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Original Issue

Getting a line on graphite

After wielding the pencil-thin rods for a year, an expert now favors them over fiber glass—but warns they are no cure-all for beginners

Last May I finally gave in, and on my way to the Florida Keys for a couple of months of tarpon fishing I stopped at a Miami custom rod-building shop and bought a graphite fly-rod blank. Like almost every other fisherman, I had heard a lot about graphite—good and bad—in the six or so years since the rods had become generally available, and I felt it was high time to try one out myself. I was looking for a rod that would handle a light saltwater fly line, about a No. 9, something suitable for bonefish and permit. John Emery, an expert in tackle design, chose a nine-foot two-piece blank for me, along with a set of low-friction aluminum oxide guides. He also loaned me a heavier graphite rod, which he had made up for tarpon.

John's taste in tarpon rods runs a good deal heavier than mine, and what he handed me was indeed a formidable weapon, for launching a heavy No. 13 line into the face of the wind. I swished it through the air there in the shop, and it was extremely stiff, as graphite tends to be, but since graphite rods are also considerably smaller in diameter than their fiber-glass equivalents, it was surprisingly light. John told me to go ahead and try the rod for about a week, then pass it on to Bob Montgomery, an accomplished Key West guide and fly-fisherman.

As I was on my way out the door, admiring the beautiful workmanship that had gone into the tarpon rod, I said, "I sure hope it doesn't break." I was thinking of what I had heard about graphite blanks snapping for no apparent reason, like the time a boy had broken one while casting with a demonstration model at a tackle convention. "Don't worry about it," John assured me. "If it breaks, it breaks. Put all the pressure on it you want. That's what it's for."

A couple of mornings later I was staked out in my skiff on the edge of a flat below Key West. The tide was beginning to drop and a friend and I were waiting for the tarpon to swim out of a basin where they had spent the night feeding. We had good visibility and were able to see the first school while it was still 100 yards away. The fish were stretched out in a long single file, at least 15 of them. When they had approached to within about 40 feet, my partner delivered the fly nicely to the lead fish. The tarpon inhaled it without breaking stride, but on the first jump he threw the fly.

Then it was my turn. I decided to give Emery's big graphite tarpon rod a try while I was still fresh. As I stood on the casting platform waiting for an opportunity to present itself, I practiced casting with the stiff nine-footer. Although I had just come from three months of guiding in the Bahamas, poling the flats almost every day, my wrists felt barely strong enough to control the rod properly. Even so, I found I could cast more than 90 feet, throwing the entire fly line. I had a glass rod in the boat that would do the same thing with a slightly smaller No. 11 line, but it should be remembered that I was unaccustomed to the feel of graphite with its very fast recovery and stiff backbone; my timing was geared to the slower action of glass. I wondered what the results would be after a steady month of fishing with the big rod, when my wrists would be strong enough to cope with the pressure and my timing trimmed to get everything the graphite had to offer. Even on those first casts I was impressed with the rod's quick recovery, which smooths out the waves always present to some extent in a hard-thrown fly line.

However, another property of graphite that I had heard about concerned me. Because it doesn't have the elasticity of glass, what would be the proportion of breakoffs on the strike? I am accustomed to hooking hard-mouthed tarpon by striking them very hard. It is a habit I've gotten into to compensate for the "give" inherent in glass rods, but it is this same give that leaves plenty of room for error on the fisherman's part. As long as an angler lets the rod do the striking and does not neutralize the built-in spring effect of a glass rod by yanking on the line itself while holding the rod practically horizontal, there is relatively little chance of breaking a 12-pound tippet. But with the stiffer action of graphite...?

My chance to find out came when we spotted a single fish hugging the bank as he swam in our direction. He looked to be about 50 pounds, a size at which tarpon make their most spectacular jumps. Like the first fish we had seen, this one took the fly readily. From the time I started to cast I had concentrated on the fish; the mechanics of the cast and the strike went unnoticed, which is the way it should be. The hook-up was a good one, with no problem at all, and as the tarpon made six silvered jumps I realized how well the feel of the fish was transmitted through the graphite. It was a feeling of control.

The initial 75-yard run ended in another jump; then it was time for me to begin the real fight. I found I could lean back hard on the rod and exert strong pressure on the fish. Had I been using a glass rod, I would have been fighting a long belly of line as well as a hyper-active tarpon. Instead, my line was almost straight from rod tip to fish. Within about eight minutes, a remarkably short time, I had the tarpon on its side next to the boat and my friend was able to reach out with a pair of cutters and clip off the fly. It was gratifying to see the tarpon swim away strong and fresh, not stagger off totally spent and defenseless as often happens after a longer fight.

Both of us fought several more fish that day, using graphite and glass rods. Because the graphite was so stiff, we were more comfortable casting with the glass rod; however, when it came to fighting a tarpon both of us greatly preferred the graphite.

The following day I turned the graphite rod over to Bob Montgomery for one of his guests to use. Three days later I was staked on a flat when Montgomery came poling over. When he got near he held up a broken fly rod. It took me a second to realize that it was the same rod that I had used. "What happened?" I yelled. "He broke it on a fish," said Bob, gesturing toward his guest. I didn't pursue it any further, figuring the fisherman had probably done something stupid and was embarrassed enough as it was. Later, when I got a chance to talk with Montgomery alone, he told me his guest had been doing a good job fighting a tarpon, but the rod had broken for seemingly no reason where his left hand had been gripping it above the cork handle. Looking for a possible cause, I asked, "What pound tippet was he using?" "Twelve!" was Bob's reply. With that size tippet it is just not possible to put very much strain on a rod, particularly a strain sudden enough to cause a glass rod to collapse.

Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed. I'd just spent about $80 for my own graphite blank, guides, reel seat and other components and would invest five hours of labor putting them together. Now it seemed very possible to me that the rod would inexplicably self-destruct when put to the test.

A couple of weeks after the broken-rod episode, I was on the flats with my new graphite rod, the lighter bonefish-permit model. It felt like a toy in my hands, but the way it banged out a line quickly won my respect. The base of the blank was little more than half the diameter of an equivalent glass rod and yet I could easily throw the entire fly line with a single false cast. And, unlike the way it was with the larger tarpon outfit, timing was no longer a problem, for I could feel this rod working with the line.

In only one respect did I remain disappointed. I still could not achieve the fantastic distances that others had ascribed to graphite. Under the best of circumstances I could shoot the entire line plus 10 feet into the backing 100 feet, certainly no more. Nor since that time, having used half a dozen different graphite rods, have I or any of my fellow guides really been able to cast an appreciably greater distance. Where graphite does surpass glass, without question, is in its ability to subdue a fish more quickly, and to shave an important second or two off the delivery time of the fly to the fish, which on saltwater flats can be very important. On salmon or steelhead water the relatively light graphite rod (about 25% lighter than a fiber-glass rod rated for the same weight line) allows the angler to make repeated distance casts without suffering the arm-wearying weight of glass or bamboo.

But on that first day on the flats with my just-completed graphite rod, repeated casts produced another crisis. Bonefish are a rarity in the waters beyond Key West, yet I came across a huge school of three-and four-pounders. As I drifted before a light breeze, I quickly caught three of these fish, but while casting to a fourth I noticed the rod seemed a little wobbly. When I struck the fish the rod definitely bent in an uneven arc. On inspection I discovered that the ferrule joining the two sections of the rod had cracked. The graphite nemesis had struck again. This time it wasn't too serious. I simply reinforced the female ferrule with wrapping thread and varnished it. Since that time almost a year has elapsed and the rod has proved itself on a number offish, including a 14-pound permit, with no further trouble. More important, it has become my favorite outfit.

But I have not become a zealot of graphite. First, they are fragile when compared with the present generation of glass rods. A nick that would do little harm in the comparatively thick wall of a glass blank is often enough to collapse a graphite rod. Then, too, a good fiberglass fly rod sells for around $50, but its graphite equivalent runs three to four times as high. In time the price will probably come down as more and more manufacturers produce the graphite blanks, but right now the angler who has to check the tag may have trouble justifying the price relative to the performance. And as more companies enter the field the buyer will be at the mercy of the manufacturer in another respect. Obviously, a rod with a surface nick in its black finish should be avoided, but there is no way to spot internal flaws (graphite rods are composed of strands of the material running longitudinally, and damage to these long strands is thought to be the primary cause of breakage) and in the end the reputation of the manufacturer is about all one can go on.

From my own experience I feel the fly-casting neophyte is likely to be most vulnerable to what may be excessive praise for graphite, although spinning rods, bait-casting and even surf-casting rods are also now available in graphite. The stiffness of a graphite blank will immediately add distance to an unskilled fly-fisherman's cast, but it is likely to come at the expense of timing, and in the end this type of shortcut cannot be justified. Despite a lot of publicity saying just the opposite, my experience has been that a good fly-caster will seldom achieve greater distance with graphite than with glass, but he will find that the degree of effort required to get the same results is substantially reduced, and that can be a substantial benefit.

At this stage I consider a graphite rod something of an indulgence and one in which the level of the angler's skill should be realistically appraised before he takes the plunge.