Tightwads, spendthrifts and cheapskates may want to turn the page. What I am about to discuss will offend your miserly sensibilities. I agree, there are plenty of decent fishing rods costing less than $100, and some really good rods under $200. But I am talking about premium fishing rods using advanced materials and construction to produce a fishing experience that is priceless.
What is a Premium Fishing Rod?
When I’m standing in the tackle shop holding a $100 fishing rod in one hand and a $200 fishing rod in the other, it’s easy to tell the difference. The more expensive rod is lighter, thinner and more comfortable.
On the water, the $200 rod is more responsive for longer, more accurate casts. The expensive rod is also more sensitive to work the lure and feel the lightest bite. And, the more expensive components and construction make the $200 rod more durable.
What’s the difference between a $200 rod and one costing $300 or more? Where do the Benjamins go? Is the premium rod better?
To answer these questions, I dropped a line to Jason Brunner, director of engineering at St. Croix in North Park Falls, Wisconsin. He started our conversation by setting the landscape: “We have rods from $100 to $600 and they’re all great.” Brunner explains many of St. Croix’s most advanced technologies are available across the lines, but their high-end rods take the company’s capabilities to the next level.
When I ask Brunner what makes a $600 rod worth $600, he takes me on a virtual tour of every step in the rod building process. Starting at the handle, he points to the premium cork with less filler, which he says lasts longer and feels softer.
Then he adds, the reel seats are ergonomically correct and more sensitive. “The premium rod feels better,” Brunner sums up. For anglers making hundreds of casts, a comfortable rod is essential.
Brunner says the line guides are a big expense and an important upgrade. Cheap stamped steel or aluminum frames and thermoplastic aluminum oxide eyes are heavier and less sensitive, he explains.
On a premium rod, the line guides use lighter, stronger and more sensitive carbon fiber or titanium frames. Premium guide rings are made of super hard silicon carbide or silicon nitride. Brunner explains, “Not only are the guide rings more sensitive, but they are lighter and more durable.”
Of course, the real money is in the rod blank. While all St. Croix rods are subject to the same meticulous quality control, their top-of-the-line models see extra attention to dial in tactic-specific performance. “Unfortunately, people can’t see what happens inside the rod,” Brunner says.
Fortunately, Brunner can see inside the rod. He tells me deflection is one of the most difficult challenges.“When a rod bends, the round tube wants to ovalize,” he explains. This causes a weak spot in the rod.
To prevent this breakdown, St. Croix uses carbon fiber running laterally and horizontally along with special resins. “The rod still ovalizes when it bends, but it can bend 10 times further without breaking.”
Raw materials are just the beginning. Premium rods are fine tuned for specific tactics. Building a rod specifically for crankbaits, topwater or finesse fishing is the result of hundreds of hours of testing and development.
Using a computer design program, Brunner changes elements of the design to adjust the performance to match the tactic. “I can add or remove material within thousands of an inch.” By controlling thickness of the material and the amount of resin, Brunner makes slight changes to the action. “The computer program is the heartbeat of our rod design,” he says.
Rod design isn’t all computers and software, Brunner’s skill at engineering a rod comes from years of practice. “Over 25 years I’ve probably designed thousands of fishing rods, so I can use angler input to meet their needs.”
Collaboration between anglers and designers is the real value of an expensive fishing rod. St. Croix commands an army of pro anglers and guides who work closely with the design team to dial in each tactic-specific rod for the ultimate performance.
Do You Need a Premium Fishing Rod?
Pat Schlapper is a Bassmaster Elite angler and one of the pros who worked with St. Croix to design the new Legend Tournament rods. “The biggest difference is the science and man hours required to get a premium rod just right,” Schlapper says.
Schlapper wasn’t always a tournament pro, he started out working the sales floor of Scheels sporting goods stores. “I was lucky to have access to the best fishing rods,” he says.
Once he started digging into high-end rods, there was no going back. “Take it from someone who has sold a lot of fishing rods, the right rod is worth the money.”
First, Schlapper tells customers they don’t need a premium rod for every tactic. “Any tactic that fishes the bottom benefits from a premium fishing rod,” he says. Schlapper also likes an advanced fishing rod for finessing jerkbaits. “I throw a jerkbait most often, so I’m looking for a super light rod designed specifically for that technique,” he explains.
For other tactics, like working a topwater lure, Schlapper says he doesn’t need a premium rod. He laughs, “I’ve been using the same fiberglass rod to fish Heddon Spooks for 25 years.” In Schlapper’s opinion, the softer, more forgiving fiberglass rod creates the perfect rhythm for a topwater presentation.
Recently, Schlapper contributed to the design of the new Legend Tournament rods during a fish and feedback event bringing together St. Croix’s pro staff and rod design engineers.
Schlapper describes the intensive testing sessions. “Each morning, we fished with 17 rods and filled out a survey with our observations.” In the afternoon, the anglers would test another 17 rods and note their opinions. Schlapper jokes, “Holy balls, this is a lot of rods.”
After employing the feedback from testing, St. Croix released the new Legend Tournament series earlier this year. Schlapper says, “When I picked up the new six-foot, eight-inch medium, extra-fast jerkbait rod, I knew they got it right.”
The combination of rod dimensions, material and action were perfect for slashing and pausing a jerkbait. “I could feel the effect of the changes we suggested.”
In addition to premium components, construction and materials, high-dollar fishing rods are built on the experience of the best anglers in the world. For tournament anglers chasing the big check, a full arsenal of $500 fishing rods makes sense. But, for serious weekend warriors looking for the best fishing experience, adding a premium rod for the tactics you use most will step up your game without breaking the bank.
L to R: Rodolfo Tostado, St. Croix materials manager, and Jesus Mario Rodriguez, plant manager, check quality control with the VP of R and D, Jason Brunner. | Feature photo: Courtesy St. Croix