How to choose a fishing rod? What a question! The choice is strictly yours. But… are you sure, are you really sure that in choosing your tackle you are not unduly affected by manufacturers’ marketing techniques? Clever men responsible for marketing and advertising are always juggling with many small and big lies. “Fantastic” materials and “revolutionary” or “innovative” technologies are promoted, and, not uncommonly, absolute nonsense is stated in catalogues and ads. Very often, those statements are ridiculously stupid. But why bother about clever lies when simple lies perform brilliantly? Look at those unscrupulous marketing managers. They are so happy, so self-confident. And what are theу to be afraid of? No one accuses them of false statements. Why? Because very few anglers are knowledgeable in rod making technologies. You could find one or two useful articles on the subject if you knew where to look, but do you know? Google or any other search engine won’t help much in this case.
You could handle dozens of best quality rods that meet all the real (not fictitious) criteria of precision fishing tackle, but only one or two perhaps will have the right feel, will have that “something” that matters for you. This is very hard to explain, maybe it is even impossible to explain. However, you get this feeling at once, if you have some experience in angling.
Unfortunately, you cannot test all the rods in the world to make the right choice. One should therefore adopt some method of pre-selection in order to avoid wasting time while sorting out some worthless models.
There is no such thing as the absolutely best fishing rod. Too much depends on your personal preferences, taste and custom. On the other hand, there are rods which deserve to be rated as absolute rubbish and should be dismissed without serious consideration. Here we come to the technical side of the issue.
Do not listen to tales about rods made from “famous hi-modulus carbon fibre”, like IM8 or M55. The big idea of this marketing babble is to convince you that company X or corporation Y is using something very special and offers products of superior quality well ahead of other manufacturers. It is all nonsense. A modern fishing rod is made of carbon fibre-reinforced polymer (CFRP), not of carbon fibre. To make an omelet one has to break eggs, not proteins, although there are proteins in the omelet. For making a fishing rod we need to have prepreg, not raw carbon fibres. Carbon fibres are extremely thin, and thus several thousand fibres are twisted together to form a yarn which may be woven into a fabric.
This raw carbon fibre is a black material resembling floss which is very vulnerable to abrasion and damage, and no rod can be made of this alone. By combining carbon fibre with a resin system, we get a composite that is usable as a rod making material. No sense talking about different brands of carbon fibre unless you know the exact composition of the prepreg. More on this will be given later.
Carbon fibre is produced by carbonizing precursor fibres based on PAN (polyacrylonitrile), rayon or pitch. The term is often used interchangeably with graphite. In fact, the Americans prefer to call carbon fibre graphite. However, carbon fibres and graphite fibres are heat treated at different temperatures and have different carbon contents.
Most carbon fibre used in manufacturing fishing rods is made from PAN. The PAN precursor continuously undergoes a series of precisely controlled processes. It is exposed to extremely high temperatures, surface treatment and sizing. Various types of carbon fibre can be obtained, with different properties. Usually, carbon fibres are classified by the tensile modulus, the unit of measurement being Msi (million pounds per square inch), GPa (gigapascals) or tonne-force per square metre (tonnef/m^2 — very often called “ton”). For conversion, 1 Msi = 6.89 GPa = 0.7 tonnef/m^2.
The most common (and cheap) grade of carbon fibre has a tensile modulus of 32–34.8 Msi and should be referred to as low modulus fibre. Then comes the intermediate modulus carbon fibre (up to 50 Msi), which requires a more complicated processing and costs more. Further processing can yield even higher modulus fibre. High modulus carbon fibre is expensive, and ultrahigh modulus fibre is extremely expensive.
Unfortunately, these terms are informal. No wonder that many unscrupulous companies refer to cheap 33 Msi fibre as “High Modulus”!
So how can we characterize carbon fibre modulus? One could describe it as stretchiness. Compared with other fibres, carbon fibres stretch very little, that is why they are so highly appreciated by anglers, but the amount of stretch varies from a low modulus fibre to a high modulus fibre. When you make a rod using a composite material with high modulus fibres, this rod may turn out very stiff, light and responsive, but at the same time very brittle.
As a rule of thumb, with carbon fibres the higher is the modulus, the lower becomes the strength.
Each producer (Mitsubishi, Toray, Hexcel…) has its own brands of fibre, some of which may be equivalent to certain brands from another maker. One time Hexcel’s HexTow IM6 and IM8 were the heavily promoted products. Incidentally, IM stands for “Intermediate Modulus” (40.5 Msi for IM6 and 44 Msi for IM8).
Very good quality carbon fibre is manufactured by Mitsubishi and Toray. But no one fibre is superior to the other (excluding, of course, fibre from dubious sources…), because each rod type and even each part of the rod (butt, middle part, tip) requires different properties. In some cases, cheaper low modulus fibre is preferable to more expensive high modulus fibre.
Too easy? Just wait a minute. Two types of fibre with exactly the same tensile modulus may differ in tensile strength. For example, IM8 and IM10 have a modulus of 44 Msi but IM10 is stronger and therefore better. Moreover, putting carbon fibre into a composite system complicates things and the strength and stiffness become more dependent on the fibre orientation and resin properties.
Most fishing rod makers are using carbon fibre prepregs buying them from manufacturing companies, known as prepreggers. Prepreg is a term denoting “pre-impregnated” carbon cloth, i.e. carbon cloth impregnated with resin and ready for rod manufacturing.
Prepregs differ in fibre type, orientation and properties, resin content, and weight per square metre. Most prepregs have fibre oriented in only one direction (unidirectional), though some combine fibres at different orientations.
Prepregs come in big rolls. The resin, being a modified epoxy system, usually does not cure at room temperatures, but needs heat for solidification. Refrigerated prepregs can be stored for long times. Serious rod makers with enough buying power may have prepregs manufactured to their own specifications. But usually there are no “exclusive brands” and most factories can obtain excellent prepreg with all the needed properties (fibre type, fibre weight and resin content), if they are ready to pay the right price for it (some are not ready to do it…). Another problem is if they are properly equipped for handling modern prepregs.
A good fishing rod is seldom made with a single type of prepreg from butt to tip. Different parts of the rod are supposed to do different things. The butt section must be much stiffer than the tip, and the middle part should provide for a nice even bend under load. In this way, a perfect modern fishing rod is a combination of two, three or even four prepregs.
We have agreed already that there is no best rod, no best fibre… Now we have to agree that there is no best prepreg — different prepregs are suitable for different applications. The point is to use the right stuff in the right place. It is the knowledge that matters here.
Let us follow the life of an outstanding modern spinning rod. Let it be a Norstream Provokator, a brand new light spinning model.
At Korean factory, the production process starts with some rolls of excellent Japanese carbon fibre prepreg. However, it is not the beginning of the Provokator story, not by a long way. At the beginning is the Concept. Unlike those Western companies sourcing their rods from the Far East, the Norstream R&D men are creating their own concepts. Experienced anglers and connoisseurs of the angling scene, they know what rod properties are requested and how to realize these properties. Light, strong und very sensitive spinning rods are badly needed now by trout anglers, by the ultralight jig-brigade and by some chub fanatics. Therefore, three distinct concepts, each one perfect for its purpose, are developed and due to certain common features brought together in one range. Norstream Provokator Series is born.
Fortunately, Norstream is a new brand with an ambitious, dedicated and efficient team behind it. There are no sluggish unresponsive managing structures to consider. Thus, decisions come fast. While dozy bosses of some fishing tackle giants are still discussing at endless meetings the remote possibilities of developing new rod models, Norstream Provokator already takes the next step.
Very few fishing rods are designed from scratch. Contrary to the general belief, the rod designers usually work on the lines of modification of existing designs. It is possible to do wonders simply by changing blank taper, wall thickness and prepreg type. Especially modern low resin content prepregs contain unique possibilities. Norstream designers prefer high quality Japanese prepregs produced by Mitsubishi or Toray. Low resin content results in lighter, faster and (sometimes) stronger rod blanks. For example, using low modulus carbon fibre in a low resin prepreg one can make light but very strong, practically unbreakable rods. The use of low resin prepregs requires a special technology. It may be called Daiwa SVF or Norstream UTC; essentially, it is the same thing.
All serious rod manufacturers tend to be a bit secretive about where and how they use different prepregs and what exactly these are. On the one hand, nobody is willing to help the competitors. On the other hand, the bare mention of low or medium modulus carbon fibre may confuse the angler, accustomed to unrealistic claims of certain companies that outsource cheap rod blanks and rods and promote them as Super High Modulus products.
To make a Norstream Provokator rod, patterns of irregular shapes are cut from different Japanese prepregs, combined and rolled around a mandrel using a special rolling table. After rolling, the prepreg is wrapped under tension with a high performance heat shrinkable tape. This binds the prepreg tight to the mandrel, controls the pressure during the cure in the oven and excludes air. In our case the wrapping is extremely tight (it is a part of UTC technology and is called Micro Pitch Taping).
Next, the mandrels are moved into the curing oven. Cure time and temperature depend on various factors but there is tendency to a slower, longer cure cycle. A full cycle is measured in hours rather than minutes.
After the curing and cooling, the mandrel is extracted, the blank unwrapped and forwarded to the finishing department. First aim is to remove the resin ridges that were formed under the tape. Then, rod sections are fitted together after precision grinding the male end of one section to fit into the female end of the section above. Some blanks are coated with colour finishes, some are not. They are ready for building now.
There is an unsound tendency to furnish cheap, mediocre blanks with expensive Fuji fittings and to promote the resulting products as high-class rods. From a practical point of view, this is absolute nonsense. Very light, fine guides can perhaps improve a good rod built on a quality blank, but nothing will turn а crap blank into something acceptable. Even the best fittings will be worthless in this case.
The class of the fittings must correspond to the quality of the blank. By selecting fittings for a given blank type, you reach eventually a certain quality level above which there is no appreciable improvement of the complete rod. Stop right here. You’ve got it — a well balanced, not overpriced product for a thinking, discerning angler.
To illustrate all above-stated, let us compare some models from the comprehensive Norstream range. Top of the range Stage and Ultrasence rods are built on ultralight, superb blanks with unique action, capable of taming hard fighting fish. Here the obvious choice are Fuji’s SiC Titanium guides, extremely light but amazingly strong. On the other hand, the rugged Favourite II all-round rods work perfectly with stainless steel frame SiC guides, which are only a little heavier than Fuji’s Titaniums but by far not so expensive.
An excellent rod design can be developed in a few hours; the sample can be made in a few days. Then tests go on for months. Much too long? Not at all! Just consider that real tests include countless casts with different baits. Dozens of fish are caught. Flaws are detected, design changes realized, new samples made, and so on. A great rod is unthinkable without extensive pre-production testing.
Of course, things are different for some companies. Do you know how it goes? A manager visits China for one or two days or perhaps meets a Chinese agent at a Western tackle fair, chooses a ready product of dubious quality and places an order. Only the model name and the logo will be changed. All “testing” of the “new” rod is carried out by some journalists, who write favourable “test reports” for their periodicals. Those reports may be masterpieces, but the rod is usually crap.
The obvious answer is — some carbon prepreg, backed, then polished and varnished. However, prepreg alone, even the best and most expensive, never makes a fine rod. It is the knowledge of the designers, the experience of the testers, and the craftmanship of the engineers that gives the rod a soul. A rod without a soul is like a mannequin — beautiful but lifeless. A rod with a soul is like a friend — not always easy, but always ready to help.
The choice is yours.
By Dmitry Y. Balichev