Ahhh, the fishing rod — such a simple concept. Take a long skinny stick, tie a hook and string to it and commence to fishin’. Maybe back in Andy and Opie’s day, but not for today’s angler! Rods, poles, sticks, whatever you call them, the modern fishing rod has evolved into a very technically advanced tool constructed of space-age materials and computer designs to achieve a very specific combination of length, power, action and weight. Many rods are technique-specific (spongy crankbait rods are a good example of this) while others are designed to be general purpose catchers. This diversity is both good and bad for you, the angler.
Good news first. There is a rod for just about any specific use you can come up with. Bait fishing to plug chuckin’, topwater to bottom bouncers, there is a rod suitable for the application. Price ranges vary widely, as do warranties, so you can always keep an eye on your perception of value.

The bad news is that all this variety means that you will need to be somewhat informed about fishing rods or you’ll end up staring blankly at the rod rack, perhaps giving a few rods a quick shake or two, before frustration sets in. Product diversity leads to purchasing complexity. But have no fear, the Fishful Thinker is here to help!

Spending the majority of my life around fishing rods, both professionally and recreationally, attending industry expos featuring rod manufacturers from far and wide and conversing at length with rod designers about the virtues of various materials most commonly associated with the aerospace industry, I feel that sharing my info may help you, dearest reader, make solid buying decisions.

First, let’s look at a couple of rod terms that will help in the ensuing reviews. The blank is the baseline on which guides, reel seats and handles are affixed, thereby creating the finished rod. Most of the rods on the market today have graphite as at least one ingredient in the blank and many are mostly, if not all, graphite. As a general rule, the better quality the graphite, the lighter, more sensitive and more powerful a rod becomes, the more expensive and fragile, it gets. Problem is, manufacturers each use different ways to describe their graphite (i.e., tonnage, modulus, etc) so it’s difficult to compare across brands without physically trying them. To combat fragility, makers mix in fiberglass, use fibers wrapped in different directions or apply strengthening resins to the lay-up.

“Power” and “action” are too often confused by anglers. Power is how much resistance a rod has to flexing under a given load, such that a light power rod will flex more than a medium power rod under the same load. Action is where along the rod’s blank it flexes. An extra-fast action rod flexes mostly in the tip while a slow action rod flexes down into the mid section of the blank. The power you choose should be dictated by the physical weight of the lure you intend to cast and the action of the rod should be chosen based on the characteristics of your lure. For a given power, faster blanks are more sensitive, accurate and better hook-setters (think Texas rigs, weedless lures and jigs); slower blanks are easier to cast and more forgiving during the fight (think crankbaits and other treble hooked baits). For tossing live or “dough” baits, slower action rods will allow you to lob your offering without flinging your bait off because they load and unload slower and generally easier.

Let’s look at a cross-section of the conventional tackle (we’ll save a fly rod review for another day) available to you at Sportsman’s Warehouse. So here goes, in no particular order:

Abu Garcia Vengeance
Like several of the manufacturers we’ll review, Abu Garcia offers a range of rod lines to accommodate all anglers’ budgets. The Vengeance series represents the least expensive series yet doesn’t skimp on features. The heart of any rod is the blank and Vengeance blanks are constructed with 24 ton graphite which leads to a fairly light weight blank and sensitive finished product. The guides are hard coated with Zirconium and the 7’, two-piece spinning rod I tested had seven guides plus the tip. Vengeance rods have high density EVA foam handles integrated into the down-locking reelseat and in keeping with current trends, features a “split grip” concept. For 2013, the series was adorned with bold graphics that match nicely with the Abu Garcia Orra SX 30 I paired it with. The 16 model series is priced around $60 with a 3-year warranty.

I found the Vengeance to be reasonably accurate, especially at mid ranges, with plenty of power for its rating. Sensitivity is pretty good and it balanced well with the 30-size reel. Overall, I’d say the Vengeance is a good value for price conscience anglers of moderate levels.

Abu Garcia Veritas
Stepping up three levels in the Abu Garcia rod line lands you at the Veritas series. I’ve seen this rod in the hands of big name bass pros and weekend warriors alike, indicating that Abu Garcia has a highly successful product on its hands. It starts with 30 ton graphite that is bolstered by a NanoTechnology resin for durability. The series is deep – 27 models in all – offering two guide types (traditional or micro), crankbait-specific “Winch” models with moderate actions and one and two-piece versions. I tested a 7’ medium-heavy power, one-piece casting model with traditional guides, in titanium alloy with SiC inserts (of which there was nine plus the tip) can be considered traditional. Here again I found the high density EVA foam split grip handle, this time mated with an aluminum down-locking reel seat.

I had high expectations for this rod and it did not disappoint. Casting and pitching were very accurate and the balance when paired with my Abu Garcia Revo SX casting reel was good as well. Sensitivity was better than I expected and there’s tons of hook-set power. At around $100 depending on the specific model, the Veritas series is a solid value capable of pleasing anglers of high skill level.

St Croix Mojo Bass
Legendary American rod maker St Croix has been handcrafting fishing rods for 65 years, so it stands to reason that they’d have it right. Dating back to its creation of the three-piece (and thus portable) “cane pole” in 1948, the family-owned company has continuously developed new and better rod technologies. St Croix won both “Best Freshwater rod” and “Best Saltwater rod” at ICAST 20, a true testament to the industries’ respect for St Croix’s technology. Here at Fishful Thinker, we have extensive experience with St Croix rods; they’ve been my personal choice for seven years and counting.

The 17-model Mojo Bass series has been one of the company’s top sellers in recent history by bringing a combination of performance, value and aesthetics, so that’s a series I chose to review. Specifically, I chose the Mojo Crankster, a 7’4” medium power, moderate action crankbait-specific rod constructed of linear S-Glass fiberglass. Many pro’s prefer glass rods for crankbaits because they are very forgiving to both cast and fight fish with and I agree. The rod tip “gives” as fish inhale the bait, allowing for cleaner hook-ups and less lost fish. The Crankster features a cork split grip design, Fuji reel seat and Batson Forecast hard aluminum oxide guides. The signature purple Mojo paint job is protected with two coats of FlexCoat slow-cure finish. Fiberglass construction equals durability, too.

If you want to launch a crankbait way out there allowing for deeper retrieves, this rod will do it. I pair it with an Abu Garcia Revo Winch and the balance and feel is great. It’s perfectly suited to small-to-medium sized crankbaits and loads up nicely on contact with fish with plenty of backbone to spare. At around $100 with a 5-year warranty, this rod is a great value for anglers of all skill levels.

St Croix Premier
The Premier series from St Croix has been in their line-up for as long as I can remember. In my opinion, it’s one of the better values they produce; no frills, just solid design, materials and performance and it’s produced in the good ol’ USA, the only rod in this review that can claim that! The blank is built of premium SCII graphite which offers a good balance of power and sensitivity combined with excellent durability, enhanced by two coats of FlexCoat. Guides are Batson Forecast aluminum oxide with black chrome frames, the reelseat is a Fuji DPS mode, and the handle is a very traditional full cork design.

I could review any model in the Premier line-up as these are one of the rod lines we guide with here at Fishful Thinker. We choose them because the powers and actions are precise and well balanced and like all ‘Croixs, they just feel right in hand. There are 34 Premiers to choose from including one and two-piece versions.  Prices range from about $90 to $150 with a 5-year warranty. St Croix’s Premier series is a classic rod designed by real anglers in Wisconsin and built for the real world — ’nuff said.

Duckett Fishing Micro Magic
Duckett Fishing is the upstart in this review; it’s the newest and smallest company, yet I was anxious to try their somewhat famous offering, the Micro Magic series. This is really the rod that made micro guides all the rage and they did it in a short period of time. Since the company founder, B.A.S.S. Elite pro Boyd Duckett, is known for his lipless crankbait prowess, I chose the rod he recommends for that application.

The company doesn’t specify much about the blank material other than that it’s multi-modulus and they call it Halo-Sanded Sensi-Touch. The real head turner, however, is the teeny tiny proprietary Ring-Lock Micro Guides of which there are 11 plus a tip on the 7’0” casting model. They’re available in both split and convention cork grips and they all feature a Fuji reelseat.

I mated it with an Abu Garcia Revo STX and the overall balance was excellent. The rod does not immediately feel like a “crankbait rod” in that it’s somewhat faster in action, but worked a half-ounce lipless bait with ease and effectiveness. It’s lighter than most crankers and is more accurate, likely due to its graphite heart. While sensitivity is not a strong suit of crankin’ rods, this rod still had good feedback. The factory will tell you it’s a result of the tiny guides providing more line contact which I’ve experienced in other rods as well. Micro guides produce less weight on the front of the rod (important if you understand fulcrums) yielding overall balance and responsiveness. And these are micro; all 12 fit on a dime.

There are 39 rods in the line-up ranging in price from $149 to $169 and they’re backed by a 20-year original owner warranty. Overall, I’d say Micro Magic is a good choice for expert anglers looking for specific traits and with good eyes!

Did I mention the guides were really small?

Shimano Clarus
Shimano is a giant name in fishing and their wide range of rod offerings reflect that. I chose to review the Clarus line of rods, specifically the bass version and even more specifically a 7’2” medium power, fast action “jig and worm” spinning rod. Clarus rods are species and technique specific leading to rods that should be ideal for their intended purpose. There are almost countless rods in the total Clarus line-up, but they all start with an IM-8 graphite blank and Shimano Custom reelseats. Guides are Fuji aluminum-oxide and the split-grip handle is high-density EVA foam.

A jig and worm rod should be powerful and this one surely is. The blank is crisp and the action, though rated as fast, feels extra-fast. I paired it with a Shimano Saros 2500 reel and the balance made it obvious they were made to go together; an important trait in a sensitivity-oriented presentation. While not the absolute lightest set-up, it felt good in hand. Casting accuracy is solid and hooksets effortless. This is a good rod choice for those preferring spinning tackle to casting gear for Texas rigs, skirted jigs, etc. Clarus bass rods range in price from $80 to $90 and offer Shimano’s limited lifetime warranty. Bass anglers that appreciate power and responsiveness will find the Clarus line much to their liking.

Fenwick HMX
Fenwick is another of the technology leaders in fishing rods. After all, they did offer the world’s first graphite rod in 1973 and the HMX line of rods I picked for review is a venerable name in the industry. The newest reincarnation of the HMX name is a cross-scrim graphite blank utilizing overlapping layers of carbon fiber and adorned with light-weight guides, a down–locking reelseat and a cork split-grip handle bolstered with TAC rings said to improve grip and comfort in all weather. While I didn’t get to test it in all weather, the handle was indeed comfy in average conditions and I appreciate that there is plenty to hold, so to speak. In the day of minimalist handles, something to really grab is somewhat refreshing for active presentations.

I ordered a 7’0” medium power, extra-fast action spinning rod and mounted an Abu Garcia Revo Premier 20 reel for testing. Balance was good and casting power was excellent within the rod’s specified range. Accuracy was not an issue and sensitivity was solid as well. This is a do-it-all rod line with 16 spinning rods alone, plus casting versions, with a limited lifetime warranty and priced from $60 to $70 bucks. I’d say that’s a combo worth considering!

Ugly Stik Lite
Ironically, the last rod in this review is from the #1 manufacturer of rods sold in the US — Shakespeare. Yep, they lead all makers in sales and the Ugly Stick is the flagship. Why? Because they’re bombproof!

Ugly Stick is synonymous with durability. They may not be the lightest, fastest, or most sensitive, but who cares — they’re insanely durable. In keeping with my review guidelines, I picked a 7’0” medium power, 2-piece Ugly Stick Lite to review. It features graphite and glass construction with stainless steel guides and ferrule and a clear tip design. You like to chuck bait of any sort? This is your rod!

DSC_0043Shimano Convergence

Shimano has a very wide range of rods, and the Convergence series is one of the longest running and top selling of them, making it a good choice to review. The line-up includes dozens of models, both technique and species specific, with varying components based on intended use. Priced in the $70 range and featuring Shimano’s limited lifetime warranty, this rod is right in the middle of their product line.

I chose a 6’8” medium-heavy power, fast action “jig & worm” casting rod, which I pared with a Shimano Citica 200 reel. It features a high density foam handle with a split grip design and unique reel seat that eliminates hand contact with the threads. I found the grip to be comfy, even if the rod felt a touch tip heavy. My initial reaction to casting is that this is a powerful rod for its rating. I felt the same about the other Shimano rod I reviewed; they both performed better with weights near the top of their rated range. There is ample power for monster hooksets, and I found the rod to be very accurate as well (given I loaded it with enough weight). Shimano doesn’t say much about its blank construction and I won’t speculate other than to say if you want an affordable, powerful, and accurate rod for classic bassin’ Convergence may be a good choice for you!

Let’s face it, rods get beat up. They get dropped, stuffed in the back seat and abused by kids. For many, this is a problem, but not for Ugly Stick. Rig it up, toss a bait and get to fishin’. I found the relatively parabolic action makes lobbing baits easy, yet was surprisingly useable in presenting moving baits like spinners and spoons. Overall fighting power is good and the full cork grip is comfy. For many anglers, the Ugly Stick line-up fits the bill between durability, portability and usability just perfectly. Between being uber-tough and only $40, how can you go wrong?

So, there it is — our choices of rods you should consider for your 2013 fishing season. Some are light, some are strong, some are technique-specific, some are general all-stars, but all of them catch fish. If you consider YOUR specific needs and budget, you can’t go wrong with any of them!