Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Larry Kenney Fiberglass Fly Rods

Recently Larry Kenney announced on the Fiberglass Flyrodders forum that he was building fly rods again on fiberglass blanks of his own design. Larry graciously forwarded a few photographs of his builds along with an explanation of the process to create these blanks, the models offered, and his reasons for why fiberglass is still an excellent material for trout weight fly rods.

This past fall I had the opportunity to cast the four weight model and was very impressed. This fly rod felt like dry fly magic. I have to get on the Kenney list soon!

Why Fiberglass?
Fiberglass, bamboo and graphite are all excellent rod building materials, but my experience is that each of them has characteristics that make them good for some fly fishing applications and less good for others. Graphite for example, in it’s multiple incarnations, is very stiff and strong for its weight, and excels as a material for rods of longer lengths. A 9 ft. #4, #5 or #6 line graphite rod will almost certainly be more responsive and less tiring to cast than a glass rod of similar length. At 9.5 or 10 feet for an #8 or #9 line the difference in perceived weight and performance will be even more noticeable.

I’m not suggesting that good glass rods can’t be built for heavier line weights, but go much beyond eight and a half feet and a 7 weight line and, with rare exceptions, you’re courting either image or nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with either, of course, but compared to a graphite rod, you’re going to work harder for, at best, the same performance. Where I believe fiberglass really shines is as a material for light line fly rods in lengths up to 8 feet or so for line weights #5 and under. It can also make some very nice #6 and #7 line rods at around 8 and a half feet.

In those lengths, a fiberglass rod’s additional weight isn’t enough to be noticeable, and indeed the extra flex in the butt and swing weight in the tip can be both pleasant-feeling and helpful. Built right, on the right mandrels, a glass rod in those line classes will be acceptably quick and responsive, able to handle repeated accurate casts at all normal fishing distances, and will have a suppleness of feel that’s just innately pleasing. Moreover, by virtue of the greater elasticity of the fibers, the superior hoop strength inherent in their woven rather than unidirectional character, and the generally larger diameter of the blanks, fiberglass provides both durability and superior control of hooked fish without endangering light tippets.

Similar advantages apply to split bamboo fly rods, of course, and bamboo offers an additional design advantage over rods of tubular construction in that both external taper and internal hollowing can be used to fine tune rod action. The only downsides of rods from bamboo are their greater weight (due as much to metal ferrules as anything and of little consequence in light line rods), a frequently long delay getting them from the best makers, and significant expense. The understandable desire to keep a pristine and expensive new bamboo rod out of harm’s way rather than risk damaging it while fishing can be another problem. It’s silly, of course, not to use a fine tool, but fishing a multi-thousand dollar rod in rough conditions can take your mind off the game. Fiberglass rods require relatively little maintenance, are extremely durable, and are relatively inexpensive compared to bamboo. Good ones cost about the same as top-line graphite rods and provide exceptional performance. They deserve to be treated well, of course – wiped dry before storing for example, and the ferrule areas occasionally cleaned and lubed with paraffin - but there should be little temptation to turn a good glass rod into a closet queen.

It’s All In How It Bends And Unbends
Resistance to bend in a tube – and that’s what most fly rods are – is dependent on three things: the material from which the tube is made, the tube’s diameter, and its wall thickness. If you increase the stiffness of the material or the blank’s diameter or wall thickness, the rod - or a part of the rod where you’ve made that change - will be harder to bend.

Regulating bend is at the heart of performance fly rod design. Fly rods store and release the energy put into them when we bend them by moving them through the motions of a cast. Good fly rods bend and unbend efficiently – load and unload if you prefer. Bad ones don’t.

To get good accuracy, good leader turnover, and decent tippet protection from a light line rod, particularly a short one, you need a supple but controllable tip section, supported by mid and butt sections that let the tip do its work at short range and accept increasingly more of the load as casting range or fish resistance increases. You can build that tip section from graphite, but getting the suppleness you need demands either a very small diameter or a reduced wall thickness. There are problems with both choices. If you choose a thin wall, you risk creating a fragile blank. If you reduce diameter you need very small diameter mandrels around which to roll the graphite, and the resulting skinny graphite tip sections frequently don’t fare well in the rough and tumble of real-life fishing.

There are some pretty decent light line graphite fly rods available at 8 feet and longer, but in shorter lengths I’ve generally not been impressed. The path too many graphite makers have taken to make shorter #3 and #4 line fly rods has been to put the bend necessary to move the line into the butt section. The results, to my way of thinking, are pokey rods with stiff, slow moving tips that make for poor near-range accuracy – one of the very qualities you want a short rod for in the first place. Fiberglass’s greater flexibility and more reasonable diameters lead more directly to light, supple, effective and durable tip designs.

Material and Rod Action
The blanks for my glass rods are rolled from a high quality e-glass/epoxy-resin prepreg on my own, proprietary, one-piece, compound taper mandrels, by a New Zealand fabricator with many years’ blank making experience. These rods feel supple - you can feel them bend throughout their length - but their actions are what I’d call progressive. They work a short line sweetly off the tip alone, then bring more and more of the butt into play as you extend line. They’re ideal for light line trout fishing.

Ferrules have a major impact on rod action because their stiffness, their mass, and the way they alter blank diameter all affect the way a rod bends. Out toward the tip additional mass tends to slow a rod down. Down near the grip ferrules can add useful stiffness but they can also shift flex to where you don’t want it. And a center ferrule in a 2-piece rod can easily detract from smooth rod action. Good rod design takes advantage of and compensates for these effects.

L. Kenney fiberglass rods are built with lightweight internal (spigot) ferrules. I’m convinced that this ferrule design, rather than the more common tip-over-butt versions, makes for a better balanced, smoother-casting rod. Rather than having a significant disparity in diameter on either side of the ferrule, internal ferrules provide continuity of diameter across rod sections.

My current models are also all of 3-piece configuration. Why? Fine 2-piece rods can certainly be made with a single center ferrule, as can multi-piece rods with three or four ferrules. My experience, however, is that well-designed 3-piece tubular rods, particularly in shorter light line lengths, effectively distribute the mass and stiffness of their two ferrules along the blank and actually help promote fast-damping tips and smooth casting loops. There’s no added mass in the middle of the rod, or well out from the grip, to slow down the tip or let it bounce at the end of a stroke. Neither is there, as with 4 piece rods, a stiffened section not far above the grip to complicate progressive flex. 3-piece rods also break down into sections short enough to transport easily.

Blank Finish
L.Kenney fiberglass fly rod blanks are unsanded. That means the ridges from the shrink tape used to secure the fiberglass material on the mandrel while the blank is being oven-cured are still visible on the surface of the blank. This isn’t a cost-cutting measure. Any sanding runs the risk of removing material that shouldn’t be removed, and regardless of how I correct prepreg patterns for material removed by sanding, I simply don’t get the blank-to-blank consistency with sanded blanks that I require. With an unsanded blank, the material I design into the blank, stays in the blank. After curing and shrink tape removal, my blanks are coated with a durable, heat-cure epoxy paint in a coffee-with-cream in color. Call it “latte” if that makes you feel more contemporary. The result is a rod that’s conservative, unobtrusive, and attractive without being showy. For me, those are all good features.

Grips and Hardware
Grips are hand turned from individually glued, high quality cork rings to a rather flat Wells shape, in lengths and diameters that vary according to rod length. Bronze-brown anodized aluminum slide band or uplocking reel seats with cork spacers are light in weight and classic in appearance.

Tungsten carbide stripping guides and black nickel snake guides are wrapped with chestnut nylon thread, accented with modest tan spirals within the wraps at the top of the grip, at the ferrules and tip-top. I don’t have much use for hook-keepers, but I’ll put a strap and ring keeper on a rod if you really feel you need one. Wraps are coated with 4 coats of spar urethane to a smooth, translucent, glossy finish and are labeled above the grip with length, rod weight, line designation, my serial number and (if desired) owner’s name. Tip and mid sections also show the rod’s serial number. The look is clean and understated rather than showy.

I build a very limited number of rods to order each year. Delivery is generally within 60 days but can be substantially more or less depending on my schedule and order backlog.

L. Kenney Fly Rod Models
Model 733 7’3” 3 piece. #3 line 2.0 oz.
A light, delicate, responsive little rod designed for small flies and accurate casts from a rod length away out to 35 feet or so, though it will cast longer if you must. Its medium-soft progressive action makes it a great choice for anglers who fish small streams. Fitted with my down-sliding cork spacer slide band reel seat. $550

Model 794 7’9” 3-piece #4 line 2.4 to 2.8 oz. depending on reel seat.
A supple, easy casting progressive action rod that I think hits a sweet-spot for fiberglass in both length and line weight. It’s long enough for medium size waters, short enough for smaller streams, delicate enough to handle light tippets, but with sufficient power to handle a #10 dry or a reasonably sized weighted nymph. Built with a down-sliding cork spacer slide band reel seat, or a cork spacer metal uplocking reel seat.
$560 with slide band seat. $575 with uplock.

Model 813 8’1” 3 pc #3 line 2.6 oz.
A very light, smooth, long 3 wgt., built at the urging of some friends at the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club Soft and supple yet by no means a noodle, it can nonetheless achieve the line speeds needed for accurate, delicate presentations out to 45 feet or so. A killer rod for small dries and nymphs. Built only with my downlocking slide band reel seat. $580 Available after April 2010

Model 835 8’3” 3-piece DT4/WF5 3.0 to 3.25 oz, depending on reel seat.
This rod, which is about as long as I can build on my light line tapers, has become a favorite of mine. It’s a particularly pleasant, well-balanced, all-around trout rod for all but very large rivers that require deep wading, or where very large flies are necessary. Supple in the tip and mid for close-in casting and light tippet work, it has enough diameter and punch in the butt to reach out to 60 feet, turn over a wide range of fly sizes, and control larger trout. You can cast smooth open loops easily, or push the rod to tighten up without it becoming unstable. I fish it with a WF5F, but some good casters I know prefer a DT4 - choices that reflect casting style and the specific characteristics of the lines being cast as much as the rod itself. Built with either a cork spacer metal uplock reel seat or a down-sliding cork spacer slide band reel seat.
$580 with slide band seat: $595 with uplock

• All rods come with partitioned cloth liner and aluminum rod case.
• Add $20 for shipping in the Continental USA via USPS Priority Mail, insured, with delivery confirmation. Shipments to Alaska and Hawaii may be higher. Shipments outside the USA will be by USPS Priority International, with rates quoted on request.

Larry Kenney can be contacted at lmkenney@earthlink.net.

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