Fiberglass or Graphite?
Most modern rods are made of fiberglass, graphite, or a combination of the two. They've been used for many years, although fiberglass has been around longer. Both make good rods and each has qualities that make rods different. Graphite rods usually cost more than a fiberglass rod of the same quality, but a good fiberglass rod will be a lot more expensive than a cheap graphite rod.
How Rods Are Made
Rods are made by wrapping a very thin sheet of long fibers of graphite or fiberglass material around a tapered dowel. These fibers run the length of the rod and the sheet is held together by glue. It takes several layers of the sheets of fiber to make the rod. When enough have been wrapped, the whole rod is finished with a coating to make it smooth. When the dowel is removed the rod is hollow and the finished product is called a rod blank.
The stiffer the fibers the stiffer the rod will be, and using more fibers makes a strong rod, but also means it's heavier. Graphite is stiffer and lighter than fiberglass so it makes a stiff, light rod, but graphite rods are also more brittle than fiberglass rods. The higher-quality rods are made of a very stiff, thin wall of fibers, meaning they're light and sensitive, but they're also brittle and more likely to break. As with most things, picking a rod is a compromise among several factors.
Because of the way rods are made, a sharp blow or rap to them can cause a hidden fracture that will fail later. This is often a problem when in a boat, because it's easy to hit the side of the boat when casting. Even dropping the rod can damage it, so avoid hitting your rod against anything.
Guides are placed on the rod blank and wrapped with thread. This thread is then covered with an epoxy to hold it and protect it. Placement and type of guides is very important. The guides must line up with each other to allow line to flow through them freely. They must be big enough to allow the line to move easily through them. And guides must be hard enough to withstand the abrasion of the line moving across them.
A handle, which includes the reel seat, is placed on the rod. Handles are either straight or pistol grip on casting and spin-casting rods, and straight on spinning rods. The way the reel attaches to the rod varies, but it must be secure and solid enough so that the reel will not move. And the reel seat must line up with the bottom guide.
Rod action or stiffness is determined by the type and amount of fiber used. Rods can be very stiff or very flexible for their full length, but all of them must have tips that are more flexible than the end near the reel. This is called taper. A fast-taper rod is stiff near the tip, a medium-taper rod flexes about halfway down, and a slow-taper rod flexes its full length. Each has its specific uses and performs better at certain kinds of fishing.
From left to right: a fast-taper rod, a medium-taper rod, and a slow-taper rod.
When fishing a soft bait like liver, earthworms, and bloodworms, use a slow-taper rod. Casting with them is a softer action and they're less likely to tear the bait or throw it off. And when using live bait it's easier to hook the fish, lowering the need for a stiff rod.
A fast-taper rod is better for setting the hook hard when bass fishing, or trying to hook a hard-mouthed saltwater fish like a tarpon. It will not flex as much when fighting a fish, though, so those rods require a heavier line. Slow-taper rods are good for ultralight fishing since they flex more and don't put as much pressure on the line. It's much harder to get a good hook set with them, though. A medium rod tries to combine the best of both.
Sensitivity is the ability of the rod to transfer vibrations to your hands. This is important because it's one of the ways you can detect what's going on at the end of you line, and the way you feel the fish fight. Fast-action rods with stiff fibers are more sensitive than slow-taper rods. Graphite fibers are stiffer and therefore more sensitive than fiberglass. So for the best sensitivity, get a fast-taper graphite rod.
What can I tell by flexing a rod in the store?
Not much. To find out if you will like a rod, take it fishing or at least try casting it outside the store. Put a reel, line, and practice plug on the rod and try it out before buying it.
Short rods are easier to transport and less likely to hit things when you're casting, and are best for fishing in confined places. Longer rods are better for throwing a bait a long way, setting the hook, and fighting strong fish. Short ultralight rods are usually made with a slower taper, and longer, heavier rods have a faster taper. Most casting rods range from five to seven feet in length. Some specialized rods like surf rods and flipping sticks are made longer and have other specific qualities for their purpose.
Choose a rod that is a convenient length to use where you fish. You don't want a seven-foot rod if you walk the bank of a river and cast where there are a lot of overhanging trees near your head. A seven-foot rod would be appropriate for fishing heavy jigs around offshore oil rigs.
Most rods are one or two piece but some rods made for traveling break down into several short lengths. As a rule of thumb, get a one-piece rod if you can transport it without problems. It will be more sensitive and you should have fewer problems with it. If you need a two-piece rod, make sure the ferrules (fittings) where the pieces join are tight and keep them coated with wax so they will come apart.
Ferrules are usually made from the same material as the blank, although a few are still made of metal. The fiberglass and graphite ferrules are a better match to the rod, because they give the rod a more consistent taper, and don't stick together as often as metal ones. Avoid metal ferrules if possible.