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Defying Physics - The Orvis Zero Gravity Fly Rod

By Joseph Cornwall

 

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Is it possible for a modern fly rod to allow you to ďcast better, with more accuracy and power, and enjoy fly fishing more than everď? Orvis seems to think so; thatís a direct quote from their advertising copy. But advertising copy is just a salesmanís fantasy, right? When comparing two contemporary rods of similar design and build quality is it really possible that one can ďmake it all possibleď?

There wouldnít be much to write if the answer were simple. The fact is a rod can make or break a trip, both from the point of view of its durability and as a function of its attributes as a casting tool. And if the game is large fish, especially salt water species, then the fish-fighting properties of the stick may come into play, too. Of course itís impractical, if not impossible, for anyone to test all the candidates for purchase under actual fishing conditions. Instead we must rely on that very advertising copy, regardless of how fancifully its written, along with occasional published reviews and an ample dose of fly shop talk to make a buying decision. Add some casual parking lot casting to the mix and it becomes obvious how the industry manages to sell a whole lot of closet fillers that provide less than thrilling results. So how does the premium offering from the industryís premiere brand stack up?

Iíve fished an Orvis Zero Gravity 150th Anniversary rod for a year now. A nine-foot 8-weight, the 908-4 is rated as mid-flex 7.5 on the Orvis action scale. That scale suggests the mid-flex rating for use ďover a wide range of conditions and casting stylesĒ and that itís ďa great choice for the angler who needs one rod for a variety of conditions.Ē I took Orvisí advertising copy to heart and gave it a work-out under a wide variety of conditions. I took it surf casting for steelhead on Lake Erie, flats fishing for redfish in Florida, striper hunting on the frozen winter shores of the Ohio River and bass bugging in ponds, lakes and rivers from Indiana to Texas. Iíve cast the ZG with my feet in the sand, my boots precariously balanced on rocks, and with my sandals safely propped up in a kayak. I've cast the rod long and short and even managed to catch a fish or two. Did it make ďthe cast [I] already have betterď? For the answer to that question please read on.

The Orvis Zero Gravity Anniversary saltwater rod is a very pretty stick. It comes outfitted with Fuji silicon carbide stripping guides and titanium carbide snake guides. Anyone whoís ever seen one will immediately love - or hate - the unique gold anodized T6061 reel seat, which is unique enough to be somewhat polarizing. I believe itís the coolest design to hit the market in a long, long time. Couple all this with a rich ruby blank and sleek tip-over-butt ferrules with subtle alignment dots and you have a real head-turner. Yes, this is an expensive looking rod.

Orvis claims a unique pedigree to go with this rodís unique looks. Based on technology used for attack-helicopter blades, Orvis uses high temperature thermoplastic resins that encase graphite fibers to make the rod ďstronger, tougher, and more accurate.Ē On its very first outing, back in November of 2006, I set the hook on an Ohio River hybrid wiper of six pounds or so. I hadnít fished for more than 10 minutes when that fish blasted the flatwing streamer I was casting. The fish hit on the retrieve and I strip-struck with the rod tip low, using the butt of the rod to muscle the fish and drive the hook into its bony mouth. The hit was as violent as the rodís response was disappointing. My Orvis Zero Gravity snapped at the butt ferrule on the very first fish of its very first outing!

Orvis made its reputation in the 1960ís on customer service. After finishing out the trip with my tried and true 15-year-old Orvis Clearwater 8wt (always carry a back-up if youíre more than a few miles from home) I called for a return authorization. My brand new Zero Gravity left for repairs. Three weeks later (a respectable turn-around time) a brand-spanking-new ZG arrived on my doorstep complete with a new serial number - this time #286. Orvis offered no explanation for the break but, considering its almost perfect circumferential line and lack of splitting, I have to assume it was precipitated by damage done during the assembly process. The pressure of the hit, while exciting, certainly wasnít enough to break even a 4wt. Iím happy to say I havenít had another problem and Iíve definitely subjected the rod to far more stress than that first fish provided!

Iíve paired my ZG with an Orvis Mach IV reel, a match that should be perfect (look for a review of the Mach IV coming soon). Loaded with a Rio Clouser Big-n-Nasty 8wt line and 135 yards of 30lb test Dacron backing, the outfit balances just ever-so-slightly tip up in the hand. It is an ideal match, though there are many reels of similar size and weight that should provide a fine synergy. In addition to the Rio, Iíve also used a 250-grain Teeny TS250 sink tip line, a weight-forward Scientific Anglers intermediate line, an Orvis Wonderline and a shooting head made of 26 feet of Cortland LC13 coupled with an Amnesia 30lb test mono shooting line. The ZG was amenable to them all.

On Lake Erie I spent an early May afternoon pounding out 70 to 80-foot casts with the TS250 line at the mouth of 18 Mile Creek. Casting was pleasant as the fly I was casting offered minimal air resistance.  This is the kind of fishing for which most contemporary 8-weights are designed, in my opinion.  The sun was high in the sky and the water was crystal clear. Tough conditions demanded lifelike flies fished far and deep.  I selected a neat new streamer pattern created by Jim Guida of the Buffalo Outfitters Fly Shop.   

 

Erieís steelhead and trout (and the smallmouth, too) had a different idea, though. They offered lotís of resistance - resistance to striking. A thorough skunking was avoided only through the generosity of a 15lb carp that couldnít resist an afternoon snack dead-drifted right under its nose. The ZG bent halfway to the cork as I pressured the toughest fish in fresh water away from a logjam and into the sandy shallows where the fight was all but guaranteed. Score one for high-tech!

With a brisk on-shore wind in my face Iíd managed to cast for seven long, cold hours. The Orvis rod provided a responsive feel and a light swing-weight. While not becoming ďa part of meĒ as the old clichť goes, the Zero Gravity was more than comfortable. Itís a faster rod in the way it loads and unloads during the cast than my 7.0 mid-flex TLS 906-4 and or the mid-flex 7.5 908-4 Silver Label it replaced. It felt good to cast and it easily allowed me to achieve the same distances Iíve managed with a handful of other rods. I didnít measure my casts or try to set up a controlled tournament trial, but my line handling and reach were at least the equal of results Iíve had casting 8wt rods by TFO, Thomas and Thomas, Redington and G. Loomis. My best double-haul distance cast certainly hadnít grown 20 feet, though. Then again, I really didnít expect all the advertising copy to be true!

In June I managed a whirlwind series of business trips that took me to Florida and Texas. In Texas and again in Florida I managed time to chase aggressive post-spawn largemouth in shallow water using the Clouser floating line. Both locations, despite very different conditions, gave up their best fish to the same fly pattern in the same size; a 3/0 black Calcasieu Pig Boat. Casting a big, air-resistant fly while sitting in a kayak and trying to avoid anything that looks like an alligator is an interesting challenge. The Zero Gravity was up to the punishment and showed a bit more of its extreme pedigree than it did on the northern shoreline. Here the game was one of hitting small targets 30 to 50 feet away. The mid-flex design loaded quickly and tracked precisely, providing superb accuracy. Orvis has made one heck of a bass rod! Several Florida-strain largemouth to 5lbs or so can bear witness to this fact, though the one that got away in Texas probably has less to say. But she does have my fly as a souvenir!

The next stop was the Indian River lagoon near Titusville, Florida. I spooled up the intermediate line and took up a position in the front of the flats skiff for a shot at spooky redfish. The wind in the afternoon was relentless. Constant breezes to 10mph with gusts to 15 put a premium on line speed and quick loading. It was tough, tough, tough to see those fish and each sighting only provided a short window to complete the presentation. My mediocre casting skills put my fly in the game, but I only managed a few follows and no hook-ups. Even our jaded guide took a few minutes to cast the pretty rod and we all agreed it had the goods for some serious saltwater fishing. Better than the rest? Well it was certainly the equal of anything on the boat that day, though we didnít have a chance to test its metal against a powerful drum. Some might think a super-fast rod is a better choice under these conditions, but I suggest the accuracy and easy loading of the ZGís mid-flex design proved seductive in the extreme. I never once wanted for more.  Rod "speed" can be taken too far, cast before you buy!

Northern Ohioís Maumee River is a brawling brute that empties into Lake Erie. A spring trip offered a chance to wade a section just downstream of Weirís Rapids. The white bass run was just starting and a few lingering walleye remained in the river. When I started fishing the sun was high and the post-front conditions made for brutally tough fishing. I used the shooting head combo to deliver long-distance casts that could scour the bottom and present a size 4 chartreuse streamer where the fish were holding. The white bass loved it and I enjoyed a 20 fish day, though none of the fish I took broke the 2lb mark. It was still a great spring outing made all the better through the application of the right tool for the job. The ZG coupled with a shooting head easily fired casts to 80 and 90 feet, sucking all the running line out of my shooting basket with a snap as the line came tight to the reel. I probably had another 15 feet in those casts. Tossing a mono-backed shooting head 100 feet isnít a big trick, but itís one that felt easy to accomplish with the ZG in my hands.

I like the Zero Gravity rod in this configuration. Iíve not cast any other Zero G rods, so my comments apply only to the 8wt (the Anniversary and standard models differ only in cosmetics). Iíve owned a few different Orvis rods in a 4-piece 8-weight configuration. Iíve owned a 2-piece Clearwater, a newer TLS 908-4 and an older Silver Label 908-4. I had cast both mid-flex and tip-flex models when I started seriously looking for a heavier travel rod a few years ago and, at that time, I thought the tip-flex models lacking in feel. To be completely honest, I find most ultra-fast rods to be soulless ípolesí with little in the way of redeeming value. From Hardy to Sage to St. Croix (and including Orvis) I have to say the super-stiff pokers leave me cold. Iíve written elsewhere about balance and Iíve found this much to be true about fly casting in general; the cast can be physically described by three components - line mass, line speed and fly air resistance. Beyond a certain very modest point, increasing speed without also increasing mass doesnít improve performance. The Orvis mid-flex 8-weight seems to exist right on the knifeís edge of design compromise. Itís rapier-like feel and quick recovery allow prodigious line speeds with smaller flies while still retaining the ability to handle the size flies most of us actually use on an 8-weight rod (read ďbigĒ). Itís fast, but not too fast. More importantly the ZG mid-flex provides very good feel for what the cast is actually doing.

So does ďthe most advanced [rod] in the worldÖ improve your casting and make fishing more fun?Ē To the first point I say ďnoĒ and to the second ďmaybe.Ē No rod of proper functional design and performance will actually improve your casting stroke. Only practice will improve your cast. If you want to be a better caster then take this advice - buy a $300 rod and spend the remaining $475 youíll have to budget for the Zero Gravity on casting lessons. The results will be a lot longer lasting and far more productive than the feel of a new rod. Can the ZG make fishing more fun? To that I have to say this. The Zero Gravity made my outings more fun in much the same way that a new BMW Z4 Roadster makes the drive to work more fun. There might be other ways to get there but nothing beats a sporty ride for sheer grin appeal. The Orvis Zero Gravity is one cool tool and a very worthy candidate for the short list if youíre shopping for a top-of-the-line production rod.

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