The evolution of fishing rods

The evolution of fishing rods

Ethan Neville’s passion for fishing was born in the Mahurangi Harbour where ‘stump pullers’ were the norm when it came to tackle. Ethan takes a trip down memory lane, before looking at the transition from ‘broomsticks’ to more modern, sportier tackle…

The memories of my dad sitting at the back of the 12ft dinghy, one hand directing the 4hp motor, the other lining up the end of the peninsula with a red house in an attempt to triangulate our ‘secret spot’, are still vivid. To his credit, we always caught a lot of snapper. Nestled among moored yachts, my dad would tie on a thick monofilament trace to similarly thick monofilament line. This line was pulled through the necessarily large guides, which was attached to my oversized solid fibreglass rod – you know the type: the ones that didn’t really bend unless you caught a snapper over 40cm. Bait was dropped to the bottom and a bin full of pannies would follow.

This was in the early 2000s, only a few years before such methods of fishing and style of rods were to be challenged by the new fad of soft-baiting and light gear. Looking back now, of course, the changes that took place in the first decade of this millennia were anything but a fad. In two previous articles, I discussed the radical changes New Zealand recreational, in-shore fishing has undergone over the last thirty years. From bait, to soft-bait, to slow-jigs to everything else we see today, the fishing industry has come a long way since I fished the Mahurangi Harbour with my dad. The following is a brief overview of how rods have evolved with the changing styles of fishing, doing my best not to linger on unnecessary technical detail (for your sake and mine). As a reward for your endurance, I will be sure to finish with an easy guide to picking the right rod for the method of inshore fishing you prefer!

Early NZ rods were built from tanekaha, a robust native timber.Early NZ rods were built from tanekaha, a robust native timber.

Split Cane

While fibreglass rods will probably be at the centre of most of our early memories of fishing, some more “experienced” readers may remember the days of split cane rods. These are exactly as they sound: the rods are constructed out of split Tonkin cane that is glued and lashed together. The experienced anglers among us may also remember how much heavier and less responsive they are than modern rods. What will soon become clear is that the evolution of rods centres on finding lighter, more versatile materials. For those who do prefer the more organic feel of split cane rods, there is good news and bad news: split cane fly rods are still around today but you realistically have to spend a few grand to get one worth your time.

Tonkin cane, split into tapered sections then glued and bound together represented the first advance in technology away from natural wood like greenheart and tanekaha.Tonkin cane, split into tapered sections then glued and bound together represented the first advance in technology away from natural wood like greenheart and tanekaha.

A finished split cane rod. This one, made by Hardy Brothers in the UK would cost you thousands of dollars.A finished split cane rod. This one, made by Hardy Brothers in the UK would cost you thousands of dollars.

Solid Fibreglass

In the early 70s, split cane rods were still being sold in NZ. Fibreglass, however, was quickly becoming the preferred choice of material for rod-builders. Kilwell, Roddy, Jarvis Walker and Monarch each introduced lines of solid fibreglass rods in this period. Initially, these were made through a process called pultrusion, which basically involved grinding down fibreglass poles made for electric fences. The result was solid glass fishing rods that were short and stiff. Adding in a heavy wooden butt, stainless steel guides, and chrome ferrules, ensured, as local expert Greg Hill (whose advice we will draw on shortly when discussing rod selection) puts it, “you fought your rod, as well as the fish.”

Hollow Fibreglass

Hollow fibreglass came next. Almost all of us will have a few of these in our garage – I believe it is still a rite of passage for Kiwi kids to fish the colourful versions of these rods well past the recommended age. Being hollow, these fibreglass rods are far lighter than all of their predecessors. Heavy wooden grips were also replaced by Hypalon (synthetic rubber), further reducing their weight. Importantly, these rods were no longer made out of electric fence poles, instead being formed on tapered mandrels. This meant that blanks could be modified to specific applications. Another important change was the introduction of ceramic guides. These were lighter and had the added advantage of not forming sharp line grooves (which steel guides were prone to do). In the late 70s, this was cutting edge technology and only “top of the range” rods were hollow fibreglass.

Anyone who has accidentally hooked up to something decent on one of their kid’s rods, however, will know the obvious deficiencies of this material. They bend. While fibreglass rods are tough, they tend to have a slow action. Basically, this means the rod bends right down to the handle, leaving you little room to put any pressure on the fish. But fibreglass rods still have their uses. The slow action and soft tips make them a great option for bait fishing. Their bulk also makes them perfect for heavy monofilament line, which is far thicker than polyethylene (braid), and allows them to survive those anglers prone to knocking their rod against the side of the boat and the car boot and any other objects they encounter during their day out fishing (this also makes them attractive to rock fisherman). Finally, they are also very cheap these days, so are still the perfect option for kids and casual fishers and those who don’t like to spend all of their disposable income on fishing gear (though I’m not sure if there are many of us who fit into this last category).

Graphite

When soft-baiting first entered the scene in the eighties, most anglers in NZ persisted with fibreglass rods and mono line. There were simply no other options available at the time unless you imported rods from overseas at high cost and effort. The first issue was the mono. It stretches too much for the subtleties of soft-baiting and its thick diameter makes it highly visible in the water. The second issue was the fibreglass rods. Their slower action makes it hard to stay in touch with the lure through the water column and their weight greatly prohibits casting distance.

Throughout the nineties, a number of NZ companies introduced graphite rods for trout but, as I argued in a previous article, a culture change was required before lighter rods, light polyethylene lines and new methods of fishing would be fully accepted in saltwater. This happened in the mid 2000s as anglers saw that inshore fishing could be just as much about sport as about putting fish on the table.

As with any new technology, there was a teething phase. By the turn of the millennium, many anglers had been fishing with graphite for a number of years. A great number of New Zealand anglers, however, refused to believe that the thinner graphite rods could be effective in our waters. Malcom Dawson, who was a key figure in introducing soft-baiting and the associated lighter gear into the NZ fishing scene, recalls getting accused of lying and even fabricating photos when touring the country with these new products. How could a rod so thin and line so light land 20lb plus snapper?

The answer is quite simple: graphite is, pound for pound, stronger and lighter than fibreglass. A modern graphite rod used for inshore fishing weighs under 100g; a fibreglass rod of the same length will weigh at least double this. Generally speaking, the diameter of graphite rods is a third smaller than fibreglass rods. Braid, of course, is also far smaller in diameter than mono, which left no reason for there to be thick rods with bulky guides. It makes sense then that the modern graphite setup which included a long, thin rod, small ceramic guides, and lightweight braided line was foreign to anglers accustomed to fishing heavy fibreglass rods. Results, however, always speak for themselves and it wasn’t long before the advantages of graphite and braid became obvious to all.

The first improvement that graphite offers is faster recovery. Graphite rods want to return to their original shape. Storing energy far more efficiently than fibreglass, they go from bent to straight without much ‘dithering’..

There is also far greater sensitivity through the tip, allowing the angler to feel every nudge from the fish. Graphite transmits sensations better than fibreglass, which further increases the angler’s awareness of bites. This is essential when soft-baiting as you want to stay in touch with the lure throughout the water column, being ready to strike at any moment. When graphite rods are fished with braid (which has minimal stretch), nothing escapes an angler’s notice. It’s also far easier to achieve a faster action with graphite, which allows far greater control in the fight. The parabolic action common in fibreglass rods gives you no backbone by which to fight the fish – the drag on the reel is all you can use to keep fish away from structure. Finally, the fast action and lightness of graphite rods make them great for casting. With less air resistance and a greater tip speed, carbon rods improve casting distance substantially.

Over the last twenty years, graphite rods have become the first choice of most NZ anglers. In this period, rods have only grown lighter and stronger. It is worth mentioning that most graphite rods in the middle-range price bracket are graphite and glass composites. These are slightly tougher rods (due to the fibreglass) but still retain the key characteristics of graphite (light and sensitive). Over the last twenty years, graphite rods (both pure and composites) have been designed to match the many different methods of fishing that New Zealand in-shore fishers have adopted. In particular, there are rods that meet the individual requirements of soft-baiting and slow-jigging, and knowing the differences between them may make a difference in your catch-rate.

Greg Hill demonstrates the action of a light-tackle graphite blank.Greg Hill demonstrates the action of a light-tackle graphite blank.

Choosing the Right Rod

So how do you know which rod to choose? This is the very question I asked Greg Hill from GoFish Tackle. He’s been building, repairing, and most importantly, fishing with fibreglass and graphite rods since they were first introduced in New Zealand, so his advice is certainly worth listening to!

Soft-baiting

If you are already an avid soft-baiter or about to make the change from bait to soft-bait, Greg’s advice is to go for a rod with a fast or extra-fast action. With soft-baiting, the more feel the better, and this is what a rod with a fast action will give you. In terms of length and weight, this will depend on where you are fishing. Generally speaking, you want to be around 7ft long (anything much shorter will decrease casting range) and in the 3-8kg range.

Greg’s choice: Daiwa Saltist Coastal 70m (spin)

Good soft-bait rods are long, with sensitive tips and more powerful butts.Good soft-bait rods are long, with sensitive tips and more powerful butts.

Slow-jigging

For the sake of simplicity, I will include the use of inchikus, kaburas/sliders and micro jigs under the term ‘slow-jigging’ (despite advising against this in a previous article). What these lures have in common is that they are not often cast, which means you can use a slightly shorter rod than when soft-baiting. The key piece of advice from Greg is that a more moderate action is preferable when slow jigging. When fishing these lures, you should not strike in the same way you do when bait-fishing or soft-baiting. As the hooks are small, a firm strike may rip the hooks out of the fish’s mouth. Rather, the fish should be allowed to hook itself, and pressure should only be applied to set the hook. A more moderate taper aids this process and has the added benefit of looking great in photos – even a pannie snapper will make the rod bend in half!

Greg’s choice: Team Daiwa Kohga 66HB (overhead)

A final point Greg stresses, that applies to every realm of fishing, is to buy rods with Fuji guides. There are other brands out there producing quality guides, but the most common brand you will find in New Zealand that you can trust is Fuji.

The best piece of advice that I could give is to simply go to your local tackle store, ask advice from the staff and handle the rod yourself. Some rods just feel right. Others don’t. After chatting to the staff, asking a few questions and trying a few rods out, the choice should become a lot less daunting that it may seem after reading this article!

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

July 2019 - Ethan Neville
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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