Years ago in my salad days when I was a tennis pro, players would come in to ask about improving their game with a $100 metal or, later, $200 graphite racket. Well, I told you it was years ago! In almost every case what they needed most was more instruction and practice. practice, practice. Such is exactly the case with flyfishing. But that's not unusual. Those new to any activity always go through a period when they try to substitute technology for technique.
This is not to say that new rods aren't a big improvement over older graphite, fiberglass, bamboo or, if you go far enough back, greenheart. However, paying $500 or $600 for a rod when you can get an equally good one made from what amounts to the same materials from an American manufacturer such as St. Croix for $200 or so, simply does not make sense unless you subscribe to the "he who dies with the most toys wins" theory. It's my strong impression that rod savings would be better used for instruction.
I can cite some specific, if ad personae, examples or rod choices here based on my fly fishing experience that started as a ten year old in 1947. Over these years I've watched rods run from short to long and move from wimpy to stiff and back several times. I've owned at least 200 fly rods. These days I use St. Croix's new five weight for most dry fly fishing, and their eight weight for bass and Clearwater River Steelhead. However, I still use Grandfather's old bamboo Hardy for nymphing small creeks a couple of times a year-- I do this sans "strike indicators" that I'm convinced are bobbers in drag. The rod is really a wall hanger, but there's a lot of love in the grip he held when he taught me to fish
I also use a fiberglass rod old enough to be rated for HDH line as the tool of choice when I fish kelp beds in saltwater off special long guard's surf boards with a glass inset or out of skiffs. Kelp rods get beaten up, so the old yellow glass collects dings, and gray cod. Sure there are more modern "tools" available, but I've grown used to these and probably won't change unless they break.
Today, exotic graphite are the material of choice even though honest rod designers note that "it's the way materials that are used that's most important."
Some tackle changes, as Homer Circle once told me, "Are even improvements." For example, last fall, I fished Islamorada for bonefish at the tail end of President Bush's Tournament. I used three piece eight and ten weight St. Croix rods new out of the cases. I've fished Loomis, Sage, Powell, Orvis and have owned Hardy bamboo as well as Winston Hollow-Fluted bamboo rods back in the 1950s and 1960s. Frankly, for the kind of fishing we did on the flats the new St. Croixs were at least as good as any rods I tried, and on that trip I tried a batch that cost from two to five times as much.
Do note that, I am, according to experts like Mark Sosin, "an ugly caster." I learned to cast from relatives as a kid in the late 1940s and my casting techniques, and in particular my double hauling, is not nearly as clean as many of today's experts. However, I catch a lot more fish than most because, over the years, I've learned to find or see fish and, I know my casting limitations. Besides, most of the fly flingers I see qualify as "ugly casters" compared to professionals like Lefty Kreh or Gary Borger.
I also know that tournament casters, like tournament tennis players, can get the most out of rather less forgiving equipment than typical folks need. Pros seem to favor stiffer rods and can toss tighter loops than the rest of us. This isn't bad except when their results are presented to the typical angler as true writ. There's also a trend, and a rather sad one, towards rods aimed at flinging a dry fly the maximum distance. Such rods, like casting rods aimed at lure fishermen, don't always suit nymphing or --horrors -- regressive systems like bait. This last is, of course, one of the most effective fishing systems of all if not politically correct.
Another area of interest is the sheer number of rods I see some buy these day. I get calls from readers in California who want to know what to bring to fish the Clearwater for steelhead or the flats of Florida. When I ask what they own I get a report of dozens of different kinds of rods in several lengths and actions. These match up with more reels than most small tackle shops sell. There's nothing wrong with this. As an aside from another sport, British shotgunners claim it's bad for results to even pick up someone else's shotgun.
So what's the answer in selecting rods? Simple, it's try before you buy when you can. Swishing rods in the shop simply won't tell you much. Using a friend's rod at a casting club or stream can help. Checking with other anglers and asking to trade rods to try can help too. However, you must realize that those newly converted to fly flinging are true believers who insist on the "if it works for me it must work for you" theory.
I'm also in favor of a limited number of rods that area used most of the time. I fish all over the world in fresh and saltwater, but I find I use four rods for almost all my angling. These are St. Croixs. I've five, eight and ten weight three piece travel rods -- the last is only really needed for heavy saltwater. These handle all my travel needs. In addition, I use a short three weight with four weight line for local creeks. With a reel to match each rod and lots of shooting heads and leaders in a loop to loop system I'm set to fish anywhere for just about anything.