I’ve been reviewing fly rods for about a decade. From the latest and greatest flagship rods to sticks from boutique builders, I’ve had the chance to fish more rods than I remember. The only real problem with fishing so many rods is that you eventually start wanting most of them, and that gets expensive in a hurry. The used fly rod market is much easier on the pocketbook, making it possible to fill out a quiver of rods and still have gas money left over.
My first forays into the used rod market weren’t great, though. I bought a few junk rods and struck gold on a fantastic little bamboo piece from the ‘80s. Mostly, though, I wasted hours looking through listings without really knowing what I was looking for. I knew what to look for in new rods, but used ones?
I reckon plenty of anglers feel the same way.
So, in the hopes that I can help someone else avoid overpaying for a bad rod – or, worse yet, missing out on a true gem – I want to share a few of the ways I evaluate used rods.
Narrow your search
The first step to buying good used fly rods is narrowing down your search criteria. Typing “fly rod” into eBay and browsing the results is like trying to catch pike on a size 16 elk hair caddis.
I’ve come to really love a certain era of Winston fly rods. These are pre-IM6, Fisher-rolled Winstons with the trophy cup logo, a down locking reel seat, P.O Box 248 on the rod tube label, and a serial number below 8000.
As you can imagine, it’s a lot easier to sift through used rods with criteria that specific. You don’t need to get that granular – I collect those old Winstons – but a few qualifiers really help with your search.
My best suggestion here is to winnow down your search to a few makers, then go down to length and line weights from there.
Pictures are worth $1,000
In the case of used fly rods, pictures tell the entire story.
When I’m looking for another old Winston to add to my collection, I’m picky about the serial number. I’m incredibly picky about the rod inscription, too, because that’s one of the few aspects of a Winston that can’t be faked or forged.
That same idea holds true for your own rod search. Pictures show you how clean or soiled the cork is, which is a direct indicator of how often the rod has been fished. Pictures show the finish of a rod. Dings, cracks, and other blemishes can’t hide. Pictures allow you to match up the rod inscriptions with the listing title. What isn’t shown in pictures is often just as valuable as what is. If it looks like a rod was positioned to hide a specific section of the rod (this often happens with cork grips that have chunks missing) throughout multiple pictures, be suspicious.
I’ve probably missed out on a few good rods because the pictures weren’t clear enough to show me what I wanted to see. I’d rather miss out on a good rod than buy one that’s not what I want, though.
Don’t be afraid to ask for more pictures. If a seller refuses, don’t feel bad about moving on. One thing I’ve learned from collecting old rods is that another great deal always comes up.
Product descriptions matter
Even if the pictures aren’t great, don’t dismiss a rod right off the bat. If the product description is solid, and the seller sends more pictures, you’re likely looking at a great new-to-you fly rod.
Product descriptions will let you know within the first few sentences whether you’re dealing with a fellow fly angler, or someone looking to unload an uncle’s old fishing gear.
Look for phrases in the description that are common to fly fishing. It’s a “fly rod” not a “fly pole.” Rods are “rated for 4wt lines” not “rated for number 4 lines.” Graphite rods rarely come with an extra tip section; bamboo rods commonly do. Old graphite rods and some modern fiberglass rods have spigot ferrules, a feature that’s commented on in most product descriptions if you’re looking for an older rod.
And while the English teacher in me would love to think that all product descriptions will be well-written, I know that’s not the case. But look for odd phrasing, punctuation, or syntax that doesn’t feel right. That’s often the sign of a scam.
Don’t judge the website at first glance
Much to the chagrin of every IT guy and middle school computer science teacher, I’ll go ahead and say this: old, clunky, sketchy-looking websites aren’t always a bad place to look for used fly rods.
I bought my first bamboo rod sight unseen from Bob Selb. Bob runs the Classic Fly Fisherman shop in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and he keeps up a solid online catalog of vintage and new cane rods. At first glance, the online catalog isn’t that impressive. Its design is straight from the mid-90s internet era. A modern eBay and Facebook shopper would likely dismiss the site as untrustworthy. To the discerning fly rod connoisseur, it’s a haven for reasonably priced, serviceable rods (as is JD Wagner’s site).
When I first started perusing the used rod market – looking for both bamboo and graphite – I missed out on a lot of good deals because I wasn’t willing to take a chance on a website that didn’t look the part. Obviously, you don’t want to give credit card information to just any old website. Bob’s site has the makings of authenticity because it’s just a catalog. Placing an order means calling Bob.
And, Bob’s site has great photos and wonderful product descriptions. A few minutes perusing his listings makes it clear that Bob knows what he’s talking about, and he’s someone I’d trust to buy a rod from.
Buying used fly rods sometimes feels like more of an art than a science, but it’s not that tough. You’ll have to be patient for the right deal, but ready to jump once it comes along. And who knows? Maybe you’ll find your next favorite fly rod in the used section sometime soon.