Gettin’ Small: How Low Can You Go?
Having fallen hard for small stream fishing, I am collecting a quiver of fly rods to address these unique and often challenging aquatic environments. I now have a 6-foot 2-weight, 7-foot 3-weight, 7.5-foot 3-weight, and a couple of 7.5-foot 4-weight rods, all of which are fiberglass as it’s the best tool for the job in my humble opinion.
The more I get into small stream fishing the more I realize how migratory the fish that inhabit
them are, and how important headwaters are to their survival and my success. During periods of low or warm water, the small wild native brook trout that haunt the tiny rills of northern New England migrate upstream en masse to find more hospitable habitat.
The reason trout move upstream during warm water periods is obvious: Colder water. Why
they move upstream in low-water periods is less obvious, and in some ways counter-intuitive. While
streams typically, but not always, increase in volume as you go downstream, they also widen and
become shallow and unprotected. Headwaters are narrow and deep, and covered.
As fish move upstream, so should you if you if you want to be successful. The further you go up;
the narrower things get. The narrower it gets the more you are impacted by canopy and streamside
vegetation. At some point, even the shortest fly rod can become cumbersome and difficult to use due
to the tight quarters.
Having decided I needed, or more accurately wanted, something shorter than six feet, I started shopping around to see what was available. Not surprisingly, the answer was very little. In fact, only one website listed a 5-foot glass rod and they couldn’t deliver. During 15 years of running a fly shop, I had access to only one 5-foot fly rod and that was a glass rod from Hardy.
After almost a year of searching unsuccessfully for a 5-foot glass rod, I turned to one of the best
in the business, Marty Romeo of Deep Bend Rodworks. While Marty used to build rods full-time, he
now does so selectively and wraps only 20-25 rods per year. I was lucky, and very grateful, he was
willing to take this project on.
Based out of South Carolina, Marty Romeo is best-known for his saltwater glass rods. However, while swapping emails about what I was looking for he mentioned that he had lived in New York, Maryland and Virginia and loved the small streams of Shenandoah National Park. He also said, “I started with light line trout rods.”
Marty has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Johns Hopkins University
Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is the Operations Manager of the Translational Science Core
Laboratory at the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. Hence why he isnot able to build rods full-time.
First exposed to salmonids in New York, Marty caught his first, a coho and lake-run rainbow, on
spinning gear in the early 1980s. Like many of us, his first fly rod was a glass one: A used Shakespeare Wonderod he bought for $10. His first fish on a fly was a large lake-run rainbow caught on a glo-bug. A Shenk’s hopper fooled his first dry fly caught fish, a small rainbow.
Marty got into rod building in 1998 out of necessity. As a college student unable to afford the
rod he wanted, a St. Croix SCII graphite, to fish nearby Gunpowder Falls, he bought a kit and built it himself. In 2000, the purchase of a Lamiglas 6.5-foot 3-weight shifted Marty’s interest to glass and he never looked back.
The purchase of the short light glass rod noted above is what led to Marty’s interest in small
stream brook trout. He explored the “blue lines” around central and western Maryland as well as
Pennsylvania. Then a move to Richmond, Virginia, put him less than two hours away from the fabled
trout streams of Shenandoah National Park.
Marty’s first glass rod build was based on a James Green blank. He went on to develop a taper
with James, and with encouragement from the folks on the Fiberglass Flyrodders Forum and others from within the glass community, he started taking a few commissions. This resulted in him becoming one of the best in the game.
As any fly rod aficionado knows, short and light rods are much tougher to make, at least well, than long and heavy ones. Anyone can make a 9-foot 5-weight that works, and it’s nearly impossible to make a 9-foot 8-weight that doesn’t work. Make it short and light however, as in the 5-foot 2-weight I was looking for, and things can get touchy.
The primary reason short light fly rods are so tough to make is simple physics: The taper has to
occur over a really short span. When it comes to taper, length is your friend and lack of, your enemy.
With so little to work with, it is easy to make a short rod that is too stiff or too soft. And no matter what you do, it will never have the feel of a longer rod.
It is also important to understand why you are going short: Tight quarters. This requires tight
loops and little if any false-casting. Basically, it’s all about short precise casts. This means that while
slow-action may sound best in theory, it is not best in practice as the loops will be too open and the
casting stroke too slow to keep things out of harm’s way.
With few options available on the open market, Marty turned to McFarland Rod Company, a well-
respected rod maker out of Pennsylvania for a custom blank. While I had never fished, or even seen, a
McFarland rod I had heard good things about them so I was excited at the prospect.
The raw ice-colored E-glass blank he chose is handsome and classy. The glass weave is semi-
sanded but very clean, and more attractive than an overly smooth blank in my humble opinion. A
matching spigot, or internal, ferrule gives it a classic look.
While Marty would not divulge the suppliers name as good cork is hard to find and when you do
find it you guard your source, the 5-inch half wells grip is compact and quite comfortable. Anything
longer and it would overwhelm the rod, anything narrower, like a cigar or western grip, and it would be too small for my hand.
The reel seat is a NOS Struble D2 in black nickel with a Thai rosewood spacer. Designed by Joel
Lemke who is now working on his own, it is said to be one of the best cap and ring seats ever made.
Amatching black nickel guide set was made by Snake Brand, while the stripping guide is a Pac Bay boat guide that matches the black trim perfectly.
The flawless pale orange wraps are 100wt Kimono silk. Some are trimmed with Pearsall
Gossamer jasper and black silk thread.
While the term may be overused, and I’ve used it myself recently, I think it would be fair to call Marty’s work “heirloom” quality. The design, attention to detail, and workmanship are superb, and the accoutrements top-shelf. Everything fits and it all works together quite nicely. The rod came with an aluminum tube and cloth sock. It is something I will pass down to the next generation of fly fishers.
Reel and Line
Due to the size and weight of the rod, short and light, I needed a reel that would not overwhelm it. I
chose a Galvan Brookie B 0-1. At just 2.7-inches in diameter and 0.75-inch wide, it looks as though it
belongs. And at just 2.54 ounces, it balances well. Designed for a 0-1-weight, I trimmed a bit off the
back end of my line and added just 25 yards of backing, far more than I will ever need.
As for a line, I decided on a WF2 RIO Creek as it’s uniquely short body, just 5-feet, and equally
short front taper, 5-foot 5-inch, is designed to load at close range and roll over easily, exactly what I
need it to do.
Upon receipt of the rod I immediately took it outside to cast. I cast in close and I reached out far, and
much further than I would ever need, or be able, to go on the water. As I hoped, the action was crisp
and it cast a very tight loop. I then walked out back and threw some casts in the woods to see how it
worked in tight quarters. It did what I wanted it to do, and well.
I tied the leader to a tree and pulled as if there was a small trout on the end. I dragged a small
stick around as well. Having been pushed off the water early this year due to high water, cold and snow, this made me yearn for spring, and I may have to head south to give it a try on a small stream outside of New England.
While a 5-foot 2-weight rod is not for everyone, it is a valid and useful tool for fishing small streams
where canopy and shoreside vegetation make casting difficult. What it does is let you take your game to a new level, and that is down. Streams that are too small for a conventional fly rod become accessible. And if you want one, as I said earlier, your options are very limited.
You can contact Marty Romeo at Deep Bend Rodworks. He is responsive and a pleasure to work with. Prices vary depending on where you want to go with it. And expect to wait weeks, or months, not days, as it takes time to roll a blank and wrap a rod.
Bob Mallard has fly fished for over forty years. He is a former fly shop owner and a Registered Maine Fishing Guide. Bob is a blogger, writer, author, fly designer, and native fish advocate. He is a founding member and National Vice Chair for Native Fish Coalition. His writing, photographs, and flies have been featured at the local, regional and national level.
Bob's books, 50 Best Places Fly Fishing the Northeast, 25 Best Towns Fly Fishing for Trout, and the soon to be released, Squaretail: The Definitive Guide to Brook Trout and Where to Find Them.
Bob can be reached through his website, the Native Fish Coalition or by email at email@example.com.