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For all practical purposes, a five-weight, nine-foot rod is the industry standard freshwater fly-fishing ensemble. Its versatility provides an infinite fund of success across species and water types. That, plus the fact that rods are implausibly well made these days (with materials originally intended for aerospace design) and packaged with lifetime warranties, means it’s entirely plausible to fish with a single five-weight for the rest of your life.
A rare blend of qualities make a great five-weight. Most crucially, it must cast well in all sorts of conditions with all manner of tackle: you want it to carry dry flies at short distances with feathery precision; shotgun streamers across roiling stretches of water, with sink-tip line if needed; and chuck bass poppers into murky weed beds and extract them like a sword from a stone. The best rods have soft tips and fast action, brawny mid-sections, and sturdy butt-ends to help land fish quickly.
The crux, of course, is price. Of the five-weights reviewed here, the cheapest is $460. But think of it as an investment in your sanity, and also as a measure of what you intend to get out of the sport. You’ll nurture many agonies as a fly fisherman. Don’t let a fly rod be the source of your unraveling. Think plainly about this. Hear the rushing water. See the riverbank receding in mist. You want a rod to last the whole stretch of the way. You want it to be pretty, to help you land you fish, year after epic year. These five rods offer the surest paths.
G. Loomis NRX LP
Best All-Around Rod: Fly-fishing is not a realm that engenders consensus. But everyone I talked to about this rod — from finicky guides to jaded instructors to fly-shop owners who trend towards lifelong contrarians nursing a final, bitter bone of contention — agreed that the NRX LP is a goddamned miracle. Count me among the fanatics. From its strapping power all the way down to the alignment dots on the ferrules, everything about this thing is pure, bottomless joy. The first time I cast the rod it nearly came out of my hands, so stunned I was by its unearthly balance and stately, flush delivery. Its sweet spot seems to be the 50-foot range, while its center is held aloft by a perfect swing-weight that irons-out even an inexpert cast. Lifetime warranty.
Sage One 590-4
Best Wind Rod: Every time I fish with a Sage I’m floored by its voluptuous craftsmanship, by its immaculate surfaces — this one’s a glossy black with a polished walnut reel seat — and by the feeling that I’ve encountered, after years of wandering, my true love. The One 590-4 employs Sage’s new carbon fiber and resin compound — called “Konnetic” technology — which accounts for its slim profile and uncanny light touch. Uncanny because the rod seems to spring-load torque like it’s shooting little pressurized puffs of air with each false-cast, translating into a line-speed that feels like it originated in a pistol — at a mere 2¾ ounces of rod, that’s no mean feat. My single quibble is the near-anorexic case, which admits the rod only after much cursing and wriggling. Lifetime warranty.
Orvis Helios 2
Best Endurance Rod: There’s a sensation that comes over you on the water sometimes, usually in the dusky hours of fatigue, when a rod becomes a totally independent organism operating outside of you. The whoosh and slant of graphite can become possessed, as if an invisible hand were shoving it along. In that vein, the Helios 2 at times follows its own inexorable course, whistling with uncontainable force over the water. This rod, currently the lightest on the market at a scant 2.4-ounces, is also, after the NRX LP, arguably the best. The company’s PR jargon isn’t far off: “The Helios 2 is a featherlight war club that defies the laws of physics and has the backbone of an I-beam.” It’s also the prettiest rod out right now, painted a deep Gulf Stream aqua with a reel seat of “California buckeye burl” that seems stripped straight from the center counsel of Porsche Spyder. 25-year warranty.
St. Croix Legend Elite
Best Mid-Priced Rod: At about half the cost, the Legend Elite runs neck-and-neck with the best on the marketplace, a touch heavier than some but with the same quiet, subtle, enchanting performance you’d expect from one of the best rod manufacturers. With its supple tip, serious mid-section muscle, smooth-as-wax delivery, and trigger-quick action, the Legend Elite is a multifaceted rod that’s terrific close-in and at longer distances. I love the St. Croix “Gallatin green” patina, a shadowy jade that always makes me think of largemouth bass rocketing into the light at dusk. The company’s proprietary “FRS (Fortified Resin System)” adds an extra plane of durability that’s reassuring for the catastrophe-prone. Lifetime warranty.
Best Distance Rod: The Radian has earned gobs accolades from Field & Stream and Yellowstone Angler, ranking level with the NRX LP in almost every category except short-range. I thought it cast excellently by every measure, though it performed especially well at long range. It felt exceedingly well-balanced, almost weightless, as it swept in tight loops against the wind. I didn’t have to wrestle a lick with the size-6 bass popper I’d stupidly tied on, hoping the Radian would somehow enliven my awkward cast. It did. The rod — the color a kind of faded charcoal — is a beauty to behold, with ferrules trimmed in a Napa sunset orange and a reel seat of speckled ginger with a black aluminum skeleton. I loved everything about the rod except for one thing: it doesn’t come with a case, which is odd for an $800 rod that you’ll surely want to toss in your trunk among the tire irons and wading boots and 10-pound anchors. It does, however, come with a lifetime warranty.
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This story first appeared in Issue One of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 280 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from seven distinct locations around the world. Subscribe now and receive free shipping on the biannual magazine. Offer expires soon.