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Bulletproof Glass, Fiberglass Fly Rods and the 21st Century
By Joseph D. Cornwall

“Glass rods were lighter than bamboo and could be made with a good deal of uniformity. Good glass rods were better than mediocre bamboo rods. But glass didn’t have the rate of recovery or the resilience of bamboo and took a set more readily. Orvis was only interested in making the best, so our glass rods were almost a sideline that we offered to our budget-conscious customers.” Leigh Perkins, owner and CEO of Orvis from 1965 till 1993, is certainly not a fellow I’d expect to join me in my enthusiasm for fiberglass. In fact, Orvis was one of the first companies to abandon fiberglass in favor of graphite. Two of their first graphite designs, the 5wt Far and Fine and the 6wt Trout have been in constant production since the mid 1970’s! They’re good rods; I love my Far and Fine and use it often. And I own, and fish, a fine collection of other graphite rods. But lately my obsession has been a material that fell out of favor at about the same time as the leisure suit.

Why fiberglass? The answer comes in three parts: feel, finesse and fight. Fiberglass has properties that make it a good choice for certain circumstances and situations. What I’ve come to find is that those circumstances and situations are fairly common for a creek fisherman − especially one who chases smallmouth bass. Because of this fiberglass has become an important and effective tool in my quiver of angling arrows.

Feel is a nebulous term in fly-fishing circles. I know there are many who are probably thinking I must have no idea of what “feel” really is in a fly rod. After all, isn’t graphite is faster and more sensitive? Isn’t it lighter in the hand, and therefore capable of transmitting more information to the angler? Maybe not… or at least not always.

Fiberglass is, by it’s very nature, a slower material. The casting action is much softer than most graphite rods and the casting stroke much slower. I’ll admit right up front that I prefer a slower action rod. I find ultra-fast graphite rods, such as the new “technical” series of cannons so popular for the last decade in the upper price ranges, rather unpleasant to cast in most creek fishing conditions. I find it hard to feel such rods load at short (less than forty feet) distances regularly fished in Midwestern warm water creeks.

Short distance fishing in shallow water demands a stealthy presentation. Although a bass isn’t a trout and may well be attracted to the juicy splat of a bug on the surface, it will most certainly be put on high alert by the unnatural sound of a fly line hitting the water at a substantial velocity. The loading of a fly rod during a cast is a function of both the mass of the line and the speed of the line. I can force a fast graphite rod to load at shorter distances by using a double haul, a technique that naturally generates even more line speed. Very high line speeds when casting short distances can often mean a much harder delivery, and less accuracy due to the shorter casting stroke’s demand for exquisite timing. I may want my heavy deer hair bug to hit the water, but I want to avoid having the leader and line make an impact. It’s important to maintain finesse.

 

Finally, I can certainly overload a graphite rod to slow its action down at short ranges. I may even end up with a good match for my timing, but I’ll likely give up the power needed for controlling strong fish in tight, tangle-prone waters. A 4wt is still a 4wt, even if you’re casting a 6wt line on it! It is the mass of the fly line that carries the fly through the air. A large, wind resistant fly pattern, like a bit rabbit-strip minnow, demands a hefty fly line for good control and accuracy. But a fast graphite rod that can efficiently cast such a line is often far too powerful to allow a small but rapacious bass to show off. The flexible-yet-strong nature of glass combines the ability to handle the right size line and still have enough play to make the fight interesting. Add to this the virtually unbreakable nature of well-designed glass and you end up with a persuasive argument for an antiquated technology.

There are still a handful of fiberglass rod manufacturers. Most contemporary glass rods are in the shorter and lighter line weights that are designed for spring creek trout fishing, because the same arguments made for creek bass fishing are valid in those intimate trout waters. Among the more popular designs still in production are models from Steffen Brothers, Diamondback, Lamiglass, Thomas and Thomas, Scott and McFarland.

 

Undoubtedly there are others as well. By and large you will be looking to the used market if you’d like to explore glass, though.  For a complete education on fiberglass fly rods and their history make sure to get a copy of Fiberglass Fly Rods By Victor R. Johnson & Victor R. Johnson, Jr. with a foreword by Leon Chandler of Cortland.

 

 What follows is a short summary of some of the glass rods I’ve collected and my thoughts about them;

 

Diamondback Diamondglass GLR663 2pc

 

Length: 6'6" Line Wt: 3 Rod Wt: 3.1oz - Diamondglass rod designed for ultra-light presentations to trout, panfish and other small species.  Technology takes another innovative leap to your advantage with S2 Fiberglass. These are hand-crafted fiberglass trout rods that are a must have - loaded with flexibility, strength and sensitivity far beyond anything available in graphite. The low profile S2 fiberglass and medium-progressive action combine to put Diamondglass in a class by itself. Diamondglass rods are magnificently finished in black gloss with the finest nickel silver and American Rosewood reel seats, stainless chrome guides with a hialoy insert in the stripping guides.  Read the complete review on Fly Fish Ohio!

Browning Silaflex 322980

This 8 foot two-piece rod is designed for a 6 or 7 weight line. It’s efficient with either, but I like it best with the 7 weight. The Browning Silaflex is the rod shown in the photograph with the smallmouth bass at the top of this page, mated to a Pflueger 1495DA and Pat Ehlers Bass Bug taper line.

 

This is a marvelous casting tool, one of the most enjoyable rods I own. It’s ideal for chasing smallmouth and largemouth bass, and has challenged and beat pike of more than 36” and smallmouth up to 23”. It can cast a 1/0 flat-wing streamer or a size 10 Humpy with equal aplomb and fine accuracy out to distances of about 60 feet. I like this rod so much that I’d jump on another one just to have a back up!

The guides on this Silaflex are large enough to accommodate a modern fly line. This is a real problem on some rods. Old glass rods used snake guides that were so small they created tremendous amounts of friction and severely limited casting efficiency. Of course, many of these older rods were designed for silk fly lines, which are much more dense than modern nylon lines.  Back then the smaller guides simply weren't a problem!

The one drawback to this rod is the grip. The cork on my example is of outstanding quality, but it was made in a diameter appropriate for someone who can easily palm a basketball. This is easy enough to “fix” with a bit of fine grit sandpaper, however.

Fenwick FF765

A 7 ½ foot, 3 ounce, two-piece rod for a six weight line.  This is a most decidedly “unglass-like” glass rod. It has a crisp, fast action that is the equal of any mid-flex or medium action graphite rod in my collection. It has a unique tapered grip, a design proprietary to Fenwick.  This Fenwick also features properly sized guides for modern fly lines. There is a reason the Fenwick glass rods are among the most collectible in the industry. In their time, they were one of the best-designed and most effective fly rods available – and they still are!

I like this rod for use in my canoe. It may fly against popular opinion, but I believe use of a long fly rod “to keep the back cast off the water when fishing from a low canoe or float tube” is a fallacy. If your back cast is hitting the water a few casting lessons, and not a longer rod, is the best solution. 

 

The Fenwick FF765 matches very nicely with a Pflueger 1494½ reel and a 6-weight double taper line.  The manageable length of the Fenwick makes casting in small, brushy streams a delight.  The quick action and strong butt section means even the most feisty smallmouth can be subdued. 

 

If you're not sure glass is for you, this is the glass rod with which to start.  For a complete education on Fenwick rods, check out Fenwick - a new book by Victor R. Johnson, Jr.

 

Wright & McGill Sweetheart No. 2A

 

This 8½ foot two-piece rod features yellow wraps with yellow spiral and black band details.  It's a beauty.  It's also a delightful rod to cast.  It matches perfectly with a double taper 7wt. line and has that slow, rhythmic personality that is so addicting in well-designed glass.  Nearly half a century old, my WM is near mint. 

 

The Sweetheart has one of the most unique up-locking reel seats of all my vintage rods.  It also has guides that won't give you fits with modern lines.

 

Glass rods of more than 8 feet are often considered as pushing the limits of practicality for the material.  The Sweetheart is slow but powerful, with a nice (but not remarkable) recovery.  This is a great streamer or wet fly rod.  I love fishing a "cast" of two or three large, winged wets with a down-and-across swing much as it would have been done when the rod was new.  This is also an excellent rod for fishing cork bugs for bluegill or bass on top.

 

Because they were not a "top tier" builder but were a volume production company, the Wright & McGill glass rods don't command the prices realized on the more recognizable names.  Don't let this stop you!  If you get a chance to date a sweetheart, jump on it! 

 

St. Croix Pacemaker 900

 

The Pacemaker is an 8½ foot two-piece rod.  It has a rich brown coloration and tan wraps with white piping details.  The guides are a bit on the small side, and the rod itself is a tad heavy in the hand.  Rated for a HCH or GBF line, the St. Croix Pacemaker needs a solid 8wt line to come alive. 

 

This is a good heavy bass rod.  It can cast an 8wt line and heavy Clouser a solid 50 feet without stress or strain.  You can also really lean into a fish with this rod.  All this comes with a price, though.  The rod needs a heavy reel to properly balance in the hand.  It's probably not a good choice for your first experience with glass.  A light, modern reel makes the rod feel dead and casting can become a chore.  I intend to match this rod to a vintage automatic fly reel (!) and see how it works out.  Look for a report in the not-so-distant future.

 

Heddon Pal #8306 Mark I
 

The late Tom Nixon inspired me to buy this rod.  He sings the praises of the heavy Heddons in his book.  When a guy with the talent of Mr. Nixon says something is worth checking out, it's smart to pay attention.   The Heddon Pal 8306 is an 8'3" rod described as "Power Plus Action" and is rated for a GBG or GAF line.  The 8306 loves a bass-bug taper 8wt and easily handles a 9wt line.

 

The Heddon has an aluminum up-locking reel seat and guides that are definitely on the small size for the line mass it demands.  That said, there is no other rod I'll grab for as quickly when I know I'll be fishing a fly rod spinner bait, in-line spinner, or soft plastic.  This rod has the guts to handle your biggest, nastiest jobs without flinching.  Keep the casts inside 50' and you'll have no truck with the performance of a Heddon Pal.

 

Diamondback's amazing Diamondglass.  This is a 6' 6" 3wt and is just about perfect for bluegill, white bass, crappie and rock bass. 

Below: Fenwick FF765

Below: Wright & McGill Sweetheart

Below: St. Croix Pacemaker

Below: Heddon Pal

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