Sunday, January 4, 2015

An Unexpected Surprise, Mike Gillen Rod

On December 23 a pleasantly surprising package arrived at my doorstep. I knew my good friend Mike Gillen of Fringe Element Fly Fishing was sending something but I had no idea what it was until I saw the mailing tube. Earlier in the year I had crafted a landing net for Mike and this was his way of thanking me for the net and some long distance mentoring.

Over the past few years Mike has become a go to tester for many of my fly patterns and leaders. We are constantly swapping ideas related to just about everything fly fishing. At some point he started picking my brain on the subject of rod building. Mind you I am not exactly a guru at it but with  over 140 rods under my belt no novice either. It has been a pleasure sharing some of my now mostly unused knowledge with him. I can only have so many rods and in 2010 I started focusing on net building. So when the mailing tube arrived I was ecstatic to see what was inside.

Unknown to me Mike had for many weeks been picking my brains about specific components- reel seats, grip shapes and guides. All the while I thought I was helping him build a rod for himself and telling him these are just my preferences. When I pulled the rod from the cloth sleeve it was not a complete surprise to see a rod that perfectly fit all my specifications for a small stream fiberglass fly rod. From the finely shaped cigar grip to the nickel silver winding check and unlocking reel seat the rod meets my specs to a T.

Being a perpetual pain in the ass my first instinct was to go over the entire rod looking for blemishes. There are none! The placement of the guides, grip, reel seat and winding check is spot on. The windings are done in Antique Gold silk and finished with spar varnish. This makes for beautifully transparent wraps that allow you to see the precision ground guide feet. Everything I would expect from a seasoned rod builder. Here's the thing, the serial number on the rod is 002. Yes that's right this is the second rod Mike had built. Having all those rods under my belt it's easy for me to recognize the level of accomplishment he has achieved in a very short time. Ladies and gentlemen I believe we have another fine rod builder on our hands.

Being completely honest there was one thing that concerned me about the rod was the blank, but not too much. I've purchased some products from Angler's Roost in the last few years and mostly I've been happy with my purchases of fly tying materials, rod components, a pair of reels out of curiosity and a pair of lines but I have intentionally avoided the rod blanks Johnny sells. Call it a prejudice. Over the years I've tried not to lock myself into any one niche, it tends to limit possibilities. But for some reason I have always been weary of rod blanks made overseas opting to stay with U S makers. Like I said it's a prejudice, or at least it was.

Yesterday I was finally able to lawn test the rod. It is 7' long rated for 3/4 line. Back to the guide placement for a bit. Mike fitted the rod with one stripping guide and eight snakes plus the tip top, enough guides to accommodate the deep flex of the blank. I started with my normal testing line a weight forward Orvis Wonderline in 3 weight. I always use the WF Wonderline for consistent comparison. I was quickly pleased with how easily the rod handled the 3 weight. So pleased I didn't notice I had casted all the way into the backing until it slipped through my hand. Even with 90 feet of line and 8 feet of leader out the guides the rod still felt crisp and responsive. I stripped the line in and cast it back out paying more attention. At about 50 feet is where I started to really feel it flex just into the cork. Again I was able to lay the entire line, leader and 10 feet of backing out the tip top.

I switched spools on my Lamson Liquid loading up a 4 weight. For my taste this line is where the sweet spot lies with this rod. At around 30 feet I started to get a good feel of the flex in the cork but not enough that it felt too soft. At 50 feet the rod responded as well as it did at any time during casting. I had no problem whatsoever being completely in tune with what the rod needed to cast well. This is where the guide placement really started to mean something. Too often I've cast glass rods, mostly inexpensive vintage rods, that didn't have enough guides and the casting suffered from uneven travel through the guides, not so here. With the WF4F I was able to lay out the entire line but it was not quite as crisp, pretty or accurate as with the 3 weight. But really when do you need a 90 foot cast on a small stream.

Just for grins I strung up a 5 weight to see what happened. The short version is this. I was hitting a skillet size target very accurately at 35 feet. Beyond that there was too much flex to control accuracy.

My conclusion is this. For medium to large, not giant rivers I will be loading up a 3 weight line for distance and accuracy. As a 3 weight the rod has the push to very accurately fish up to 60 feet in the real world. For small but open streams a 4 weight line is the ticket. The rod also roll cast best, at least on the snow covered lawn with the WF4F. For small cramped streams I may even load up a 5 weight to see hoe it does in really cramped quarters.

Keep in mind that all this casting was done on a 200 foot wide lawn where I have established distance markers. The area is protected from winds even in the 25 mph range we had today. I use my hand twisted leaders and a small yarn "fly" so it is all very controlled. Only stream time will tell if the rod performs as I suspect it will while casting in the real world with swirling winds and back cast obstructions. And only being hooked into a live fish will tell how it behaves in the fish fighting capacity. My guess is it will do just fine. As soon as I get a chance to try it out I will let you know. Until then if you are wondering about these blanks or looking for a rod builder Mike Gillen and Angler's Roost are a good combination.


  1. John you have great friends as I do. The rod looks great and of course I'm a glass geek so I'm anxious for the big test on the waters. I don't build anything, but I'd be happy to gift you a couple of wind knots to your line. :)

    1. Howard as pleasant as your offer sounds I have a glut of windknots and have run out of room to store them. I may have to start gifting them out. The best friends do live in the world of fly fishing.

  2. John, sure appears to be a very pretty rod, and, in the hands of someone who knows what their doing with it, a sweet casting tool. That being said, I appreciate your explanation of how you tested the rod out.

    Oh, by the way, I can't cast worth a lick so Howard's wind knots won't bother my presentation much either.....................

    1. Mel, The rod is a beauty and a sweet tool for casting a line. As for someone who knows what their doing I'm just muddling my way through it. But please don't tell anybody I'm trying to take over the world here.........