A blind mold test reveals shocking bargains

You’re a pretty good fly caster, aren’t you? You can tell the difference between a fancy fly rod and a cheap one. I mean, if I gave you a $1,000 5-weight to throw around for a while and then traded it for a $250 club, you’d know right away which one it was, right?

Well, don’t be so sure. I did not do it.

During the F&S Fly Rod 2022 test, we decided to conduct a little side experiment. I’ve always wondered, if you couldn’t read the logo on a high-end fly rod, would you know it was high-end just by throwing it? Would you be able to tell the difference between it and a cheaper stick? Or is all our talk of next-level feel, control and response tinged with a certain amount of BS – justification for all the money we drop on fancy bars.

To find out, we used masking tape to cover the logos of some of our favorite low-end ($250 to $500) and some of our favorite high-end ($900 to $1,050) bars. Because we already had some familiarity with each, having evaluated them for our main test, we also looked for ball caps on one side to block out any distinct features we might have detected in our peripheral vision while throwing—that is the reason why we watch so stupid videos, or, one of the reasons.

The test – and a crazy result

Our test was simple. One by one, each tester stepped up to the casting line and was handed one unmarked rod one after the other to cast near and far until it felt right for each. In the end, he listed all the bars.

Four testers went through the protocol, and when it was over, as a group, we generally placed high-end bars near the top of our rankings, which was no surprise. However, what was an absolute shocker was that we all ranked one or more low level bars above one or more high level bars.

Not only that, but some of us (like me), listed one of the cheaper test rods above MOST of high level bars. In a dizzying and slightly embarrassing sequence, editor-in-chief Colin Kearns handed me one of our absolute favorite high-end rods from the main test, a rod that cost around $1,000. I dropped it and said, “Yeah, that’s really cool.” Then he gave me one of the cheaper bars. I threw it away and said, “Oh, that’s even better.”

Then all the testers gathered to point and laugh at me. Which was good fun. But, in fact, they all put the same rod near the top.

The fools

photo of angler casting
F&S Senior Editor Matt Every takes a closer look. Cosmo Genoa

This seems like a good time to take a step back and count my excuses, I mean, observations about the test and its results. What did we really learn and what did we not learn? Well, since this is a quick lawn throw test, I’d say we were more focused on distance and throw – how easy it was to throw regular loops and throw line. So we didn’t learn much about each rod’s versatility or all-day casting comfort or accuracy and line control on the water. This makes me want to expand this test next year.

But we still learned tons. The biggest and most shocking takeaway from this test is that when it came to simple casting—casting with power, feel, and accuracy—four experienced anglers couldn’t clearly tell the difference between some low-end and high-end rods. others that cost three times as much, or more. This is a big deal because it means you not you have to spend big money – or even medium money – to get a really nice rod.

Of course, there are some limitations and conditions. The bottom line is that you can’t buy a cheap rod and expect it to cast well. The vast majority of cheap rods we threw in our main test didn’t perform as well as the high-end rods. But a couple did, which means it’s time to name names.

The outstanding bargain bars of 2022

photo of fisherman casting fly rod
Editor-in-Chief, Colin Kearns, try a rod. Cosmo Genoa

All of us were extremely impressed with the moon night, an incredible bargain at around $500. One of our testers put this rod in his top three after the blind casting test, and several of us ranked it higher than at least one high-end rod. As another tester wrote in his notes: “It pours effortlessly and has the feel of a premium rod at half the price.” The Vesper is light and lively, with surprising power, and it’s a great rod too.

Orvis Clearwater

The Orvis Clearwater is a best value fly rod

But the real showrunner was Orvis’ updated Clearwater—an absolutely stunning kettle for around $250. I could cast this rod to 90 feet as easily as any other 9-foot rod in our entire test, with consistent flat loops, impressive feel, and rock-solid accuracy. I don’t think we had a more forgiving spot, which makes the Clearwater a no-brainer for beginner wheels. On the other hand, I’m not a beginner, and I wouldn’t hesitate to fish a season with this rod.

Now, before I get carried away, it’s time for the other provisions. When it comes to the finer points that make a premium rod premium—things you don’t notice as much in a quick lawn casting test, like all-day casting comfort and versatility, line control, and accuracy on the water —even the best cheap rods will come up a little short. Upon closer inspection, you’ll find that the Clearwater is a little on the heavy side. It is primarily a big water rod that lacks some finesse and agility. And, of course, the components are all very basic.

Monday evening

Vesper Moon Fly Rod

But the truth is that many of these finer points are simply luxuries. Aesthetics, for one. But also gain weight. Athletes tend to be a little crazy at this point when it comes to their gear. Explain to me, for example, why a 6-pound rifle is a club and a 5-pound bow is an anchor. So, like everyone else, I can settle for a featherweight rod that somehow still has the power to drive long casts into the wind. But do I need to catch fish? No. Will an extra ounce of rod weight really wear me out by the end of the day? I do not think so.

It’s up to you, of course, whether these luxuries are worth the extra $500 to $700? For many serious fly fishermen, perhaps including myself, they are. Which is fine and dandy. But that is not the point. The big news—the surprising discovery of our blind-casting experiment—is that anyone who can muster $250 can take to the trout river with a slick rod and not feel unarmed compared to the fancy guys downriver. And the cool guys on the river – who can’t see the logo on your rod – might think, Man, that guy can really throw. I wonder what rod he has.

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