Your fly rod acts as a physical extension of your arm, making your interaction with it very personal. The way the rod fits in hand and feels during use is as important as the other performance characteristics of the rod.
When all our testing was completed, the unanimous pick as Best in Class this year was Orvis’ new Helios 3 series, and more specifically the H3F. This rod topped all but one review category, distance casting. Even then it came in at a tight second place.
A full day of fishing can require dozens, if not hundreds, of casts and false casts over the span of several hours. A rod that is too heavy, or doesn’t balance well with its matched reel, can hasten arm fatigue. Worse, a heavy unbalanced rod can lead to less ‘feel’ when it comes time to set hooks on delicate takes. The Orvis Helios 3F (H3F) was the lightest rod in the class, with a low swing-weight meaning less force was needed to power each cast, thus feeling lighter through the casting swing-motion. The H3F felt as light and comfortable to cast at the day of a long day on Idaho’s Clearwater River as it did on the first cast that morning.
The Winston Nimbus was a close second in comfortable casting weight. The Nimbus swings smoothly, with little effort regardless of the reel we mounted on it. The Sage Method, meanwhile, was about the same physical weight but felt a touch heavier thanks to a larger swing weight — casting the ultra-fast action Method feels like throwing more weight. And the LL Bean Silver Ghost suffered from a bit of unbalanced feel — the butt and grip section feels overweight compared to the soft tip.
Fit in hand/grip
A quality rod should comfortably function for a variety of anglers, meaning the feel of the rod in hand — the grip and reel seat – should match the needs of anglers with small hands as well as those with big calloused mitts. We consider the shape of the grip – an aggressive taper can create hand fatigue when fighting back-to-back fish, or even when struggling to cast against strong winds all day. An overly ‘fat’ grip, meanwhile, can be cumbersome in small hands, leading to hand fatigue.
Generally, the rods in this class all worked well for our testers. The Redington Crux, Orvis H3F and Winston Nimbus were dubbed equally well suited to everyone. The Silver Ghost was the only rod that felt truly awkward one of our testers with extra-large hands. He felt the narrow taper of the Silver Ghost’s grip left the rod loose in hand.
Modern rod designers utilize advanced engineering to achieve remarkably precise tapers from butt to tip. The accuracy of even moderately rated rods today is well in advance of what was found 20 years ago.
Still, in this category, one rod truly dominated this year: The Orvis Helios 3 series incorporates new materials and production methods in a design that nearly eliminates side-to-side oscillations in the rod during that casting stroke. That results in a huge increase in casting accuracy and casting distance. Both the Helios 3 F-series and D-series boast unmatched accuracy, even at distance, but the F-series focuses on finesse in casting presentations while its sibling, the D series, focuses its design on distance casting. Both the H3F and H3D showed remarkably precise casting accuracy, with outstanding distance potential, but the H3F offers a bit more touch in dry fly presentation and control. The Helios 3 design utilizes new composites and a wealth of unique research in rod action to fine-tune the structure of the rod from tip to grip. The result is a rod that minimizes vibrations, allowing the rod to track forward and back with little or no side oscillations. That creates sharp-shooter accuracy even in tough casting conditions.
Though not on par with the H3F, the Winston Nimbus and Redington Crux offered accuracy that was well above average. The Sage Method — designed for powerful casting at distance — offered the least accuracy in the class.
Getting flies out to where fish reside can increase the potential for success, and when the fish are far across a broad river, or well beyond shoreline on large lakes, casting distance is a vital component of a rod’s performance.
The ultra-fast action Sage Method powered both weight-forward floating lines, and sink-tip line farther than any other rod in this class. The Method is a boomer. Swinging a rod this fast requires some practice and skill, but it is possible to routinely throw 70 feet of line. With that performance, we could easily put streamers upstream and across the widest parts of the Deschutes River to work water where other anglers with less powerful rods couldn’t reach.
The Orvis H3F achieved nearly equal range, as did the Crux and Nimbus. The Silver Ghost, meanwhile, struggled to get beyond mid-range casts.
Once a fly has been accurately placed before a distant fish, and that fish has snatched the offering, the rod provides the means of controlling that caught-fish as you move it from its watery home to your net. So we evaluated the strength of each rod’s butt section to lift and control feisty trout. We consider the finesse of the tip in keeping the line taut without applying undue pressure on fine tippets. Mostly we ‘feel’ how the rod acts as we try to land fish as efficiently as possible so those fish can be safely released back into the rivers.
The Orvis H3F provided exceptional feel and control when playing a fish into the net. The rod showed enough backbone to hold and play hard-charging browns and leaping rainbows. We caught fish from a couple inches to couple pounds in size and the rod took care of each of them with ease.
The Sage Foundation also proved adept at allowing good control of the fish. The Foundation’s design provides enough flex to allow hooked fish the freedom to move without breaking off, while still affording the angler the power to bring a hard-fighting fish to hand efficiently.
Since trout exist in varied forms of water — fast moving rivers, slow spring creeks, deep valley lakes, high alpine lakes, etc. — and they eat a variety of food sources, anglers need tools capable of addressing those various situations. So in reviewing trout rods, we evaluate its versatility. Can the rod be used to fish heavy nymphs all morning before pressing it into use as a dry fly stick during an afternoon caddis hatch? Can it lever lunker rainbows out of a weedy lake as well as finesse brook trout out of an alpine tarn?
The Orvis H3F again takes top honors, earning universal praise from testers as a versatile stick capable of performing exceeding well in all forms of pursuit of trout. The H3F proved equally adept when casting #20 midges, and #4 hoppers. We flung big weighted pat’s stone nymphs, and tungsten-head streamers with good accuracy and distance. In short, the H3F proved that it is truly the master of the Trout Rod category.
The Winston Nimbus, Redington Crux, and Sage Foundation also earned high praise as masters of the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ category. But the Sage Method and LL Bean Silver Ghosts performed best in specific applications.
The Method is designed for distance and power. When the winds are howling and the waters are wide and strong, this a great rod to grab. It worked well when casting streamers, weighted nymph rigs, and big foam dry flies. But it’s not a great rod for light dries or close-in work of any type.
The LL Bean Silver Ghost, on the other hand, is best used when throwing light flies to near-in targets. The Silver Ghost lacks the subtlety needed for soft presentations on flat water. But it’s an effective tool for anglers who only plan to fish 30-35 feet out. In small to medium-sized rivers, whether fishing dries, nymphs or double-fly rigs, the Silver Ghost is an affordable option that should serve you well.
Because of the relatively small size of the fly fishing market, new gear technology evolves slowly. The fly fishing market lacks the mass of buyers needed to drive new product growth like that of larger categories (hiking, climbing, kayaking, etc.) but when changes come about, they can be dramatic. That is the case this year, with Orvis’ introduction of the Helios 3 rod series. The innovations in design and materials pushed rod casting accuracy forward by orders of magnitude. Orvis employed years of exhaustive research to pinpoint where in a rod accuracy was compromised, and then engineered solutions to those problems. The end product, the Helios 3 series, features greatly reduced rod oscillations during the casting stroke, resulting in unmatched accuracy.
For this test, I was joined by trout guides, game wardens, outdoor photographers, and fish advocates from Trout Unlimited in evaluating the rods. Each tester used the rods for several days in a variety of conditions. When possible, multiple testers ventured out together for side-by-side comparisons and discussions. At other times, we each carried two or more rods to the rivers and lakes we fished so we can fish the rods back-to-back in identical conditions for stronger comparisons.
Proving that everyone is different, we all had different likes and dislikes, but the strengths — and weaknesses — of each rod revealed themselves to each of us over the course of the tests.
What is a Trout Rod?
We have broken our core fly rod coverage into two categories: Fly Rods for Trout Fishing and Specialty Fly Rods. The general-purpose trout rod represents the largest component of the fly fishing market. The most common fly fishing rod size sold today is the 9-foot, 5-wt. This configuration provides the best versatility when targeting trout in a wide range of conditions and water bodies. Rods designed for 4-weight or 6-weight lines are also popular and fit within the “trout rod” category.
Specialty rods include a broad range of rod designs and configurations, including everything from lightweight rods for warm-water species, to heavy single-handed rods used to target big, salt-water fish, and even the long, two-handed spey and switch rods used primarily for salmon and steelhead.
In testing Trout Fly Rods, we focus our head-to-head comparisons on 5-weight rods.
When comparing rods, we consider the general over-all performance. Successful trout fishing tends to require changing up methods — from dry fly to nymphs, or nymphs to streamers — on a regular basis. So, the best rods should be versatile enough to handle a variety of conditions and methods of fishing. The best aren’t always the most expensive, nor are the least expensive automatically the worst rods to own. The price of fly rods varies greatly, largely because of the costs of production — rods made by hand in the United States costs more than those produced overseas — and materials used. Newer, more technically advanced composites and metal components cost more than older, established materials. As a result, good trout rods range in price from $100 to $1,000, though some custom rods can run to several thousand dollars.