As a custom rod maker working in all three materials, I consider myself pretty lucky to be able to cast & fish with all three types of rods. Better yet, I get to work & talk with anglers who might have preferences for one of those material specifically. So, rather than me going on about how these rods are different from each other, I’d like to share with you some of my observations about why some anglers prefer one material over the others.
Fiberglass: Some anglers have come to feel most graphite rods are too stiff. The trend with large rod companies has been for faster rods & graphite is perfect for that. However, anglers that prefer glass aren’t necessarily after faster rods, per say. Many anglers prefer the traditional “feel” of glass rods. They have actions more like bamboo - the first glass rods developed were based on bamboo rod tapers. These anglers like the protection the softer tips of fiberglass rods give to tippets when setting a hook, as opposed to the stiffer graphite rods. These anglers get all this feel & rod actions at a price lower than bamboo rods & most higher end graphite. Also, fiberglass has been used as a rod material for many decades now, so some of these anglers just have a personal nostalgia towards glass rods. It’s what the grew up fishing with & by continuing to use these rods today, they feel connected with their past.
Graphite: Most fly anglers today fish with graphite. That’s mostly because most rods are made of graphite today, but why? The material of graphite is more versatile & easier to change in the construction of the blank. Graphite also tends to be “stronger” than glass or bamboo & more resistant to breakage. Very high-modulus graphite rods do tend to be more brittle than other rods. For years I continued to see rods of higher & higher modulus, until they discovered this fact (then came boron, which is a whole other story). Unlike bamboo, graphite can be fished in very cold conditions without too much worry. Graphite rods tend to be more sensitive than glass rods (that’s the theory, anyway). They also weigh less, too. So you get sensitivity & strength with less weight. However, if a rod is properly balanced, weight isn’t much of a factor as a balanced rod will require less effort to cast. Also, it should be noted that some folks really like a fast rod & for that graphite is the way to go for sure. With the vast majority of fly rods being made of graphite these days, you have a wider selection available to you in all price ranges. This can be very convenient - especially for the angler on a budget.
Bamboo: Fly fishing has many traditions. Fishing with cane is one way to be in two eras at one time. Some anglers find the “feel” & actions of bamboo to be superior to anything else. Some misconstrued & misinformed opinions aside, bamboo rods can be made in any rod action - they’re not all slow buggy whips. Some anglers like the idea of a rod made from what was once a living thing - like the flies they tie from fur & feather, the bamboo has a sort of “life” to it. It is a natural product, not created from man-made chemicals & synthetics. Bamboo is a renewable resource, about as ‘green’ as you can get, & that has real appeal to some folks. Some anglers feel that a bamboo rod is a work of art & appreciate that aspect. Much more time & labor goes into the making of a bamboo rod than any of the other two rod materials by far. Anglers that fish with bamboo also do so for the nostalgia, too - so they get a traditional piece of art, laboriously made that, to them, has a feel & a human quality along with a vastly superior feel that is worth waiting & paying for.
Now, those are some of the reasons I’ve observed about why anglers might choose to have their fly rod made from one material over another. It’s always an interesting question when folks ask me which type of rod I fish with & why. I won’t be politically correct here. Instead, I’ll be as honest as I can. The answer I always give people is, honestly: it depends on what type of fishing I’m doing. Let me explain:
For typical trout fishing in small to medium sized streams, my personal choice is to fish with a bamboo fly rod - normally a 7’-6” to 8’ rod in different line weights. This type of fishing is what I do the most of, so if you were to add up all the hours I fished in a given year, you’d probably see that I fish bamboo most of the time - at least half the time, I’d guess. I fish with bamboo in those streams because I really enjoy how it feels. I also fish a bamboo rod if I’m going to a very small stream, especially if there’s a lot of cover, brush, or other obstacles in tight quarters. I like the way a bamboo rod will load the line when I cast in those conditions. Plus, bamboo - more than any of the other materials - lets me experiment more. I can make a rod with a specific idea in mind & then test it out on the water. I admit that I like the tradition, too. Knowing that I’m fishing the same stream, in the same spot where my Great-Grandpa fly fished with a bamboo fly rod is pretty neat.
In the summer & part of the fall, I will fly fish for bass & other pan fish. For this I love to use a fiberglass fly rod. To me glass rods cannot be beat for tossing big hair flies or poppers or big bushy streamers. I like the way they feel when you hook up with a heavy bass, too. Especially in summer, when the fishing is slower, I just enjoy the feel of a slower fiberglass fly rod. Sometimes in the very early trout season on a cold year when ice can form on the guides in the first days of the season, I will fish those above mentioned trout streams with a fiberglass rod. I do this because I have a personal rule about not fishing with a bamboo fly rod when temperatures are below freezing. I have a personal affection for fiberglass fly rods because I grew up fishing nothing but glass rods. They have a special meaning to me.
You can bet your bottom dollar that my graphite rods come out in the winter time. When ice can form on the guides, or anywhere else, my go to rod will be a graphite rod. I do this because they can hold up to the colder conditions with less worry for me that they’ll become too brittle. Also, because in winter the fishing is slower & I’m probably going to be slowly drifting (creeping) a nymph along the bottom (or similar fishing situations) I want the extra sensitivity that graphite can give. I want to feel that nymph on the bottom. Plus, chances are my hands are already pretty cold & maybe kind of numb, & the fish taking the fly will be very subtle, so i need all the help I can get.
I also like to use graphite when I know that I’m going to be fishing mostly fast water in any season. Tossing a dry fly through the fast riffles is fun & graphite is perfect for that. It’s a quicker, more sensitive type of graphite rod that I want in those conditions. When the water is high & fast after a flood, I prefer a graphite fly rod for those conditions as well.
Graphite, for me, also wins the day if I’m going to be fishing from a boat out on a large lake. When I need to get longer casts from a longer rod that can handle a heavier line weight for the larger fish I might get on a big lake, I prefer a graphite rod. In fact, when you get to rods 9 ft & over, I like to go with graphite rods. I think they’re just easier to handle & control the line with when you start to get to extreme rod lengths.
Of course these are just how I typically use these types of fly rods. There are no rules for me (other than the cold weather rule) as to when to use one type of rod over another. Will I fish a big lake with bamboo? Of course. Will I toss bass bugs with bamboo or graphite? Yup. I find it’s good to try different types of rods in different situations. After all, that’s how I found out what works best for me.
So all that said, I’m convinced that what makes a good fly rod isn’t so much the material that it is made from, but how it performs - FOR YOU. To that end, a good fly rod is just that - a good fly rod. It’s a personal choice; one you’ve hopefully made based on experience & careful thought. Fly fishing is supposed to be fun & enjoyable. Your fly rod is a big part of that pleasure. Think about the different rods, try out as many as you can, & then fish the type of rod you like the most.