Small rod companies making big waves

The action on spottails in the Biloxi Marsh is unbeatable for anglers carrying long rods.

Instructor, innovative fly tier, world-traveled angler, writer, humorist and conservationist Lefty Kreh is the most-respected and beloved fly angler of our time. When Lefty talks, people listen.

Imagine the surprise to Rick Pope, president of Temple Fork Outfitters, when he heard that Lefty was recommending his rods to folks who were looking for an affordable, entry-level fly rod. Although a longtime member of the Sage Rods Pro Staff, the Great One has earned the right to speak his mind openly.

So Pope wrote Lefty a letter thanking him for his support. In the letter, Pope mentioned his was a small company that could use any advise Lefty could give them.

Lefty’s response was, “Let’s talk.”

Prior to 2003, Temple Fork was already making quite a name for itself based on quality and pricing, in particular with its line of saltwater travel rods. But when Lefty Kreh resigned from Sage — considered the Microsoft of fly rod makers — to join TFO, it sent a tremor through the industry that measured 10 on the Richter scale.

Under Kreh’s guidance, TFO has completely revamped their model lines for 2004. They’ve added a new lineup of ultralight travel rods, and introduced the new Lefty Kreh Signature Series of titanium-chronium based rods.

The best part is the price: The TiCr 9-foot, 8-weight, four-piece is only $209, compared to similar rods that sell for over $600.

TFO isn’t the only company making noise. St. Croix, Elkhorn and others are part of the greatest dynamics shift in the fly-tackle industry in almost two decades. Whether it’s the use of new high-tech production equipment, or leveraging the higher costs of domestic R&D by moving production overseas, more manufacturers are creating lower-cost, yet higher quality rods.

The driving force is competition. While fly fishing continues to grow in popularity, it’s doing so at a much slower pace than it did for several years following THE MOVIE. So many new players jumped into the game during that time that something now has to give.

Up until three years ago, many rod makers had cut costs by paring down model lines. Your typical travel series might have included three-piece models, ranging from 4-weight to 9-weight, all 9-feet long.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed that in two ways.

First, travel restrictions got a lot tougher. Now every fly angler was looking for four-, five- and six-piece models that could meet carry-on requirements. Even anglers who don’t travel are looking for multi-piece rods. That’s because today’s travel rods cast almost as well, and are as light in the hand, as their two-piece counterparts, yet cost only an average of 10 percent more.

The second impact of 9/11 was that an already sick economy got much worse. Had it been a dog, it would’ve been shot and put out of its misery.

Suddenly rod makers found themselves looking seriously at all possible segments of the market: rods suited for everything from tiny brook trout streams to mighty steelhead rivers to offshore big game.

Temple Fork has certainly proved its strength in this market. For 2004, their entire Professional Series of moderately priced rods ($139 to $225) is either three-, four- or six-piece models, ranging from a delightful 8-foot 2-weight to a hefty 9-foot 12-weight. There’s even a 15-foot spey rod and a 14-weight tuna stick that sell for under $300.

Yet they still offer a line of introductory two-piece models, the Series One, that range from a 6-foot 2-weight ($89) to a 9-foot 10-weight ($99). All TFO rods have a $25 replacement warranty.

St. Croix also made big news with the release of their 2004 lineup. Their patented IPC technology is now being incorporated into the Legend Ultra series.

Mike Manrose, Gulf Coast rep for St. Croix, explained that most rods have transition points along the blank where the taper changes. These result in weak or rigid areas that negatively impact load dynamics.

IPC creates a continuous taper from tip to butt, eliminating all transition points.

There’s something to this science: The new Legend Ultras are one of the most pleasant-casting rods I’ve experienced. At a price range of $300 to $340, all the new Ultras are four- and five-piece models.

Perhaps the biggest surprise from St. Croix comes in their new Premiere series, which replaces the Pro Graphite line.

We’re talking $80 to $100 for two- and four-piece models, and complete outfits that include rod, line, backing and a large arbor disc drag reel for under $150.

Elkhorn is a small company sitting exactly where TFO was just a few years ago. According to Mike Hogue of Badger Creek Fly Shop, the Elkhorn line is now mostly travel models, ranging from three- to seven-piece options. Hogue says their main strength is in their lightweight rods, which include three 2-weight models, and even a 1-weight.

The adversity of losing Kreh from their staff didn’t slow Sage down one bit. For 2004, they now offer more than 130 different fly rod models, with over half in multipiece.

And that’s just under the Sage name. To counter the low-cost high-quality market that St. Croix, TFO and others have created, they went out and bought Redington, which established that market many years ago.

Redington’s IM6 Red.Start and Red.Fly models offer fine cosmetics found on more expensive rods at prices from $99 to $189. The Wayfarer five-piece rods at under $200 continue to be the gem of this brand.

What about Orvis, Scott, Winston, Diamondback and others? Winston’s version of an affordable rod is their $300 Ibis. Expect that to stay the same.

Every fly angler’s dream is to own a Winston, so they can stay locked to the premium market as long as they want.

No word yet from Orvis, but being the innovator for new products I expect them to react. Wouldn’t it be awesome if they converted all their Superfine series to multipiece models? Oh, we can only hope!

In next month’s column, my “testing staff” offers its top travel rod picks, which include many new 2004 models. Stay tuned.

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About Catch Cormier 275 Articles
Glen ‘Catch’ Cormier has pursued fish on the fly for 30 years. A certified casting instructor and renowned fly tier, he and his family live in Baton Rouge.

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