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Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed. I'd just spent about $80 for my own graphite blank, guides, reel seat and other components and would invest five hours of labor putting them together. Now it seemed very possible to me that the rod would inexplicably self-destruct when put to the test.
A couple of weeks after the broken-rod episode, I was on the flats with my new graphite rod, the lighter bonefish-permit model. It felt like a toy in my hands, but the way it banged out a line quickly won my respect. The base of the blank was little more than half the diameter of an equivalent glass rod and yet I could easily throw the entire fly line with a single false cast. And, unlike the way it was with the larger tarpon outfit, timing was no longer a problem, for I could feel this rod working with the line.
In only one respect did I remain disappointed. I still could not achieve the fantastic distances that others had ascribed to graphite. Under the best of circumstances I could shoot the entire line plus 10 feet into the backing 100 feet, certainly no more. Nor since that time, having used half a dozen different graphite rods, have I or any of my fellow guides really been able to cast an appreciably greater distance. Where graphite does surpass glass, without question, is in its ability to subdue a fish more quickly, and to shave an important second or two off the delivery time of the fly to the fish, which on saltwater flats can be very important. On salmon or steelhead water the relatively light graphite rod (about 25% lighter than a fiber-glass rod rated for the same weight line) allows the angler to make repeated distance casts without suffering the arm-wearying weight of glass or bamboo.
But on that first day on the flats with my just-completed graphite rod, repeated casts produced another crisis. Bonefish are a rarity in the waters beyond Key West, yet I came across a huge school of three-and four-pounders. As I drifted before a light breeze, I quickly caught three of these fish, but while casting to a fourth I noticed the rod seemed a little wobbly. When I struck the fish the rod definitely bent in an uneven arc. On inspection I discovered that the ferrule joining the two sections of the rod had cracked. The graphite nemesis had struck again. This time it wasn't too serious. I simply reinforced the female ferrule with wrapping thread and varnished it. Since that time almost a year has elapsed and the rod has proved itself on a number offish, including a 14-pound permit, with no further trouble. More important, it has become my favorite outfit.
But I have not become a zealot of graphite. First, they are fragile when compared with the present generation of glass rods. A nick that would do little harm in the comparatively thick wall of a glass blank is often enough to collapse a graphite rod. Then, too, a good fiberglass fly rod sells for around $50, but its graphite equivalent runs three to four times as high. In time the price will probably come down as more and more manufacturers produce the graphite blanks, but right now the angler who has to check the tag may have trouble justifying the price relative to the performance. And as more companies enter the field the buyer will be at the mercy of the manufacturer in another respect. Obviously, a rod with a surface nick in its black finish should be avoided, but there is no way to spot internal flaws (graphite rods are composed of strands of the material running longitudinally, and damage to these long strands is thought to be the primary cause of breakage) and in the end the reputation of the manufacturer is about all one can go on.
From my own experience I feel the fly-casting neophyte is likely to be most vulnerable to what may be excessive praise for graphite, although spinning rods, bait-casting and even surf-casting rods are also now available in graphite. The stiffness of a graphite blank will immediately add distance to an unskilled fly-fisherman's cast, but it is likely to come at the expense of timing, and in the end this type of shortcut cannot be justified. Despite a lot of publicity saying just the opposite, my experience has been that a good fly-caster will seldom achieve greater distance with graphite than with glass, but he will find that the degree of effort required to get the same results is substantially reduced, and that can be a substantial benefit.
At this stage I consider a graphite rod something of an indulgence and one in which the level of the angler's skill should be realistically appraised before he takes the plunge.