A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO YOUR FIRST ROD & REEL

I had my first fishing rod and reel for almost 10 years before buying my second. I purchased it from a local bait shop when I was 14 so I could join the anglers I saw fishing from the jetty at Dowses Beach in Osterville, Massachusetts. I remember the first fish I caught with it to, a sea-robin, and with no pliers or knowledge of the fish's spines, I was lucky enough to unhook and release the fish free and clear of any injuries. Fast-forward years later and I found myself standing in front of the fishing rods at Bass Pro Shops wondering what gear I needed to increase the number of places and species I could fish.

There are a number of tools that surfcasters find helpful, some being a requirement to get out there and give the sport a shot (the necessities; e.g. line, hooks, etc.). While pliers, bags, and waders all make the experience safer and more enjoyable, it all starts with the rod and reel. That's the beauty of this sport, right? People have caught fish for generations with a baited hook, fishing line, and a rod and reel.

In this article, I'd like to focus on the basics, the different types of surf rods to get you started and some of the reliable brands who've manufactured fishing gear for years. Before we get into the brands themselves, let's begin with a breakdown of the surfcasting rod and compare it to some of the other types of fishing rods out there.

The "surf rod" is a subset of sea-casting rod designed for fishing in the ocean, be it from a boat or beach. Sea casting rods can vary in length, strength, and weight, depending on the use and species being targeted. The heaviest sea rods are designed for shark and big game fishing and are used in parallel with heavy-duty line and reel. A surf rod typically features a spinning reel, a popular type of reel due to its ease of use and casting ability. Fly rods, casting rods, ice-fishing rods, trolling rods, and telescopic rods are all other types of rods used in different situations. In this article, let's focus on the different elements of the surf rod and what you should be looking for when purchasing your first setup.

THE SURF ROD

LENGTH

One of the defining characteristics of a surf fishing rod is it's length. Although there are a lot of factors that go into throwing a far cast, generally, the longer the rod, the further you'll be able to cast. My first fishing rod was on the smaller side, somewhere between 6 and 8 feet, and was limiting based on the casting distance I could achieve and the weight of the tackle I could use. Most all-purpose surfcasting rods are between 10-12ft. in length, however there are some rods as short as 9ft. and as long as 14ft. I'm 5'9" and chose a 10ft. surf rod for my first setup, it's important to note that you should consider your height when choosing a rod. If you're short-in-stature, maybe consider a rod on the smaller end of the spectrum to make it easier to handle, carry, and cast.

POWER & ACTION

There are two elements of the surf rod that can also be considered when making your purchase. They are the rod's power and action. Another way to think of a rod's power is its lifting ability or strength. Given you'll be making the move from lighter tackle to heavier plugs and weighted surf-rigs, it's important to have a durable piece of equipment that will stand the test of time after hundreds of casts. A medium-heavy rod power is most commonly used by surf fishermen, giving you the durability you need in a rod and the versatility to take advantage of different types of tackle. Next up is the rod's action, one of the most important features of your fishing rod. The rod's action determines where, and how much, the rod will bend when throwing a cast. The range of rod action goes from slow, to medium, to fast. While there are advantages to both, a rod with slow action will bend towards the middle of the rod, while a rod with fast action bends closer to the tip. A slower action rod makes it easier to cast heavier tackle as well as provides you more control over your hook-set when the fish takes your bait or lure. Think of this as a strong, direct-line towards your catch. A fast action rod provides more flexibility towards the tip, driving your tip-speed and enabling you to throw smaller lures further. A fast-action rod also enables you to give your topwater lures more action, or movement, along the surface of the water when reeling them in. You might have seen a video of a Cape Cod Canal fisherman, bouncing a pencil popper along the surface as he retrieves it to the shoreline. A rod with fast action makes this activity easier.

To help answer the question of what power and action is a fit for you, think about the type of fishing you'll be doing. A rod with a medium-fast action is a safe-bet for multiple different types of fishing, however if you know you'll very rarely be bait-fishing, and want the ability to really make your lures dance, a fast-action rod might be the way to go.

ROD GUIDES

Rod guides are an often overlooked topic when it comes to selecting your fishing rod. I do think it's worth mentioning them as I have run into some issues with my own gear in the past.  Rod guides are the part of the fishing rod where the line is run through, starting at the reel, upwards through each guide and eventually out the rod tip. They're important because they provide the smooth surface your line glides over while casting and retrieving. The less friction the better, as your line is always taking a beating the longer its in use. Different technologies have been introduced over the years that have helped provide variation in the shape and durability of these guides. The three main types of guides are Alconite (Aluminum Oxide is the base material), Titanium, and Silicone Carbide. 

Alconite is the guide material you'll find on many low-mid tier fishing rods. It is extremely smooth, lightweight, and durable. My current rod that's been in use for two seasons actually has Alconite guides. I must note though that after my first season with heavy use, I did need to replace the rod tip due to wear-and-tear.  The challenge with Alconite is that with heavy use, exposure to saltwater, the use of braiding line vs. monofilament, the guides can eventually degrade to the point they can be broken. Sometimes this represents itself as a tiny divot in one of your guides that with the pressure of a hook-set, can sever your line, leaving you standing in the surf doubting your knot-tying abilities when that really isn't the case (speaking from experience). Not to scare you, rod guides can be replaced by most tackle shops inexpensively, however if you plan on fishing a lot, you might want to consider an upgrade to the more expensive Silicone Carbide.

Titanium is one of the latest (albeit 10 year) development in guide technology. Titanium guides are more expensive, but do offer a material that flexes and bends back to its shape relatively easily. Another benefit is that these guides are highly resistant to corrosion. They are considerably more lightweight, and considerably more expensive. Like anything in life, you get what you pay for, and in fishing price is determined by the materials and craftsmanship of the product.

Silicone Carbide or SIC are considered your best bet for fishing rod guides. With their ceramic base, these guides are highly resistant to corrosion, friction, and heat, giving you the confidence that they'll be able to stand-up to braided line. Given their price point, like Titanium guides, you'll most often find them on more expensive fishing rods. Personally, when I make my next upgrade, this is one of the features I'll be looking for given some of the issues I've run into with Alconite.

MATERIALS, PRICE,  & BRANDS

Most fishing rods today are manufactured with fiberglass, graphite, or a composite material including these elements plus others like boron or even ceramic. When thinking about the rod's price, you can expect that fiberglass rods will be less expensive with a slower action. Graphite rods on the other hand, tend to be more flexible and have faster action. Although they have less pure strength than a fiberglass rod, they also have much more give under pressure and are less likely to break under stress.

At the end of the day one of the best ways to determine what you're comfortable with is to find a fishing friend and join them on their trip. Cast their rod a couple of times and think through some of the elements above to help determine what you feel is the best fit for you. If you're a beginner, it can be tough to determine if a rod feels "right" for you. I had little knowledge when I picked out my first rod, basically leaning on the fact that I knew it had to be a certain length. I didn't even begin to think about the different reel options and went with a surfcasting rod & reel combination setup that some brands offer. In the end, my impatience to get a rod and get out there suited me well, because it opened the doors to one of the greatest passions I've ever had. That's my biggest piece of advice, just get out there and give it a shot.

There are a number of reputable fishing brands to choose from when it comes time to make your selection. My first surf rod & reel was the Penn Spinfisher V 6500 Rod & Reel Combo and it is still fully functional today. With all my rods, I prioritize a seasonal clean & oiling which helps keep them in good shape and if they take the occasional swim in the Atlantic, I'll be sure to rinse them thoroughly with fresh water after my trips. Some reputable surfcasting brands you can consider for your rod include St. Croix, PENN, Shakespeare Ugly Stik, Shimano, & Daiwa. Each of these offer enough of a selection for you to find something you'll like. 

THE REEL

Some things are just meant to be together. Peanut butter and jelly, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and of course, the fishing rod and reel. In this section, we're going to focus our attention on the reel. The reel is a device attached to the fishing rod to stow fishing line so that it can be easily cast towards a target. There are a few different types of reels including the fly reel, spinning, baitcasting, spincasting, and others, however for the purposes of this article I'd like to focus on the spinning reel. 

The spinning reel is made up of a number of key parts that all have their own functionality. The reel seat is is the part of the back of the reel that sits against and is secured to the rod itself. The handle, as you might guess, is what's turned to retrieve the line back onto the spool. The gear housing sits directly below the reel's spool and both protects and secures the gears of the reel. The quality and materials in which the gear housing and gears themselves are made are one of the biggest factors in a reel's price. Most spinning reels include a bail, which has a few different purposes, allowing the angler to easily pull out line but more importantly in combination with the power roller, guides the line back onto the reel in an even fashion. The power roller is a little metal piece connected you see connected to the bail arm. The bail arm runs parallel to the spool and in combination with the power roller, guides the line back onto the reel. Lastly, one of if not the most important feature of the reel is the drag system. The drag is typically a knob on the top or bottom of the spool, and controls the amount of tension put on the line. Controlling drag is a learned talent of fishing, and is an important tool in the toolkit when reeling in that 50 inch striper you've always dreamed of.

Now that you understand the different elements of a spinning reel, let's discuss some of the factors when determining what reel is best for you.

FRAME AND SPOOL CONSTRUCTION

The materials used in frame and spool construction can have a big impact on the life of your fishing reel. The fishing reel's frame is what holds the spool and other components of the reel in place, and is what's directly attached to your fishing rod. Frame's today are constructed with a variety of materials. Aluminum is commonly found in many reel frames and is strong and durable. Other reels are made out of graphite, which has the benefit of being lighter with better resistance to corrosion. The spool is also commonly manufactured with these same materials, aluminum and graphite. In the spool's case, it's important to select a spool made from aluminum as the softness of the graphite can deform over time with the pressure of fishing line wrapped tightly around the center of the spool.

BEARINGS

Reel bearings are located throughout the surfcasting rod wherever there are components that must spin and rotate. The small bearings within the reel serve the same purpose that ball bearings in any sort of mechanical device do, to reduce the friction between two moving parts. The quality of a reel's bearings depends on a few primary factors, the roundness, precision, and hardness of the parts. Higher end fishing reels are manufactured with a higher number of either stainless steel or ceramic bearings while a low-mid tier reel will be manufactured with chrome-plated steel which will not stand the test of time. Note that a high number of bearings does not always equate to a well made reel, as the quality of the materials and craftsmanship is just as important.

GEAR RATIO

Another way to think about gear ratio is retrieval speed. When purchasing your reel, you'll notice two sets of numbers that look like this, "5.2:1". The way to read this ratio is spool rotations/handle turn. So for every 1 turn of the handle, the spool will wrap 5.2 times. Most spinning reels have a gear ratio between 5 and 7. Which gear ratio you choose can depend on which techniques and baits you plan to use. As a rule of thumb, a ratio in the 6:1 range will work just fine for most surf fishing applications.

DRAG SYSTEM

If I was to name my favorite part of my fishing reel, it would have to be the drag system. There's nothing better than the feeling of hooking into a fish after hours of preparation, casting, and reeling. The drag enables us to enjoy the fight and increase our likelihood of getting a big bass to shore. The purpose of the drag system is to allow a hooked fish to pull out additional line from the reel without it snapping. The drag is adjusted using a knob that's located on the top or the bottom of the spool and can be turned to adjust the level of drag the spool allows free. Too tight of a drag? You can risk snapping a line and losing a big fish with sudden jerks and movements, too loose and you risk not having enough pressure to keep the fish from dislodging and spitting the hook. Most well-made modern reels come with a carbon fiber drag system that is easily adjustable and maintained. In the old days, drags were manufactured using felt or cork, but these materials did not hold up and would over time degrade due to the heat generated from the friction. 

LINE CAPACITY

Line capacity will help you determine the actual size of the reel you need to fish for your target species. Different brands use different nomenclature that denotes the size of their reels. Penn, for example, measures their reel sizes in 1,000s. For example, they offer a 3,000 model, 4,000, 5,000, up to 8,000 for many of their reels. While you'll notices differences in the drag system and gear ratio, the biggest fluctuation you'll notice is in the line capacity of the reel. As you begin to search for your reel of choice, you'll see that line capacity is typically measured for both monofilament and braided fishing line, reading like this 295/15 or vice-versa. This measurement is read as the number of yards of line that fit on the spool vs. the pound fishing line you're using. For example, a capacity that reads 355/40 can fit 355 yards of 40 lb. braided fishing line. One important tip is to make sure your line test matches the average weight of the targeted species, enabling you to absorb the shock when that huge bass hits your lure. Personally, I fish my with 430 yards of 30lb. braid.

PRICE & BRANDS

There are a lot of reel manufacturers out there who focus on developing different types of reels, from low-price low-quality ($40-$80) to high-end, beautiful demonstrations of engineering ($150-$400+). The reel you choose will undoubtedly be determined by your budget, experience, and the type of fishing you do. Remember that one of the benefits of modern engineering is that even some of the least-expense reels still make the mark when it comes to being considered a quality piece of equipment. As you move up in price, you'll see a fluctuation in the number of ball bearings in the reel, the materials it's manufactured with, the quality of the seal impacting the amount of saltwater a reel can take-on and remain functional, and whether or not the reel includes additional features like anti-reverse. If this is your first time giving the sport a shot and you are committed to making multiple fishing trips to see how much you enjoy it, make sure to purchase something that will last you a full season of moderate use but avoid overpaying for high-end equipment.

CONCLUSION

In the end, there are a lot of factors that go into how fishing rod and reels are made. It's amazing to think about how over the years technologies have advanced, enabling manufacturers to improve the quality of their products. If after reading this article you walk away with one big takeaway, my recommendation is to not overspend for a hobby you're not sure you'll fall in love with yet. A medium-priced rod and reel can last you a long time with proper maintenance. I think that there are plenty of combination rods and reels that are made for beginners that will give you enough reliability to really figure out if this is a passion you want to stick with. From there, you'll be able to learn what you like/don't like, you can try casting buddies fishing gear, and you'll have much better perspective when it comes to making your next purchase. To make it easy, I want to leave you with some of what I think are some of the best combo products on the market. In no particular order, please find some recommendations below.

Penn SSV6500 Spinfisher V 10ft. Combo - $150-$200

Penn Fierce II Live Liner 10ft. Combo - $100-$150

Daiwa BG Saltwater 10ft. Combo - $100-$150

Shimano/Tsunami OC 10ft. Combo - $200-$250

Thanks for reading and I hope this was helpful!


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