Few pieces of tackle affect fishing techniques and success as much as rods. Strategies such as flipping, drop-shotting, jigging, and trolling depend on the power, action, and design of the rod to present lures or baits in a specific manner to catch specific species of fish.
But what about multispecies anglers? In a perfect world, they would use rods matched to the size of the lure or bait and the method of presentation. But many anglers with smaller pocketbooks or with the desire to keep things simple juggle a small inventory of rods of different designs. The challenge in shopping for a low cost rod is to find one with a reasonable price tag that can do one thing or several things well.
"There are advantages to using $150 rods," says Stephen Britt, Berkley Fishing product manager. "Tournament anglers who focus on one kind of fish can justify the light weight, comfort, and subtle features that high-end rods offer. But the average angler may be satisfied with several $50 rods for general use if they select them correctly."
First consider the type of reel to be mounted on the rod. Whether the reel seat is for a casting or spinning reel affects handle design. Anglers who flip jigs under docks or cast heavy baits long distances often opt for longer handles for increased leverage and control. Those who vertical-jig or do more precise presentations generally prefer shorter handles, possibly with a split grip to improve sensitivity.
Handle composition depends on price and preference. "Traditionally, anglers often opt for cork handles," Britt says. "They appreciate the look and feel, and cork is pretty durable. It should withstand most fishing techniques and situations. There are multiple grades of cork used for rod handles. The higher the grade, the more durable and less likely it will pit-out after long use."
Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam handles are often a lower-cost alternative to cork that many anglers prefer. As with cork, there are different grades of EVA foam. The higher the density, the higher the grade and the harder the foam. Another option for rod handles is rubberized cork, a combination of ground cork and EVA rubber. Two notable attributes of rubberized cork are durability and a sticky/tacky feel, especially when wet, which has made this material popular with saltwater anglers.
Handle design and composition, along with type of reel seat, set the stage for selecting the type of blank, which effects how a rod performs. Anglers may be confused by the myriad variations in length, action, and power. In brief, shorter rods offer precision in presentation and convenience when casting from boats or in tight quarters. Longer rods cast longer distances, help spread lures behind a boat when trolling, and offer specialized designs for dabbing and other unique presentations. "Action" refers to the flex of a rod. Generally, a fast-action rod flexes in the upper one-third of its length. A slow-action rod flexes nearly to its handle.
Don't confuse the action of a rod with its "power." Power refers to a rod's stiffness/resistance to bending and is defined in terms of ultralight, light, medium, medium-heavy, and heavy. Combining action and power can give a multitude of variations, such as a fast-action, medium-power rod that flexes only in its upper third and has a fairly stout backbone. A slow-action, heavy-power rod flexes deeply along its blank but offers extreme resistance to bending. Most rod manufacturers and many fishing tackle retailers have detailed information on their websites to help anglers understand and select the proper rod for their needs.
Line guides are another important factor. Some mid-grade fishing rods use two-piece line guides, with a wear-resistant ceramic insert in a metal frame. Others use a one-piece stainless steel or wear-resistant metal guide. Two-piece guides are more economical, but ceramic inserts can crack or pop out, while one-piece guides are bulletproof but somewhat more expensive.
While power and action contribute to the performance of a rod, so too does the composition of the blank. Early fishing rods were made of a variety of materials, from bamboo to steel. Fiberglass rods ruled the market in the 1960s and into the 70s, and still are unparalleled for strength, durability, and flexibility, but prone to be heavy as the size of the blank increases. Anglers who target large fish using livebaits, where the bait is soaked while the rods are in rod holders on boats or from shore, don't mind the heavier weight of fiberglass and appreciate the soft tips that allow circle hooks to function well, while their strong backbone provides the heft to handle monster blue cats or stripers.
Graphite rods entered the market in the early 1970s and gained prominence during the 80s. They offer light weight and sensitivity, but can be delicate—tips smacked on the gunwale or banged around in the back of a pickup truck may break off. High-end graphite rods are weighed in ounces, sometimes in mere grams. But reduced weight comes at a higher price, and top-of-the-line graphite rods carry triple-digit price tags.
"Composite" rod blanks that use a combination of graphite and fiberglass offer benefits of fiberglass and graphite without the fragility and higher cost of all-graphite blanks, or the added weight of fiberglass blanks. That's why many anglers choose rods such as Shakespeare Ugly Stiks, Berkley Lightning Rods, Quantum Accurists, and other mid-range brands of composite rods.
"Ugly Stiks are all about toughness and durability at a reasonable price," says Josh Silva, Marketing Manager for Shakespeare's Ugly Stik line. "The thing I hear over and over about Ugly Stiks is that they are a general-purpose rod, for anglers who want two or three rods that do many things well and yet perform outside their design parameters if they have to. They can use a 5-foot 10-inch ultralight Ugly Stik for fishing a minnow on a jig for crappies and still be confident they can land a 20-pound catfish that takes that minnow."
Situations and Systems
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange says Ugly Stiks aren't perfect for every fishing situation. "For the selective angler, Ugly Stiks can't do it all," he says. "Their construction means they're a bit heavier than higher-end graphite rods. You could get it done, but they wouldn't be efficient or pleasant to use for a day of drop-shotting for smallmouth bass.
"Ugly Stik actions also are slower than for graphite rods, which makes them great for some things, but not for others. They're superb for almost any circle-hook application, where it's effective to let a limber rod tip load before reeling down on the fish to slide the hook home. But they don't have fast enough actions to be skipping jigs under docks for largemouth bass."
While he uses specialized rods for specialized presentations, Stange finds the multi-use personality of the 'glass and graphite blend in Ugly Stiks useful across a broad range of fishing applications.
"I use a handful of Ugly Stiks that work superbly in certain situations," he says. "I have four Bigwater Dipsy Diver rods (BWDD 1100100), which are casting rods that I use mostly to troll for muskies. They are medium-heavy two-piece 10-footers. I've had them for 15 years and have caught a ton of fish on them. They work great with or without planer boards. They're just heavy enough to handle giant plugs but also are limber enough to not tear hooks when a fish hits at a trolling speed of 4 mph. I also use them to troll big skipjack herring under floats or behind planer boards for big stripers in rivers. And they excel for making long casts with heavy weights, fishing offshore for big catfish."
"I also use 7-foot 6-inch medium-light casting rods from the Ugly Stik Inshore series (CAJ 11761 ML)," says Stange. "They were recently canceled but are still available at some retail outlets. It should be easier to find Ugly Stik's new GX2 series rod (USCA761ML), which is almost the same rod. I use them with a handful of 8-foot 6-inch medium-power casting rods (CAS 11862M) from the Salmon/Steelhead series. Both rods have similar power and limber action, and can handle line-tests from 6 to 25 pounds. I use them as walleye trolling rods, with one of the shorter rods running the inside line. They work great with or without planer boards. I have them rigged with Berkley Abu Garcia 5500 or 6500 line-counter reels, with Berkley FireLine in 10-pound test. The longer rod also handles leadcore line well.
"Those two rods also are my primary rods for most situations for channel catfish," Stange says, "with the shorter one my choice for slipsinker fishing in streams. The longer rods make long casts and also works well as a float rod, for drifting big pieces of cutbait. Because they have such limber tips, they're great for circle hooks, which I now use most of the time for catfish."
"The rod I'm most amazed with is a 7-foot medium-heavy-power casting rod (USCC2270MH) from Ugly Stik's Custom Bigwater series," he says. "Two of them have been with me for 15 years. They're my primary tarpon rods, the rods I use for white sturgeon in the Columbia River and on the Snake, and the rods I use for alligator gar in Texas. They're just limber enough to load beautifully, but not so stiff that an angler has to work too hard when pulling on big fish. I also use them when it's necessary to pull big flathead and blue catfish away from cover."
Stange is also fond of several other brands of mid-price composite fishing rods. "Berkley Lightning Rods retail for under $40 and are featherweights with crisp actions," he says. "I use them for panfish, walleyes, and smallmouth bass, for casting jigs and crankbaits. They're a lower-price rod that can perfectly handle the drop-shotting scenario I mentioned earlier. The Berkley AIR IM8s are lightweight rods in lengths from 8-feet to 10-feet 6-inches. They're great float rods, for drifting slipfloats for walleyes, to drifting fixed floats for steelhead and catfish in smaller streams. They're a little more expensive, retailing for around $110. But that's still half the price of most long rods."
Berkley's Britt points to several models of Lightning Rods with unique features in the $50 to $55 price range. "Braided lines have very little stretch, so the Shock version has a fiberglass Shock Amplifying Tip (SAT) designed specifically for use with braided lines," he says. "Lightning and Lightning Rod Shock models, as well as Berkley's Cherrywood lineup, are graphite-fiberglass composites, so they're more durable that pure graphite rods. They're built to handle a reasonable amount of abuse."
Lightning Rod Shocks come in casting and spinning models in a range of actions and lengths, from the 6-foot 6-inch SHS661M rated for 8- to 15-pound-test braid, to a 7-foot 6-incher (SCH701MH) rated for 30- to 65-pound-test braid. Berkley Cherrywood rods retail for $25 to $30 and range from a 4-foot 6-inch ultralight spinning model (CWD461ULS) rated for 1- to 4-pound-test line to a medium-heavy 7-foot casting rod (CWD461ULS) rated for 10- to 20-pound test.
While journeyman fishing rods are designed to do many things well, Alan McGuckin, director of Public Relations for Zebco and Quantum brands, warns against trying to find one rod that does all things for all people under all circumstances. "One rod won't work at an optimal level with all the lures in your tackle box," he says. "I compare it to golfing—you wouldn't play a round of golf with just one club, and you're not going to be as successful fishing if you only have one fishing rod.
"I recommend that even semi-serious anglers have at least three rods, maybe two casting rods of different designs and one spinning rod. For the spinning rod I'd pick a medium-heavy 7-footer like the Quantum Accurist ACS705F, something that works well with shakey-head jigs and similar lures. For casting, I'd pick a 7-foot medium-heavy model with a soft tip for casting spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, and crankbaits, such as the Quantum Accurist ACC706F. The second casting rod would be a 7-foot heavy-power model with a fast action for vertical fishing with jigs and pitching softbaits. The 7-foot 6-inch Quantum ACC767XF would be a good choice for that."
McGuckin assures anglers that while high prices buy optimum performance, today's mid-range fishing rods are on-par with yesterday's high-end rods. "Today's $25 rods contain technology and designs that would have cost $100 15 years ago," he says.
Stange summarizes the challenge of getting quality fishing rods that meet the family budget: "Do you get what you pay for when buying fishing rods? Perhaps that's often true. But in the competitive world where rods are manufactured, marketed, and sold, you often get more than what you pay for, if you know enough to pick and choose with an experienced hand and eye."
Berkley Lightning Rod Shock
Shakespeare Ugly Stik Bigwater
Shakespeare Ugly Stik Custom Bigwater
Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2