Monday, February 14, 2011

The Best Western Trout Rod Ever?

Whenever new rods come out from any rod company that I respect, I get a little curious… When it happens to be a new rod built on the line of the overwhelmingly popular Winston Boron Series, I had to get my hands on it and take it for a spin. But, when I heard that Winston was replacing the BIIX (B2X) series, my first reaction was “No, don’t ruin a good thing!” After I heard some of the initial reactions from several of the rod designers, I was salivating to get my hands on one. The BIIIX (B3X) was described as everything from “velvety smooth” to “crisp in the hands and on the water” to “the Best Rod Winston has Ever Built” etc… I knew I had to have one.
My First Thoughts
: I waited patiently while all of the store models floated into the shop and casted them a fair bit when the weather cooperated and I was impressed by the performance of the production rods right off the bat. It was quicker than the B2X but not so quick that it didn’t have that trademark soft Winston tip. I casted a 9’ 5wt, a 9’6wt and a 9’ 8wt and I was surprised by how consistent the action was across the lineup – the 5 felt like a 5 and the 6 like a 6, and the 8 was much more powerful than the old B2X 8wt. But I’ve never believed that you can take a bunch of rods out and line them up in a parking lot and tell which one is going to fish better, after all unless you are deranged you actually fish with your fly rod, not stand around casting it in some abandoned field… So when my new B3X arrived in January I took the next day off to line it up out on the Lower Madison for a little “research.” Let me tell you, it was well worth the wait.
: I believe it’s important to have something to gauge a rod against if you’re going to talk about a new rod series, so I’ll use comparisons to the Winston B2X series for the remainder of this review.
The B2X was and still is a great fly rod. It’s been the best selling rod in the history of RL Winston Rod Co. and for good reason; it was lighter, smoother and a fair bit faster than previous Winston offerings and was easy for anyone from a novice to a highly skilled guide to cast. The problem with the B2X was that certain rod lengths and models in the lineup had a very different feel from one another. For instance the 8’6” 4wt was an entirely different rod than the 9’ 4wt and the 9’ 5wt for a lot of folks wasn’t nearly as crisp or smooth casting as the 9’ 6wt. There were rods that just didn’t fit perfectly into the B2X lineup that was supposed to be a little faster and quicker than their old offerings. The 7 and 8 weight rods were a little too soft for a lot of people’s likings and you had a hard time punching them through the wind or throwing large or heavy flies with them. The B2X left something to be desired and there was definitely some room for improvement in different areas of performance – enter the B3X.
So the B2X was a little “limp” in a few of the rod line weights and lengths – in my opinion especially the 9’ 5wt B2X – and I was curious to see how the 9’ 5wt B3X would compare to its older brother. The B3X 9’ 5wt weighed in at 2 5/8 ounces compared to the B2X which weighed in at 2 3/4 ounces. So in terms of light in the hand, the B3X wins by a hair, but it’s nothing that is going to wow anyone, and especially not anything you’ll notice casting all day. Both rods were listed in the Winston catalogs as “FAST” action, but immediately upon picking up the 9’ 5wt B3X you can tell that there is a lot more power within the new generation of boron and graphite and the rod just feels quicker. The B2X 5wt was very limp through the 3rd and 4th sections of the rod and had a lot of accuracy problems with tip wobble in my opinion. At longer distances the 9’ 5wt B2X was difficult to control because of these issues and it just felt sort of sloppy in a range fishing situations where you needed to accurately deliver the goods at a distance of over 45 feet. So I decided to put them side by side and see if they had corrected these problems in the new B3X. Casting the rods side by side it was clear that the B3X had much better balance right up and into the tip section. Most importantly the tip wobble with 50+ foot casts was nearly indiscernible if it was even there at all. The rod designers had clearly worked on this issue at length, because now this rod is truly one of the finest 5 weights on the market. The B3X isn’t a telephone pole though by any stretch, it still has some bend in the tip, and from a fisherman’s standpoint that’s appreciated – Winston rods are built for fishing, not for winning a parking lot rod cast off and that soft tip is important for setting the hook and protecting tippet while playing fish. Kudos to Winston for figuring out how to balance the two very opposite needs for power and delicacy, it’s a feat no other rod company accomplishes as well as they have done with the B3X.
But, I really wanted to see how the 6 weight B3X would stand up to what I believed was the absolute finest All Around Western Trout rod ever built, the 9’ 6wt B2X. I have fished that 6wt B2X on more rivers in the State of Montana than any other rod and it’s always been the first rod I put in my vehicle when heading anywhere. It was my all around, do it all fishing tool, and was easily my favorite rod to fish. So since I now had both the B3X and B2X in hand, I figured I’d line both rods up and take them to the river for some real on the water testing…

On The Water: If had one major complaint about the B2X it was this: when loaded up with several heavy larger nymphs (size 6-12) and some split shot (BB’s to 3/0) and a strike indicator, the rod just didn’t have the power to push all of that weight through any wind or for distances more than 15 feet. In fact, the B2X 6wt has a tendency to collapse a loop if pushed too hard with just about anything on the end of the line. But that’s a fairly minor complaint for a rod that would handle a single size 4 streamer in one hole and then when a BWO hatch came off delicately deliver a size 18 mayfly imitation to a rising trout. So I had to see if the B3X would hold up in these areas as well as the B2X did, and hopefully see if it performed a little better with some of the double nymph rigs that I like to throw on our larger western rivers …

Finding The Right Line For Fishing, Not Casting: As I mentioned above, the B2X just didn’t have the power to deliver heavy cumbersome payloads that a lot of nymphing situations require. So when I loaded up my B3X with a balloon style indicator, 2 BB split shot, a size 6 weighted crayfish pattern, trailed by a heavy size 8 wire worm, I was fully expecting to tax the rod to see how it handled. I loaded the rod up with the same line that I used on the B2X with great success – Airflo Ridge Distance Taper WF6 – and trudged down to one of my favorite holes on the Madison. My initial reaction trying to cast this setup was a fair bit of frustration, the B3X just wasn’t loading perfectly with all that weight and just like the B2X I was having a tough time delivering the flies at a longer distance. So I went back to my vehicle and loaded a GPX 6wt line onto the rod to see if that would do the trick. Fantastic. This solved the problem and after re-rigging and tossing around the heavy nymph rig for a couple of hours I can say that it was definitely the line, not the rod, that was at issue. After having tossed the B3X with a few different lines, I like both the Rio Grand and the SA GPX tapers the best on it, simply because they have a little more mass than your standard line and help with turning over larger payloads and loading the rod properly down into the more powerful butt section. Now, if you don’t plan on nymphing heavy stuff on this rod, you’ll probably be fine with the Airflo Ridge Distance or a Rio Gold, but personally I’ll stick with the GPX.
Roll Casting And Mending
: A good fly rod should be able to perform in varied casting and fishing situations, and one thing that it must be able to do well to be considered as an all around rod is roll cast and mend line efficiently. Too stiff and a rod can’t roll cast well, too soft and mending line can be an issue with longer drifts when you have more line out, so you have to maintain a nice balance in order for the rod to be effective for nymphing and dry fly fishing. This wasn’t an issue at all with the B2X, especially the 6wt, and it was one of the really high points for this rod as it had plenty of power in the butt section to load roll casts and had enough flex to really slingshot the line out onto the water and deliver the flies accurately. The B3X was a little stiffer so I thought at first roll casting might be an issue. But instead what I found was that with a heavier line like the GPX you could sufficiently load the rod on the water with a standard roll cast just fine. The B3X performed roll casts very well in the 10-25ft range, if you push the rod you can roll cast in the 35-45ft range fairly accurately without too much problem, outside of that, you’re going to want a 7wt rod and probably something in the 10 foot long variety anyways. When mending I noticed that the stiffer mid sections of the B3X made picking the line up and off the water a bit easier and allowed me better line control than the B2X did. Again, I was very satisfied with the performance of the B3X and the extra power definitely helps with line lift and mending. As a side note, the B3X also does a nice job of single hand Spey casting. You will just want to use a bit quicker stroke and line the rod with a more triangular taper like an Airflo Sixth Sense if you’d like the rod to perform Spey Casts well.
Delicate Presentations
: So after testing the B3X’s performance with a heavy nymphing setup and roll casting/mending (which it passed with flying colors), I thought it would be appropriate to see if it handled dries as well as the B2X did. Because, really that was one of the things that set the B2X apart from other rod companies’ offerings – a 6 weight that can set a tiny dry fly down on top of rising fish without sending them all fleeing for the nearest rock. Fortunately the winter time offers up a wonderful test for any rod that someone claims can deliver small flies delicately – midges! On a subsequent trip to the river I set out to find some fish up and working midges. Lengthening out the leader, removing split shot etc, I readied the rod with a small size 18 cluster midge, and set about putting the B3X to the test. Again I was pleasantly surprised – the rod possesses an uncanny ability to be dialed back by easing off the power stroke in your cast and slowing things down a bit to deliver a nice delicate presentation for feeding trout at a range of between 10-40ft or so. The fact that the B3X was a little powerful made it a bit better at longer distances than the B2X, so when I came up on riffles where fish were feeding right along the seamline seemingly out of reach without spooking them, you could now deliver a midge perfectly and still be able to control it at 30ft+. Only time will tell how it does with PMD’s, Drakes and Caddis, but I’d imagine that when the time comes, it will excel in these situations as well, especially if there’s one fish that’s just out of reach of your 4 weight...
Streamer Chucking
: I’d like to add a disclaimer before talking about streamer fishing with the B3X: I’m not accustomed to fishing anything under a 7 or 8 weight for most of my own streamer fishing mostly because I like to throw 4-10” long monstrosities. For this review I’m talking about tossing a size 2 or smaller single hooked streamer. With that out of the way, for many fishermen streamer fishing is done when nothing else is working, for those of you in this school of thought, you’ll find this to be plenty of rod for any streamer fishing you might want to do. The B2X 6wt was a rod that I wouldn’t have recommended to anyone as a “streamer stick” and the B3X in a 6wt isn’t going to make anybody want to grab a 200 Grain sinking line and go throw around big articulated flies all day long either. What it does do nicely is deliver a decent sized streamer on a floating line accurately and without feeling like you’re not going to be able to tell the difference between the fly you’re fishing and a fish on the end of your leader… The B2X was a bit sluggish for most hardcore streamer fishermen, but it got the job done in a pinch. However I always felt like it was difficult to get a good hook set with a streamer with the flex in that rod; the B3X was much better at this than its predecessor with the extra power. However, I still can’t say that the B3X is a great streamer rod. The BIIMX is really much better suited for the fisherman looking for a streamer fishing rod from Winston. But if needed you can use this rod for tossing around most store bought streamer patterns as long as you realize it’s not going to be the primary function and instead is part of a whole package of options – under that context it does the job just fine.
Casting Range
: The B2X was a wonderful rod for casts within 50 feet or less, if you got much out of that range you really had to be an excellent caster to push beyond the casual limits of the rod. The B3X however has a little more power in its butt section and mid sections and so in my experience casting the B3X it can deliver line further distances much easier and even more accurately. This will be beneficial for people who aren’t on the water every day, really the vast majority of the rod buying market. But really in terms of fishing, that doesn’t do much for you unless you find yourself in a parking lot or on the river in a windy situation. For that reason having more power is beneficial because you can punch a tight loop through the wind with the B3X without collapsing the loop while trying to turnover your flies like the B2X oftentimes did. This was put to the test on another trip out to the Lower Madison during which I was blessed with the normal 10-20MPH stuff that comes with warmer weather fronts during the winter and the B3X performed remarkably well. I worked to close the loop by stopping the rod abruptly on both my front and back casts, and speeding up your back cast and tightening up your loop you can easily power stroke your way through most any head wind. Realize though that you will need a bit of room for your back cast to really load the rod.
Overall Assessment
: When I began the initial rod review process I was apprehensive about finding more faults with the B3X as I felt that Winston was going to be hard pressed to match, let alone exceed, the expectations given the initial accolades and praise the B3X had received before its release. Being such a fan of the B2X series, I was also cringing hoping that they wouldn’t ruin the softer tip and overall fishability of the rod. Not too many rod companies could have pulled this one off any better. The B3X has surpassed the B2X in all aspects performance wise, and it definitely has solidified itself as my go to rod for the time being. But I’ll have to revisit the situation come summertime as I typically fish a lot of smaller waters with my B2X 6wt. When I do I’ll gladly give you a second take on things, but at this point in time I can say without hesitation that the B3X is the best Western Trout Rod that I have personally fished on our mid to larger sized rivers and I would recommend the 9’6wt to anyone looking for “One Rod to Do It All” for the rivers of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.


Dustin's Fly Box said...

Winston is of course the best company!! I love my Joan Wulff 4wt! You got a great blog and got a new follower

Kris Kumlien said...

Thanks Dustin, glad you enjoy the Blog, got a new entry here this week...