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It’s been a while since I bothered to go to the annual Fly Fishing Retailer show (FFR) show in Denver, even though it’s convenient for me. I guess I figured that if there was anything truly new in the way of fly fishing tools, I didn’t urgently need to know about it, compared to spending the same time actually fishing.

Boy, was I was wrong! Amidst all the glitz, glamour, and hype presented by some 240 exhibitors, it wasn’t hard to see that some important changes have taken place in the last few years. A couple of these are true breakthroughs; most are positive or at least benign; and one, in particular, is downright unfortunate and ugly.
Boots and Waders: The most obvious trend is the growth of studded boots for trout fishing in fast, slippery, Rocky Mountain rivers. I’ve never used them, but many friends swear by them, and now all wading boot-makers have their own models. Design and materials vary widely, from removable sheet-metal screws to recessed titanium alloy implants. My own choice for the ideal wading boot would be the new Riverwalker from Patagonia, also available in studded felt-soled models. This is a state-of-the-art boot, no doubt, but titanium-studded felt soles is not the reason I’d buy them. These boots offer a revolutionary third option, a sticky rubber sole similar to climbing shoes (a Patagonia specialty). Their proprietary formula is molded into a knobby star-tread pattern, like an off-road tire. Patagonia claims it offers the highest traction and durability for surprisingly positive grip on slick, sandy, rocky bottom(s), and in addition, is mud-shedding and will not ice up when the mercury plunges.

Patagonia does not seem to grasp fully what they have here. If sticky rubber technology pans out for wading boots, this would be a tremendous breakthrough in preventing the spread of destructive invasive species such as the parasite that causes whirling disease, New Zealand mussels, and most recently, a diatom called Didy- mosphenia (a.k.a. Didymo for short), which is spreading algae-like blooms of rock snot throughout the region (more on this in a later issue). The prime vector for these invasions to our mountain trout streams let’s face it has been felt-soled wading boots. And cleaning these perfect habitats for hitch-hiking invaders with high heat or chemicals just isn’t happening enough to make a difference. If sticky rubber wading boots work out well enough to replace felt soles, this could be the biggest breakthrough yet in controlling small invasive organisms threatening trout.

As for waders, I didn’t look too deeply, but my general impression is that they just keep getting better, and that overseas manufacturing has led to healthy price competition and improvements in consumer value. There are now several models made especially for women, and Hodgman claims to have finally solved the leakage problem with zippered flys (we’ll see). Simms also stands behind their zippered model and warranties against leaks.

Reels: I haven’t paid much attention to reels for a while, since my set of trusty old Abels is as good as any reels ever need to be, but here too it’s clear that value for the money is steadily improving. Smaller companies like Galvan and Islander are delivering low-priced, high-performance reels better than those costing twice as much 10 years ago. On the high end, the most noticeable trend is a surge of competition from European manufacturers, particularly in big-game reels. Previously, the FFR has been pretty much an All-American show. This year, there were exhibitors from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway and South Africa, showing big-game reels every bit the equal, if not better, than those made here.
Lines: Again, I didn’t look too deeply into the latest in lines and leaders; I’m normally content with whatever my local shop recommends. Rio made a big splash at FFR with its new ultra-slick lines, but not having tried them, it’s not clear if the splash was for true performance improvement or just the fact that this small Idaho company is now owned and backed by Sage. Friends in the know say Jim Teeny lines are still the best, newly-fashionable sinking tips included. Woven leaders are catching on, though expensive, for their proven success in international competition.

Nets: Another breakthrough with rubber, besides wading boots, is its use in a new generation of landing nets, rapidly replacing traditional string or nylon net bags. Fisknat, out of Tacoma Washington, appears to be on the leading edge. By universal consensus, rubber bags are much less likely to injure fish or snag flies. At FFR, traditional netmaker Brodin introduced its proprietary ghost variation, using translucent (clear) rubber, instead of black, to reduce net-spooking – which has cost many a trophy fish.

Rods: The most refreshing trend in the fly rod category is that even while high-end rods get lighter and costlier, perfectly good rods equaling the best rods of 10 years ago are now available in all imaginable sizes and styles for $150 to $300. American companies like St. Croix and Redington (now owned by Sage) have long produced great rods for the money. Other US firms, such as Wright & McGill (with its Essentials series) and Albright (whose designer/owner Jim Murphy founded Redington), now have full high-low lines averaging in this price range.

There was considerable buzz at the show about obscene markups on cheap Chinese-made rods selling at 6 or 8, or even 10, times cost. The chief culprit seems to be the now-ubiquitous lifetime replacement warranty, and the huge costs of advertising/PR designed to make us want the latest stylish but pointless fad. Why am I reminded of the blind Detroit carmakers in the 1980s (which led to Toyota’s eventual dominance)?

The most discouraging fly rod trend I saw at the show is the head-long rush to ever greater lightness for its own sake, shaving off yet another half-ounce for no good reason at all, except as a marketing ploy to the gullible as if what good rods are about is some kind of technoid space race to zero-gravity casting. A good rod, Lefty Kreh once told me, is one that balances well with your reel and line, and allows you to place your fly exactly where you are looking with one back or roll cast. According to casting guru Mel Krieger, casting a good rod should be essentially effortless – the rod should do the work for you and false-casting is seldom necessary. By these or any other performance standards, I think the industry-leading rush to light rods is heading in the wrong direction, and counter-productive for the sport.

I’m no expert on high-modulus graphite or stress-coefficients, but I do understand elementary physics. The rod, using the power of your shoulder, arm and wrist against the weight of your line, is your lever. The lighter the lever, given the same weight of line, the lighter its inertia and the more human power it takes to load. As rods approach the vanishing point, you have to work harder and make more casts to accomplish the same results of a fractionally heavier rod with proper neurokinesthetics. Translated, this means getting reliable feedback from your lever to your brain through your rod hand, enabling you to intuitively throw where you’re looking without thinking.

There comes a point, and I think the Orvis Zero Gravity Helios may have reached it, where lightness as a marketing edge crosses over from trivial to dysfunctional. Why on earth would you want a hard-to-balance weightless rod demanding more false-casting which wears you out sooner? Which, by the way, with such super-thin tubular construction, readily breaks? Which costs so much more in good part because it will probably fail, and have to be replaced free of charge?

Finally, a note or two on what I perceived to be a resurgence of interest in traditional production (meaning inexpensive) bamboo fly rods. In my dad’s day, this meant post-war broomsticks like Montague, about $6.95 at Sears. In the 1950s and 1960s, high-quality, medium-priced production rods (made by small American outfits like Granger, Payne and Phillipson) flared brightly for a while but disappeared by 1972 (destroyed by then leading-edge fiberglass competition), and are now collectors items.

Big rod companies like Orvis and Winston have offered expensive ($2-3K) bamboo models all along, but now good Chinese imitations are selling for $500. New entrants like Highland Mills (which inherited Phillipson’s designs) and T.L. Johnson (formerly Fish Creek) offer American-finished rods with a custom flair for $600 to $800. Even true custom rods made by one master craftsman like Mike Clark from start to finish to your personal specs are now available from other good US craftsmen (typically retired hobbyists) for $1,000, according to my favorite bamboo fly rod consultant, Trout Bum legend John Gierach, a personal friend of Clark’s.

There’s always been a lot of interest in bamboo rods, he says, because they’re a big part of our sport’s traditional roots. Gierach says he always takes a quality bamboo as his lead rod, and a cheap but reliable Elkhorn graphite (generic and direct from China to Greeley, CO) as his back-up rod. If there is a ‘resurgence of interest’ in bamboo rods, I think it’s because the average guy can now get a good one for $1,000 or less, and doesn’t have to be afraid to actually fish it, Gierach says.

My message to the leading manufacturers of fly rods: Forget this lightness mania and get back to delivering products with integrity that young people can afford or else put your own future at risk. After all, this is basically a simple sport that started out with horse hair, bird feathers, and willow shoots.

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