Choosing a rod and reel
Selecting the right tools for this sport can be simple. For basic inshore fishing, here's what you need: A 6.5- to 7.5-foot rod, rated for line between 6 and 20 pound test; a spinning reel between 2000 and 4000 size; and 8- to 12-pound monofilament or 10- to 20-pound braided line. There — that was easy.
However, as anyone who has ever gone shopping for a rod and reel can tell you, it's never that simple. There are a lot of different factors that come into play. You may like a particular brand, or maybe you want a certain color. There are various different actions and rods specifically made for certain fishing methods. Perhaps you'd like a certain type of guides, or maybe you're picky about what the handle is made from. You can be influenced by the choices of others — fishing buddies, TV personalities, charter captains. And of course, price is a major consideration. We have to look at all of them.
There's a right way and a wrong way to think about brands. The wrong way is, “Hey, I used to have a rod made by this company and it was great!” Yes, but that was probably two corporate owners ago. Or, “My buddy has one of these and he really likes it.” Sure. He probably likes his wife too. Do you want to be married to her?
The right way is to pick a builder with a good reputation, and more importantly a good warranty. In all honesty, very few rod brands manufacture anything. They build rods the same way you can: They buy blanks, guides and handles and then assemble them. Some blanks are available from different makers with different names on them, and look at how many rods have Fuji guides. Warranty policies are really of prime importance in picking a brand.
Without going too deeply into rod theory, action determines how a rod bends. When under load, fast action rods bend at the tip and have stiffer butt sections. Slow action rods bend all the way down to the butt. In practice, faster actions are great for getting the best action out of artificials or for getting longer casts. But slower actions are ideal for casting natural baits (the “less snappy” motion won't cause baits to fly off the hook), fishing lighter line, or putting a lot of muscle to bigger fish without wearing yourself out.
All else being equal, a longer rod is better for casting, while a shorter rod is better for fighting fish. Very long rods can also make casting accurately difficult, unless you're using heavily weighted rigs (think Atlantic-style surf rigs, with several ounces of lead). Most local anglers choose rods between 6.5 and 7.5 feet for their basic inshore setups. Shorter rods are sometimes preferred by kayak fishermen, as long rods can make it tough to land the fish. Longer rods may be used for casting to tarpon; shorter ones for kids or pulling strong fish like amberjack and grouper up from deep water.
If you look at the specs printed on the rod, you'll see line rating numbers. For example, you can get a Star Stellar Lite spinning rod in 4-10, 6-14, 8-17, 10-20, 12-20, 15-25 or 15-30. With the 4-10, the manufacturer suggests using line with a breaking strength between 4 and 10 pounds. What it really tells you is how much lifting power the rod has. A 6-14 has more lifting power than a 4-10 but less than an 8-17.
This spec is useful only in comparing rods of the same make and model. A Stellar Lite 8-17 and Penn Battalion 8-17 are in no way comparable. Additionally, it's common to use line well outside the suggestions. When fishing for tarpon or sharks with a 15-30 rod, most anglers use 65-pound braid. I with this spec made more sense, but it is what it is.
As long as they're decent quality, you'll be fine — and all decent rods are made with decent guides these days. Don't get stuck on the idea that better rods have more guides. Five or six are really all you need. One-piece guides, in which the frame and ring are stamped from one piece of metal, offer peace of mind if you're concerned about ceramic guide inserts falling out.
Basically, graphite rods are more sensitive, fiberglass rods are more durable, and carbon fiber is a good combination of both. However, most modern rods are made from composite materials. They might, for example, have a fiberglass butt section with a graphite tip and then carbon fiber near the handle, all bound together with epoxy. Years ago, it was common for a rod to be labeled with graphite modulus and other such info. These days, that's rare.
Here you have two basic choices, foam or cork. Foam is usually found on cheaper rods and those meant for heavy-duty use. Cork is the most common. Some makers produce grips from rubber or metal. Use what you like, just be sure to peel off the plastic packaging material (no, it's not there to protect the cork from water — it actually holds water in and will rot the cork faster).
Ultimately, the choice should never be made until you've actually put the rod in your hand and experienced for yourself how it feels there. This is a tool you're going to use for many hours, and if it doesn't feel right then it's not right (no matter what the specs or the ads say).
So buy from a tackle shop that will let you get a feel for the rod. Have a shop staffer hold the rodtip firmly and then bend it, like fighting a fish. Put a bass tube lure over the rod tip and swing it a little. The best shops will not only allow but actually encourage this type of monkey business, because the happier you are with your rod, the more you'll want to go fishing — and the more you fish, the more they'll see your shining face.