I was 12 when I went on the first and last successful fishing trip of my childhood. That summer, my father’s secretary Melody and her husband Ed took us all trolling for salmon on Lake Michigan. Ed, who had a lovely 30-foot inboard Sea Ray Bowrider with Walker downriggers, knew a thing or two, and had rigged four rods with colorful plastic lures. A few miles offshore, the rods started popping off, and when Ed handed one to me, an alien joy began to boil behind my sternum. We hauled in the salmon conveyor-style, the four of us reeling and unhooking and high-fiving and wiping our hands on our shorts while Ed re-rigged, then grabbing another rod with a salmon on it and starting the dance all over again, until our hands were throbbing and our clothes filthy with fish slime. I honestly don’t think my mother believed that the salmon steaks we brought home were from the wild and not the supermarket.
I considered the fiberglass Shimano trolling rods and Okuma workhorse reels we used that day to be hallowed objects, and assumed Ed and Melody had staked their 401(k)s on their purchase. They were inelegant but devastating, as light as salad forks and about nine feet long. In reality, each setup had probably cost him, back then, something like $100.
There’s a wonderful simplicity to fishing that’s often unrelated to price-point. I’ve caught some lunkers on a Shakespeare Ugly Stick I bought when I was rediscovering fishing in my twenties, a rod that has the tact and dexterity of a lead pipe. But I would’ve caught far more fish, and far bigger fish, not to mention avoided entire lifetimes of heart-wrenching misses, had I ponied up for the rod and reel that I really wanted the next aisle over. This is hard to qualify, but on the water, moment to moment, you’re haunted by variability, by wind and fatigue and rain and hangover-ness and a bad engine and bilge and frayed anchor rope and yesterday’s skunking and by the whole bloody impossibility facing you. What you want from a rod and reel is no less than a covenant: gear that’s unassailable, singular, true.
You don’t need a big-ticket rig to catch fish. But you ought to have one. Not just because it’ll raise the triumph-to-failure ratio dramatically in your favor and measure up to one less distraction from catching fish. But because in the realm of money, it’s not that expensive; and, in the realm of mental health, it’s your portal to a saner, quieter day of riverside evergreens and twittering jays, a place where you also catch way more fish than ever before. Here are six of the best rod-and-reel combos available today, plus a guide to the destinations where you should cast them.
3 Things to Know
Action: Describes how much the rod bends while you’re fighting a fish. Basically, the faster the action, the stiffer the rod and the greater the sensitivity in the tip. Bass rods tend to be fast to very fast action for more reactivity and more power for big hook sets. Medium- to slow-action rods are generally less sensitive, provide more casting distance, and work well with lures (crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits) and species (walleye, muskie) that require slightly less reaction time but allow longer casts to boat-shy fish.
Power: Essentially means “strength,” and describes the overall stiffness of the rod’s blank. It roughly correlates to fish size. The heavier power the rod, the heavier line-weight and tackle it can handle, from ultra-light (brook trout) to medium (bass) to extra-heavy (surf-casting for permit).
Length: In a nutshell, the longer the rod, the longer the cast and the heavier the tackle. There are exceptions, but shorter rods tend to be used at shorter distances with lighter lures for smaller fish, while longer rods tend to cast further and handle bigger stuff.
Best for Bass
Lamiglas Infinity Bass Rod, Shimano Stradic CI4+i 2500 Reel
Lamiglas has been quietly making some of the finest bass rods in the world for 60 years. As a rule, they’re professional-grade, nimble, everyday miracles that deserve far wider use and familiarity in the fishing cosmos. The Infinity ($400) — a beautiful fast-action seven-footer with titanium guides, Fuji reel seat, graphite handle, and surprising subtlety — was designed specifically with smallmouth and largemouth anglers in mind, which is to say: for huge, monstrous strikes, shotgun hook sets, and quick, heavy retrievals. Paired with the uncommonly smooth Shimano Stradic C14+i 2500 ($230), you’ll feel yourself a master of shorelines and drop-offs.
The Infinity had a more-or-less photo finish with the new Duckett Triad ($130), as graceful a caster as the former yet with a sturdier butt end for brawny retrievals. Owned by pro angler Boyd Duckett, winner of the 2007 Bassmaster Classic, Duckett Fishing started manufacturing rods only in 2010. You’d expect some lag time in quality. Instead, they’ve catapulted straight into anglers’ hearts and minds. Paired with the Shimano Spirex 4000FG ($60), the Triad fishes exactly like a lifelong angler had a hand in its design.
Best for Muskie
Megabass Orochi XX Stinger Shot Rod, Daiwa Ballistic EX Reel
Okay, I realize this is a technically a bass rod, and not only that, but a bass rod intended for dropshot rigs (traditionally a largemouth tactic), just as I realize the specs on the Orochi Stinger Shot ($275) — 6 feet 10 inches, medium-light, 4- to 12-pound line weight — are flimsy compared to typical muskie set-ups (7 feet and medium-heavy, or roundabouts). I’m including it here not out of idle whim, but because I caught a giant tiger muskie on it while wacky-worming for largemouth in my local pond, with a bum shoulder to boot, and it performed magically.
Named after the Orochi, an eight-headed dragon of Japanese mythology, the Stinger Shot feels less like its namesake (or what one imagines its namesake felt like) than a joyful iteration of carbon-fiber metallurgy. Made with “super low-resin carbon up to the forty-ton grade,” its blanks are finished with “a four-axis carbon wrap… followed by an additional vertical-axis carbon layer.” Translation: it’s a burly rod that loses nothing in sensitivity and smoothness, as I can attest, having hooked into a 7-pound Tiger muskie with one. Somewhat randomly, I buddied up with Daiwa’s Ballistic EX reel ($199). It turned out to be a seamless pairing, light and limber and perfect for throwing bucktails and spinnerbaits, or the occasional Senko.
Best for Walleye
St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye Rod, Abu Garcia Revo SX Reel
After fishing all day with the Legend Tournament ($270) and catching only one fish, I sat on my bumper watching moonlight rake through the clouds, when a man came roaring through the trees with a headlamp on, the pine needles whistling against his polyurethane clothes, and holding what had to be a 11-pound walleye over one shoulder and — I kid you not — a Legend Tournament over the other.
Walleye require a powerful, medium-light, fast-action jigging rod, usually in the 7-to-8-foot range. I’d heard this again and again from walleye nuts: the Legend Tournament is St. Croix’s greatest freshwater achievement. Now I get it. I’m not sure if the technology specs resonate with anglers: SCiv graphite blanks, exclusive Integrated Poly Curve technology, Fuji SK2 split reel seat, plus beautifully polished rings and frames. What resonated with me is that the rod tromps on the usual vertical jigging metrics — well balanced, lightweight yet tough as bricks, and uncommonly soft in the tip — to capture an ineffable quality: despite its heft, it was fun as hell to fish with all day, even for one measly fish, which is the walleye angler’s M.O.
The braintrust at Abu Garcia had walleye fishermen in mind with the new Revo SX reel ($160), even lighter and more durable than the older models, and perfect for post-spawn jigs in the densest cover.
Best for Trout
Fenwick Elite Tech River Runner Rod, Pflueger Patriarch XT
Trout, for all of their majesty, are also like those beady-eyed demons from the Old Testament dragging you towards the deep outer banks of despair. To deal with these shifty bastards you need finesse in heady measure, preferably by way of an ultra-light or medium-light rod, moderate-fast action, in the 7.5- to 9-foot field. The Fenwick Elite Tech River Runner ($150), as I learned, can help put all the old voodoos to bed. Don’t let the subprime mortgage rate fool you. This is a very sweet piece of manufacturing. Despite the length (7 feet 6 inches), it’s swift and versatile, spry even, and nowhere near the S.W.A.T. truncheon it might at first appear to be. Fenwick takes its aesthetics seriously. The olive hue and graphite blanks and spigot ferrules are downright ravishing. And fishing the Fenwick with the new Pflueger Patriarch XT ($200) (arguably the greatest lightweight freshwater reel made today), feels like reuniting long lost siblings.
Best for Snook and Redfish
Falcon Coastal XG Rod, Quantum Smoke PT Spinning Reel
A couple of years ago, I paid good money for a guide to ferry me around southwest Florida flats, spent eight-plus hours casting in the shallows and growing dizzy in the wet heat, catching nothing. Didn’t sniff a snook or redfish. Five hundred dollars in the hole. But something incredible happened: my guide happened to mention Falcon rods, said they were an industry secret, a mash of parabolic symmetry and strength, light enough to cast for the duration of drinking a sixer of Coors, but able to handle 20- to 40-pound fish. My experience with the Coastal XG ($130) in the Bahamas recently honored the man’s words to the tune of a nine-pound bonefish, caught on the 7-foot, medium-heavy, 8- to 17-pound line weight version, with a lithe and masterful Quantum Smoke PT reel ($160) doing most of the driving.
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