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chrome-magnon man
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Designing a Spey Rod
part one
by
Dana Sturn
speypages.com
copyright 2005 all rights reserved​

Since starting the speypages back in 2000 I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work on the design of various pieces of spey tackle. As I’ve written in my speypages bio, there are few pieces of spey tackle around since 2000 that I haven’t been involved with in some way, either as a tester/evaluator, a consultant, or as part of a team of designers. Through these experiences I’ve learned a great deal about the thinking that goes into a piece of tackle and a keen awareness of the kind of effort and financial commitment it takes to develop and market something for the spey community. I thought it might interest speypages subscribers to learn something about the process that goes into the development of the gear that we love to cast and fish.

Let’s take a look at the development of a two-handed rod as an example of the design process. There are several steps that occur during a rod’s production. Broadly speaking, these are

· Concept
· Design/Engineering
· Testing 1
· Refining
· Testing 2
· Production

Within any one of these steps it is common to move back to a previous step as designers come up with new ideas.

Concept

Every spey rod begins with someone’s idea about the perfect spey rod. It is based on an analysis of the anticipated fishing situation.

Let’s imagine we set out to design a rod for the Dean River in British Columbia. What do we need to know about this river to help us design a rod that will perform well there? The Dean is what I would classify as an all-round steelhead river. By this I mean that the Dean is a river that will require an angler to be able to fish a variety of line systems and presentation styles if they expect to be able to experience consistent results. While the Dean is fabled as a dry fly/dry line heaven, in reality the river is often colored and many times during a trip an angler will find the need to fish deep to have the best chance for success. Purists would argue with this, but the practical side of me says that if I am going to spend thousands to fish a river for a week I will do my best to make sure I have the best chance to catch steelhead. This means I want a rod that can do it all.

So we start with an idea of a line weight that will allow us to “do it all.” I would say that an 8 weight is a nice all round line weight, heavy enough and powerful enough to cut the wind, heavy enough so that my sinktips will have the density to get down to where the fish are when the river is colored, heavy enough to turn over big flies, but not so heavy that I’ll require a monster of a rod to manage it. So an eight weight line system it is for steelhead on the Dean.

Next, I’ll think about a rod length. The Dean that I fish is not a river of huge casts on giant pools. In most cases 100ft is a very long cast, and 60ft – 80ft will cover all the water you need to catch steelhead. So I won’t be interested in a 15ft or 16ft rod; even a 14ft might be a little much. For me, the perfect Dean rod will be under 14ft, and I’d like this rod to be about 13ft long. This is lots of rod for most of the water I’ll fish, and the shorter length will make it easier to manage in pontoon boats and jet rafts and walking through the bush between pools. Plus the shorter length will tend to put the sensation of the weight of the rod towards the butt section with a reel attached, making it easy to carry around all day.

My next interest is rod action. I don’t want a really fast rod because on the Dean I’m on holidays and I want to relax a bit, and not have to be so precise in my casting; for the same reason I don’t want a slow rod. I find both fast and slow rods require precision on the part of the caster, and when I’m on holidays I don’t want to have to be too precise. So I want an action in the medium to medium-fast range, a progressive action that allows for a relaxed stroke with a bit of a margin for error. Something along these lines will give me the action I’m after, the kind of action that will allow me to easily cast floating and sinking lines without having to change up either my rod or line system.

I’ll also think about things like components and color, and we’ll look at components a little later in the design process. As for color, I want something subtle for the Dean. Since the Dean is lined by evergreens along much of its banks, I’d like a nice deep green blank for my Dean River rod.

Design/Engineering

I’ve found that generally these terms can be used interchangeably. There is a grey area between concept and design, and design and engineering so I tend to think of these three as Design 1 (Concept), and Design 2 (Engineering). During this step the technical aspects of rod design are worked out. A rod designer (I’ll use “rod designer” to indicate the person who will do all of the technical work on the rod) needs a background in engineering with an intimate understanding of the ins and outs of graphite production. When it comes to designing a fly rod blank you can have thin walls or thick walls (and endless variations of the two); solid and hollow sections; tip over butt ferrules or spigot ferrules; variations of graphite modulus within the same rod to produce different flex patterns—it is really quite amazing to learn how even the smallest change can produce a dramatic result in any one of these variables. A master rod designer can quickly dial in on a particular rod action—the result of years of experience—but even then there will always be refinement to be done. I’ve found that it helps to have a particular “feel” in mind and a rod available that a designer can cast and perhaps analyze in order to understand exactly what I’m after, and then we work from there.

Testing 1

Once the rod is designed, a mandrel is made up and the first test blank is rolled. Rough components are placed on the rod and the rod is sent out to the testers for feedback. This is the part of the process where the limitations inherent in turning an idea into reality become apparent. In my hands I now have a 13ft rod which is my rod designer/engineer’s best initial interpretation of my ideal Dean River Spey Rod. I take it out to the river, screw on a reel and feed my test line through the guides and begin the process of test casting. This will usually take several days. I usually start with a small amount of line out and see how the rod behaves in close. Over the years I’ve found that short casts often reveal as much about a rod’s performance as long ones. A short cast can quickly tell you how the tip behaves, and how progressive the rod is likely to be. A rod with a stiff tip will want to throw a wide loop with a short line out; a more progressive tip will allow a caster to shape a loop at will. I spend some time casting shorter and paying attention to how the rod feels, how the tip recovers, how the loops are shaped. It is worth mentioning that I start off with the line that I intend to use on the rod, and save the testing of other lines for later.

My next series of steps is to work through the various line lengths I am likely to cast over the course of a few days of fishing, again paying close attention to how the rod behaves. After I get out what I would consider to be the maximum amount of line I’d likely cast, I now put the prototype through the ringer, really overpowering the casts to see if the blank will hold up to the abuses of the frustrated fly flinger who is having a bad day, can’t get those casts out, and begins to hammer those casts thinking that casting harder will make the rod cast better. Some days this part of the testing doesn’t go so well and the rod quickly folds up; however, today is a better day and things go well. The rod manages to absorb my abuses and carries on casting. However, I’m not particularly fond of it. It just doesn’t seem to have the feel I’m after—it is too stiff. It feels like it might have the right flex through the blank, but I want a rod with soul, and this one is lacking. So I return home and make some detailed notes which I then share with the designer. We are now moving onto Step 4,

Refining

During this stage it is not uncommon to have to re-think aspects of the original concept. For example, can I get the kind of action I desire in a 13ft rod, or will I have to look at a 13ft 2in rod or maybe a 12ft 10in rod instead? Did the rod actually work with the line I wanted to use, or was it underloaded/overloaded? Thinking beyond my specific interests, how will the rod perform for a variety of casters with a variety of line styles and weights? These are all the questions that now begin to come into play, for ultimately the rod is not for my exclusive use, but hopefully for a lot of folks interested in speycasting. So we have another rod made, and then I put it through the same tests as the initial prototype, but now I will enlist the help of a few other trusted souls and we will get together over several days and test cast the new rod with a variety of lines. My test panel will include casters of both intermediate and expert ability, and I am most interested in what the intermediate casters have to say. Expert casters can make virtually any rod sing, but intermediate casters will really give me the insight into how the rod performs for most anglers. I want to know now how the rod feels—let’s try some different reels on it with different line styles. Here is a traditional caster and there an underhand caster. Great! How do they cast the rod and how do they feel it performs? Where would they see themselves using the rod? Does it handle floating and sinking lines equally well, or does it struggle with the sinker? How are the handle lengths? Should I make the bottom one longer, or the top? Were there any reels that didn’t fit well into the reel seat? These are the sorts of questions I ask, and I pay close attention to the feedback I’m receiving.

At this stage I also start to think more carefully about components. I know that the tech guy has had this stuff in mind the whole time, because components will impact the way that a rod performs, and as mentioned the two of us did discuss aspects of this previously so he knew what I had in mind, but now things start to come together for me. I want a composite butt cap and a dark wood spacer in the reel seat; since the Dean is a summer river and I am often fishing in the bright sun I want the guides to be low glare snakes with two oversize ceramic stripping guides. Although I don’t intend to use the rod in the winter, I know that some folks might like a 13ft 8 weight as a winter steelhead rod, so I want an oversized tip-top as well to minimize icing for those that strip and shoot. I wonder about things like how close to the handle should I place the first stripping guide, and should it have a hook keeper or not?

Jottings in the Notebook

So now we’ve taken our spey rod from initial concept through the design stages to a point where we now have a clearer understanding of what we’re after and what ultimately we can achieve. I don’t think I can get exactly what I want in a 13ft rod—it looks like it might need to be a bit longer, so I am now zeroing in on a rod around a maximum length of 13-1/2ft in an 8/9. The designer is now tweaking the blank design to get me the action that I want in the length range I’ll be happy with, and in a few weeks I’ll have the new rod in my hands complete with the specified components. Good thing too, for my Dean River trip is less than 3 months away and I really hope to be able to take the finished rod in with me. This next rod might be the final rod, or we might need to have one more made to get everything right, but we are getting very close.

So far we’ve been at this for the better part of 5 months.

Next time we’ll look at the final steps in the design of our two-hander for the Dean.
 

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