Fishing Rods 101

Basic Components and Category Info for Freshwater Rods

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Photo © Ken Schultz

What, exactly, is a fishing rod? It’s an instrument with a handle, shaft, and reel seat, which connects a reel and line for the purpose of making a controlled presentation of bait, lure, or fly. An intrinsic element in all forms of sportfishing, a fishing rod is essential to casting, retrieving, detecting a strike, setting the hook, and playing the fish.

Although some people refer to a fishing rod as a fishing “pole,” this is incorrect, since a pole is an implement unaccompanied by a reel or by rod components, and therefore not used in the act of casting.

Fishing poles do not have running line; line is directly attached to the tip of the pole.

The Right Rod for the Situation

Effective fishing is in part determined by the use of the proper tackle for the situation; choosing the right rod is an important element of this. Just as there are many different species of fish, diverse habitats, and methods of angling, so, too, are there many categories and types of fishing rods, each suited to a particular application. Some fishing rod manufacturers produce scores, if not hundreds, of different rods, covering a gamut from fly, spinning, baitcasting, spincasting, surf, trolling, boat, big-game, flipping, popping, noodle, and downrigger models, to name just some of the possibilities, not to mention specialized subtypes within many categorizations.

Obviously, a fly angler can’t do justice to fly fishing without the right type of rod, but neither can the same type of spinning rod be used adequately in stream trout fishing as in trolling for trout with downriggers.

Even when there is cross-application, some compromise must be made. Different species, special applications, and regional preferences have caused a proliferation in rods for various needs.

Although anglers do stretch the use of some fishing tackle, and although some rods can be used for multiple species and means of fishing, it is generally important to have the right type, length, and style of rod for a particular fishing situation.

To make this choice from a potpourri of possibilities it is helpful to understand the categories, functions, materials, features, and components of fishing rods.

Basic Components

All fishing rods have a handle, shaft, and reel seat. The materials used for each of these features may vary. The shaft is primarily referred to as the blank. This is where the rod guides are attached; the number and type of these vary widely. A very small number of rods do not have a series of external guides; in these, the line runs through the blank within the hollow interior and exits at the tip.

Fishing rods are most commonly of one- or two-piece configuration. Some have three or more pieces; a lesser number, usually for specialty applications, have multiple telescoping sections or a telescoping butt section. Prices range widely, and though many of the specialist and top-quality performance rods are costly, high price is not necessarily indicative of the best quality and may not be synonymous with best value. Many good-quality fishing rods are found at mid-price ranges.

In freshwater fishing there are primarily four different categories of rods. This information is rather generalized, as there are exceptions and special products in most categories.

Baitcasting. Used with levelwind or baitcasting reels, which sit on top of the rod handle and face the angler, this tackle provides excellent casting accuracy for the skillful user, although achieving top-level proficiency takes practice and experience. Most baitcasting rods are one-piece models, though larger, heavier duty ones may have a telescoping butt and are generally stiffer than spinning rods. Guides are usually small to medium in size, and handles may be straight or with a pistol grip, both having a trigger hold (grip) under the handle.

Spincasting. These rods are similar to those used in baitcasting and are fairly uncomplicated. The guides are mounted atop the rod, and guide rings are generally small. Reels mount a little higher on top of the rod’s reel seat, and the handles feature either straight or pistol grip design with a trigger hold under the handle.

Spincasting rods usually aren’t as stiff as baitcasting rods, having generally lighter action for use with light lines and lures. They are made in one- and two-piece models, mostly of fiberglass, and a few are telescopic.

Spinning. Used with open-faced spinning reels that mount underneath the rod, this tackle is very popular for a wide range of fishing situations and is relatively uncomplicated. Guides have a wide diameter to accommodate the large spirals of line that come off the reel spool when casting. Handles are straight, with fixed or adjustable (ring) reel seats, and both one- and two-piece models are common.

Fly. Unlike other rod types, fly rods are used to cast a very light object via a large-diameter, heavy line. Guides are small, and rod length varies from 5 feet to 12 or 14, although most fly rods used in North America are 7 ½ - to 10-footers. Fly rods are rated for casting a specific weight line; a fly reel usually sits at the bottom of the handle, but some rods have extension butts for leverage in fighting big fish.