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Sleek as F-16fighter planes and just as effective, fishing rods keep getting better–but how?Many rod makers use the input of expert field testers or tournament pros.”Our Signature rod series nearly drove our designers crazy,” saysQuantum’s John Kushnerick. “The pros kept sending the prototypes back,saying ‘almost, but not quite right.’ Of course, these guys make their livingwith their rods and want perfection.” That’s only part of the story.

InnovativeConstruction: Yes, rod builders are constantly sniffing out new materials, butlately changes in construction are making the real difference. In some cases,rod engineers are finding that inherently light and strong materials don’trequire a scrim (over-wrap) over each layer of bundled carbon-graphite fibers.Multiple scrim layers can cause graphite fibers to migrate or misalign,resulting in a less-than-straight rod. Less scrim and more-efficient resinsresult in a lighter and consequently more sensitive rod. In addition, more rodmakers are combining different types of carbon graphite to create rods withprecise actions for specific fishing techniques.

Improved Grips:Handles are another area where we’ve seen a lot of innovation recently. Thoughgetting quality cork continues to be difficult (and it shows in the pitting andfill on even some of the more expensive rods), new handle designs areincreasing rod sensitivity and user friendliness as well as enhancing theperformance of the rod for a specific technique. Virtually all good rod handlesystems now let you touch a part of the blank during the retrieve, making itfar easier to detect subtle bites and determine the composition of thebottom.

Case in point: Thenew magnesium rods from Kistler have no foregrip but a down-locking reel seatnut. This makes it easy to extend a forefinger to touch the blank whilefishing. The seat itself, especially on the bait-cast model, is coated with asoft textured material that provides a more secure grip in wet weather.

You’ll like thedown-locking fore grip on Cabela’s XML Ti rods. It eliminates exposed threadsand has a microclick adjustment for a secure fit. There are two cutaways on thecasting model’s reel seat to facilitate contact with the blank, and the seat onthis rod is also finished with a soft-touch material for a better grip andnicer feel in all weather conditions.

Crossover Rods:More inshore saltwater rods are being offered these days, and many of them willserve in a variety of freshwater fishing situations as well. Many inshore rodshave slightly softer actions for throwing natural baits without catapultingthem off the hook. However, inshore rods designed for plastic grubs and jigsoften have somewhat faster actions. All have muscle butt sections to deal withhard-fighting marine species. You’ll find that both the spinning and castingmodels in Lamiglas’s Inshore Travel Rod series offer multispecies capability insalt and fresh water. They are three-piece and come in a nice hard case.

Don’t misconstrue”inshore” as a catchall term for all non-blue-water marine fishing.Generally, it covers fishing for species like specks (spotted sea trout),redfish, snook, snappers, bluefish and some stripers. Surf or jetty fishing,deep jigging and big-lure trolling near shore require rods of their own.

Cost vs. Quality:As always, prices cover the gamut. Higher-priced rods mostly have qualitythread wrappings and finish over the guide feet, top-end reel seats and moreexpensive guide hardware. Lighter, more sensitive materials also increasecosts. Cabela’s and G. Loomis continue to use the very expensive Recoil guidesmade of noncorroding nickel-titanium alloy. Their flexibility eliminates deadspots on the rod blank, increasing accuracy and sometimes cast distance. Also,if some clod in your boat happens to step on one of these guides, it’ll springback to shape. Last year our test team noted that on spinning (not bait-cast)models, there was a distinct rattling sound as line passed through the buttguide on the cast. This year it was quite subdued. The softer monofilament weused might be the reason.

SPINNING RODS

Our test spinningrods this year ranged from three ultralight rods that would serve well forpanfish and trout (see Niche Rods) to Cortland’s hefty Endurance Inshore, whichwould be more at home heaving bigger lures or natural bait rigs in the surf.One of our three ultralight entries, the American Rodsmiths Limit Stix, thoughspecifically geared toward crappies, has enough butt power to work well forsmaller bass, especially when you’re fishing with finesse baits.

There were morewalleye-oriented rods announced this year than last–from G. Loomis, Bass ProShops and others. All are designated to handle a specific, well-establishedwalleye fishing technique. Because the G. Loomis walleye rods were bothspinning models, we included just one from the series, while we tested onespinning and one casting model from Bass Pro Shops.

BAIT-CASTINGRODS

Intermediate rodlengths were again offered on some of our bait-casting rods, including those inthe Quantum Signature Series, designed by ace bass tournament champ KevinVanDam. The 6-foot 10-inch rod was designed to throw heavy spinnerbaits a gooddistance (one of VanDam’s favorite techniques) and set hooks with authority atextended ranges. The flattened sides of the cork handle are comfortable andalso help you get a stronger grip. The rod is a powerhouse, all right, and willdefinitely do the job.

Other musclecasting rods included the two niche models–St. Croix’s Swimbait rod andCortland’s Endurance Musky stick, both of which could swap duties if youdesired and if an opportunity presented itself. But getting back to oddball rodlengths, Bass Pro Shop’s Pro Finesse PF69MLT is a 6-foot 9-inch model thatcasts accurately at all ranges. The same goes for American Rodsmiths’ Tops ‘NTails rod, which was built for in shore specks and reds but would make a nicefreshwater surface bait rod, too.

SPINNING RODS G. LOOMIS Bronzeback SMR822S-GLX Final Score: 92.1 OUTDOOR LIFE EDITOR’S CHOICE 2006

This one’s fordedicated bass anglers. Sensitivity is the key when you use finesse baits liketubes, split-shot lizards and grubs. And with the combination ofsuper-high-modulus GLX material, Recoil nickel-titanium alloy guides andextra-fast action, the Bronzeback rod has sensitivity in spades. It’s amedium-power stick aimed at smallies but fine for light-lure largemouths aswell. The butt is a little stiffer than those on the classic Loomis two-powerrods, but the tip is lighter. Your hand will feel the faintest of bites withthis rig. ($355; 800-456-6647; gloomis.com)

SHAKESPEAREAgility ASPI 6066-1MH OUTDOOR LIFE GREAT BUY 2006

Here’s another rodfor inshore saltwater fishing that has greater stiffness in the midriff thanmany traditional inshore rods. That makes it just fine for pike, bass and manywalleye assignments as well. You’ll like the little touches like the hard buttcap that won’t easily snag your clothes, the cushioned stainless-steel hoods ofthe reel seat and the Soft-Touch material on the seat itself, but you’ll lovethe price best of all. ($30; 800-347-3759; shakespeare-fishing.com)

BAIT-CASTINGRODS FALCON SCTi-76M Cenderi Final Score: 91.9 OUTDOOR LIFE EDITOR’S CHOICE 2006

The beautifullyfinished Falcon Cenderi was designed for inshore saltwater anglers to catapultmedium-size lures great distances, and it does so with ease. The 7½ -footer gotrave reviews for accuracy at both close and far ranges. Though its overallflexibility will let you handle heavier lures on monofilament up to20-pound-test, we’d rather use lighter line and put the rod to use coveringacres of open water or just wading with it from shore–and we don’t mean justmarine shores. Use it in lakes and big rivers, too, and you’ll be well pleased.($200; 918-251-0020; falconrods.com)

SHAKESPEAREAgility ACA 6066-1MH OUTDOOR LIFE GREAT BUY 2006

What can you say?The Agility series wins in the price/value category again. Like the spinningrods in the series, the bait-caster is made of the popular IM-8 graphite withnow standard through-handle construction. The reel seat trigger-extensiondesign proved extremely comfortable on this rod. And the Soft-Touch material ofthe seat enhances your grip and is pleasing to the touch. The handle providesexposed blank for sensitivity. An all-around tool that gives great performancefor any bass assignment. ($30; 800-347-3759; shakespeare-fishing.com)

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