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The Greatest Fly Rods Ever?  - Skwala Fishing

The Greatest Fly Rods Ever? 

A short history of modern fly rod design through our favorite bygone sticks

Every few years, a new fly rod hits the market claiming life-changing superiority: “the strongest, lightest fly rod ever made,” or “catches fish for you.” Okay, maybe not that last one.   

By and large, these claims hold up. Even the staunchest cynics, who grumble about four-digit price tags and greedy companies, have to admit that today’s fly rods are exceptional. If you trace the arc of fly casting technology back a generation, the tools we use to launch weighted lines across gravity’s embrace have improved dramatically. Today’s fly rods are lighter, easier to cast, more durable, and more accurate than their predecessors. You might argue that we don’t need better rods, but then again, we don’t need fly rods at all. Fly fishing isn’t about needs. 

The Skwala team prides itself on improving angler experience by designing and selling superior gear, so we embrace contemporary fly rod design and materials. A classic bamboo rod may be beautiful, soulful, and stir a profound sense of joy, but if I’m staring down a big fish and a stout headwind, hand me the graphite.  

We do, however, understand nostalgia. Our sport lavishes itself in lore and history. Some of us are curmudgeons before we turn 30, preemptively complaining about how good things used to be. One example: bygone fly rods, the sticks we loved and lost. 

We conducted an utterly unscientific poll of angling friends with strong opinions about their favorite discontinued fly rod lines. To keep the list somewhat coherent, we limited the options to graphite rods. In addition to a pretty exceptional ranking of the best fly casting tools of the previous generation, we also came up with a shorthand history of modern rod design.   

  1. Winston IM6—This rod (along with some contemporaries) established graphite as a viable material for a quality fly rod. Believe it or not, graphite initially encountered skepticism from anglers. Many of the early graphite rods were brittle and fragile. Winston began building the IM6 (with Loomis blanks) in the late 1980s, combining Tom Morgan’s innovative taper designs with Gary Loomis’ knowledge of graphite construction. These rods cemented Winston’s legacy as one of the premier American fly rod manufacturers and showed the fly fishing world what graphite had to offer. Iconic Missouri River guide and co-founder of Headhunters fly shop, Mark Raisler, considers the IM6 one of the greatest rods ever built. “It was miraculous when it first came out, like nothing I’d ever cast before, and it’s still a great rod today.” Now more than 30 years old, even well-used IM6s sell for more than they did when they were brand new—if you can find one.  
  2. Sage LL—Don’t worry Sage Nation. We’re not ignoring the brilliant graphite work done on Bainbridge Island during this same period. The Sage LL, produced during roughly the same years as the Winston IM6, holds up as a phenomenal dry fly rod to this day. Michigan guide and Skwala Ambassador Brian Pitser still regrets selling his when he fell on hard times as a young man. “Truly a classic feel and the root beer brown color of the blank made the LL series one of my all-time favorite fly rods.” Skwala’s chief of marketing and dog belly scratcher, Rich Hohne, still owns three—the 690, 486, and 389. “I fish them quite often and still love the action.” He also claims this model was “the first time Sage built a rod line with the right feel.” Not everyone in the office agrees with that statement.  

  3. Powell LT—Though lesser known than Winston or Sage, Powell was building fly rods of comparable (or superior) quality during the same period (late 1980s-1990s). The LT series marked the pinnacle of trout rod craftsmanship and construction for the company. Similar to the Sage LL, these rods remain delightful dry fly rods, though they’re difficult to come by. Skwala’s resident wordsmith and BS artist, Miles Nolte, said: “This was the first “real” fly rod I ever owned, purchased from savings I’d stashed over a year working my first “real” job. I quit that job as soon as I had enough in the bank to go on a fly fishing bender, camping beside rivers all summer. That road trip changed the trajectory of my life, and this rod showed me what fly rods could do.”  

  4. Loomis GLX—Gary Loomis figured out how to make graphite technology work for fly fishing. The blanks for all three of the above rods were rolled in Loomis’ factory in Washington (to the manufacturer’s specs). Though a phenomenal machinist and fabricator, his original tapers left much to be desired. That all changed when he hired Steve Rajeff as his lead designer in 1987. Though not the first rod Rajeff designed for Loomis, (that was the IMX-Pro) the GLX holds a special place in fly fishing lore. This rod showed the power, line-speed, and distance graphite rods could achieve. Saltwater fly anglers particularly love this rod, and though Rajeff and Loomis have gone on to release numerous exceptional rods since, many hold this one in their hearts...and quivers.  

  5. Scott STS—Some of you are frustrated at the absence of Scott rods on this list. Don’t worry, we didn’t ignore the iconic Colorado rod maker. While some would argue for the original G-series, we’re going in a different direction. Three years after Loomis came out with the GLX, Scott released the STS. Scott has long commanded respect in fly fishing, particularly known for beautifully crafted, slower action, trout rods. The STS cemented Scott’s “fast with feel” identity and, like the GLX, was particularly popular with the saltwater crowd. Jim Bartschi, head of Scott, still considers the STS one of his favorites. “I’ve got a couple in my personal gear that I’d never part with.” Many others agree, and the STS remains a cult classic, widely regarded as the best faster action Scott rod, at least until the Radian came out. 

  6. Sage XPIf the first five rods on this list paved the way for graphite fly rods, the XP set the course for modern, fast action, highly versatile trout rods. Skwala founder and CEO, Kevin Sloan has fished just about every rod released in the past 30 years. He considers the 2-piece 3-weight XP one of his favorite rods of all time. Skwala Ambassador, Austin Trayser, agrees. “I was probably 10 or 11 when Steve French, the owner at Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky, took me out into the yard and let me cast the whole line up. I ended up choosing the 8’6 and it was my weapon of choice for many years. I still have it, and fish it on special occasions. Even when Sage tries to upgrade me, I still fork over the $150 to fix it.”  
  7. Orvis Zero Gravity—Launched in 2005, the Zero Gravity line of fly rods re-established the Orvis Company as a serious player in fly rod design and manufacturing. By this time, fast rods were all the rage, and many anglers felt the industry had swung too far toward speed—sacrificing casting feel and shock absorption in a quest for ever faster loops. Not only was the Zero Gravity line mind-bogglingly light (hence the name), but they balanced line speed and with deeper flex and feel. Skwala’s head of customer service, Gardner Imhoff, still loves them. “The ZG is light in hand and my confidence stick when an accurate cast with single dry flies is needed.” Orvis replaced the ZG line with the Helios (also exceptional) just a couple years later, but these rods pushed every other manufacturer in the industry to keep up and brought Orvis back to the fore of fly fishing.  

  8. St. Croix Bank RobberStreamer fishing isn’t new, but modern streamer fishing, with huge articulated flies, heavy sinking lines or tips, and aggressive stripping only reached mainstream acceptance in the past couple decades. Kelly Galloup and Bob Linsenmen’s book, Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout, did a lot to popularize contemporary streamer tactics. Galloup also collaborated with Wisconsin-based rod manufacturer St. Croix to create one of, if not the first, rod specifically designed for today’s streamer junkies.  Skwala ambassador Jake Keeler picked this specialty rod as his favorite bygone stick. “Being from the Midwest, I’ve fished a lot of St. Croix Rods. The Bank Robber is, however, my favorite. It’s a fantastic streamer rod, and around here we throw a lot of streamers. Not just for trout but for all kinds of warm water species as well. The Bank Robber shoots lasers, even with heavy flies and tips.” 

    We can trace the history and evolution of casting technology through the favorite tools of the recent past. In just a few decades, fly rods have gone from relatively soft with inefficient power transfer to lightning-fast technological marvels. Today’s mid-range rods vastly outperform the top end models from 40 years ago.  

    How many of these rods have you cast? How many are sitting unused in your garage or closet? Maybe it’s time to pull out some of those old favorites and see how they feel with a stout salmonid struggling on the other end. If you don’t like it, you can probably sell it to one of the suckers who works at Skwala for more than you originally paid. 

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