Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gear Review: Cortland Competition Nymph Rod 10' 6" 3wt

The second fly rod I owned as a kid was a $40 Cortland Fairplay 5 weight which my dad bought me from the hallowed shelves of Walmart. At the time, I thought it was a great rod. By the time I was 14 I saved up enough money to buy my first higher performance rod. I quickly wondered how I had learn to fish without my new rod. I felt like I'd traded in an old clunker for  a Porsche and quickly realized my old rod had handicapped my further development. It's funny how our initial experiences with a brand shape much of the way we think about their products for years to come, whether for good or ill. My initial experience with that good old Cortland Fairplay biased my thinking toward disbelief that Cortland could design and make a quality performance fly rod. In fact, when my teammate Jeremy Sides told me he fished the Cortland Competition Nymph Rod during nationals this year I was surprised to say the least and I believe I called him "crazy". However, as I mentioned in an earlier post, a day on the Poudre with the 10' 6" 3wt Competition Nymph rod derailed my initial bias against Cortland rods. I've been fishing the 10' 6" 3 wt since the beginning of November and I've taken it to a wide range of waters from the miniscule Boulder Creek to the mightier Arkansas and in between. Here are a few fish who have flexed the rod during that time.

Before I get caught up in how I believe it performs, let me quickly discuss what I look for in a Euro nymphing rod and then I'll take you through how the Cortland performs in each of these areas. Also, please note that this review only applies to the 10' 6" 3 wt model as I have not fished the other 4 rods in Cortland's lineup.

The 3 basic qualities I look for in a Euro nymph rod are:
  1. A length of 10' or longer which is finished light enough to still balance in the hand after the reel is attached. Your hand is the fulcrum of your fly rod lever and the weight should balance in the cork where you hold the rod. Without a 10' or longer rod, casting a Euro rig is much more difficult. I've taught many students who have gotten the hang of casting a Euro rig with one of the rods I bring to a clinic only to write me later to tell me of their casting struggles with their typical 9' rods when they fish on their own. However, a light long rod that balances well is difficult for manufacturers to achieve and has really only been realistic in the past few years. A balanced rod, which reduces swing weight, is critical for reducing fatigue in the forearm from repeated casting and hook setting and also for reducing fatigue in the shoulder when the rod is elevated through the drift.
  2. The rod should have a fairly fast blank overall for casting accuracy and loop manipulation. However, it must have a soft tip to dampen head shakes and hook sets that still recovers quickly despite being soft. This soft tip protects fine tippets from breaking and keeps small fish from throwing the hook, which can make or break your results in competition. Furthermore, the soft tip loads easily to propel rigs with small tungsten nymphs which only have leader outside of the rod tip. I look for the rod to be stiff through at least 2/3 of the blank with a progressively softer tip beyond. I also look for the tip to quickly return to it's original position when flexed without prolonged undulation, which in turn undulates the casting loop leading to flies landing away from your intended target, especially with an uneven power stroke or a casting stroke which deviates from a narrow plane. Too many Euro rods I've flexed collapse near the middle ferrule feeling like the manufacturer took a fast graphite rod for the first two pieces and attached a fiberglass rod for the last two pieces. This results in poor casting loop formation and loss of accuracy as well as missed fish because the tip is so dampened that direct hook penetration, especially in deep water, is an issue.
  3. A Euro nymphing rod can't just be a one trick pony. I need it to fish a dry fly well so I don't have to pack multiple rods all over the place for a days fishing. There a lots of days and competitions where I don't expect a hatch or rising fish but I stumble upon a giddy trout that is feeling the need to poke his snout through the surface. If the rod I'm fishing is lousy at casting a dry, then my chance at catching these fish is reduced and so is my enjoyment and/or competitive success.
Does the Cortland Competition Nymph Rod possess these qualities?

  1. The Competition nymph rod is the first Euro rod longer than 10' that retains a balance in the hand. The use of single foot guides, as opposed to snake guides, reduces the number of thread wraps and the epoxy required to finish the rod by half. It may not seem like this would matter much but the longer the rod gets the more an additional fraction of an ounce in the finished rod will adversely affect the balance of the rod in your hand. Cortland also added a fighting butt to the rod (something many European manufacturers add to their nymph rods) which shows its best utility in counterbalancing the tip weight of the rod due to it's length. It can also be braced against your forearm during long drifts. In my conversation with Brooks Robinson about the rod, he explained that part of the reason Joe Goodspeed, the rod's designer, left the rod unpainted is that they received a painted batch during its development and the paint slowed the action of the rod significantly and substantially added to its weight. The decision to leave it an unpainted matte black blank may have created a rod that isn't very elegant, but I much prefer my rods to focus on function over form and I believe Cortland has achieved great function with this rod. To illustrate the balance of the rod look at the balance points in the pictures below. Notice that the Cortland balances deeper into the cork than either of my Sage ESN's, which creates a feeling of lightness in the hand even though the rod might be heavier (Cortland doesn't list the weight of the rod).
    With my old 3/4 weight Ross Canyon (which I fish with Euro rods because it is heavier than many contemporary 6/7 weight premium reels) the 10' 6" 3 wt rod balances about where I would place my index finger when gripping the rod. I would prefer it an inch or two lower in the cork but it is still better than my ESN's below. A downlocking reel seat would really improve the balance in this and just about every other Euro rod I've fished (more on that later).

    With the Ross Canyon, my 3 wt Sage ESN balances in front of where  I would place my index finger when gripping the rod and higher than the balance point on the Cortland. Note that this is also a 10' foot rod which should inherently balance easier than the 10' 6" Cortland. If Sage had added a counterbalancing fighting butt or a downlocking reel seat, the balance would be better.

    With the Ross Canyon, the Sage 4 wt balances at the end of the cork and has a heavier feel in the hand than either the Sage 3 wt ESN or the Cortland 10' 6" 3 wt Competition Nymph Rod.
    When I switch to a lighter weight Ross Evolution 5/6 weight reel (even partially offset by a heavier weight fly line), notice the slight shifts in the balance points below.
The balance point shifts forward about an inch with a lighter Ross Evolution. It's surprising how much heavier in the hand the rod feels when casting with this reel over my heavier Ross Canyon. This illustrates the importance of choosing a reel that balances whatever Euro rod you choose. The balance point is still in the cork though unlike my ESN's below.

With the Ross Evolution, the balance point on the Sage 3 wt ESN shifts in front of the cork. This is not desirable for arm fatigue.
With the Ross Evolution, the balance point on the Sage 4 wt ESN shifts in front of the hook keeper. Even less desirable than the corresponding 3 wt ESN.
Though the Cortland balances well compared to my ESN's and the other Euro rods I've fished, it (and all other long Euro rods) would benefit from a downlocking reel seat that would shift the counterbalancing effect of the reel further from your hand and better counteract the weight from the length of the rod. I believe that the effect would be drastic enough to allow the use of today's lightest 3 weight reels while still balancing the rod near your ring or middle finger on the cork. This would lighten the whole ensemble rather than needing a heavier reel to properly balance the rod in the cork. The best balanced Euro rod I've fished to date is a custom built 3 wt ESN my teammate Glade Gunther made. He used single foot REC guides with a downlocking reel seat. It balances well even with a premium lightweight reel and feels exceptionally light in the hand. He also used a full wells grip which relaxes your grip on the rod. A full wells grip is something my physical therapist (whose husband took one of my nymphing classes) recommended to me to deal with the tendonitis I've experienced in my rod arm and something I'd like to see on a lot more lower line weight rods.

2. The Cortland Competition Nymph Rod has the exact action I like in a Euro rod (see corresponding #2 above). It's a bit faster than my 4 wt ESN but still has a soft tip that has helped me achieve very high ratios of landed to hooked fish. Even very small fish resist bouncing with this rod, which I did not expect with its extra length. Being 6" longer and slightly faster than my ESN's, it took a bit of adjustment to hook setting angles and power to avoid small fish exiting the water on the set and avoiding break offs with fine tippet. However, now that I've used it enough to become comfortable, I have eliminated most of those problems. It loads easily with small flies but I'm a bit less accurate with the rod compared to my ESN's, mostly due to it's extra length. I've improved my accuracy by slowing my casting stroke and waiting for my rig to fully turn over on my backcast. The only place where I haven't liked the rod was on overgrown Boulder Creek. A 10' or 9' 6" rod is more appropriate for similar small brushy streams.

3. Perhaps the worst thing about the Competition Nymph rod is its name because it suggests the rod is only applicable to nymphing (I feel the same way about the ESN). I've been fortunate enough to fish it through several baetis and midge hatches. I even had a very solid baetis hatch on Black Friday where I spent several hours with my former teammate and captain Anthony Naranja catching rising fish with relative ease on the Arkansas. The rod delivers perfectly tight loops and I haven't felt handicapped at all fishing it with dries. Though the rod is labeled as a 3 weight, I've found it loads best with a true 4 weight fly line. I would not fish a 4.5 weight line like a Rio Grand or Scientific Anglers GPX with it as it would load it too much but a 3.5 weight line might work well. Though it might not be my first choice as a dry fly only rod, it certainly performs this function just fine and I don't feel the need to pack a dry fly rod for the day even if I expect a hatch. I typically just pack another reel with a 4 weight line and dry fly leader.

      Overall I've been thoroughly impressed with the 10' 6" Cortland Competition Nymph rod. It is now my go to Euro nymphing rod for medium to large rivers where the extra 6" provides a great benefit in reach. At $220, there is not another rod I've seen that performs anywhere near as well without jumping into the $700 and above range. If you value the aesthetics of a rod highly then this rod is probably not for you. However, if you're like me and are more interested in performance than aesthetics, I highly recommend this rod. I suppose there isn't a greater testimony I can give it beyond the fact that I will be fishing it in competitions this year right along my ESN's. I hope to get my hands on the other models in the lineup soon also to see if they are as well designed as the 10' 6" 3 wt.

Happy Angling!


  1. That is one heck of a positive review for Cortland ero 10' 6" 3 wt rod...and I love the price. But why a 3 wt and not a 4wt or 5wt Cortland?

  2. I love this info, The Tactical Fly Fisherman! Solid and thorough enlightenment on choosing a rod for the technique of European Nymphing, or Czech style nymphing as most refer to it. I think the point of not bouncing fish and protecting light tippet was discussed, but possibly some may not have previous information as to why a light line rod (hence the popular 2-3wts) is preferred. This technique of Euro nymphing is rarely practiced in distances over 20 ft from the rod tip, so a light lined rod with a soft- or protecting tip- is preferred to 1- protect those tippets from snappage when fishing and hooksetting a short line (which would have minimal stretch at close range), and 2- when setting the hook at close range on relatively smaller fish, the tip should not be too stiff and powerful to move the fish with enough power to shock the rod into unnecessary undulation (similar to shock waves, or whiplash) which has a tendency to set the hook, then quickly introduce slack which then unhooks a barbless hook that hasn't had enough steady pressure to be seated completely (also this happens to me when I set a bit hard on a big fish and the rod bends fast, then rebounds and introduces slack), hence the term 'bouncing fish', and 3- a light line rod is preferred when wanting to feel the progression of the flies throughout the drift, or as comp anglers call it, being in contact with your flies. The smaller line weight rods are always more sensitive in the hand to feel every tick and tap of the flies scraping bottom and more importantly, the subtle take of a wary trout, and finally 4- the smaller the diameter the fly line is in Euro nymphing, the less sag you get from rod tip to tippet which puts you that much more in touch with what's happening at the fly, and poses less of a chance for wind interference on the blustery days. This final point relates to using a longer line while Euro nymphing, popularized by the Spanish and French in fly fishing competitions. That's all I have. Hope it helps. Oh, I also endorse the Cortland Competition Nymph rod in this size and weight. CC

  3. The Greys XF2 Streamflex rod is the definitive nymphing rod for under $400 !

  4. Very interesting review. I just ordered the rod and should get it tomorrow. I was wondering about matching the right fly line. Have you tried the Cortland competition nymph line ? Should I get the 120, 140 or 160 grains one ? I saw you are using a 4 wt line for the 3wt rod - I assume it's to be able to also use it for some dry fly fishing ?

  5. what is a good reel to go with this?

  6. Really it's very excellent fishing reel. Your guide will be help me choose the top quality fishing reel. Thanks for sharing this post.

  7. Interesting article, well written too.