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A Question of Balance

By Joseph D. Cornwall


Originally Published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide, Nov/Dec 2006

Click Here for A Question Of Balance Part 2

"So divinely is the world organized that every one of us, in our place and time, is in balance with everything else." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


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 hoped for. 

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 alwaysHenri Matisse, goldfish 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… 


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