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Fishing Glass

By Joe Cornwall

Originally Published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
November/December 2009


Henry David Thoreau observed that ; “Men have become the tools of their tools.”  I'm almost positive Thoreau wasn't involved in the textile industry of the early 19th Century, so it's a safe bet that he wasn't talking for the benefits of the Luddites, a group of anti-technology workers who used violence and criminal vandalism in their efforts to secure trade rights and protect their livelihoods. Instead, I believe Thoreau was lamenting the fact that, rather than appreciate and apply the utility found in the items around us, we as a society have become enamored with buying a better mouse trap even to the point of forgetting to try to catch the darn mouse. Retail sales, by their very nature, survive on the momentum of this innate hypocrisy. If the marketing folks don’t tell you that the new stuff is better than the old stuff, what reason would you have to spend your hard-earned dollars on the new stuff? And so we have fly shops that blindly echo the tag lines of the biggest manufacturers of fly fishing gear, saying to all who come into the shop that the $800 fly rod really will let you cast farther, with more accuracy and, in the end, catch more and larger fish. It’s just not so.

I fish primarily with old fiberglass fly rods. I don’t do this as an affectation. I don’t do this because I am a contrary old crank who can’t let go of the “good old days” (a word to the wise, there never were any good old days - the good days are ones ahead of you). I don’t do this because it increases the handicap and makes it more challenging to catch a fish. I do this because a well-built fiberglass fly rod that can drive a 6, 7, or 8 weight fly line to an accurate delivery at distances from 20 to 50-feet actually is the right tool to do the job much of the time. It really does help me to enjoy the process that underlies the sport – and that’s a real return on my investment.

I love fly fishing for smallmouth bass in streams more than just about any other form of this sport. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy trout fishing and find a slow, deliberate take to a tiny dry fly to be a thing of fascination and tremendous enjoyment. I thrill to the violence of a largemouth bass crushing a frog-colored popper in the last minutes of light. And, of course, the surprisingly powerful runs and headshaking battle of an Ohio River wiper is an experience that gives me satisfaction all winter long. But it is the bronze battler, the native son, the prodigal predator that prowls the pools of our rocky Midwestern flows that trips my trigger. And Micropterus doesn’t dine on diminutive dipterans or tiny tricos. Smallmouth bass eat mouthfuls like crayfish and shiners. To play with the fish that Zane Grey once dubbed the “Lord of the Lackawaxen,” the angler must deliver a full measure of opportunity with the same level of accuracy, stealth and control as that demanded by the most educated of brown trout.

Delivering the right size fly is the “A” number one most important parameter that must be addressed if your intention is to move from an intermittent string of small fish punctuated by one or two 14-inchers to a regular dance with fish in the 16 to 20-inch range. And almost any fly shop you walk into today will advise you that a fast 9-foot 5-weight is the best rod to catch those fish. You are sold the idea that a brand new high-tech Boron-impregnated 9-foot 5-weight with ultra-fast action will let you cast to the far side of the river when necessary, but will still let you lower that impeccably tied fly to the water’s surface as though it were being placed there by the gentle hands of fairies. The marketing intrudes, the end result is disappointment.

The problem with new tools – or at least most of the new tools because there are exceptions – is that they are invariably made to drive sales and not customer satisfaction. In fact, a customer truly satisfied with his fly rod is pretty unlikely to buy another one anytime soon. If you want to cast the right fly for smallmouth bass you need a fly line with more mass moving at a slower speed than most of today’s marketing-driven wonders are capable.

To understand this we need to understand how a fly cast works at a physical level. The fly itself is not cast, of course. The line is cast and the fly simply goes along for the ride. The casting work, however, can be defined mathematically as a product of mass and velocity. The air resistance of the fly, which is proportional to its size, slows the line speed (velocity). This is why a leader doesn’t crack when you have a fly tied to the tippet, but snaps like a bull whip when you don’t. That snapping sound is actually the sound barrier being broken by the tippet as it changes direction at the end of the casting stroke – it’s a mini sonic boom!

It takes a single, quantifiable force to deliver a bass fly to a precise target a certain distance away. If casting a size 4 Clouser to a submerged rock at 50-feet solves the mathematical equations best when using an 8-weight outfit — and you decide to make the same cast with a 5-weight outfit — you will have significantly lowered the mass of the fly line. Because of this you will then have to increase the speed of the line to compensate.  Hence the ultra-fast graphite fly rod. You are also forced to increase the speed of your casting stroke (something that's very difficult for most folks to do in a controlled manner). The faster rod flexes more towards the tip making for a longer lever that dulls the feel of the fish on the line and creates a trickier timing signature during the cast. Sure you can do it, but you’ve become a tool of your tools and what has suffered is the real beauty and satisfaction available from the sport.

Graphite, as a material used to build fishing rods, changed the nature of the sport. Today in the spinning and surf fishing sectors we are, in fact, seeing a move towards older technologies as some of those changes are now seen as steps in the wrong direction.


Once graphite hit the fishing world it became easier to make rods lighter (a smaller number is better than a bigger number so it's an easy to understand selling point). Also there was an effort, because the material can make a stiff rod of very small diameter and great lengths, to produce ever lighter line weights in the belief that catching a large fish on a #2 rod/line is more sporting that catching the same fish on a #7 rod/line. It's easier for the marketing team, which is often made up of professionals with great marketing experience but little in the way of passion for the product or sport, to sell the number. So years of articles and advertising have lead most folks to believe that a #7 or #8 rod is too course for freshwater fishing and that there's a real advantage to a 4wt outfit (there isn't). The industry sells the lighter lines and rods because it's easy for a customer to buy lighter weight (2.5 ounces is less than 3.0 ounces, ipso facto 2.5 ounces is better), and lighter lines (a 5 weight is finer than an 8 weight, so a 5 weight implies a more refined experience).

I’ve found that delivering larger flies with a more pronounced profile that moves water and creates a “sonic signature” on the retrieve is easier with an old-fashioned fiberglass fly rod. The rod has an intrinsically lower modulus of elasticity (defined as the rod’s ability to return to a straight line after being bent by the forces of the cast). This deliberately limits the velocity of the cast, making physical timing less of an issue and presenting the larger fly with greater delicacy and accuracy. And this is true to any reasonable distance encountered in a creek or stream because, contrary to magazine cover stories, it’s quite rare for even the most advanced angler to present a fly a distances more than 50-feet.

I really enjoy the feel of the hooked fish on a fiberglass rod, too. The lower modulus of the glass rod means the rod bends deeper when the fish is hooked. That bend delivers the feel of the fish’s fight to my hands, and my imagination, with improved clarity and definition. A 12-inch smallmouth on a fiberglass 7-weight gives a much better accounting of itself than the same fish could on a fast graphite 5-weight.

There are a number of fly rod manufacturers producing brand new fiberglass fly rods. TL Johnson, Mark Stephen, Lamiglass, and South Fork are just a few. And compared to the prices charged by the high-volume mega-manufacturers, this new glass is a relative bargain. There are also a few graphite rods that, in a strange twist of fate, are now doing a fabulous job of imitating the characteristics of fiberglass. For $169 the new Ross Fly Stik series is one that shouldn’t be missed.

But for shear value and as a way of connecting with the past, vintage fiberglass is a great way to demonstrate the axiom that things do not change; we change. You probably have an old glass fly rod in your garage or basement right now. Or your father does. Or your grandfather. Perhaps it’s time to dust it off and find out for yourself if the words of Thoreau are true; “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.” Find an 8 or 8 ½ foot 6, 7 or 8-weight fiberglass fly rod. An old Fenwick is a great place to start if you are shopping the great Internet swap meet. String it up, tie on a size 2 Simple Shad or Murdich Minnow and get down to the water. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at what you’ve been missing.


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