How to Choose and Buy a Fishing Rod

If you’ve decided you’re going to give fishing a try, the first thing you’re going to need is a fishing rod. Fishing rods and reels come in many different shapes and sizes and understanding what you need isn’t necessarily easy. This section is intended to help you navigate the different kinds of fishing rods and fishing poles on the market – enabling you to make a selection with a bit of knowledge on your side, so you won’t just have to believe what the salesperson tells you. We’ll be adding to this section frequently to keep it up to date but if you have any suggestions as to what’s missing or what you feel we should add, drop us a line – we’d love to hear from you.

Fishing rods vs fishing poles

I want to start by tackling the elephant in the room – and by that I’m referring to the difference between fishing rods and fishing poles. It’s an issue that’s not quite as straightforward as some might think, because there are two very significant factors at play here – language and design.

What on earth am I talking about? Let me explain.

If you are an American, the likelihood is you refer to ALL fishing rods as fishing poles – it’s just the collective name for pretty much anything you can attach a reel to. If you’re British, on the other hand, a fishing pole is something quite unique and distinct from a fishing rod. Fishing poles, in the UK and Europe, are exactly that – long poles, much longer than any fishing rod (up to a massive 14 metres or more!), which are held out over the water, dangling the bait directly underneath their tip. A section of very strong elastic is attached to the nylon leader, which is all that is used to play the fish – there’s no reel whatsoever. I’m sure it sounds weird to anyone who’s never seen it, but if you’re a competition angler in the UK, it’s the only way to fish. But it’s also quite a specialist pastime, used mostly by match and coarse fishermen, who benefit from being able to fish a precisely targeted area and land fish as quickly as possible. It may not be pretty, but it’s effective!

For the purposes of this section, we’re going to focus on typical fishing rods, so forgive us if we leave the long poles for another time.

Choosing a rod by price

Of course, as with any product, you can find expensive fishing rods and you can find cheap fishing rods. Whether you’re choosing a fishing rod for a friend or want to buy one for yourself, make sure you do your research. Given the huge amount of choice out there, a good starting point is to single out a brand you like. Different brands tend to follow different trends and position themselves at different price points. When buying a rod by brand, our advice is to avoid the very cheap options (or at least buy knowing they may need to be replaced) and only to buy the top brands if you really know what you’re looking for. Only accomplished and very experienced anglers will be able to appreciate the refinement and casting qualities of a top-of-the-range rod, so if you don’t consider yourself an expert, you should probably save some cash and focus on the mid-range models. To help you choose take a look at our comparison of popular fishing rod brands

Choosing a rod by fishing style

Another way of finding the best rod for you is to identify the type of fishing you want to do. By the ‘type’ of fishing, I’m talking about both fishing method and fish species. Which fish are you interested in and what baits do you want to use to catch them? To pick the ideal rod for you, choose from the following list whatever style of fishing most closely reflects what you want to do:

Fishing rod power

Before you’re ready to start fishing rod shopping, you may want to give some thought to the length, weight and, most importantly, power of your rod. To make matters slightly harder, there is no statutory way of describing a fishing rod’s power. Some manufacturers use numbers – which usually correlate to the size of line or bait you will be casting, others use words like “soft” or “stiff”, while some measure what’s known as “test curve”. A rod’s test curve is the amount of weight needed to bend the tip of your rod to 90 degrees. The higher the test curve, the stiffer the rod will be. All of these ratings can help you select the right rod, but it’s often necessary to refer to each manufacturer’s literature to get a true understanding of their unique grading system. What one manufacturer calls stiff might be the equivalent of what another considers light. It’s probably easier and definitely preferable to speak to someone knowledgeable before you part with any cash, or at least reading the reviews of a particular rod to see if it’s appropriate for the type of fishing you want to do.

Generally speaking, the smaller the fish you’re pursuing, the lighter or more flexible your rod can be. Small fish require a lower rating (for example a 5- to 7-weight might suffice for trout fishing, while a big salmon might require a 9 to 11-weight). The same goes for test curve. A test curve of, say, 3lbs would give you quite a stiff rod – suitable for a large or hard fighting fish like maybe a redfish or jack, or in freshwater a carp or pike; while a 1lb test curve might only suit fishing for small bait fish or coarse fish species. Whatever the designation, however, the rule of thumb is this: as the fish grow larger, the snags become more abundant, and the tides or currents strengthen, your rod’s power and the strength of your line should increase.

Fishing rod action

A fishing rod’s action refers to how and where it bends, which in turn determines how it performs when it’s under load (i.e. when you’re casting a weigh or line, or playing a fish). The universal language for fishing rod action is slow, medium or fast, with numerous variations and steps in between. Take a look at the chart below. As you can see, fast and extra-fast rods bend only near the tip, while slow action rods bend from the tip right down nearly to the butt.

As the name suggests, soft action rods are more gentle and forgiving. This can be important when you’re fighting a fish, or presenting a fly. Fast action rods, on the other hand, are more powerful, less forgiving and provide little damping between the fisherman and the end of the line. Fast action rods are considered harder to cast and more likely to result in broken tackle – especially when targeting aggressive species of fish. Medium rods, of course, are somewhere in between soft and hard. Different anglers have their own preferences, but some situations clearly require one or the other. When casting soft baits, for example, you’ll almost certainly want a soft action rod to reduce the likelihood of casting the bait off the hook; when fishing a jerkbait or jig, on the other hand, you may prefer a stiffer rod with a faster action, to ensure that as many of the angler’s movements and gesticulations are transmitted to the bait as possible.

Parts of a fishing rod

Aside from the poles we mentioned above, there are a number of characteristics that are shared by almost all rods and these can help dictate what type of design you need for a specific type of fishing. These characteristics are:

  • Rod blanks
  • Rod handles and/or fighting butts
  • Reel seats
  • Guides and rings

Rod blanks

A blank is the name given to the main part of the rod – the long pole itself (there’s that word again!). Fishing rod blanks come in all styles, strengths and sizes and vary in length, material, weight, straightness, taper and diameter (from butt to tip). These factors, combined, dictate the rod’s power and ‘action’ (see below), which are all factors to consider when making a purchase. Because it’s such a complex topic, blanks are often not available to the consumer, instead they are made for custom or mainstream rod builders – designed and produced for specific applications and uses.

As you might imagine, when a fishing rod blank is under pressure, it bends. When it does, the cross section can change from a circular to an oval shape, which reduces the blank’s stiffness and power. The higher the pressure or loading, the softer the blank will become, reducing its ability to cast or fight fish. The material used and the method of construction is therefore very important and this is how the more expensive fishing rod brands justify their higher prices. It can make a huge difference. Although over the years fishing rod materials have varied, these days the industry standard is composite, graphite or carbon. Read more about fishing rod materials.

Rod handles and fighting butts

Attached to the blank, every fishing rod has some kind of handle or ‘fighting butt’. While normally made from either cork or foam, the material, style and shape of a fishing rod’s handle will depend on both the type of fishing it’s intended for and the manufacturer’s design and styling preferences. Starting with material, foam grips are often the material of choice for cheaper fishing rod brands. They are both more durable and less expensive than cork grips. Cork grips, on the other hand, despite being more prone to cracking, flaking and generally wearing out, have a number of advantages that makes them far and away the most popular rod handle material today: they are lighter (your rod may even float if it falls in the water, but don’t quote me on that!), they transmit vibrations more effectively, maintain residual heat in cold weather, and maintain their grip when wet.

As for design, there are endless variations in rod handle or ‘rod butt’ shape – all claiming to have one advantage or another – but broadly speaking most fall into one of two styles: traditional rod handles and fly rod handles.

I’m using the term ‘traditional rod’ as a very broad and unofficial description. Seeing as it includes everything from match fishing rods to heavy, blue water rods used to land marlin and sharks, I’m sure many people would disagree with my classifying them together. I do so only for simplicity, and by using this term I’m essentially referring to anything that isn’t a fly rod!

Traditional rod handles and fly rod handles are as varied in shape as they are in design. I’ve included some images below to illustrate what I mean. I’m sure these variations are based more on catching the angler than on landing more fish, but each design will have its own rationale like a subtle variation in balance, comfort or convenience. What all rod handles have in common, however, is the fact that they incorporate a real seat, the position of which is always very deliberate. The job of a rod handle, as much as to give the angler something to grip onto, is to make the combination of rod and reel both comfortable and practical. Anglers need to be able to operate their rods and reels effectively for many hours at a time, so it’s imperative that everything is within easy reach when casting, when holding the rod, and when playing a fish. Find out how to hold a fishing rod.

Reel seats

So you’re now a bit clearer on fishing rods, and you’ll probably take some advice to fill in any gaps, but how do you attach your rod to your reel? Well, every rod that is designed for use with a reel features what’s known as a ‘reel seat’. This incorporates a groove, into which the leg of the reel can be inserted, and a threaded ring around the rod, which enables the angler to tighten the reel fitting around the reel once it’s in place. To separate the rod and reel after use, loosen the reel seat by unscrewing the threaded ring and the leg will become exposed. To swap in a different reel, slide in the leg of the new reel and re-tighten.

Guides and rings

The final piece to the fishing rod puzzle is the rings and guides. These are crucial to your ability to attach your line to the length of your rod.

Along the length of any fishing rod, you will find guides or rings positioned in ever decreasing intervals towards the tip. When you purchase your rod, the guides will already be in place, so don’t worry about how to work out where to put them. The guides are attached to the rod blank by their ‘feet’, which sit flat against the rod surface and are bound in place by layer upon layer of heavily varnished silk thread (in modern rod design, manufacturers tend to use some kind of epoxy rather than varnish, but the effect is much the same). To attach your line, simply thread it through each ring, starting with the larger one nearest the reel and working your way up to the tip, making sure you don’t miss any. Once the line is through and out of the top ring, pull out an extra arm’s length and you’re ready to start thinking about hooks and bait.