Monday, December 2, 2013

Is that an Olive in your Salsa or are you just Amber to see me?

Carl McNeil is a man on a mission, a mission to bring some color to the often monochromatic world of fly rods. Carl, one of just two F.F.F. Certified Master Casters in New Zealand, decided to branch out from fly casting instruction and infuse some life and color in the fly rod industry via his new company, Swift Fly Fishing. I'd say he succeeded, as his Epic blanks, thanks to a handpicked team of dedicated and incredibly talented builders from around the world, have been turned in to some of the most innovative and head turning rods available.

As they spread around the world, their potential disruptive force is apparent, not only because of the the bright colors rarely seen in the relatively subdued and drab world of fly rods or the use of fiberglass, but his entire philosophy of rod design is somewhat at odds with the status quo. According to Carl, there was a niche to be filled in the world of fly rods, and the trend towards faster graphite rods isn't a move in the right direction.

When I first emailed him, I just had a small handful of questions and was very pleasantly surprised at the wealth of information Carl provided. Here he explains the long, involved process at arriving at his tapers, his reasoning behind his introduction of these radically different fly rods, and gives us an incredible insight into his design philosophy, and his take on the shortcomings of modern rod design:

The Rods

Oliver - As a casting instructor, I imagine you knew exactly what you wanted when it came to the tapers for your rods and that you were quite particular. How long did it take for you to arrive at the current tapers? How many prototypes ended up in the trash? And When it came time to choose a blank material, why fiberglass over graphite?

Carl - Initially I didn't know exactly what I wanted, but I did know that my graphite rods weren't cutting it for the type of trout fishing I was doing. I was also seeing a lot of guys rocking up to casting workshops with the latest super stiff fly rod and really struggling to put a bend in it. Fly casting is all about putting a bend in the fly rod & controlling the tip, loading and unloading. Very fast rods make this much more challenging, over the past 5 or 6 years we've seen more line manufacturers producing overweight fly lines to counteract this - that is, lines that are outside the AFTMA standard for their designated weight. Weight and a half lines are now the norm, in order to "load todays modern fast action rods" - apparently. It's become common to see anglers purchase a fast 5 weight fly rod and then over-line it with a 6, and that 6 line is a weight and a half. While this is all subjective and each should follow their bliss, I see absolutely no sense in buying a Lamborghini and then trying to limit it's performance by piling a few bags of cement in the trunk.

Over-lining does not change the intrinsic properties of a fly rod. If you want a very quick rod, buy one. It's quick and snappy because it's a comparatively fast taper built on very high modulus materials. It's resistance to bending is high, the recovery speed is high. Stringing it up with the next line size so that you can feel it load at 30 feet it is akin to strapping a bag of cement to it.

If you wanted a slower, softer action rod - well, that's what you should have gone shopping for and come home with.

I wanted fly rods that would bend.

And this is where we start to uncover the marketing con' that we've all been inadvertently party to over the last decade. There is no universally accepted standard for labelling fly rods, the AFTMA line standard is for labelling fly lines and not fly rods. (the mass in grains of the first 30 feet) - Putting the number 5 on a fly rod is really just an arbitrary designation that the manufacturer saw as being desirable for his design.

One company's 7 weight is another companies 5 weight. In fact, if you want to present the market with a very fast, stiff rod, simply build what could be called a 7 and label it as a 5. My company's 5 is now much faster and stiffer than your brand. And this is almost exactly what we see in the industry. How do you think rods have become incrementally faster and stiffer year upon year? Yes, no doubt we've seen gains in material, resins and the composites used to construct fly rods. But I think you'll find that the easier way to get this years faster, stiffer rod is to take what was last years number 7 mandrel and call it this years 5 weight and rename it.

For arguments sake, If you took four well known fly rod models from different companies, all designated 5, and then compared how they bent under a static deflection test you are obviously going to see huge variation in how deeply they bend. I'm not talking about lockup point, or action here - just how far they deflect down between the butt and the tip for a given static weight. As an example I had some involvement with one company's new designs a year or so ago. One of the rods that was tested was clearly a good 7, or a very fast 6 at best. It went to market labelled as a 5 weight.

So how can you get any objective baseline comparison of how a rod bends? - there is actually a system to do it. It's far from perfect, but the CCS, Common Cents System invented by Dr Bill Hanneman, does provide a system and set of standards were fly rod actions can be compared. Admittedly it's a static deflection test and the loads on fly rods are very much dynamic and active. Also at least one of the numbers in the formula has been arbitrarily chosen (a deflection of one third the rods total length) However, the CCS is really all we have at the moment. And while it's not so valuable in actually describing a fly rods action as the CCS was originally intended, it is very valuable in making comparisons on relative stiffness and action. As a note - all the Epic tapers feature an AA (Action angle) of around 70 degrees - which puts them squarely in the fast category against any fly rod. The CCS can be found here

A very stiff rod is simply not as capable of loading up and throwing a short accurate line as a medium or slower action rod is - as much as the marketing department might have you believe. So, many rods are getting stiffer and stiffer, line manufacturers are beefing up their lines so that the rods bend and people can actually fish with them - it's like the Cold War…

In short, for fly fishing anyway, faster and stiffer is not always better. Don't get me wrong, stiff can also be great and I'll not be selling all my graphite sticks any time soon.

Back on topic...
I wanted to fish lighter lines for stealthier dry fly presentations so decided to ditch my usual graphite 6wt for a season and go with a much smaller softer rod, and while my 7ft plastic 4wt could certainly present the line I wanted use, it most certainly didn't have the balls to turn and land the fish I was chasing. Getting a 5lb brown to the net with a dainty little 4wt involved a fair amount of trepidation and careful manoeuvring to avoid rod tips getting broken.

The one thing that I really don't like about light tackle is the necessity to play big fish out in order to get them landed. Many anglers proclaim to be Catch and Release practitioners and yet play the shit out of a fish once hooked. There is a direct correlation between time spent playing a fish and it's chance of survival after it is released. Overplaying a fish sends the mortality rate through the roof - as much as you might think that trout swam away quite happily, it more than likely died from the effects of exhaustion within an hour of release.

I'm of the "horse them in" school of fly fishing, for me fly fishing for trout is all about the deception. Once hooked the object of the exercise is to get the fish in and released in as good shape as is possible. All the guys I fish with are the same.

With all this in mind I wanted fly rods that could present delicately, load up at relatively short range and yet be very robust and with the lifting power of rods in heavier line classes. My first rod was a Japanese built hollow glass rod, translucent Olive green - It has (I still have it) a cheap closed cell foam grip - but it's still the prettiest rod I've ever seen - I wanted rods that looked like that. Fiberglass seemed an obvious choice.

I began looking all over at all sorts of materials & fly rods, including quite a few new and old glass models. I had no desire to reproduce anything that was in any way "retro" - let me be very clear, I am no fan of slow, sloppy, unresponsive e-glass like the rods of old. While I appreciate that there are a few big brand companies out there trying to reproduce the glass retro thing - I really don't get it. Those rods might have been good 30 years ago, but by today's standards - we'll, they really are crap casting tools. They died for a reason. While It's easy to get lost in the misty eyed romanticism of old school glass - My old [brand removed to protect Carl from the wrath of aficionados] really does cast like a bucket of poo. I get it out occasionally as a reality check, just to make sure we're not missing something - we're not.

Our search ended up full circle back here in New Zealand with Composite Tube Systems, a very clever Auckland company well versed in rolling excellent fly rod blanks. CTS was already rolling glass blanks, so that's where we started the development journey. We worked with Stephen Pratt, owner and designer to move from their already very capable factory tapers to something that matched what I was after. It took a little over 12 months and many prototypes & iterations before I had something that could be locked down and taken to market as an Epic.

The material we are using is not conventional fiberglass, nor is it a standard s-glass.
I'm now convinced that in sub 8ft lengths and in weights of 5 and below modern glass composites just make for a superior fly rod. They are smoother, many times stronger, more responsive and have far greater feel that graphite. They simply have more soul than plastic rods do. It's difficult to quantify, but the small glass Epics are just more fun to fish with & they cast like a dream. Longer rods in heavier weights - that's where Carbon Fibre excels. Glass is simply too heavy and slow to produce a really lively, responsive rod as you scale up. We do produce a 9ft 9wt glass monster called the 990 (Nine Ninety) - but it really is a glass enthusiasts rod. Most graphite casters would find it comparatively heavy and quite sluggish. It is however incredibly strong and loads up wonderfully with a short line.

Oliver - Speaking of lines, as a guy who knows what he's doing when it comes to casting, are there any particular lines you recommend for your tapers?

Carl - I think fly line choice is very subjective & quite complex. So much depends on the caster's style, their ability level and the type of fishing they are doing. Personally I'm a big fan of long belly lines, but I know that many guys who use our rods prefer heavier weight forward lines. We're working with a fly line company to develop something that will be a great match for the Epics.

Oliver - Are there any new tapers and/or colors in the works?

Carl - Yes, we have a new colour to be released in the new year, our Epic Rod builders are already building on it. A 3wt in our Epic FastGlass will make an appearance in late January /Feb.
We'll also release a remarkable graphite blank in 9ft 5wt & 6wt.

Fiberglass fibers on an Olive blank.

When I first cast an Epic rod a few months ago, I took the Salsa 686 from inside the relatively dimly lit fly shop and out into the daylight, where it not only came to life in my hands, but also visually as the sunlight shone through the blank. The first thing I noticed is that while the rod was sensitive, and, despite it being, as Carl terms it "Fastglass", it doesn't have an action I would consider fast in the world of graphite. I like medium action rods and bamboo and I felt very comfortable casting the 686. (As comfortable as one can be casting a rod in a parking lot. I'm not a particularly good caster to begin with and avoiding cars and "no parking" signs doesn't really help.) I've since cast the 580 as well, and they're light rods, doing most of the work for you. Exactly the kind of rod you want if you're going to be fishing all day, day after day.

The range of available blanks include the 476 (7 foot 6 inch 4 weight), 480, 580, 686, and the 990 (currently only available in blue), and they're available in the following colors:


So Blue




The Builders

Oliver - Carl, you built up a network of rodbuilders that are incredibly effective at showing what's possible with your blanks. Did basically you approach these guys and hand them some blanks with the hope that something amazing will result?

Carl - Yep, pretty much. We launched with a promotion very generously supported by Cameron Mortenson of The Fiberglass Manifesto. Cameron shoulder tapped a few top builders that he suspected might be interested in taking part in the "Epic Rod Build" and trying out an Epic blank. Swift donated the blanks and the builders donated their time and expertise - We were astounded by the quality and craftsmanship of the completed rods. The finished Epics were then donated to The Fiberglass Manifesto's rod loan program so that anyone could take an Epic for a spin. It was a hugely fun, successful and rewarding promotion that got us introduced to some of the best rod builders out there - things only blossomed from there on.

The Epic blanks are somewhat faster and stiffer than other glass blanks so we were unsure how they would be received by the glass building fraternity. The response was excellent and these top builders have become a fundamental part of our business. I get to talk with at least one of them almost daily, their feedback and input is invaluable in our companies development, it's a great privilege.
We continue to be amazed at the endless creativity and talent demonstrated by these guys - the partnership has clearly shown me the value and advantage of working with a master craftsman to create a one off fly rod that is of heirloom quality. These custom rods are truly jaw-droppingly beautiful and supremely fishable. Everyone should commission at least one in their fishing career.

The diversity of the rods from Carl's team of builders is fascinating. Rods built on the same blank by Zeb Tonkavich and Christian Hörgren, for example, couldn't be less similar. Sparse, Scandanavian beauty on the one hand, and stunning, unconvential style from the new world on the other.

Photo and rod by Christian Hörgren of Sweden
(On the new, not yet named color)

Photo and rod by Christian Hörgren of Sweden

Photo and rod by Zeb Tonkavich of Pennsylvania, USA.

Photo and rod by Zeb Tonkavich of Pennsylvania, USA.

Photo and rod by Shane Gray of Michigan, USA.

Photo and rod by Shane Gray of Michigan, USA.

Photo and rod by George Minculete of Romania

Photo and rod by George Minculete of Romania

The Kit

If you want an Epic rod of your own, you'll either have to order one from a custom rodmaker such as the ones shown above, or build one yourself, as Swift fly fishing currently doesn't sell complete rods. Fortunately, Carl invested quite a bit of effort into making the rod building experience as smooth as possible, even for a first-timer:

Oliver - You've put a substantial amount of work into making it as easy as possible for your customers to make a beautiful fly rod and there isn't really a rod building kit on the market that can compete in terms of the quality of components. Why the focus on the rodbuilding when so many other companies either sell just the blanks, or the complete rod? Are you planning on offering complete rods in the future?

Carl - Our goal is to produce the very finest fly rods available and a large part of that is to finish our blanks with the very best hardware made. Jeanie and I have spend almost two years producing or sourcing the very best cork, reel seats and guides out there - it seemed entirely logical to offer these to people that wanted the satisfaction of building their own rod too. Building your own fly rod is incredibly satisfying and a huge amount of fun. I had to build up every prototype we tested and got a real kick out of it, still do. Truth be told, building a fly rod is not complex or particularly difficult (unless you are trying to emulate the works of art produced by our Epic Rod builders - but those guys are on a whole other level)

If you can tie a fly you can build a fly rod. Much of the complexity and confusion arises from understanding and selecting matching and complimentary components. We've had to do all this for our production rods - so why not make it easy for everyone else and share this with others?

It could be said that we risk devaluing the Epic brand by letting amateur builders have access to our blanks and components - but if the goal is to get truly remarkable gear into the hands of more fly anglers then why wouldn't you offer premium components to everyone who wanted to join in?

We'll release a full "Ready to Wrap" rod kit early in the new year - there's nothing like it out there, the manual alone is pretty damn good. I would have had the Epic kit released earlier, but fine tuning on one component has meant we've had to wait until it is perfect.

Our company will produce made to order rods sometime in the first quarter of 2014. They will not be "custom" - for custom creations you'll need to go see one of our Epic builders, or make your own.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a kit at my local fly shop, HRH Hebeisen in Zürich, which recently offered an informational evening about Epic rods. We got to fiddle with the kits, examine the different blanks and components, and cast a few different models in the parking lot out back.

The kits are exactly as Carl advertised, and more.

Everything (really, everything) you need to build your own rod is included. I can only compare it to a rodbuilding course in a box. The manual consists of 42 painstakingly illustrated pages take you through every step of the way, and while it isn't a book per se, the information contained within equals that of a basic rod building handbook you'd buy online. From epoxy to a custom reel seat, a pre-fitted Portugese cork grip to Snake brand universal guides, all of it is shipped from New Zealand in a box that converts into to a rod wrapping station. Carl even designed a fiberglass rod tube to compliment the rod, and it's a wonderful touch. It looks great, and feels quite durable while still being substantially lighter than an aluminum or even a cordura covered PVC tube. The rod tube oozes style and needs to be seen and held to be appreciated.

The checklist

Even the cardboard box is meticulously designed

Mixing cups, brushes, epoxy, and matching thread..
you won't need anything else.

Abuse. There's no other way to describe it.
I'd say the highlight of the evening was seeing how tough and rugged the rods really are. While I'd never do any of this with my own rods, I was happy to help bend the shop's demo 686 tip to butt, bend the tip to a ridiculous degree, and hold the rod while a 180 pound fly shop employee ran around the parking lot leader in hand, pretending to be a tarpon. I simply don't see how it would be possible to break this rod in the course of fishing, in keeping with Carl's comments on the importance of playing a fish as quickly as possible and overpowering them to keep any potential harm to a minimum.

I'm lucky to have a local fly shop that takes chances, responds quickly to new products, and most importantly, promotes products that they believe in. I can't say for sure, but I would be very surprised if any other fly shop in Europe offers an event such as this.

Looking Ahead

Oliver - It isn't just your blanks that are a little unusual, but the reel seat and fiberglass rod tube are also something most people haven't seen before. What's on the horizon from Swift? I can't begin to imagine what kind of reel you'd come up with…

Carl - The reel seat is different by design and there are a few features that are not immediately apparent, it's also a little longer that a conventional reel seat - there's also reason for that - I believe it's the absolute best reel seat made. I also have a thing for hard anodising.

The rod tube has been the most difficulty piece of the puzzle to design and manufacture - and we're still refining it. Glass is a good fit for the Epic glass rods, but the material was chosen not for aesthetics but because it makes a far superior rod tube than extruded aluminium. It's very quiet, extremely strong, and more importantly it will not dint. Every single thing we've produced we've tried to make a better job than anything else out there.

There's lots on the drawing board for Swift and the Epic line-up, and yes, a reel is well underway, it may or may not see the light of day next year. Our reel is fundamentally quite simple, but achieving simplicity and elegance in design is actually quite complex to execute. When it's ready, it will be ready, I'm not sure exactly when that will be.

It would be a very simple and a far more profitable exercise to farm out production of our rods and reel to Asia like so many other companies have done. But for many reasons, a few philosophical, we'll resist that temptation. Instead opting to partner with more local companies that are already expert in what they do, like CTS, Snake Brand Guides in the USA and our cork producer in Portugal (Epics grips are preformed for us from premium quality cork at source in Portugal)

We're of the opinion that as soon as we mass produce and commoditize our product we loose touch with the quality and craftsmanship that help make us unique - we become just another Asian brand. Our small size and small run batch manufacturing mean we can remain innovative and very responsive. We see so many brands now touting their gear as "Designed in (insert county here)" - which is simply shorthand for made in China, why not just say it? - Fine for some, but not for us.

Our aim is to remain a small micro-manufacturer of unique, high end fly fishing gear. I've run and launched large companies in the past and don't want to get too big with this one. Our small size allows us to do things that the big boys simply cannot.

There's quite a bit to be excited for coming down the pipe in the near future...a new color, a 3 weight, graphite rods, a reel, and a line specifically designed to complement the Epic action. I wish Carl the best of luck, and I genuinely hope that Epic rods take off here, and inject a bit of much needed excitement and vitality into an aging population of fly fishers, while attracting new ones with rods they've never seen, much less imagined, before.

If you'd like to find out more about Epic rods, fiberglass rods in general, or any of the custom builders, please follow the links below:

Swift Fly Fishing, and their Facebook page. (Currently, Swift is offering free international shipping on blanks. It's no secret that many suppliers brutally overcharge on international shipping, so this a very welcome gesture for us international folks.)

Carl's YouTube channel of instructional casting videos

Christian Hörgren of Fine Tackle, and his Facebook Page.
Zeb Tonkavich of Snowman Custom Rodworks, and his Facebook Page.
Shane Gray of Graywolf, and his Facebook Page.
George Minculete of Tightloop Fly Rods, and his Facebook Page.

When it comes to the world of fiberglass fly rods, there's no better place than Cameron Mortenson's blog, The Fiberglass Manifesto. (Facebook) He also runs a groundbreaking and incredibly generous Rod Loaner program, which currently boasts three Epic rods, among many others.


  1. Oliver, thank you so much for sharing this incredible post with all of us fly fishing nomads who are constantly looking at new rods and their craftsmanship and overall performance features. This is a very informative interview and should be read by any who have an interest in learning about rod building and the "Business" of rod building. I am going to have a link to this post on an upcoming post on my blog. Hope to steer some folks your way!

    1. Thanks Mel, it's much appreciated! These rods really are something special, head turning, practically bombproof but still able to cast delicately and's going to be a looong wait until March when I have a chance at actually having a fish at the end of one...

  2. This is great! I will have to try the build your own Epic one day in the near future. A recyclable cardboard building station! Fantastic! It is so refreshing to hear when someone will not compromise on their vision. That is the essence of how all great things begin. I wish Carl all the best with this new NZ business.

    1. Hi Ian, thanks for stopping by. The kit really has to be held and seen in person to be appreciated, it's a really great idea, and Carl is the kind of guy who'd be eager to help anyone out with whatever questions they might have. I'm pretty sure that I'll be building a kit in the near future, it wont be easy to decide which one I want though. ;)