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Spinning Gear For The Fly Fisherman – A Hard Right Turn

By Joe Cornwall


“It is my belief that the habitual user and enthusiast of one method will derive benefit from studying and trying all other methods.  As a matter of fact they all have their particular charms and at some time or other each one fills some special need.


First let us compare plug casting with fly fishing.  Admitting that one gets more feel from the play of a fish on a fly rod, I can’t see that it is any more sporting than plug fishing.  As a user of both methods, but preferring the fly rod, I contend that plug fishing matches fly fishing in every way, especially in the degree of skill required both in the use of the lure and the playing of the fish.”

-Ray Bergman (Fresh Water Bass, 1942)


St. Croix Legend Xtreme rod and Pflueger Patriarch reel, a definitive creek outfit!

I am a fly fisherman.  Fly Fish Ohio is dedicated to fly fishing, as its very name implies.  However, I don’t for one minute believe that a fly rod is a holy relic or that’s its use is morally or ethically superior to any other legitimate sporting method.  I’ve often said that the fly rod is to angling as the bow is to hunting.  It’s uniquely challenging and demanding of carefully honed skills, certainly.  But fly fishing is not inherently ‘better’, whatever that might mean.  

I learned to fish with a spinning rod and eventually progressed to prowling the beaches of Massachusetts with a 10-foot surf-casting rod, a hot-rodded Penn Squidder clamped to its cork-tape handle.  That outfit demanded an educated thumb, but it was the only way to throw 14” of live eel impaled on a 7/0 hook and anchored with a 6-ounce bank sinker to the break in the surf!  Along the way to fly fishing, like so many of you, I’ve put in many hours of effort with dozens of different outfits, always looking for the one that would give me the best sport, the most balanced challenge, and the greatest satisfaction.  For well over a decade I’ve fished a fly rod exclusively, and as my horizons expanded and I confronted new and challenging conditions I came to realize I needed to understand how these conditions were mastered by anglers using other disciplines.  It was time to look to my roots and see how “hardware” fishing had changed over the years.

And so it came to be that, as of late, I’ve spent considerable time and effort developing and improving my abilities with both spinning and with casting tackle.  I’m convinced these efforts have paid strong dividends by improving my fly fishing skills.  Becoming a “multi-instrumentalist” has rewarded me with more productive and enjoyable hours on the water than I could possibly have asked for.  I’ve come to believe that the best way to be a truly well-rounded fly fisher is to be a truly well-rounded angler.  And a well-rounded angler is someone who can employ nearly any method – efficiently, effectively and comfortably.  I’m convinced that when one knows how to approach a fishing problem with a reaction bait, bottom-contact bait, swim bait or rip bait, then the choice to select the long rod takes on a more valid perspective.  After all, one should not condemn that of which one has no knowledge.  To paraphrase a lady who once held the Guinness World Record for the highest recorded IQ, Marilyn vos Savant to acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire mad fishing skills one must get out on the water and get it done.

I found picking up a spinning rod for the first time in years to be a disorienting event.  If you haven’t fished with gear since the Soviet Union dissolved, be prepared for some profound changes.  Technique-specific rod and reel designs, braided super-lines and state-of-the-art complex fluorocarbon formulations that compete with fly lines in price, coupled with hundreds - if not thousands - of new lure designs boggle the mind.  After a couple fits and starts I began the research in earnest.  This article is the first fruit from that seed.

Over the last two years, as I’ve delved into the world of angling with hardware, my expectation that understanding how to use this gear to its best effect would improve my fly fishing skills has been strongly reinforced.  I’ve found that knowing how to present a soft plastic artificial to a bass in a passive mood can allow the multi-technique angler to better select and present a fly under similar circumstances.  Knowing when to select a spinnerbait or chatterbait, a grub or a swimming jig, a lipless crankbait or a suspending jerkbait does open unique ways of seeing flies and fly fishing gear.  Understanding “gear fishing” will give you new eyes and a fresh perspective on fly fishing, to say nothing of the opportunities a spinning rod opens up when the wind blows too hard, the water rises too high or discolors too deeply.  I’d rather fish than not, and I’m confident you feel similarly! 

And thinking about fishing rather than not, a spinning rod (and by extension, casting gear) is a great insurance policy and an awesome tool to employ when exploring new water.  A spinning rod will not only keep you in the game when the gusts are blowing at double-digit speeds, but it will allow you to quickly rule out fishless water and switch to a fly rod when the fish are pinpointed.  A finesse plastic worm rigged on a slider head has allowed me to quickly find bluegills and bass holding on 8 to 12-foot deep breaks, often fifty yards or more from the shoreline.  Using a spinning rod I can quickly eliminate acres of unproductive, fishless water; a technique employed by many of the best fly fishing guides.  Finally, a spinning rod has let me stand side-by-side with other anglers when crowded conditions or a lack of back-cast room ruled out the long rod entirely.  Again, fishing is better than not fishing!

This is the first of a series of articles we will publish on www.flyfishohio.com exploring fly fishing’s cousins. Coming shortly you’ll see a series of reviews on spin-fly combo rods; we’ve assembled all of them.  Nearly every spin-fly rod spanning the selection from Wright McGill to Orvis, Fenwick to TFO available in the market today (and maybe a couple classics from yesteryear, just to provide perspective) will get a close look.  Over time we’ll continue to explore the various parts and pieces that make up the “gear fishing” side of the family.  We’ll review the hardware and examine the techniques; all the while keeping an eye on how these concepts relate to the long rod and fat line.  Since you can’t learn to use a spinning rod without… well, without actually getting a spinning rod… then that’s where we’ll start.  At least that’s where I started.  And that’s where this article will pick up the story.  In keeping with the spirit of the Fly Fish Ohio team effort, we’ll also keep our focus on Midwestern warm water applications.

Most of the waters we fish are freestone creeks and rivers with enough ponds, strip pits and impoundments thrown in to keep things interesting.  For perspective, I consider the 8-foot 6-weight fly rod to be the ultimate Midwestern utility player.  You may like an 8 ½ or a 9-foot rod.  Or you might jump up to a 7-weight or down to a 5-weight.  Clearly we’re all still in the same neighborhood.  The spinning rod equivalent of the all-purpose heartland fly rod is a 6 ½ foot (or 6-foot, or 7-foot; we’ll examine the effects of length in a bit) fast action rod designed to mate with 6 to 10lb test line and cast offerings to a maximum of ½ ounce.

Like fly rods, spinning rods are classified by “action”: extra fast, fast, medium fast, moderate (used for reaction baits and crank baits) and (almost extinct now) slow (typically used for natural bait). Like fly rods, “action” describes where along the length of the rod blank the maximum flex occurs.  In a manner of speaking, it describes how quickly the surface of a cone (the rod blank) tapers from base to tip.  A good way to think about action is to consider that the action is determined by the point at which a rod initially flexes and where it stops bending, while under load. This point is determined by a combination of the taper of the rod, the material properties of the blank, the blank’s wall thickness, and the placement and selection of guides and ferrules. The higher up the blank the rod’s bend begins, the faster that rod’s action.  A fast rod bends primarily in the upper quarter of the blank, with the butt exhibiting little flex under load.  

Unlike fly rods, spinning rods are also classified by power: extra heavy, heavy, medium, medium light, light and ultra-light. This loosely correlates to the fly rod convention of line size, but it describes much more than that.  The power rating of a spinning rod, on the surface, appears to restate its lure rating.  Perhaps, to a degree, this is so.  But power has a deeper meaning.  Power describes how much force is necessary to bend or load the blank.  All other things being equal, a higher power rod will have a stiffer tip, but not necessarily a faster taper, for the same line/lure weight rating.

There is a nascent, unofficial rod rating system in use, primarily in the hard core bass fraternity.  Many companies are rating rods “1 Power” for light, “2 Power” for medium, “3 Power” for medium-heavy and so on.  Because a fly rod feels so incredibly different in hand, most fly anglers will opt for a spinning rod that’s actually too light for the conditions where it will be deployed.  I did this at first, and it was a frustrating experience. For the greatest utility, an all-purpose creek and river rod should be a medium light (2 Power), perhaps leaning towards a medium.  Stay away from ultralight until you’ve got your bearings.   With a quality medium to medium-light spinning rod, you’ve fished it it will feel too stiff and powerful to be fun.  Don’t believe it!  A 16-inch smallmouth will easily put a worrisome bend in its length!

Most experienced spinning gear aficionados, as evidenced by many of the regular participants on the various forums, agree.  The most recommended rods for this kind of fishing possess a medium to medium light power coupled with a fast action.  They are invariably one-piece rods.  The true secret of a high performance spinning rod is the incredible amount of feel and sensitivity they deliver.  A 1 or 2 power, medium-light to medium, fast tapered rod designed to handle lure weights to 3/8 ounce is definitely the right choice for an all-around creek and river stick.

Like fly rods, spinning rods are capable of longer distance casting when they themselves are longer.  It’s the same principle as with golf clubs; a longer shaft results in faster motion at the end of the lever.  Faster tip speed increases lure speed, which results in a longer delivery (momentum is the product of mass and velocity).  Fast lure speed (like faster line speed on a fly rod) precipitated by a longer rod results in longer casts, albeit with some compromise of accuracy and delicacy of presentation.  With a well-balanced, high-quality spinning rod, a effective presentation to 75-feet is effortless and ranges to as much as 125-feet can be achieved.  Just like with a fly rod, there is the need for precise line control when presenting to discriminating smallmouth or largemouth in a moving water environment.  Rods of 6-feet to 7-feet are excellent, and 6 ½ feet is generally considered the perfect compromise.

There are a number of great rod manufacturers working the gear side of the street. Some brands are very familiar to fly fishers; names like Powell, Fenwick, Daiwa, Berkeley, G. Loomis, and TFO for example.  Others might be new and unfamiliar to those who rarely venture outside of an approved fly shop; companies like Dobyns, Duckett, e21, Phenix and Shimano.  One name that is familiar to both sides of the equation is St. Croix.  At Fly Fish Ohio we’ve determined that the Park Falls, Wisconsin company is the standard bearer of quality in every facet of fishing and their gear has been accepted as our benchmark.  An informal survey of the FFO staff and contributors turned up no less than a dozen St. Croix rods in our collective arsenals.  There’s a reason for that.

Last year, In Fisherman magazine published an article on matching gear to various techniques used for fooling smallmouth.  One rod that appeared again and again in that article was the St. Croix Avid AVS70MLF, a 7-foot medium-light fast-action spinning rod.  In our collection we have that rod and its stable mates, the AVS60MLF and AVS66MLF.  All are essentially the same taper, differing only in length.  All sell for about the same amount; $170.  All are amazingly good spinning rods.  In short, if a rod isn’t as good as the St. Croix Avid, then it simply isn’t worth taking too seriously. St. Croix isn't the only major league player offering high quality solutions at affordable price levels, though.  They have plenty of competition and it's a great idea to visit your local fishing emporium to look at TFO, G. Loomis, Dobyns and Powell.  All offer similar performance at very competitive prices.  We'll be bringing you reviews of these brands and more in future installments.

The Avid is in the middle of St. Croix’s line-up, coming in above the Premier and Mojo series, but subordinate to the Legend Tournament, Legend Elite and Legend Xtreme.  Honestly, it would be hard to make a mistake with any of these rods, but the Avid collection just defines “bang for the buck.”  Having said that, both Dave Votaw and I found enough of a performance advantage with the more sophisticated designs that we’ve both put our money into upgrades.  Dave often fishes a 6’ 6” Legend Elite, while I regularly opt for a 6’9” Legend Xtreme.  Still, the Avids remain in regular rotation.

All of the St. Croix rods deliver a rapier-like responsiveness, a transparent sense of feel that allows the angler to know the action of the presentation, and the ability to decipher delicate, soft takes and even near misses.  Balance is important in gear fishing, and the hardware community makes a much bigger issue of this than most fly fishers.  A serious bass angler will want a ‘contact bait’ set-up to balance slightly tip down, a ‘reaction bait’ set-up to balance neutrally and a ‘top water’ set-up to balance slightly tip-up.  The St. Croix rods we’ve collected all balance well with a variety of reels and can be fine-tuned for the ultimate in performance.

Any of the rods mentioned will match well with a spinning reel in the 1000 to 3000 size range (we’ll explore spinning reels in depth in a future article).  Monofilament or fluorocarbon lines testing to 8lb, or fused braids testing to 10 or 12lb breaking strength complete the system (we’ll also explore the amazingly complex world of lines in an upcoming installment – this is a long term-project).  Both Dave and I fish super braids and suggest them as a great choice for a single solution although, like with fly lines, any serious practitioner of the sport will quickly come to realize the need for multiple options.  This is why almost all high quality spinning reels come with a spare spool.

For a total investment of about $200 to $250, a fly fisher can own an impeccable spinning outfit that will open new waters and increase productivity any time it’s brought into play.  Rather than replacing a fly rod, a great spinning rod is companion outfit.  It delivers its own satisfactions, but more importantly it delivers new perspective and the opportunity to learn how fish react to completely different presentations and under very different conditions from what we normally face with a fly rod.  Understanding how contact baits are deployed with a spinning rod, for example, will go a long ways towards illuminating the mysteries surrounding the use of an intermediate, sink-tip or full sinking fly line. 

Break out of the box, and learn some new skills while you’re at it.  If you want to fish more often, or don’t want to lose precious fishing time because conditions are sub-optimal, embrace the inclusion of a spinning rod into your repertoire.  It’s a fascinating sport in its own right, and it’s a great way to learn more about the species you target and the waters you fish.  Angling is a big sport.  It’s a great sport. And it’s too important to our health, our peace of mind and our relationship with the natural world to suffer less of it. 

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