Beginner Fly Rod Building

11/29/23

Thinking about building your first fly rod but not sure where to start? In this interview with experts Peter Knox and Paul Schmierer from Sage, you’ll learn valuable tips directly from the professionals on how to approach your first build. Sage has been pioneering fly rod design and manufacturing for decades, so these engineers have an unmatched depth of fly rod building knowledge from designing, testing, and fielding thousands of rods.

Choosing a Fly Rod Blank

The first and most important consideration when building your first fly rod is choosing the right blank. According to Peter, you want to start that process by asking yourself a few questions.

“I think a lot of people tie rod selection to a species,” he says. “For example, they may say, “Well, I want to catch a bonefish, so I’m going to go with an 8 weight. But a better question; maybe one that’s a bit more descriptive when you answer it, is “What am I trying to do with this rod?” And that could involve asking yourself if you want to make short casts or long casts; if you want to catch just bonefish, or if you want to catch salmon and redfish along the way too; if you want to cast big flies; if you want to shoot lots of head…the list goes on. And I think the first question is, “What is the breadth and scope of what I want to accomplish with this rod?””

“I totally agree with Peter,” says Paul, “and as a next step I’d advise casting as many rods as possible. Get your hands on some different rods from different manufacturers and figure out what you like. You can obviously do that through a specialty fly shop. That’s a great way to do it. But there are also fly clubs out there where you can gop out, make some friends, find a few rods, and cast a few different things and figure out what you like and dislike as far as different action styles. It may come down to there being a manufacturer that just has some characteristics that you prefer. So get into a shop and pick up some rods and cast them if you can instead of just doing all of your research on the internet.”

Fly Rod Guide Placement And Sizing

Once you’ve given some thought to your blank selection, the next question that people get hung up on is how many and what size guides will work best with that blank. Peter and Paul offer these tips to first time rod builders.

“As a general guideline,” says Peter, “at Sage we’re building most 5 and 6 weights with size 10-12 stripping guides. Once you get up into your 7, 8, and 9 weights, we’re using a 16. 20 is really reserved for our really big 12 weights and above.

Paul adds, “For most guys building a trout rod, a size 12 stripping guide is about right. Once you get into bigger rods for warm water and saltwater stuff, a 16 is a good starting point.”

Both experts agree that as a general rule, the lighter a guide you can get away with using, the better.

fly rod building

According to Peter, “The more weight you add up there, especially at the tip of the rod where it has the smallest diameter and flexes the most, the more you’ll feel a difference. And it’s not just the size of the guides, but it’s also the length of the wraps, how many wraps you make, whether you have a double brace or single foot guide, and how much coating you add over the wraps. These little things really add up and can make a big difference in the overall feel and sensitivity of the rod. So if you’re thinking about putting extra decorative wraps and stuff higher up on the rod, bear in mind that can come with a performance penalty.”

Paul adds, “As a general rule, our philosophy has always been to use as little as possible to keep that line traveling straight down the blank.” 

Wrapping And Finishing

In keeping with that philosophy, first time rod builders should try to keep their wraps short and tidy.

“One of the measures of craftsmanship to me on a rod is how low can you build while still fully covering the threads,” says Paul. “Personally, I’m not drawn to really lumpy guides from a performance and visual standpoint. I’d recommend for most rod builders to try a two coat strategy when it comes time to cover those threads. Maybe more, but two is a pretty good number. One coat…that can be a little make-or-break. Sometimes the threads can absorb your epoxy or maybe you get voids where the coating can soak into and you don’t quite get what you thought you were going to get once you get the rod on the dryer.” 

“If somebody at home has a grain scale,” adds Peter, “they can really see how much this matters by weighing a guide, and then adding a little thread and a drop of coating on there. It’s pretty eye-opening when you see what kind of weight it really adds to a build.”

“Another thing I highly recommend is that you practice your wraps before you start on your blank,” continues Paul. “Maybe bend a paperclip and practice wrapping that on a dowel, or use some extra guides on a broken rod. But practice your wraps and put a little coating on them before you jump into putting components on a really nice blank for the first time. Think about your setup too, as in how you’re going to cradle the blank as you wrap and apply epoxy.”

fly rod building

Peter adds, “It’s also really important to pay attention to the manufacturer’s instructions that come with the coating you use. The temperature and humidity are really important in getting it to set correctly. So if you’re up in the Northeast in the wintertime working in your garage or basement, for example, you may need to move things inside when it’s time to do epoxy work. Again, it’s best to do a trial run ahead of time before you make a mistake on that blank.”

Protecting Your Finished Fly Rod

Once you’ve made the substantial time and money investment into building a rod exactly to your liking, the last thing you want to do is damage it. Breaking any rod hurts, but breaking one that you built yourself is especially painful since it’s not like you can just run down to a shop for a quick replacement. Paul says that most breakages are the result of three things: high-sticking, fly strikes, and improperly assembled rods.

“I recommend that people fight fish as low down in the rod as possible,” Paul advises. “The lower in the rod you are, the thicker and stronger the material is and the less likely it is to break. That can be difficult when you’re landing big fish close to you, but anything that you can do to keep that bend low down in the rod is going to help protect it.”

Fly strikes occur when flies, particularly weighted flies, impact the rod tip during the cast. This is usually the result of sloppy casting techniques, but can happen to even accomplished casters. 

“When that fly impacts your rod,” says Paul, “you might as well be shooting it with a BB gun. That’s not good. Any little crack it causes can come back to haunt you.”

salmon on a fly rod

As far as improper assembly, Paul says that a poorly seated ferrule can quickly lead to an entirely preventable and catastrophic failure. How do you properly seat a ferrule? Firmly, says Paul.

“To folks’ credit who break rods due to not seating the ferrule, a lot of the times they’re trying to be gentle with a nice piece of equipment, or they don’t want the ferrule to get stuck. But my rule of thumb would be to put them together like you don’t want them to come apart. Hold each piece close to the joint, push them together firmly, and give them a little twist.”

By properly seating your ferrules, you prevent the rod from coming apart gradually over a day of casting, and potentially breaking once the joint has separated and then has a heavy load applied.

Final Thoughts On Fly Rod Building

With the right preparation and attention to detail, building your first fly rod can be a rewarding experience. By following the guidelines discussed in this article, your chances of success will be much higher. Don’t be afraid to experiment along the way and have fun with the process. With a little bit of practice and armed with the knowledge from this article, you’ll be catching fish on your very own custom fly rod in no time!