Balance is a goal.
Sometimes balance is the goal. Henri Matisse, the Impressionist
painter whose works so wonderfully communicate the sublime spirit of being,
once said that he dreamt of “an art of balance.” In our tools, in our
culture and in our spirituality (and even in our checkbooks) we are most
comfortable when we’ve attained balance. It should come as no surprise
then that the very sport that promotes balance in our lives can benefit
mightily from some attention to balance.
If you talk to any three
well-seasoned fly fishers (read ‘old farts with long rods’) you’ll likely get
four definitions of balance. Gear needs to be balanced to the conditions in
which it will be used, balanced to the fish sought, balanced to the flies cast,
and balanced in the physical sense that it has a fulcrum and mass. This last
sense of balance in the hand is often overlooked. It’s rarely demonstrated or
discussed at shops or shows. That is unfortunate because simple, physical
balance can bring an otherwise lackluster outfit to life in your hands.
I once purchased a vintage
Wright and McGill fiberglass fly rod, model Sweetheart 2A. The rod was in great
condition with cheery yellow wraps and a tobacco brown blank. The price was
right. The rod felt powerful when I “waggled” it, and I thought it would make a
good bass rod. I brought it home only to be disappointed. The rod felt dead.
I just couldn’t get a decent cast going.
In an attempt to find the
sweet spot, I tried several lines. I moved from a weight forward 6 all the way
to a double taper 8. I tried lines from Cabela’s, Orvis, Scientific Anglers and Rio. It wasn’t until
I really thought about the balance of the rod in my hand that it hit me. The
rod was sufficiently massive that my lightweight reel made the tip feel heavy no
matter which line I used. The actual, physical balance point of the rod was
several inches in front of the grip before I even strung line through the
guides! That’s when it came to me that poor weight distribution had put undue
pressure on my wrist and caused my timing to be off. In an attempt to force the
rod to behave I used more “arm” and less body English which resulted in a
further loss of power and control. Bad balance made casting this stick a chore
and limited my best distance to something under 60 feet. Changing the physical
balance turned my sow’s ear into something much closer to the silk purse I’d
It’s not practical and
sometimes not even possible to try multiple reels with a rod. Even when careful
comparison and selection is possible, greater results can be achieved with a bit
of fine tuning. Unlike most things in fly fishing, fine tuning doesn’t have to
be expensive. In fact, it can be downright cheap and easy! All you’ll need is
a spool of lead core trolling line and the factory specifications of your gear.
Then work through three steps: calculate the match, tune for the line, and find
your grip. In less than an hour you’ll have achieved balance!
Your fly rod, reel and
strung line, for best feel and performance, should achieve fulcrum balance at
about the point where the index finger of your casting hand grips the cork. If
you set the outfit up like this it will feel almost weightless in use,
regardless of the actual weight of the gear. Almost every rod has a published
weight in ounces. In fact, once upon a time this weight figure actually
described the action of the rod. Whether you’re purchasing new or just
overhauling your existing gear you should note this specification. Most new
graphite rods are very light, and the new reels are generally in a range that
works well. Let’s look at a new outfit to start our analysis.
As an example we’ll use a
St. Croix Avid 9 foot four-piece six weight. The specified weight of the rod is
3.6 ounces. With that information we can find a matching reel. Let’s say we
want to use a large arbor, so we select a Pflueger President. The model 2056 is
the right size and weighs 5.8 ounces. Is this a good match? The answer is we
need to do more work first…. We need to tune for the line.
AFTMA specifies that a
6-weight fly line bend the scale to 165 grains, or roughly .4 ounces. This is
for the first 30 feet of the fly line and is the basis for the line numbering
system, something we’ll explore in the next article. To balance the rod you
need to account for twice the rod’s length in line, or 18 feet in this example.
That adds about .2 ounce to the weight of the rod for a functional swing weight
of 3.8 ounces. The remainder of the line and the weight of the backing need to
be added to the reel weight, bringing the reel to something over 6 ounces. A
good “rule of thumb” is that the loaded reel should weigh 1.5 times the swing
weight of the rod. 3.8 X 1.5 = 5.7. Our President reel is a good match and
possibly just a tad heavy. This will make the rod feel light and responsive.
Now let’s assume the St.
Croix rod and a premium line roasted your budget so you opted for a Pflueger
Medalist 1494 instead. This is a great choice. That reel weighs 5.4 ounces.
Now your loaded rig is just a bit lighter than the swing weight of the rod.
Such a small discrepancy isn’t the end of the world, but it can make the Avid
feel just a bit clunky in the hand. If you add one or two tenths of an ounce to
the reel you can return it to that quick, responsive feel. This is easy to do –
simply remove the line and backing and wind on 30 feet of 28 pound test lead
core trolling line around the spool and then put the backing and line back on.
Now let’s find our grip.
How does that work? Again, the answer is that this is such a simple thing that
it is almost always
overlooked. Start with the reel off the rod and the rod broken down into two
pieces. If you have a four piece rod, use the handle and first rod section.
Now grasp the rod in your casting hand using a proper casting grip with your
thumb on the top of the blank. Note where your index finger lies on the grip and
take a bit of tape to mark that spot. Reassemble the rod, reel and line and see
if the rod will balance, teeter-totter like, on your finger at the point where
you made that mark. If the tip falls down, you need to add a bit more lead core
to the reel. If the tip cocks up, you need to remove weight from the reel. Play
with the amount of weighting
until you get the rod to balance at your index finger with the tip either level
to the ground or slightly tip-up (butt heavy). With the rod thusly balanced
you’ll find casting to be easy and the rod to be responsive.
With much modern tackle this
is a game of subtleties. Graphite and boron are very light materials. If you
like to fish with older
split cane, fiberglass, or even first generation graphite you’ll find the
results to be a lot more volatile. Going back to the example of the Wright and
McGill rod above, that rod weighs 5.1 ounces. Using an 8 weight line I need to
add an additional half ounce for 30 feet of line, or .3 ounces for the 17 feet
of functional line. This brings the swing weight of the rod to a hefty 5.4
ounces. I used a Medalist 1495, which weighs about 6 ounces. I needed about
8.1 ounces of loaded reel using the formula above, which meant I needed to add
about .5 ounce of lead core line to the finished rig. To make the rod feel
lighter in the tip and more responsive I ended up using nearly 60 feet of lead
core on the spool. What a difference a bit of an ounce makes! A once
disappointing rod became powerful and much less tiring to cast and control.
This winter take a few
minutes to analyze your rig. String it up and hold it, feel the balance and get
familiar with it’s weight distribution. If you find the tip aiming for the
floor, get to work with some trolling line. You’ll find you have a whole new
outfit next time you hit the water! Till then, tight lines…