CORK FLY ROD HANDLES – SHAPE AND CIRCUMFERENCE IS IMPORTANT

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.

Fly rod handles 002

Fly rod handles 001

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.

Rod handles

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.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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!

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23 thoughts on “CORK FLY ROD HANDLES – SHAPE AND CIRCUMFERENCE IS IMPORTANT

  1. Hi Alan, Great article on a very overlooked aspect of rod design – and yet it is the interface between the angler and the rod. As you said, it’s not a blanket case that all rods should have a larger diameter handle, but I did appreciate that aspect of the Xantu when i was using it. I think that designers need to ponder more that the handle needs to harmonise with the rod’s line weight and purpose. Chucking big flies, agressive hauling and heavey lines would indicate a meatier grip to make the extra work more comfortable. But a #4 line short creek rod for short range work would require a more a handle that maintains light weight and ability to communicate delicate tactile nuances during casting.
    Cheers,
    Mark

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article Mark and thanks for the comments. Good points, well made. Kilwell currently only has the Xantu in #6 – #8 weights but it would be interesting to get a #6 weight for a test to see how it performs.

  2. I refer you to the articles I wrote for the IFFF instructor’s journal “THE Loop”. Within this series the methods of testing increased rod circumference and applications become linked to specific maladies and, as you note, reduced “grip fatigue”. If you would like to have me create a professional update on the subject, we can discuss same.Current grip sizes, more importantly shapes, impede efficient biomechanics of executing nuanced fly casts.

    Anyone beyond their third decade of life recognizes subtle – or obvious – reductions in special sense and fine motor control. Most accept adaptations to restore optimal function, yet we submit to cork limitations and non-sensical dictates of rod manufacture that bear little concern for physiological realities.

    Dr. Gary Eaton, MCI

    1. Hi Gary, Thanks for your comments on the AANZ article on cork rod grip circumference. I totally agree that more attention needs to be paid to grip size and design by fly rod manufacturers as the issues you raise are likely being compounded by the endless quest for faster (stiffer) blanks. I will have to bow to your extensive knowledge of this area though as you are the recognised expert. I’m just an “enthusiastic amateur” when it comes to fly casting. Happy to help wherever you think I can add value. Thanks again for taking the time to comment. Look forward to hearing from you. Tight lines, Alan.

  3. Funny. I just got a thinner and smaller grip for my 8 weight rod.
    I have small hands and the large full wells grip that came originally with my rod felt uncomfortable after a while.

    Have you tried grip tape for badminton and squash rackets?
    I remember taping a thin foam like tape on my badminton grip for better grip with sweaty hand.
    Using a grip tape will make a grip a bit thicker as well give a great grip.
    These tapes come in bright colors so it might look odd but it might be an answer.

    1. Hi Jay, Obviously the one size fits all approach used by the fly rod manufacturers is a problem for those with small and large hands. My point was that

      1. Hi Jay, Obviously the one size fits all approach used by most of the fly rod handle manufacturers is a problem for those with both small and large hands. My point was that it should be possible to get handles with different sizes to suit the end user and optimise biomechanical efficiency. Adding tape grips to an expensive fly rod is an ugly option aesthetically. Why should the angler have to modify a grip on a high end rod just to make it fit their hand? Instead of adding new rods every year perhaps manufacturers should look a providing grip options for the blanks that they already offer. Surely that would make more sense than a temporary tape solution?

    2. Jay,
      Too soft a grip ie foam, actually increases the required force needed to control “spin” & increases inherent “shear”, often leading to blisters or irregular wear, including blisters.

      The grip tape used in racquet sports, therfore must be wrapped very tightly. Over wrap with Tournagrip or other “dry-feel” tape may provide a more cork-like feel.

      My work suggests your hands would have to be extremely small to need to deem sanding usual factory made cork. Often, reducing the amount of taper , or using a reverse half-Welles grip may make fuller grip circumference more tolerable in freshwater rods for one-hand.

      Dr. Gary Eaton, MCI

      1. My hands are smallish but not extremely small. The full wells grip the fly fishing industry use for rods for 8 weights and heavier are probably made with the general American man in mind. For instance the clothing American size Medium is more a size Large in Europe. The modified full wells grip of trout rod Sage One or TXL-F for instance are just perfect for me. The ones fitted in the Sage Xi’s are a tad too large for my taste.

        About the tape:
        As a former badminton player these taped grips prevented slippery grips during play as you sweat.
        The tape is wrapped very tightly obviously to prevent the tape moving or even worse coming off during the game.
        The tape is a bit ‘foamish’ but it can’t be called soft by any means. It just adds that nice feel rather than the hard wooden grip underneath.

        The colors of the tapes are bright (red, blue, yellow, etc.) but I’m sure there are tapes in subdued colors.
        Fly fishing and its industry is very traditional. Which is a good thing, but some aspects needs to go along with the new era to keep it interesting for new, especially younger, fishermen. Otherwise fly fishing will die out as a game for oldies…
        Take a look at a few quotes by Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) about which way fly fishing is heading: http://bassbug.blogspot.nl/2015/03/yvon-chouinard-about-road-fly-fishing.html

        For instance soccer shoes used to be just black. These days the top soccer players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, etc. are wearing bright yellow, pink (!) and blue shoes. These fashionable shoes are very appealing to younger people who think it’s cool. So, in all I don’t see why neatly taped fly rod grips are ‘just’ ugly?…

  4. This thread is wandering off topic. The point of the article was that manufacturers needed to have a range of handle sizes to suit the bespoke requirements of anglers. Handles should not need to be sanded or taped after purchase in order to fit the hand correctly.

    1. You know that fly fishing is a pretty niche market with small profit margins.
      Rod built in several variations of handle sizes will be a huge risk for manufacturers.
      If you want bespoke requirements, go for custom built rods.

  5. Interesting piece about a subject that doesn’t receive enough attention – the interface between the angler and his casting tool. Back in the ’80s a pal and I had a go at re-designing the fly rod grip along ergonomic principles. We dispensed with the idea of grips that were round in cross section, preferring depth and reduced width. We failed to change the world, alas, but it still has its fans. Essentially we created a pistol grip for a fly rod. Check it out here

    http://www.siestacorktiles.co.uk/maniform/

  6. As a bamboo rod maker, I insist on the customer coming to my shop and “fitting the grip as I make it. But this goes along with them choosing all the aspects of the rod as I make it. There are rod builders out there who build manufactured rods and should make the grip to your individual hand. I am of the same opinion as you with the one size fits all concept of the manufacturers and feel it has to be cost effectiveness. Generally a rod builders custom rod can be had close to the manufacture cost and be custom made with the same blank, and a bamboo rod should then be all custom and generally you pick taper, color, grip, Etc.. Ceck out the custom rod makers in your area or the next fly fishing show in you area.

  7. An observation; there is one problem with the personalisationcustomisation of fly rods, namely that it has the potential to depress re-sale value. In the UK, it is top end rod brands – eg Sage, Loomis, Hardy – that seem to retain a greater proportion of their initial cost, should you ever choose to re-sell them. I suspect that someone wishing to purchase a second-hand rod from a premium brand is going to want a rod that matches the original factory specification, rather than something that has been tweaked to a specific individual.

    1. Good point David. However I’m only talking about increasing the diameter of the handle which could actually improve chances of resale, if this benefit was marketed properly.

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