You’re fighting the fish of a lifetime and you hear a sickening snap. Or you’re closing the car door and it makes a bloodcurdling crack. Ceiling fans and low-hanging trees are the enemy. Fishing rods are long, thin and brittle, making them a perfect target for breaking under pressure.
Why Ultra-Tough Fishing Rods Bend But Never Break
While the sound of snapping and cracking might be music to rod manufacturers’ ears, new materials and designs are making fishing rods tough enough to last for years of abuse.
The challenge has always been making rods both strong and sensitive. Put line guides and a reel seat on a broomstick and you’d have an unbreakable fishing rod, but you wouldn’t feel a whale nibbling on the bait. The space-age materials and construction making a fishing rod sensitive also make it more fragile.
The first company to get it right started making unbreakable fishing rods in 1976. Whether you started fishing in the disco age or the drill-music era, you surely remember the iconic doubled-over fishing rod in advertisements for Shakespeare’s Ugly Stik.
One of the guys behind the brand, research and development manager Chris Cathcart, gave us the short history of developing Shakespeare’s unbreakable fishing rods. It all started with the Howald Process. Named after inventor Dr. Arthur Howald, the construction combines a center spiral of fibers surrounded by parallel fibers encapsulated in polyester resin. This patented process allows the rods to bend double without breaking.
Changing the mixture of resins and fibers affects the rod’s performance without affecting breakability. “We have over 200 different rods,” Cathcart brags. The rods cover the water from offshore power to inshore finesse.
After more than 40 years of trial and triumph, the materials and components have improved, but Ugly Stik still uses the Howald Process. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Cathcart says.
To cover the other rod components, Shakespeare added Ugly Tuff line guides. Their one-piece, stamped stainless steel guides have no insert to pop out. “We wanted to build on Ugly Stik’s legacy of unbreakable rods,” he explains. “Components have to be indestructible, too.”
Cathcart says Shakespeare puts all their rods through rigorous testing. “We push everything to the breaking point,” he stresses, “so we can find weaknesses.”
If durability can be improved by new materials and combinations of materials, then we want to use them to enhance the value of our product
In the Internet age, customers have taken product testing to the next level. “Just type Ugly Stik on YouTube and you get some crazy videos,” Cathcart chuckles. Videos include owners using the rods to lift bicycles or cast milk jugs. Big Wheels and go carts are also frequently used.
While Ugly Stik’s rods are famous for being unbreakable, they have not been known for sensitivity and responsiveness. The balance of toughness and sensitivity swings the other way for anglers looking for the ultimate in performance
Bruce Holt, Director of Communications at G.Loomis, admits they could build an indestructible fishing rod, “but it would effect weight and performance.” Instead, G.Loomis focuses on maintaining the highest performance standards in a tough package.
“If durability can be improved by new materials and combinations of materials, then we want to use them to enhance the value of our product,” explains Holt.
As an example, he points to the new NRX with nano-silica particles. “It’s like rebar reinforcing concrete,” he explains, “It prevents cracking from an outside impact.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the E6X rods use a lower modulus graphite, which is more elastic and allows the rods to bend past the point where others would break. Add to this modern high-impact resin holding the graphite fibers together to make high modulus rods tougher.
Holt says toughness goes beyond blank materials and construction. Lighter line guides make it possible to add more guides to the rod, which also improves strength.
“Think of line guides as a bridge,” Holt explains. “The more supports a bridge has the stronger the road will be.”
Adding to tougher resins, stronger graphite fibers are increasing strength and reducing weight while improving performance. Recently, Century released rods made with graphene.
“Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel and harder than diamonds, but it still bends,” my buddy Ryan White explained to me on a recent visit to his Hatteras Jack tackle shop in Rodanthe, North Carolina.
White explained advanced construction techniques add to the rod’s strength. “The blanks are made in an autoclave,” he says, “like components for the aerospace and auto racing industries.”
The process combines resin and fibers in a vacuum bag then bakes the mixture while removing all the air. “The key is to use the least amount of resin to hold the fibers together,” White explains.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of this new technology, White takes a graphene rod and sticks the butt on the outside of his foot. Then he turns his body to twist the rod in a spiral. “Don’t try this with your old fishing rods,” he warns me.
Three Tips for Rod Survival
Bruce Holt at G.Loomis offers expert advice on extending the life of your fishing rods.
1. Never lift a fish by grabbing the rod above the handle. I see pros do this all the time. A fishing rod is designed to spread pressure out over the entire length of the rod.
2. Don’t high stick. When a fish is close to the boat, don’t lift it straight up with the rod tip. This causes the graphite in the tip to stretch past the breaking point.
3. Avoid violent impact with hard objects. Whacking something with the rod will at least damage the outside layer of material. If it’s a high modulus rod with a high-impact resin system this can damage 25 percent of the material.