canted away from me – not quite side-arm but not perfectly vertical as a textbook casting stroke should be.  For a while I was dropping every cast about a foot to the left of where I thought I was aiming!  After a bit of practice I’d soon overcome my own inaccuracy (due to poor technique) and started dropping casts with a level of precision that became addictive.  Repeatedly placing a size 4 feather-wing streamer in a target area the size of a hat at 40-feet does wonderful things to one's ego!


The 806/3 can be describe by two adjectives; smooth and refined.  The Warm Water Special is capable of surprising delicacy in close quarters.  Ask for more and the rod flexes progressively ever more deeply into the blank as speed and power is added to the cast.  It was far beyond my modest abilities to overpower this rod.  So long as my stroke was smooth and I accelerated to a sudden stop, the rod was happy to oblige.  My effective casting range extended from the length of the rod and leader out to sixty-feet or more.  Beyond sixty feet I think the game becomes one of casting and not fishing – an 8 foot long fly rod simply doesn’t have the ability to comfortably control that much line.  Let’s look at this distance in detail.  Sixty feet of fly line is combined with ten feet of leader and eight feet of fly rod.  That means the fly will land, on target if our skills are good enough, seventy-eight feet from the caster’s toes.  That’s a long way out there!  Anyway you look at it, this rod can certainly cast farther than this caster!


The Scott Warm Water Special 806/3 was comfortable casting everything from the smallest hare's ear pattern all the way up to a heavily-weighted Montana Stone nymph in a size 4.  Beyond size 4, depending on air resistance, the mass of any 6-weight line just doesn’t have the momentum to control the fly during the cast - under normal fishing conditions.  This makes the 806/3 compatible with just about any fly one might select for river and creek-based smallmouth bass fishing.  Nymphs and indicators, heavily-weighted bottom bouncers, or crunchy top-water eye-candy all posed little challenge to this rod’s superb poise. 


Combine the 806/3 and a premium weight-forward line with a 7 ½ foot Rio Versi-Leader and a fluorocarbon tippet and this might just be the ultimate streamer rod!  Big-trout addicts who fish from drift boats should sit up and take note.  This fly rod has the guts to handle casting and working a larger fly, the bottom-end power to lever a fish out of a holding position, and the accuracy and efficiency to make repeated power-casts effortlessly. 


In my humble opinion the Scott 806/3 is one of the finest graphite fly rods I’ve ever fished.  It does everything you could ask of a 6-weight general purpose fly rod with unflappable confidence.  The worst thing Scott did, from a marketing standpoint, is to label this one a Warm Water Special and imply it has a relationship to bass fishing!  After all, we all know hotshot Gore-Tex fashion models who wouldn’t even consider it because of that association!  I say it's their loss and I promise not to tell them if you won't.  If you're in the market for the last 8-foot 6-weight fly rod you'll ever need, get this Scott and be happy!


The Scott 806/3 Warm Water Special is 7' 11½ " with a three piece configuration and weighs 3.6 ounces.  MSRP is $625.


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The 808/3


I fished the 808/3 with an Orvis Mach IV reel and a variety of lines including the iconic Clouser Big-n-Nasty 8-weight, the Orvis Striper 8-weight, a Scientific Anglers intermediate 8-weight, a full sinker and a selection of Teeny sink tips.  When all was said and done, I liked it best with the intermediate and a selection of Brooks Blondes.  Firing laser-accurate 45-foot casts to small holding spots on Ohio's mid-sized Little Miami River was easy and enjoyable.  I liked the 808/3.  I liked it a lot.  Unfortunately I didn't love it in the same way that I loved the 806/3.


That last statement may be a bit confusing, seeing as the Scott 808/3 is very much like the 806/3 only a bit stronger.  They are not identical, though.  This is an 8-wieght version and, while it exhibits most of the same attributes as its lighter 6-weight cousin, it does have its own personality.  For some unspeakable reason, in my hand the 808/3 didn’t come alive and jolt my monkey bone.  Oh, it’s a great rod and all – accurate, smooth and powerful.  But it’s not quite the kind of 8-weight that I’d take on a striper date.  And it doesn’t have near the level of pure GRUNT that the Sage Smallmouth delivers.  The 8-weight line this rod demands simply isn't capable of any version of delicacy.  Where the 806/3 does it all, the 808/3 does it with more muscle, and I think that is its problem.  Think Chevy Corvette versus Lotus Elise.


I fished the 808/3 on the Ohio River with a Teeny T300 cut back to an 18-foot head. The original T-300 featured a 24-foot head, so my modified version should come in at a solid 250 grains, with a faster casting stroke for aerodynamic flies.  It's a line that has served me well on a variety of 7 and 8-weight rods in the past.  With a size 1/0 Blushing Blonde tied to my 3-foot leader I felt slightly under-gunned with this rod.  The rod/line/fly worked as a system, but I felt like there was a line demarcating the limits of my reach.  I could make the cast go 80-feet but I just didn't feel like I was in control.  In contrast, I've never felt unsure when fishing my Zero Gravity under identical circumstances.  The 808/3 is a good choice for a sink-tip, but it's shorter stature limited its range in this application.


In a moment of complete disrespect for the sport of fly fishing, I used the Scott 808/3 and an intermediate line to troll the fractal breaks of a rip-rap shoreline from my canoe.  I really, really liked this rod in this application.  The sub 8-foot length made the rod very easy to handle and it's strong tip kept a constant stream of real-time feedback available.  I can see those who are fascinated with ice-out landlocked salmon and trout potentially being big fans of this Warm Water Special!


On the other hand, with the Clouser floating line this fly rod was capable of some pretty interesting feats.  It couldn't deliver a fly the size of a road-kill squirrel like the Sage did, but it never backed down from any reasonably-sized Dahlberg.  Rabbit strip divers up to a size 1 were particularly well handled.  The heavy 8-weight line provided enough mass to control the air-resistant, soaking-wet strip of fur while the snappy action of the Scott rod ensured the package was express-mailed to the target of my choice.  If you'll pardon the continued automotive analogy; it was all torque, baby!  From 30-feet to 70-feet out I felt like I owned the river!


The Scott 808/3 is a very good fly rod.  Only in comparison with its slender sibling does it miss taking honors as one of the great all-arounders.  If my home waters demanded bigger flies and longer casts than a 6-weight could deliver I could happily live with this as my "heavy" rod for freshwater fishing.  In places like Florida's fabled Alligator Alley canals I might even find this my first choice in day-to-day fishing.  For me, in the context of chasing Ohio creek smallmouth, this rod has just a little too much yin and not quite enough yang.


The Scott 808/3 Warm Water Special is 7' 11½ " with a three piece configuration and weighs 3.8 ounces.  MSRP is $625.


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The St. Croix Legend Ultra -

Bob Clouser Signature Edition

In many ways the St. Croix 898-4 Legend Ultra was the toughest rod to review out of this group. The Clouser Signature has been around much longer than the Sage and Scott offerings.  I remember first seeing this rod advertised back when the first recession of the 21st Century was just starting to wrap up, more than four years ago.  It took a long time, but I've finally had a chance to cast and fish it.  I'm delighted to report that the wait was justified and the Bob Clouser Signature has lived up to its namesake.


The Legend Ultra 898-4 is 8' 9" of bold aqua-blue graphite.  It’s designed using a method St. Croix calls Integrated Poly Curve® (IPC®) Technology.  Developed exclusively by St. Croix, Integrated Poly Curve® (IPC®) technology is intended to eliminate transitional points in the rod’s taper.  Instead of stepping from one diameter to the next in discreet quanta, the St. Croix technique creates a continuous curve over the length of the blank for a smoother action, increased strength and greater sensitivity.


The 8’ 9” length of this rod puts it much closer to the industry standard 9-foot stick.  It is close enough that, in the hand of the caster, it’s almost impossible to tell the rod is a bit short.  Because of that you don’t get quite the same advantage in accuracy as with the 8-foot-and-under class of sticks.  I’ll be quick to point out that the Clouser was certainly no slouch, however.  The blank on my sample rod tracked true and laid a straight line towards the target.  Described as a “Moderate Fast” action, the SCIV graphite allowed this rod to load easily regardless of the length of the cast.


The Legend Ultra was a much better match for my Orvis Mach IV, which was just a tad too heavy for the Scott.  The balance point of this system, when loaded with fly line and backing, was almost perfectly under the index finger of my casting hand.  For an 8-weight system the Legend Ultra Bob Clouser Signature rod sure felt like a rod of half its power rating.  The Ultra liked the same lines as the 8-weight Scott, snapping into a particularly sharp focus with the Clouser Big-n-Nasty fly line by Rio.  It almost seemed too easy, but clearly Mr. Clouser has a clear view of what he wants and when the various parts labeled “Clouser” are put together they seem to work in a most efficient and reassuring way.


Fishing the Bob Clouser Signature was a joy. This is a very versatile rod.  It had no problems with my modified Teeny sink tip, tossing that line to the backing and providing a solid sense of control even at the limits of my cast.  This is a rod that would be quite at home on a striper outing, heaving big Deceivers on heavy sinking lines into a violent rip from the gunwale of a tossing boat.  Its full-flex loading, coupled with excellent bottom-end power, ensures that you have the raw horsepower to play for keeps in a game where the fastest and strongest fish write the rules.


The Bob Clouser Signature was no slouch with big bugs on top, either. A 6-foot leader tapered from .030 to a 15lb tippet adorned the business end of the Big-n-Nasty line.  Another 2-foot length of 12lb test Berkley Big Game monofilament completed the 8-foot link, which was an ideal tool for delivering difficult bugs like the Fly Rod Hula Popper. This rod had an immunity to overload.  A heavy Lithuanian Bat proved to be just another fly.  The St. Croix Legend Ultra certainly delivered a huge helping of confidence when the going got weird and the fly selection suggested cat toys more than matched hatches!


Of the rods reviewed here the St. Croix was the least foreign in design.  It is what you’d expect from a medium-fast 8-weight.  It proved to be an excellent choice for river smallies, though like the Scott 808/3 I thought it might be just a touch more gun than I needed for my usual haunts.  On Bob Clouser’s home waters of the Susquehanna, a river that is a significant fraction of a mile in width in the trophy waters near Harrisburg, this outfit would be about ideal.  Long enough for real high-sticking with giant weighted nymphs and heavy shot, the outfit is also capable of both short and long casts to visible cover with an assuring sense of control.  Wind?  Bring it?  High waters that demand a couple extra split shot?  No problem.  Big fish that want to pull you and the rod into that tangled ball of elm roots washed against the bridge abutment?  Just another fight.


The best word I can ascribe to the Bob Clouser Signature rod by St. Croix is confident.  It’s a good looking rod assembled in the USA with top shelf components.  It’s priced reasonably, features an excellent warranty and boasts the outstanding service of a manufacturer that’s been building not just fly rods, but spinning, casting and big game rods since 1948.  I like this fly rod and could easily find a long-term home for it in my quiver of fly fishing tools.  I can’t say for certain that the loss of three inches makes this rod what it is, I can only report that this is, in fact, a serious bass rod.  For that matter, it’s a serious big-fish rod. 


The St. Croix Legend Ultra 898-4 is 8' 9" in a four-piece configuration and weighs 4.0 ounces.  MSRP is $360.


Click Above For The Fly Fish Ohio Rating System

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