Not so long ago, fiberglass fly rods were considered all but obsolete.
Fiberglass was an inexpensive and easily mass-produced alternative to bamboo for workaday rods in the mid-20th century.
Then along came graphite, lighter and faster, able to throw a longer line, and fiberglass was relegated to history.
Graphite continues to get lighter and faster, and for many kinds of fishing, that’s a good thing. But in the past few years, more and more anglers have decided they don’t need to throw such a long line, after all, and they would like a rod with a sweeter action — especially since the fiberglass of today is lighter and more precise than it was in the 1950s.
“With the newer modern technologies in the resins they use to bind the fiberglass cloth up, they’re able to make the fiberglass rods lighter but still have that sensitivity and slow, dry fly action that you can’t get with a graphite rod,” said Bill Hickey of Saratoga Springs, a Spa City firefighter who moonlights as a rod-builder and is becoming known for making high-quality fiberglass (and graphite) rods.
The online headquarters of the fiberglass movement is a blog called the Fiberglass Manifesto, and Hickey’s brand, W. Jude Fly Rod Co., can be found listed there among the other boutique rod shops around the country.
Some of the big companies also cater to the fiberglass market, including Thomas & Thomas, Scott, Hardy and Cortland.
But anglers who like that sweet action also tend to like dealing with craftsmen.
“They’re OK with factory rods, but it seems like most guys want a rod from a custom maker when they’re dealing with fiberglass,” Hickey said. “I’d say there’s a half-dozen to a dozen fiberglass makers that are doing really well selling custom glass rods.”
Hickey has been building for rods for 10 years — at first, for himself and his friends, and perhaps for donation to a Trout Unlimited raffle. Eventually, people who admired his rods began encouraging him to sell to the public.
“In the last three years, or so, he went from being a good rod builder to being exceptional,” said Vince Wilcox, owner of Wiley’s Flies in Ray Brook (recently relocated from Rainbow Lake). “I’ve looked at others’ rods very closely. His work has really gotten exquisite. He turns his own cork. He turns his own reel seats — he’s got all these exotic woods you just don’t see.”
Wilcox admits he’s not impartial; Hickey is an old pal and guides for Wiley’s Flies. But he says Hickey’s rods have a quality that’s very important to a tackle retailer: “They sell.”
Wilcox finds fiberglass just right for the small wild brook trout streams of the Adirondacks. “I’m excited to see it having something of a revival,” he said. “This isn’t your grandpa’s fly rod. The hardware’s different, the blanks are different. I really love fiberglass for small streams.”
Hickey uses mainly rod blanks made by a New Zealand company called Composite Tube Systems Limited, which makes graphite and fiberglass blanks for fly, spin and bait rods.
To the disappointment of some Spey rod enthusiasts, who think a full-flexing “glass rod would be nice for swinging wet flies for steelhead, fiberglass rods are on the short side.”
“No one has had the technology to make them longer than 8 1/2 feet and still have them responsive,” Hickey said. “They get clubby.”
At least for now, Spey and switch rods will continue to be made of graphite. Graphite is also a better material for nymphing, which often requires sharp, sudden hook-sets, and makes more sense when long casts are consistently needed, as in saltwater fishing.
But for dry- or wet-fly fishing for trout and other moderately sized fish, fiberglass is in fact a better choice, Hickey said.
“When you’re talking about guys who fish the Battenkill or the Farmington, fishing dry flies, they want something softer and easier on the arm for delicate presentations,” he said.
And some fiberglass rods are capable of distances that rival graphite, he added. “I have some blanks here that will cast 80 feet of fly line like it was nothing. It doesn’t feel fast in your hand, but it’s the way the energy is transmitted.”
Hickey has sold rods to anglers in Canada, Norway, Japan and Australia. He figured he builds about 20 rods per year. To learn more about them, visit his website, www.wjudeflyrodcompany.com. You can also follow W. Jude on Facebook.