Several months ago I wrote a rod review on the innovative Kilwell Xantu 9’6” #8 weight fly rod.
Check it out:- https://activeanglingnz.com/2015/03/27/kilwell-xantu-96-8-weight-rod-review/
One of the things that I noticed as soon as I held the rod was that the diameter of the cork handle was slightly larger than any of the other fly rods in my arsenal. In real terms it was around 2.5 millimetres wider which means that the circumference was about 8 millimetres larger.
This took a few casts to get used to initially but once I did I quickly found that the larger grip was easier to hold and caused less fatigue over the course of a long session. For once my fingernails did not dig into my palms when distance casting and I fished longer without any noticeable side affects. As a result the Xantu quickly became a favourite.
Even more surprisingly my presentation also improved with the larger circumference handle. I suspect this is down to the fact that my hand held the rod more firmly so it was easier to keep the handle more precisely aligned during the casting stroke. Less flex at the bottom of the rod leads to better tip control. Better tip control makes for tighter loops, less drop in the back cast and crisper delivery.
It seems to me that fly rod manufacturers are eternally obsessed with tweaking blank design, forever stiffening and dampening them to get higher line speeds and tighter loops. Ever year the marketing gets more technical and a new innovation is introduced to make last year’s model obsolete and less desirable. With the plethora of new rod introductions it is becoming harder and harder to separate fact from fiction.
Often these changes bring about minuscule improvements in performance, certainly these improvements are far less “ground breaking” than the associated hype would have one believe.
I would have to say, having test cast almost all of the latest advancements from all of the major rod makers, that none of the blank innovations have probably made as much difference to my casting performance as the increase in size (circumference) of the rod handle on the Xantu. It is a game changer.
While the Kilwell Xantu blank is definitely the equal of anything currently on offer globally it is the combination with the oversize handle that makes the rod truly special. For example, I am currently using the #8 weight rod with an #9 weight Airflo Ego Distance taper fly line and can regularly cast this over 30 metres comfortably without an aggressive double haul. I am convinced that this is a combination of the blank and the handle size.
Recently I read an article on the Midcurrent website which specifically discussed the case for bigger rod grips on fly rods. Click on the link to view it:- http://midcurrent.com/gear/suggestion-box-stickers-grips-and-fly-rod-re-issues/
The author, Robert Morselli, had discovered that the reason he preferred his favourite St Croix rod was all down to size of the rod handle. In his words:-
“Recently, I wondered what it is that keeps me hooked to that old Avid? The answer is the cork grip, which is larger – but only by a few millimetres – than any other rod that I use. Overall, the rod is more comfortable to fish, and the kicker is that I cast better (although not necessarily farther) with it. I suspect that the rod was designed and built with a template that no longer exists. Hopefully, I’m wrong.
I’ll stop short of the absurd statement that I wish all my rods had that same grip, which just wouldn’t make sense on a 2 or 3 or 4-weight, but will state that my lighter line rods would probably benefit – me – if they had marginally larger diameter grips. My hands might be wee larger than average (I’m 6’1” – certainly no giant), but I’m sure that they aren’t “off-the-chart” large.
On a hunch, I tried an experiment: I wrapped the grips of two of my smaller fly rods (3 and 4-weight) with bicycle handlebar tape, and the results were impressive. Increased comfort, easier and better, more controlled casting. I’m aware that grip size and configuration make up a large part of any rod’s architecture, but still wonder if it’s possible that cork grip diameters have been a little undersized all this time”.
My interest piqued, I decided to actually measure all of the circumference of the fly rods in my arsenal to see what they were and to also confirm whether handle shape (all are either full wells or half wells) influenced handle circumference at the thickest point.
What I found was that almost all of the rods that I own, irrespective of manufacturer, had a maximum handle circumference of 7.8 centimetres. It did not matter whether the rod was made by Sage, Hardy, Scott, Abel or TFO, all had the same maximum circumference. Fascinating.
It was also irrelevant whether the rod handle shape was half or full wells the circumference was consistent. Even my sole double handed Switch rod had an 7.8 centimetre maximum circumference. It is almost as if they were all built to a uniform standard.
There were two notable exceptions namely an old NZ assembled Sage which had a maximum handle circumference of 8.1 centimetres and the Kilwell Xantu which has a circumference of 8.6 centimetres. Maybe the local NZ manufacturers knew from experience what best suited this market and tweaked the handle dimensions to suit?
I then decided to measure the handle circumference of my favourite spinning rod, the 3 piece Daiwa Newera 9’. Lo and behold the circumference was once again 8.6 centimetres. Obviously this circumference suits my handle size perfectly. I was totally unaware of this at the outset.
I accept that my hands are probably larger than most anglers but it is a fact that it is ergonomically easier to hold larger diameter handles. Take for example axe handles which are deliberately designed to be large enough to hold without the finger tips touching the palms. The same applies to cricket bats where it is common for cricket players add double rubber grips on their bat handles to reduce fatigue and improve handling.
Where is this all leading?
In short, it is time for fly rod manufacturers to have a long hard look at handle circumference as the current standard is marginally too small. Increasing the circumference will undoubtedly help enhance the performance of the latest blank tweaks, improve angler comfort and reduce fatigue.
I agree with Robert Morselli that anglers should be able to buy fly rods with larger circumference cork handles than the current standard of 7.8 centimetres as they do offer performance benefits. There may be some economic incentive for rod makers to produce fly rods with smaller handles but that should not stop them offering handles with larger circumferences for those who value the extra control and comfort and are prepared to pay a premium for it. Here’s hoping!