March 16, 2020
By Josh Ward
People are understandably big fans of labels. We like things categorized in tidy silos for quick identification and a common frame of reference to share with those in our interest groups. The terminology, colloquialisms and pursuit-specific vernacular we bestow upon the gear we use, the animals we pursue and the techniques we employ have become a language all its own.
And then there are fishing rods — especially beats-fishing rods.
Benjamin Franklin said, "Beauty, like supreme dominion, is supported by opinion." Well, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so, too, must be the designation given to a medium-heavy rod. Or a medium-light. Or a medium-fast or … you get the idea.
See for yourself: Visit your favorite tackle retailer and take a walk down the racks of rods. An Abu Garcia medium spinning rod might feel considerably different than a Daiwa rod with the same specs and rod rating.
Why? Because there is no standardized testing to rate rods. Though many companies might reach their conclusions on rod ratings in much the same way, most compare their rods to other rods they build. It’s almost like a rod designer walks down the production line, picks up a new rod, flexes it, whips it and reaches a conclusion. This one feels like a medium. This one has more backbone; must be a medium-heavy. Obviously, there’s more to it than that at most companies, but still, it’s not very precise. And, like Franklin’s permutation of beauty, rod ratings are largely supported by opinion.
The confusion is compounded when anglers look at offerings from various rod manufacturers. Not only is there no standardized testing to rate rods, but also the vocabulary used to communicate to anglers the (subjectively judged) power and best application of the rod often varies from brand to brand.
Medium. Medium-heavy. Medium-fast. Whoa, whoa. More adjectives?
For most anglers in the market for a new rod, the confusion doesn’t end there. Some rod makers refer to very whippy, light-action rods that bend lower down the rod blank as "fast." Other rod makers use the term "fast" for rods that bend closer to the tip, rods that take up line and set the hook faster. Again, there’s no standardized testing, no uniform nomenclature.
What’s an angler to do? Like any other situation where confusion intersects with the spending of money, education and hands-on evaluation are your best defenses.
The Right Rod for the Job
For the best results, match rod power and action to the bait and presentation. Follow this guide.
Tactic/Bait: Flipping Jigs
- Rod Power: Heavy. Rod Action: Extra-fast.
- Why: Stiff action along entire length permits bone-jarring hooksets and quickly lifting fish from heavy cover.
- Rod Power: Medium or medium-light. Rod Action: Slow
- Why: Ideal for self-setting hooks on long, light lines and for keeping big fish buttoned to small hooks used for this tactic.
Tactic/Bait: Texas Rig Soft Plastics
- Rod Power: Medium-heavy. Rod Action: Fast.
- Why: Heavy butt section drives soft plastics home heavy-gauge hooks; sufficient tip handles various sizes of slip sinkers.
- Rod Power: Medium or medium-light. Rod Action: Moderate to moderate-fast.
- Why: Medium/moderate rod class provides flex for throwing baits long distances and keeping light-gauge hooks connected to big fish; use the stouter of the two powers for heavier baits.
Tactic/Bait: Carolina Rigs
- Rod Power: Medium or medium-heavy. Rod Action: Moderate or moderate-fast.
- Why: Power and flex for throwing a clumsy soft-plastic rig, potentially on a long leader; use the stouter of the two for heavier slip sinkers and larger baits.
- Rod Power: Medium-heavy or heavy. Rod Action: Fast.
- Why: Plenty of butt section to man-ge large-profile baits both on the cast and hookset.
- Rod Power: Medium or medium-light. Rod Action: Moderate or moderate-fast.
- Why: Rod power loads with light topwater baits for long casts, and the limber tip enhances presentation.
What Ratings Are Supposed to Mean
The two characteristics rod buyers should focus on are action and power. Typically—though not every time since there are no standardized terms—action refers to how much the rod bends when there is pressure on the tip (fighting a fish, setting a hook, casting a bait). A rod with a fast action should bend at the top third of the rod or maybe even a little less. This action allows for faster hooksets—crucial when throwing large baits on long lines. Try setting the hook with a swimbait on a long line when using a rod with a slow action. It’s not impossible, but it’s beyond frustrating.
Rods with slow actions are ideal for smaller baits, finesse-style presentations and shorter casts. When you’re using finesse techniques to coax bites, you generally will not have as much line to take up for a hookset and you don’t want to rip the bait away from finicky fish. Slow rods, in conjunction with light lines, tend to allow a more natural bait presentation. Obviously, a rod with a “moderate” action is somewhere between "fast" and "slow."
Power, as it relates to the rod ratings, is pretty much a designation of the rod’s lifting power. Most rod makers measure power using terms like heavy, medium-heavy, medium, medium-light, light and ultralight. There is a direct correlation between a rod’s power and its overall weight. Heavier rods are better for heavier baits and large-diameter lines. Rod makers list suggested bait size and line size ranges on rods, and these are important to keep in mind. Heavy rods can snap a line that’s too light during a hookset, so it’s important match the rod rating to the line weight.
Try Before You Buy
Armed with a baseline of information about what rod ratings mean (or should mean), put that knowledge to use and make sure you get the most out of your next rod purchase. This is a hands-on process; resist the urge to buy a new or unfamiliar rod without evaluating its characteristics yourself.
The first step in the decision-making process is to identify how you’ll be fishing. Flipping jigs in heavy cover? Pick a heavy rod with a fast action. Drop-shotting in 40 feet of clear water? Medium-light or slow. Other presentations and fishing styles require different rod powers and actions for the best results, but these are pretty much the two extremes in the bass-fishing world.
Once you’ve picked a few candidates, attach a reel to each rod and once again check its overall balance and sensitivity. The addition of a reel’s mass can change the characteristics of a rod. Pick the rod that feels best to you in your chosen price range, and finally test it on your home water. Don’t be surprised if a given rod with a medium-heavy rating fishes more like a medium in your hands (or vice versa); the feel is a subjective assessment and one to keep in mind for future trips.
Selecting the best rod for your style of fishing doesn’t have to be difficult. Trust your own evaluation of a rod’s characteristics and go with the one that has the balance, sensitivity, power and action that suits you best. Leave labels to the rod makers.