Selecting a Surfcasting Rod
Chapter and verse from a master.
Words and photos: Mark Roberts
Chapter and verse from a master.
Words and photos: Mark Roberts
Surfcasting rods change, or are updated, constantly, so this article will not attempt to review rods available on the New Zealand market. Such a project would be an impossible undertaking, would soon be out-of-date, and would assuredly land me in some heated arguments! Instead, I’ll outline what to look for in a surfcasting rod in terms of the experience and physical capabilities of the caster.
A recent school of thought is that the first guide above the reel should be of small diameter so it ‘chokes’ the line down and stops it flapping too much before it reaches the smaller guides at the tip of the rod. I was never convinced by this theory.
I see many rods that have a very short butt-to-reel seat distance. They’re always cheap models, so I assume they find their way to New Zealand because the price looks compelling to an importer, who probably knows a lot more about marketing than about surfcasting. Do not buy one of these rods.
Most New Zealand surfcasters use a fixed-spool reel, also known as a spinning reel or eggbeater. Virtually all rods for sale in tackle stores are designed for use with this type of reel; I know of only one importer who supplies surfcasting rods for use with overhead reels (also known as beach multipliers, or free-spool reels). As a rule, any brave soul who’s switching to an overhead for surfcasting knows what he’s in for and won’t need my advice on how to select a rod.
There’s a difference of opinion as to what guides should be fitted to a surfcasting rod when it’s matched to a fixed-spool reel. A recent school of thought is that the first guide above the reel should be of small diameter so it ‘chokes’ the line down and stops it flapping too much before it reaches the smaller guides at the tip of the rod. I was never convinced by this theory, and with a view to getting resolution on this, I consulted an expert on the subject, a gentleman from the UK who holds or has held various world records in distance casting with fixed-spool reels. A quote from his email to me: “The easy answer is to look at what is being used in competition. I see no top casters using small guides with a fixed-spool in tournaments, I'm sure if it was better, then that's the first place it would be seen in action.”
If you intend to surfcast in the conventional way with a fixed-spool reel and monofilament nylon, guides of a reasonable diameter are desirable. But what is ‘reasonable’? Modern fixed-spool reels often have narrow ‘long-cast’ spools that shed loops of less size, so the really big ‘stripping’ guides of days gone by aren’t necessary. I haven’t sighted the products of every importer/manufacturer, but my impression is that most rods made specifically for the New Zealand surfcasting market do indeed have guides of the appropriate size. The photo of the rod fitted with an eggbeater reel provides a visual indication of what to look for in terms of guide size and spacing. The Zziplex rod in the second photo has guides that are correct for a free-spool reel – although these are way too small for a fixed-spool reel.
Butt to reel distance
The next point to note is the distance from the butt to the reel seat. You would think this is a basic aspect of rod design that no one could get wrong, but I see many rods that have a very short butt-to-reel seat distance. Maybe this design has a place overseas — fishing from a wharf? They’re always cheap models, so I assume they find their way to New Zealand because the price looks compelling to an importer, who probably knows a lot more about marketing than about surfcasting. Do not buy one of these rods. If you place the butt end of a rod against your sternum and extend an arm out to your side along the rod, your hand should be on the reel seat or slightly above it. Some people have longer arms than others and casting styles do vary, but there’s no need to be more precise than this.
The optimum length for a rod is subject to debate. As carbon fibre technology advanced, it became possible to make long rods that are very light and have excellent recovery characteristics (which means the rod tip doesn’t flap back and forth once the sinker is on its way). A typical rod intended for tournament distance casting is now 14 foot (4.3 metres) - but the benefit of extra rod length in terms of the casting distance is surely marginal and difficult to distinguish from parallel gains made in carbon fibre technology.
While marginal benefits count for a lot in tournament casting, extra length beyond 13 foot is probably not an advantage when casting bait from a beach - in my opinion. Manufacturers tend to offer what their customers think is necessary, and the longer-is-better story is a good marketing line. However, it’s reassuring to note that practical beach rods of 13 foot are still available from most sources. I find shorter rods easier to cast from undulating shingle beaches, during darkness, or when wading into surf. And if someone made a 12-footer with high-end materials, I’d definitely be tempted.
How powerful (stiff) should a surfcasting rod be? Well, that depends. Tournament rods are like broomsticks. The only way to bend them is to use a powerful casting technique, either a pendulum style or an off-the-ground style with a big body turn (South African cast). A rod of this type will not deliver great distances if an overhead thump is used. The rod blank won’t bend, and if it doesn’t bend it won’t deliver. In fact, distances will be less and the feel of the cast will be terrible. I’ve met fishos in New Zealand who’ve imported high-end rods from the UK at great cost - and discovered exactly this.
At the other end of the scale is a rod that bends like a stick of rhubarb. These rods can be rather nice to cast, but if bending them only requires a small amount of power, they will only deliver a small distance. That sounds like something to be avoided and usually it is, but if the caster is physically challenged for whatever reason, such a rod is a good choice. Casting distances will be minimal, but they’ll be even less if that person is lumped with a broomstick. A basic and obvious rule—the power of the rod should be matched to the power of the caster.
So: you’re in a shop and you can’t tell just by looking whether a rod is too stiff, not stiff enough or about right. Pull the rods out of their stands one by one, jam the butt against the shop floor and lean heavily on it. How easy is it to bend the butt section? You’re unlikely to encounter a really stiff rod in a New Zealand tackle store, but it’s not impossible - because local suppliers are responding to overseas trends, good or bad. Rods that bend far too easily for an adult male of average strength are quite common, especially in ‘discount’ stores. They’ll also be less expensive because increasing rod power is a consequence of more and better quality carbon. In general, a moderately powerful rod suitable for the average caster is also moderately priced.
Ask someone you know if you can test-cast their rod. Approach a surfcasting club if there’s one locally. Experienced surfcasters are invariably willing to give advice on gear.
The internet can also provide useful information. As a rule, manufacturer’s websites indicate which rods in their range are suitable for beginners or more experienced casters.
Another one to watch
There’s another surfcasting rod design that has to my knowledge not yet found its way to New Zealand, but is likely to appear eventually. This is the ‘Continental’ style rod, which is typically 14 to 16 foot long in three pieces, very light in weight, and is designed for fixed-spool reels. They cast impressive distances with an overhead thump. However, they are made with high-quality materials and are thus expensive—probably the main reason an enterprising importer hasn’t yet introduced them to New Zealand. There is a YouTube clip (SONIK GRAVITY SURF by Dean Bass) which shows a baited rig being cast 170 metres over grass. That’s a hugely impressive distance with bait - but there are some points to note. The caster was a big lad with experience in tournament casting; he cast off the ground (unitech/Brighton style), the worm bait was small and was clipped, and the line was braid. Although the rods are rated from four to eight ounces, that refers to the total load, not the sinker weight. To generate maximum tip speed with such a long rod, a sinker of four ounces with a small clipped bait is apparently optimum. The rods are not suited to casting the larger baits we use in New Zealand, and they don’t handle rough sea conditions, chunks of weed, stingrays and so on. They’re designed for European beaches that have little swell or current and little fish. If you ever see these rods offered locally with impressive claims for casting distances, don’t rush in! That said, the rods may be suitable for fishing shallow harbours within New Zealand. They have great bite detection, especially with braid, and apparently are great for playing small fish.