Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Driftless Area fly fishing: What’s the perfect rod combo?

(Stock photo)

By Tori J. McCormick
Contributing Writer


It’s been said that failure should be your teacher, not your undertaker. 


True enough. Still, during my early years as a fly fisher, I seemingly couldn’t stop digging the hole of what appeared to be my eventual demise. 


It started by using a 7-weight rod, with 8-weight fly line, on a medium-sized trout stream in western Wisconsin, where the browns and rainbows rarely exceeded 10 inches. The rod, purchased at a garage sale, was more pool cue than trusty stream-trout rod, so feathering a cast and dimpling my small dry fly on the water’s surface (to a rising fish) was next to impossible, given the size of my rod, the heft of my fly line, and my inexperience as a fly fisher


“You got too much rod there,” said a passerby, a silver-haired fly fisher who turned out to be my savior and educator, explaining, as he did, that such finesse fishing required a smaller rod and fly line. 


I thought about that stream-side memory the other day, now more than 30 years past, as I pondered an assignment my editor gave me about fly fishing for stream trout in the Driftless Area, the unglaciated piscatorial playground of southeast Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. His pitch and my task: If you could pick only one rig – that is, one fly rod, reel, and fly line with which to fish in the region – which one would I choose?


Confession: Picking just one rod combination gives me the vapors, in large part because I’ve accumulated so many fly rods over the years – rods that serve different trout-fishing functions and techniques, from casting dries to nymphs to streamers. 


For example, I wouldn’t use the same rod for dry-fly fishing as I would for streamer fishing. Streamer fishing (with larger, more wind-resistant flies) is easier with a larger rod and correspondingly larger (size) fly line. Still, not everyone has multiple fly rods to choose from. That’s especially true for new anglers who are test-driving the sport and/or anglers who don’t have the means to purchase multiple rods. 


So, the idea of choosing one fly-fishing combination is an important one for many anglers. 


Before I wade deeper into which combination I’d purchase, you need to have a basic understanding of how fly rods and lines work. Before you purchase your first outfit, remember that fly rods and fly lines are assigned numbers (from 1 to 12) based on weight and strength. Generally speaking, the bigger the fish, the higher the number of fly rod and fly line you’ll likely want and need. Most importantly, your fly-fishing outfit must be balanced. Balanced means that weight designations on your rod, reel, and line must match. 


Weights 1 to 4 are light and are used by those who fish for stream trout and panfish while using smaller flies. Weights 5 or 6 are suitable for panfish, stream trout, and even bass. A 7-weight rod works well for pulling large streamer patterns for large trout and for general bass work (smallmouths and largemouths). An 8-weight rod is good for bass, steelhead, and some salmon species, while 9- and 10-weight rods are well suited for bigger northern pike, muskies, carp, and some saltwater species such as bonefish.  


Kip Vieth is longtime fly fisher and owner of Wildwood Float Trips in Monticello. He’s fished the Driftless Area in Minnesota and Wisconsin for many years. If Vieth had to pick one rod/reel/line combination, he says he’d pick a 4-weight, 9-foot, fast-action fly rod, with corresponding weight-forward floating fly line. 


“I can fish any way I want with this setup,” he said, including casting medium-sized streamers and other larger flies. Traditionally, he said, 4-weight rods weren’t “enough rod” to cast streamers. However, newer fast-action rods are much better suited for such presentations. 


Fly rods come with different actions, from slow to moderate to moderate-fast to fast. A fast-action rod is more powerful and has less flex, and it requires better casting technique and timing. The stiffness of a fast-action rod is beneficial while casting in windy conditions and/or with larger, wind-resistant flies. 


Another wise consideration for cash-strapped anglers: Spend the bulk of your budget on a fly rod and a reputable line. “For my money, the most important piece of equipment is the fly line, followed by the rod,” Vieth said. “As far as reels go, you basically just need a line holder for fishing trout in the Driftless. That’s where you can save money.” 


My friend Dan Traun, of Red Wing, is an excellent stick. He learned to fish Driftless trout first with spinning gear and then with fly rods. Today, he fishes both ways, casting flies and other hardware across Minnesota and western Wisconsin. 


Like me, Traun has his favorite fly rods for fishing certain flies certain ways. For example, as stream-side summer vegetation grows into what Traun calls “jungle fishing,” he has a specific 7-foot-long dry-fly rod he likes to employ. “A shorter rod is just easier to cast … with close-quarters fishing,” he said.  


Asked to choose one rod combination, Traun grudgingly chose a 4-weight, 81⁄2-foot-long rod. It’s a fast-action rod that, he says, is delicate enough to cast small dry flies well and robust enough to punch decent-sized streamers and other wet flies into and though the wind. 


Traun uses 5-weight, weight-forward floating fly line – a larger size that helps with casting larger flies. “Pushing the fly line one size larger than the rod size really does make a difference,” he said.


As for me, when I purchased my first fly rod outfit (rod, reel, and fly line) for stream trout, I was in college and money was tight. I could buy only one rod outfit but still wanted to fish multiple ways. 


With the help of my stream-side savior, I chose a 5-weight, 9-foot rod with a corresponding weight-forward floating line. The rod, which I still have and fish with, is “moderate fast action.” It casts well and allows me to switch fishing techniques with relative ease. I spent $25 on an entry-level reel and it still works just fine. 


In the end, the rod combination you chose for Driftless Area trout fishing comes down to personal preference, within a finite number of options. It helps, too, to have a teacher/savior to thoroughly explain the ins and outs of what you need. 


Without one, I’d likely be 6 feet under. 

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