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World's Best Fly Rods?

By Scott Richmond


All fly anglers know about Washington-based rod makers Sage and G. Loomis, but how many have heard of Kerry Burkheimer? Burkheimer is hardly a household word. Yet his rods are prized by fly anglers all over the world.

Burkheimer's spey rods have achieved cult status with steelheaders on rivers such as the Oregon's Deschutes. In 2002, a tournament fly caster from southwest Washington won the world spey casting championship. His rod? A Burkheimer.

The fact that Burkheimer is known only to a small circle of zealots is because he operates out of a non-descript storefront in Washougal, Washington. Also, his hand-crafted rods are not produced in the same volume as his better known competitors.

I visited Burkheimer and talked to him about how a top-quality, custom fly rod is designed and built. He also shared some thoughts about how anglers should--and should not--buy a fly rod.

Small in Scale, Big in Experience

Burkheimer has been building rods for over 20 years, and designing them for nearly all that time. He has been a trout and steelhead guide for 12 years, and has taught fly fishing schools. "I have devoted my life to fly fishing," he says. "All the years of fishing, guiding, and teaching go into each rod I design and build."

In the early 1980s Burkheimer was the head rod developer for Loomis Composites, Inc. Later he worked with world-famous rod maker Russ Peak, and when Russ retired he bought out his inventory. He still has a large stock of Russ Peak blanks. For 15 years he consulted with various rod companies about fly rod design.

Five years ago Burkheimer struck out on his own and began building rods under his own label. He starts from scratch, making his own blanks from resin-impregnated graphite cloth; see below for the step-by-step process of building a quality fly rod.

The Burkheimer Line

Burkheimer has three categories of rods:

  1. Full custom rods, which are designed for a specific person, river, and fish. For example, if you came to Burkheimer and said you wanted a rod to fish for Atlantic salmon on the rivers of Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula, he would build a rod particularly suited to that place and the salmon that migrate there. He would also take measurements of your hands (for the grip) and, if possible, watch you cast.
  2. Premium rods. These rods are build to a standard design, but the finish, wraps, reel seat, etc. are to the buyer's specifications. However, when Burkheimer says "standard design," he's not using the phrase the same way other rod makers do. "I have over 60 patterns just for nine-foot five-weight rods," Burkheimer says. "I talk to the buyer and select the best design for his or her situation."
  3. Catalog rods. These are the closest thing to "off-the-rack" rods. However, with the custom and premium business going so strongly, Burkheimer rarely has time to build these.

The premium and full-custom rods have Burkheimer's "Zenith" finish. Fine finish work is a carry-over from his days with Russ Peak, whose rods were renowned both for their casting and for their superb finish work. "The finish is the ultimate expression of quality and craftsmanship," says Burkheimer. The entire rod shaft and thread wraps receive several hand-applied coats of a special epoxy that gives the rods an elegant "cane-quality" finish.

Regardless of which category a buyer opts for, each rod is numbered, signed, and inscribed for the new owner.

"Fishing" Rods vs. "Casting" Rods

Most fly rods are bought by anglers who visit their local fly shop, select a couple of rods, then go into the parking lot and cast them for fifteen minutes. Most of the casting is for distance. There are several problems with this process. First, the criterion--distance casting--is wrong. Second, there is no water. And last, there are no fish swimming in the asphalt.

A good fly rod needs to cast well at all distances. It needs to do this with different line speeds, and with different types of casts. For example, some trout may lie 70 feet from the angler, but sometimes "old hookjaw" may be rising in a backeddy only 20 feet from your belt buckle. A good fly rod needs to deliver a delicate cast at both distances--and everywhere in between. It needs to roll cast well, execute pile casts, mend line, etc. And when the fish is hooked, the rod needs to protect the fragile tippet.

Another problem with testing rods in a parking lot is that the fly line is dry, and a dry fly line does not cast the same as a wet line. Further, without water an angler cannot gauge the delicacy of a rod's presentation, nor can he or she try roll casts or other casts that require water.

However, the vast majority of fly anglers base their purchase decision on how far a rod casts over asphalt, not how it performs on the water or when a hefty trout is connected to it via a 6X tippet. Big rod companies know this, so there is a temptation to design a rod that performs well at the fly shop, and to make its on-the-water characteristics of secondary importance.

According to Burkheimer, most production rod companies, including the premium rod makers, have two or three really good rods in their line-up. The rest are undistinguished. "The trick," says Burkheimer, "is to make a rod that fishes well, not one that just casts well." Burkheimer's rods are famous for doing both.

Designing a Great Fly Rod

While Burkheimer is not about to reveal the secrets of his rod designs, he did share some insights. He feels that a fine fly rod needs strength and power in the tip, and it needs to have a responsive butt. It needs to be crisp, but it also needs to quickly dampen vibrations. It should handle a long cast, but it should also function well with a ten-foot leader and only one foot of fly line past the rod tip.

One way to achieve this is to vary the modulus of the graphite depending on how the rod will be used. (The modulus is a measure of how fast a rod returns to its original shape after being deformed by casting.) For example, the demands of a trout rod are completely different that for a saltwater rod. So it only makes sense that the taper and material that the rod is made of should be picked to best compliment the intended use.

Burkheimer achieves this balance by using a slightly higher modulus material in the rod's tip than in its butt section. Then he builds the butt section with a thicker wall construction than the tip. "A high modulus, thin-walled rod will snap back into shape quickly," says Burkheimer. "With a slightly thicker wall but a lower modulus, you achieve much the same effect, but the caster doesn't have to work as hard." The important thing, though, is to make the rod thicker in just the right places and in just the right way. And that's a secret Burkheimer won't share.

How a Graphite Fly Rod Is Built

1. Pieces of resin-impregnated graphite cloth are cut according to a pattern.

2. The graphite pieces--each roughly triangular in shape--are tacked onto a mandrill, then rolled onto the mandrill. The mandrill is solid steel, thin and slightly tapered. The rod's flex will be affected by where the graphite is placed on the mandrill, and how thick the graphite is at each point.

3. The graphite cloth is wrapped with cellophane and the whole assembly--mandrill, graphite cloth, and cellophane--is placed vertically in a special oven and baked for about one-and-a-half hours, long enough to set the resin in the graphite cloth. Throughout the baking process, the temperature is carefully managed.

4. After cooling, the mandrill is removed and the cellophane stripped off. It's beginning to look like a fly rod blank!

5. The rod blank is carefully sanded, mostly by a precision machine but sometimes parts of it are sanded by hand. Sanding is a crucial part of the process. Burkheimer says: "Taking just three or four thousandths of an inch off the circumference--that's about one one-thousandth of an inch in diameter--can change a sweet casting four weight rod into a sloppy three-and-a-half weight." On each pass through the sander, Burkheimer takes off only half of one-thousandth of an inch in the circumference of the rod.

6. The rod is dipped into a pigment-filled cylinder in the ground. This is done twice. Because the graphite material is black, there aren't too many choices for a rod color.

7. The grip is built from solid cork rings that are turned and shaped on a lathe. The grip is fitted carefully to the rod so there are no air pockets.

8. The reel seat is added and the guides are wrapped onto the rod. Now it's ready for a trip to the water--and a bout with "old hookjaw."

Reaching Burkheimer

A four-piece Burkheimer trout rod costs around $700, and a two-handed spey rod might set you back $1,000 or more. Even at those prices, there is a backlog. But if you don't mind spending a few bucks on a truly fine fly rod, and if you can plan ahead, you might want to give him a call. He can be reached at 360/835-1420, or e-mail him at cfb@cfburkheimer.com. The website is www.cfburkheimer.com.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).

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Rob Allen (a Westfly forum regular) cuts graphite cloth to presice dimensions

Once cut to size, the graphite cloth is tacked to a steel mandrill in preperation for rolling.

Burkheimer operates a specialized machine that rolls the graphite cloth onto the mandrill.

Once the graphite is rolled onto the mandrill, the assembly is placed in an oven to bake.

When the graphite resin is set, the mandrills are removed and the rod blanks are ready for assembly and finishing.

A cork handle is hand-crafted on a lathe.

The Zenith finish is painstakingly applied.

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