When it comes to fishing rods, there are a multitude of rods out there, of that there is no doubt. To many anglers, it's difficult to sort out what it is that we're looking at, and even more difficult to make a decision about which is right one. We'll cover some of those bases here, in order to make the decision a lot easier.
What is it that you plan to do with your rod? If you think that all you're going to do is fish for panfish and trout, you really aren't in need of anything more than a light action in a length of your choice. (Length is something that we will get to shortly, as well.) In most cases, rod power and action are going to break down fairly succinctly. There are some anomalys out there, but it's somewhat rare that we really have to deal with it. The following list of rod powers and actions will help to make the determination of what it is that you're looking for on that base:
Ultra Light- Generally only in spinning rods- very light power intended to be used for casting light lures, in some cases as light as 1/64th ounce. Primarily used for targeting panfish and trout, not the correct choice if you're bass fishing, period.
Light- Again generally a panfish and trout power. There are instances in which walleye anglers will prefer a light power rod, sometimes when fishing light jigs and small crankbaits a Light Power rod becomes a necessity.
Medium Light- This category of rod can be somewhat transitional. It can be found in rods for nearly every species of freshwater fish, and in both casting and spinning models. That is not to say that this is a very versatile rod power, but it is a rod power that is quite specific in application, hence the availability of those rods in so many applications.
Medium- The vast majority of bass and walleye anglers will have multiple rods that are of medium power. There are also medium power rods that are built around the muskie and saltwater templates. There are a huge number of applications and techniques that can be applied to a medium power rod. In a bass specific spinning rod, this is far and away the most popular power. In a walleye specific spinning rod, it's probably the top choice as well. In bass fishing baitcast rods, a medium is very, very useful for a large variety of techniques that range from small, light topwater baits to weightless soft plastics. The medium can cover such a wide variety of techniques in will probably become one of your most important rods, whether bass fishing or walleye fishing.
Medium Heavy- Far and away the most popular rod power for a wide variety of applications in a variety of species. Everything from catfish to walleye, pike, and bass; all can be targeted efficiently with a medium heavy rod. You'll actually find that the vast majority technique specific rods in bass fishing, Muskie fishing, catfish, even into many saltwater species are of a medium heavy power relative to the quarry.
Heavy- Most heavy rods are pretty specific as to the intended use and activity. They're usually not all purpose rods, and are fairly limited by their weight rating and line rating. There are many instances in which a heavy is very desirable, but again, they're pretty specific.
XH, XXH, XXXH- this end of the spectrum is most generally so specific to a given technique or tactic that they're branded as such. Many swimbait rods are designated in one of these categories, as are certain flipping rods. Muskie rods in these categories are very often those rods that are used for casting "pounders" or Double 10, 12, and 13 bucktails. They're invariably BIG bait rods, with extreme power in the blank to deal with slinging oversized baits and handling oversize fish.
The second aspect of a rod, aside from power, is the taper of the blank. Most rods that you're going to deal with are going to be one of the following tapers: Moderate, Moderate Fast, Fast, or Extra Fast.
To break it down simply, rod taper is where in the blank that the rod bends under load. that's the long and short of it. To say a rod has a "fast tip" is completely arbitrary. A fast tip really has no meaning in terms of rod blanks. You're looking at the entire blank dimensions and how that entire blank is tapered. Also, taper, or speed, does not necessarily equate to the stiffness of the rod. To say that a rod is stiff can mean that it's influenced by the taper, or the blank power itself. You must look at both of the factors to determine what it is that you're really looking at.
To really dissect what those terms mean is quite simple.
A moderate rod is going to bend far down the blank; in some cases you can feel the rod bend under load all the way down at the handle. A moderate fast rod is much the same, it is going to bend deeply in the blank, usually stopping slightly below the halfway point of the blank. (there's no hard and fast rule, however) Most moderate and moderate fast rods are best suited to applications such as trolling, or treble hook lures. Their greatest attribute is that they are capable of storing great amounts of energy, in doing so they're excellent for protecting hooks in fish in those situations that fish can get leverage against the bait, or hook. Treble hook lures like crankbaits, are a very good example of this. The vast majority of crankbait rods are moderate, or moderate fast, tapers. Trolling rods for walleye are another instance of a moderate rod.
A fast rod is probably the single most popular taper. More rods are built on a fast taper because of their variety of uses. This is not to say that you can do everything with a Medium Heavy Fast (as an example) but the rod is so versatile that the vast majority of techniques that you will need to perform in a wide variety of situations will be covered. Speaking in the context of bass fishing, a 7' Medium Heavy fast is the most essential rod in your arsenal. It will cover more than any other rod can.
Extra Fast rods are very often technique specific rods. There are situations that they are not, but for most practical situations, they are. The majority of dropshot rods, finesse plastic rods, finesse jig rods, jerkbait rods, and jig rods are Extra Fast. Having them broken down as such typically will aid in your search, if that is the direction in which you're moving.
Just as important of the power and taper, or action, of a rod is the material that the rod is made from. There is a wide range of materials that are used in the construction of rods. Graphite, fiberglass, boron, titanium, and carbon fiber are all materials that are used in the manufacturing process. Generally you are going to see Graphite, fiberglass, or a combination thereof. Those are what we primarily deal with, and what we're talking about here.
Lastly, I'll touch on what all those numbers on a rod actually mean. When you look at a rod and see IM6, or IM10, or 70 Million Modulus, or 90 Million Modulus, have you ever wondered what it is that you're looking at? I know that I get asked that question an awful lot so I'm going to try to break it down in a manner that's easily understood.
IM6, IM7, and IM8 are a set of designators used by Hexcel to identify their product. Many, many other rod manufacturers use those same numbers on rods, even though it isn't an industry standard measurement. Those numbers alone, though, really have no meaning. What we need to understand in selecting a rod is actually the modulus. You can think of modulus like this: The higher the odulus, the stiffer the material is by weight. This means that less material is needed in the rod blank to achieve the same stiffness of lower modulus material. In modern rod design, it's all about weight; or rather the lack thereof. Materials for the manufacture of fishing rods have grown substantially in the past several years. So much so, in fact, that there are resins available that weigh over 100 times less than their counterparts from just a few years ago. There are ultra-high pressure resins that actually contain minute bubbles of air- hence "airweight resins."
So when you're considering a rod, it really helps to break it down and look at it like this. Having the ability to make an informed decision will help you determine what is, and is not, important to you will also help you eliminate time spent looking through a hundred rods to find just one. Being able to determine even just a little bit of what that information is will also help ease you in making that decision, as well it will ensure that you're happy with the purchase of that rod. It will make certain that that rod is going to do just what you want it to do.
And, when all else fails, that's what we're here for. To answer those questions and to help you make that informed decision about which rod really is right for you.