Sages Through The Ages
New fly rods are usually greeted with a healthy mixture of curiosity and skepticism. The desire to cast the new rod is frequently tempered by a guarded cynicism regarding advertising claims. I’m often asked, “Is there a difference between the new rod and the old rod?” To which I usually answer, “Let’s cast them and find out.”
Last week, I compared a new rod with two old favorites. It’s March in Maine. Superstorm (a popular term around here lately) Nemo dumped a record 32 inches of snow in my backyard, so getting to the river is a bit of a chore. The mercury has dropped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit on several occasions this winter. Water in liquid form is in short supply. Ice shacks dot the frozen waterscape. I need open water or tiny grappling hooks on my leader to anchor a spey cast to the ice.
Layered in the depths of my tackle closet—behind the 389 LL, the 586 RPL, the 590-4 Z-Axis, the 890-4 XP, the VT2 7130-4 and the Z-Axis 7136-4—reside two of my all-time favorite rods: the Graphite III 9140-3 and the TCR 9140-4. I still fish these rods, but it’s been a while since I uncased them. The challenger, a fine layer of cork dust on the grip, is the new Sage ONE 9140-4. In order to keep things apples-to-apples, I’ll cast each rod with the same line: a RIO AFS 9/10 affixed to 50-pound RIO SlickShooter, a 10-foot RIO Intermediate VersiLeader and an eight-foot-long tippet.
First up, is the Graphite III 9140-3. Age, as always, before beauty. Göran Andersson, the father of the underhand cast, played a role in the development of this rod. The Graphite III 9140-3 still commands a healthy respect in Scandinavia, where many consider it the finest 14-foot rod ever built. The price for a specimen in mint condition usually exceeds the original retail price. Bidding wars on eBay and Internet bulletin boards are common. I spent the better part of a month in Norway chasing salmon a few years back. I ran into one angler on the Gaula who said he would trade his first-born for a new Graphite III 9140-3. You get the picture.
Piecing the rod together, I am struck by the diameter of the butt section and the corresponding robustness of the cork. The grip is fairly chunky by today’s standards. The British-style reel seat is perhaps out of place on this definitive Scandinavian-style two-hander. The rod feels light in the hand, a byproduct no doubt, of its three-piece configuration (the rod will not fit in the trunk of my car). The 9140-3 feels top heavy with a reel of 8 ounces, yet balances perfectly (to my tastes) with a more substantial salmon reel of 13 ounces.
When casting in a straight line—i.e. a switch cast or an overhead cast—I’d stack the Graphite III 9140-3 against any 14-foot rod I’ve ever thrown. The bend profile is effortlessly smooth and without flat spots at any point along the blank. The recovery is fairly snappy considering it’s built with graphite from the Reagan era. The rod dampens well. It is always difficult to evaluate tracking as this quality rests equally in the hands of both designer and caster. Let’s just say that when this rod fails to track in a straight line, the operator is at fault. The rod works best with a fairly short, compact stroke.
A single spey is automatic out to about 45 degrees (where 0 degrees is directly downstream). Beyond 45 degrees, I have to pay particular attention to make sure I initiate the angle change with my hips well before I throw the rear loop of the spey back cast. The 9140-3 delivers its payload quickly. Loading and unloading is a fairly rapid process. The rod is reasonably forgiving of small errors in timing. Paired with a single spey, it’s not an ideal rod for your first day with a two-hander. When you line everything up the way you’re supposed to, the RIO AFS shooting head flies farther than you’re ever likely to fish.
The Sage TCR two-handed series features a quartet of rods. The TCR 8123-4 and TCR 9140-4, though fast in action, are less demanding to cast than the über-quick TCR 9129-4 or the TCR 10150-4. Assembling the TCR 9140-4, I notice that the fore grip is longer and the lower grip is shorter compared to the Graphite III 9140-3, with a higher grade of cork throughout. A fully machined up-locking reel seat has replaced the lightweight aluminum hood and cork spacer of the 9140-3. The fit of reel to rod is more secure on the TCR as a consequence. The two stripping guides are smaller and of higher quality, and the color of the rod—chili pepper—is an arresting departure from the Sage brown of old.
Putting the rod through its paces, the TCR 9140-4 delivers a satisfying “whuump,” to use Mel Krieger’s term, during recovery after the forward stop. I’ve never felt the like on any other rod series. The rod catapults the RIO AFS shooting head through the air with startling line speed. The stroke is short, compact and not a little vicious. I can also find this sweet spot on the TCR 8123-4 and, with practice, on the TCR 9129-4. I’d need to go on a steroid regimen to find it on the TCR 10150-4, which may be the stiffest and most powerful 15-foot rod around which I’ve wrapped two hands.
Finding the sweet spot on each and every cast with the TCR 9140-4 requires practice. The rod has what I describe as a narrow performance window. If you operate within its proscribed parameters, you cast like a hero. You can see yourself at Golden Gate Casting Club peeling more monofilament shooting line from your reel than World Spey Casting Champion Gerard Downey. The pond may not be large enough. Release the hounds!
If you miss this performance window, you are quickly brought back to reality. You secretly hope no one saw your last cast. The transition from Spey god to Pee-Wee Herman is both miraculous and instantaneous (only you didn’t mean to do it). I fished this rod for a month straight in Norway. You fish around the clock there—it never grows dark. It’s easy to cast yourself into a state of oblivion. When I grew tired, I noticed I was in the latter category (auditioning for the remake of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) more often than I was in the former.
Enter the Sage ONE 9140-4. Removing the black rod from its dark sleeve, I find it hard to believe I’m uncasing a 14-foot rod for a 9-weight line. The diameter of the butt section and the svelte nature of the cork grip more closely resemble the proportions of yesteryear’s 13-and-a-half-foot rod for a 7-weight line. A traditional down-locking reel seat is standard on the ONE, replacing the up-locking reel seat featured on previous generations of Sage two-handed rods. The ONE 9140-4 is exactly two ounces lighter than the TCR 9140-4 and, in four sections, 1 and ½ ounces lighter than the three-piece Graphite III 9140-3.
Assembling the ONE, I am struck by the size of the ferrules. They are virtually non-existent. It could be my imagination, but the male-to-female fit of these ferrules seems even more precise on the ONE compared to either the Graphite III or the TCR. The ONE balances perfectly with a reel of 8 to 9 ounces. I am also satisfied with the balance of the rod with an S-handled salmon reel of 13 ounces. The down-locking seat seems to accept a wider range of reel weights, accommodating those of us who like to stare at a classically proportioned reel when the fishing gets slow.
I make a series of switch casts with the ONE and the RIO AFS shooting head. The bend profile is an emphatic departure from either the Graphite III or the TCR. In fact, there is little in the DNA of the earlier rods to suggest a common bloodline with the racer-thin black mamba in my hands. The ONE loads more deeply into the middle and lower third of the rod than either the Graphite III or the TCR. I am able to flatten the upper third of the ONE when making an angle change, while maintaining a smooth and even load in the lower two thirds of the rod. As a result, I can make angle changes greater than 90 degrees as a matter of routine when executing a single spey.
I tend to cast best when progressively bending a rod from the butt to the tip. The ONE effortlessly allows this bottom-to-top progression while still permitting a pure tip cast at short distances. The rod has bucket loads of control without tipping over into the regressive feel of a long-belly rod in the British style. The action remains firmly in the progressive camp. It has a smooth, slingshot feel in contrast to the abrupt, catapult-like action of the TCR. I am able to lengthen my stroke, slow down and smooth out the application of power, yet still maintain perfect tracking. The timing of the ONE is relaxed and casual, the effort slightly above minimal. Missing the performance window of the ONE is about as likely as a joint literary venture between Philip Roth and the Kardashians.
There is an entrenched belief along the banks of many North American rivers that double-handed rods designed for Scandinavian-style spey casting are or should be fast in action. Pool cues. Smoke poles. Fast, faster, and fastest. I’ve fished with many of the finest casters and rod designers in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Few if any of their designs or preferred actions are lightning quick. Instead, they are smooth, deep-loading affairs with an abundance of feel and enough power in reserve to cast a weighted tube into a north wind.
It turns out that all the qualities of a good mid-belly rod—a progressively loading butt and mid-section smoothly ascending to a firm, authoritative tip—also define the qualities of a superior rod for Scandinavian-style spey casting (or any shooting head for that matter). I personally believe we are going to distance ourselves from double-handed rods designed for niche markets within niche markets. A good rod is a good rod. It should be able to cast a Scandinavian-style shooting head, a skagit head, a short- or a mid-head line with equal facility. The Sage ONE is that rod.
It may be too soon to declare the winner of this three-way shootout. I wish I could say that any conclusions are the result of a rigorous commitment to the scientific method and efficient double-blind testing protocols. If it makes you feel any better I did do a fair bit of casting with both my eyes closed (which is about as close as I get to the latter). There are enough hanging chads in this shootout to tip an election either way. The established favorites held their ground when confronted with the unforgiving pace of technology. The old guard acquitted itself well in a showdown with the young, the bold and the new. If shove comes to push and I am forced to commit, I can say that like the man who sang the “Folsom Prison Blues” and “A Boy Named Sue,” my streamside ensemble includes a healthy dose of black this season.
Topher Browne is an ambassador for Sage, Patagonia and a member of the advisory team for RIO Products. He co-wrote the spey-casting DVD, Spey to Z, and recently released Atlantic Salmon Magic (Wild River Press, 463 pages) and 100 Best Flies for Atlantic Salmon (Wild River Press, 244 pages).