Picture this: Five hours into a hike you stumble upon a small mountain lake brimming with rising trout and are suddenly filled with regret. Your 2-piece fly rod is sitting at home, far too cumbersome to carry in your pack. Fear not! There are multiple backpacker-friendly (read: compact and still worthy of a big catch) fly rods available, four of which we have reviewed below!
In the backcountry, you are likely to encounter both open lakes and brushy streams which can make for a difficult decision as to what one rod will be best suited for either situation. An 8'6" 5-weight rod is an excellent compromise; it is short enough to cast in tight streams but has enough backbone for windy open lakes. For well over a decade I have been using a Fenwick 5-piece, 5-weight that my father built in the 1970s as my pack rod. While I have fond memories of using the rod on both coasts of the U.S. and everywhere in between, it can only be described as an overweight broom handle whose performance is readily bested by all four of the 5-weight pack rods I tested.
Cabela's Stowaway 7
Easily the stiffest rod of the group is the $170 (prices listed are for rod and accompanying case only) Cabela's Stowaway 7, an 8' 6" 7-piece rod (cabelas.com). This fast-action rod can cast serious distance but is difficult to handle when trying for short or accurate casts. Roll casting* is nice and firm, though again the overly stiff rod tip left something to be desired in accuracy.
L.L. Bean Travel Series
The 9' 8-piece L.L. Bean Travel Series (llbean.com), priced at $185, has a nice fast action with a relatively sensitive tip. While not absolutely critical to performance, it is also the only rod with traditional snake style** line guides (the others all have single foot guides). Roll casting is one of my weaker casting techniques however the L.L. Bean made it easy. The fast action combined with a soft tip allowed me to effortlessly drop a fly in tight pockets on a heavily wooded stream. My only complaint is that the rod felt a bit heavy when casting at short distances. If you are afraid of taking an expensive rod into the wilderness, the moderately priced Travel Series is a great option.
March Brown Brownsea Island
The MIT-trained aerospace engineers at March Brown (marchbrown.com) created a wonderful fast-action rod, the 7-piece 9' Brownsea Island (pricing not yet determined). This rod is extremely light when casting at all distances and carries 60 feet of line with ease. One of the most innovative features is a patented design that allows you to remove the section above the handle to shorten the rod without having to restring, making it ideal for tight patches on the stream.
March Brown Baden Powell Special Edition
I fell in love with the 8'6" 7-piece medium-fast action Baden Powell Special Edition by March Brown, priced at $520. The light swing weight made it easy to false cast and with the softest tip of all, this rod smoothly dropped a fly wherever I wanted. While not the fastest when casting at a distance, the slower action made this rod the most enjoyable . And, just as with the Brownsea Island rod, the section above the handle is easily removable which quickly shortens the rod length--I only wish the rod was available in a 9'. Though more expensive than its peers, the striking performance makes the Baden Powell a must-have.
Now if I could only find some pack waders for the early season snowmelt...
Side note: While all of the rods came with protective PVC rod cases, they were not light. If you are doing more than a day hike it would be worthwhile upgrading to an ultralight plastic or carbon fiber case (you can easily cut a pound of weight or more). The small cases the rods came with did work great when traveling on a plane; I was able to easily fit the L.L. Bean and March Brown rods in my carry-on bag.
(Dan Corbett has been fly fishing for the better part of two decades. Starting with sunfish growing up, Dan now favors using a fly to chase all species of fresh and saltwater fish. Stay tuned for his how-to fly fishing video and a review of these rods on backpacker.com/video.)
* A casting technique used when a brushy or wooded backdrop makes traditional over-the-shoulder casting tough. http://www.flyfishingnetwork.org/casts/roll-cast.php
**A snake style guide is attached to the rod at two points whereas a single foot guide is attached at one point. The performance difference is negligible; it is primarily an aesthetic preference.