Somerset Show 2016 Fly Rod Observations
The 2016 Fly Fishing Show at Somerset, NJ’s Garden State Convention Center associated with the DoubleTree Hotel ran from January 29th through the 31st. I was in attendance all three days and my repaired knee is beginning to recover now from the pounding it took strolling the hard floors of the crowed Show aisles. Half the time I abandoned my cane at a booth or the casting pond having to figure out where I left it. My doctor says eventually I will lose it somewhere and then…I won’t need it anymore.
The Show was packed with both vendor booths and attendees and I had the pleasure of meeting two of my fellow NAFFForum contributors with whom I shared some equipment inspection time.
We have actively been discussing two Yellowstone Anglers Shootouts here on our Forum recently, one about 5-weight rods and the other 8-weights. I have no intention of suggesting any of the test casting I performed on the Show’s indoor casting pond replicates any aspect of these Shootouts and I selected the rods I sampled, hardly a comprehensive list in fact with some glaring omissions, focusing on the newest introductions. I shall assign no rating system and will describe my bias, after all there is so little we can ascribe to objective measurements…it’s not like we can numerically describe performance parameters as in acceleration, breaking, skid pad and slalom. Among 5-weight rods my primary application is high line speed, gravity defying casts emphasizing adroit control of aerialized line for reach and mends in implementation of compound floating fly presentations. Deeper flexing, softer tipped rods are great for various subsurface techniques but recover too slowly for me to articulate precise horizontal curvatures in the line in an effort to ameliorate on surface current anomalies. Therefore, I did not sample NRX LP, Sage MOD or other likely very good deeper flexing designs. Among the 8-weight rods I cast, my use is almost exclusively shallow saltwater sight fishing for springtime striped bass, subtropical bonefish and permit so, again, high line speed, tight loops for piercing omnipresent breezes and dropping a crustacean imitation accurately in front of a moving and feeding flats species both near and far is my priority. I am aware some bemoan the proliferation of faster action rods which I tend to like, however, there are many if not more mid to deep flexing graphite and also modern glass rods that are better than ever.
Something that fascinates me is the current realization of the promise of slender, low mass, highly communicative rods that are also adequately durable. Following the revelation of Steve Rajeff designed, G.Loomis GLX in the 1990’s a handful of makers began to push the envelope further, producing rods thinner, quicker and lighter that cast very well and put the angler in connection with the load of the line like never before. Some experimented with higher modulus graphite or combinations of multiple graphite fiber types while also partially or entirely eliminated hoop strength promoting scrim underlying the longitudinal performance fibers. Rods like Sage XP and Scott STS where successful outgrowths of the post GLX phenomenon and, perhaps most extreme, original Redington Nti “Nano”, the first rod to employ a Nano titanium ceramic particulate in its resin, strove to push rod fabrication to the next level. They were great casting rods too, if only they didn’t snap so easily. Though carbon fiber has not changed all that much, recent innovations in the resin bonding the fibers together has seen important improvements strengthening the fiber/resin matrix. With an education in art not science, when I’m told that Nano silica particulate additives or fiber compression techniques make a rod lighter and stronger and it feels great and doesn’t fail during fishing…I believe it. This is clear, overall the rods I cast at the show felt lighter, more responsive and sensitively communicative to the load of the line as a group than any accumulation of new rods I’ve ever sampled.
The Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing organization I am involved with had two booths at the Show, one among the not-for-profits out front and a second one nestled into a corner of the TFO double booth in prime inside space. TFO is a generous supporter of PHWFF. In our cluster of seats we had TFO luminaries like Ed Jaworowski and Left Kreh present and the first rod I heard about upon my Friday arrival was “EDGE”. When Gary Loomis sold his company, G.Loomis to Shimano years ago, he exited rod making. Sure, he has had North Fork Composites, also in Woodland, Washington like G.Loomis, and though he has built blanks for others and consulted extensively, he has not produced a fly rod under his own name until now. EDGE spinning and conventional rods have previously appeared but the fly rods launched at this Somerset Show. These Gary Loomis rods conceived and designed by him in consultation with the TFO design team will be distributed exclusively through Temple Fork Outfitters. I grabbed the 9’/#5 and strode the few feet to the Show casting pond.
There is an 8 ½’/#4, the 5-weight I had in hand and a 6 in the trout series for $875 and a saltwater oriented series of 9’/#’s 6, 8 and 10 for $895, all made in the USA. While awaiting my turn to cast, I studied the rod’s impeccable finish work; a handsomely machined up-locking reel seat with a resin stabilized, Buckeye Burl, heavily figured wood spacer. The blank itself they refer to as “naked graphite” in natural carbon gray sanded and seemingly polished to a lustrous but non-reflective surface. The guides are Alps XN strippers and high-end snakes with form fitting concave feet and level finished black thread wraps…all components and finish work are the best possible and the rod has an understatedly elegant presence. And then it was my turn, I striped off some line and executed a short off the tip cast. This rod is at the quicker end of medium fast and has the kind of sharp reflexed tip that not only makes the line go exactly where you intend but generates line speed effortlessly. Tracking was straight as an arrow and, importantly, there was virtually no counter bounce as the tip recovered immediately. I made a longer stroke and missed the target hoop as the leader shoot beyond it, I had to rein it in some until I strove for distance but then, ran out of pond length. Lower taper reserves of power come on seamlessly and are intuitively accessed. Later, I obtained a demo 8 ½’/#4 Sage ONE, a top shelf technical spring creek dry fly rod and took it and the EDGE of the same size out on the pond and switched off between them. Sage has been around the block with faster rods for decades but Gary Loomis has jumped back into the rod game like he had never left. These two rods are not only extremely capable but surprisingly similar and I could fish either of them on my favorite Montana spring creeks very happily…ready for this; when I compared their flexural profiles which are similar, the EDGE is slightly steeper. Quicker that a Sage ONE? OK, fine. So these new EDGE rods are fast but responsive and so light in hand that they are nearly transparent permitting an unencumbered sense of the precise movement of the fly line. Just the way a super high performance brand, new for 2016, very cool rod should be and more. I hope to fish these rods come Mayfly time and I’ll report then about how they actually fish.
Just opposite the TFO booth was upstate NY’s Douglas Outdoors. Their deep flexing delicate little Upstream line is going to expand and lot of folks were shaking them and they had some good press about their mid-priced rod from the Yellowstone Shootout but I was surprised to see yet another brand new rod series I did not anticipate called, Sky. These rods are sourced from a quality rod shop in South Korea and feature a version of Nano particulate resin construction. They are unpainted sanded natural graphite grey blanks with black wraps and dark burled wood reel seat spacers…are we seeing a theme here? And they are light in weight and fast in action too. I cast the 5-weight and was impressed by its pond performance though its finish work was not on par with EDGE. In fairness these $700 rods are not final production models which will be coming this spring and I’ll strive to get one of these out on the water for a report too.
I wish in hindsight I had gotten a Sage Method 5-weight out for a test drive too even though it is now an “older” series just because it has come up in discussion so often but I didn’t. I shook a MOD and it is indeed almost psychedelic in shocking lime green paint but well finished in the Sage tradition, but its flex style is not in harmony with my quick and technical theme so I did not avail myself an opportunity to try it. Understand one had to wait in line at the casting pond requiring rod-inspiring commitment. I did cast another older rod series though. We have been writing a lot recently about the elimination of the classic flat grey with blue wraps, G.Loomis NRX trout rods and their all green replacements. I stopped by their large booth and had the pleasure of chatting for a while with designer and casting champion, Steve Rajeff. He allowed that he has been preferring his NRX LP when trout fishing but understood my high line speed presentation technique, agreeing that for my applications, the standard NRX was superior. I have suggest before that, while I think NRX#’s 4 and 6 are excellent, I was less enamored of the 5-weight. But I tried it again, in its thin coat of green paint, and have to reprise my earlier comments. Though not as quick tipped as the new EDGE or another rod I will get to shortly, nor as super lightweight in hand, NRX#5 is resplendent with lower taper power, a more compliant tip and is one smooth and potent trout rod. I just don’t comprehend why one would want this rod to be slower in recovery as is the LP version unless one was relying on the deeper flexing tip to protect hard subsurface takes.
Regarding deeper flexing designs and this rod is at variance with the rods I am most focused on, I was fascinated to try T&T’s new Spire in the 8’9”/#4 size, $785. A trout rod quiver requires some diversity to adapt to differing habitats and this size has fascinated me since my favorite Orvis rod ever, the mid 1980’s Western Series, 8’9”/#5. Perhaps deep flexing is a miss-representation because this Spire is really a more medium fast rod simply not at the scalpel like edge of the EDGE or soon to be described Hardy Wraith. But this super smooth, smaller river oriented rod is lighter than any previous T&T while preserving their leadership in cane-like cosmetic elegance. Cork work smooth as silk and perfectly shaped and impeccably level coated thread wraps are an industry leading standard to live up to and this deep dark blue beauty would make any one of us handsomer.
I may have been surprised by EDGE and Sky but a rod I knew was going to be at the Show that I had never before so much as seen was Hardy’s new Wrath. A mini-series comprised of 9’ – 10’/#’s 5, 6, 7 and 8, Wraith compliments the much broader, also new Hardy Zephrus rods that replace the former Zenith and ProAxis lines. I wish I’d had the opportunity to cast Wraith and EDGE #5’s side-by-side but that is going to have to wait. Wraith is painted a near black translucent tone and features a Fuji stripper and Recoil, one foot, nickel titanium flexible guides and is priced at $849. This is a slender, good looking rod fabricated with Hardy’s most advanced version of their SINTRIX Nano resin system and very high modulus graphite. Built in South Korea, its blank is fabricated to very high crafting standards but the finish work, though the best yet out of Korea, is not quite at the refined level of EDGE, Scott or T&T. But it casts like a laser beam and though fast of tip, it tracks and communicates fluidly from in close to as long as the pond allowed. I somehow knew instinctively that this Hardy designer, Howard Croston, masterpiece was going to be very special and it is remarkable. This rod, lighter and stronger than Zenith and a league beyond in taper and performance may well be the spiritual decedent of the sports car rod promised by the first Nano technology rod, Redington Nti…without the twig-like fragility.
Of course, besides standing in line to cast a few rods, I spun the handles of reels and chatted with fly line companies and, also, talked to fly fishers about the work PHWFF does with veterans with issues. A van load of our veteran participants came to the Show on Saturday, an annual tradition. With my four month old replaced knee and the rest of my legs beat from a long day on a hard floor, heading out to a nice Italian restaurant for the evening was welcome. They screwed up our cocktail order though so rewarded our patience with a second round on the house…I wasn’t driving. Returning to the DoubleTree by 11 0’clock with most of my party heading straight for the hotel bar where a lot of fishing gets done; several friends were setting in the lobby talking about…what else…tackle. Stopping to say hello, one man I did not know was wearing an Epic T-shirt. Now Epic, the hip fiberglass rod maker was not at the Show but this fellow was a custom builder using their blanks. “I’ve heard Epic is building cool graphite rods now”, I said. “Yea, they’re called Carbon, want to see one?” Well, we all did so off he went to his room returning with a fine looking aluminum tube and handed it to me. Unscrewing the cap I withdrew a fancy cloth sleeve and extracted the butt section. He had done elaborate custom cork work with checkered bands fore and aft in the snub Wells style so popular now. Slipping the sections together I made note of the particularly deep but slender ferrule engagement and gave yet another light and quick rod a wiggle and passed it around. “Want to cast it?”, we all said sure and out of his bag came a reel which he mounted and strung up as we all headed out the front door to the black ice coated asphalt arrivals area. A half dozen, half-drunk, full grown men started taking turns to see who could destroy this guy’s line the fastest. Through the laughter, we managed to concur that this 9’/#6 felt like a 4-weight and cast a mile with ease. Another impressive rod but for some reason my memory of it is not as sharp as its casting potential. You would have thought, all these guys being fly fishing pros, we would have had enough about tackle after a full Show day but no, there we were out distance casting one another. Into the bar to meet my wife and have a nightcap, somebody told me about the future wave of outer space technology for the next generation of fly rods but all I remember is the Famous Grouse on the rocks.
On the last day of the Show, I finally got to cast three of the newest 8-weight flats rods; Hardy’s Zephrus and Wraith and Scott’s new Meridian.
I can see why there is so much buzz surrounding Meridian, it is light in weight and handsomely finished with well thought out, top-grade componentry. All inert titanium guides with very cleanly and level finished thread wraps and a reel seat that is indexed and engraved with its line weight so you could say to your guide, “The 8-weight, please”, assuming you had multiple Meridians, and it would be instantly identifiable. I have heard this rod referred to as the “saltwater Radian” and, though it may have received inspiration from Scott’s very popular trout rods, it is very different. Whereas Radian has a fast taper morphing into a distinctly softer tip…famous “Fast with Feeling”…Meridian is far less abrupt. Yes this is a powerful, fast action saltwater rod and the tip is hardly stiff but its taper design is much more gradual and better supported in the upper mid-section so it is impossible to overpower forcing a downward dip in the bottom leg of the loop. Meridian absolutely has the feel to cast off the tip close in and tracks well doing it but, as a flats intended rod should, it begs to be let loose and drill a nice loop into the distance. Far more power resides in this taper then I could access on an indoor pond and, though I have not fished my Scott S4s#8 recently, a rod I really like a lot and have caught some great fish with, my muscle memory says Meridian is substantially more potent. Traditional for Scott and growingly popular in so many of the newer rods I cast at the Show, $865 Meridian is natural graphite, un-sanded grey with grey wraps trimmed in blue. Though I did no side by side, Meriden is a rod that would go toe to toe with G.Loomis NRX, the long reigning flats rod leader. And I do believe it is lighter in weight too which is a valuable thing in all but especially higher line weight rods.
I also fish Hardy’s earlier saltwater rod, ProAxis in an 8-eight. It is very fast and is almost a specialty rod for slicing wind and going long. It is impressive in what it does best but is not for everyone or all conditions. Its replacement, Hardy Zephrus SWS, $689, like the earlier model, is built in Korea using SINTRIX Nano silica resin construction. This rod is fast too but in a different way, it actually flexes pleasantly in the tip section making it far more intuitive and accessible; a rod any flats fisherman could wring performance out of. It is handsomely dark blue with a blue woven carbon spacer in its reel seat. As Hardy has been great about, it employs Recoil nickel titanium guides, light, flexible and rust proof. This is a very nice rod but is one of two new 8-weights introduced by Hardy, the other is Wraith.
As I explained above when glowing about Wraith 9’/#5, Wraith is a mini series of extra high performance specialty rods. Incorporating the next, more advanced generation of SINTRIX Nano resin called 550…no, I don’t know what the difference is but if I learn more I’ll be sure to try and explain it. I do know it costs more, $849, is lighter yet in weight and alleged to be stronger. What I can say is this rod is a remarkable casting instrument that responds to the caster’s input instantly and recovers even faster. This is a 9’/#8 that weighs a mere 3.7 oz., saltwater reel seat with fighting butt and all. Again, Fuji titanium and Recoil nickel titanium guides are wisely employed. As an angler that enjoys fielding a quiver of rods with differing performance profiles and personalities, I see Wraith in much the same light as I might Sage ONE#5 in my trout quiver, a super sharp extremely quick recovering rod optimal for the ultimate in precision presentations. Surgically precise Wraith coupled with more accessible Meridian would make a top-flight pair of bonefish rods complimenting one another while simultaneously creating a tough choice as to which to reach for. I would solve this by knotting a more lightly weighted #4 shrimp fly on Wraith and a little heavier #2 crab fly on Meridian. This is the kind of problem I fantasize about on a chill, February morning.
There are rods I just didn’t get out on the pond, EDGE has a saltwater even faster action series above their trout rods and T&T has changed the materials used in their Solar perhaps keeping the taper the same but making it a little lighter. Though not brand new, Sage’s Method and SALT #8’s, may well belong alongside these excellent new rods. However, as I said to begin with, I focused on what is new and noteworthy not a comprehensive comparison.
One thing is abundantly clear, rod designers and fabricators never sit still. New tapers in concert with material science and fabrication advancements yield innovative fly rods each season. With lighter weight, stronger construction and improved componentry, new rods eclipse previous models performance and sensitively, communicative feel. I’ve caught a lot of great bonefish with my several year old Scott S4s. When I returned Meridian to the Scott booth after casting it, I asked President and rod designer, Jim Bartschi, “Do I really have to replace my well-loved rod with this brand new one?” He paused for a moment as if thinking to say, well, you might not catch any more fish with this new rod than your old one but said, “Yes”.