I am often asked what size rods are appropriate for fly fishing here in the midwest. My first reply to that question is, “what will you be fishing for?” Its a dumb question if you live in Montana because the answer is of course, trout and a 5 or 6wt rod is all you need. Rarely will you see an 11wt rod sitting on the shelf in a Montana fly shop. Out here in the midwest it is a different story, we have so many different species of fish to catch, all being different sizes and shapes that one rod cannot possibly do it all, unless you only stick to one species of fish.
Lets break this down into the three midwest fish categories to start. First you have stream trout, second, large and smallmouth bass, and third the toothy critters, pike and muskie. Within the trout category you could also place sunnies and crappies. Within the bass category you can add steelhead, carp and pike. And in the Pike/Muskie category, well, that is about as big of a fish as your going to catch in the midwest on a fly rod, unless you can figure out how to catch a sturgeon on the fly. And if you do figure out how to catch a sturgeon on a fly let me know cause its on my bucket list.
In the trout category for the midwest, I would choose from a 3,4, or 5wt rod. If this is a first time rod purchase I would go with a 5wt. A 5wt is a very versitale fly rod, maybe a tiny bit heavy for some of our trout in this area but not always, we have some pretty decent fish caught now and then. A 5wt can throw slightly bigger flies (streamers) and will throw a nymph set up better than a 4wt. You can also take a 5wt out west to Montana or Colorado and fish any of the rivers with confidence. I would say if you were ONLY fishing the smaller streams here in the midwest a 4wt rod is the perfect rod. A 4wt has just enough backbone to handle that 18 inch brown trout and is just light enough for that 8 incher to put a pretty good bend in it. If you are a trout guy but also love to catch sunnies on the fly, a 3wt rod is not a bad choice. An 18 inch trout is going to really be a fight on a three weight and sunnies will be a blast as well.
Lets move into the Bass category and step it up to a 6, 7, or 8 weight rod. If you want to fish trout as well as bass a 6 weight will do, but I feel a 6wt is a bit too much for trout in our area and not quite enough for bass. I have been chasing smallmouth bass for the the last couple of years on our local rivers and I have seen them put 8 weight rods to the test. Overall, I feel a 7wt rod is probably the perfect smallmouth bass rod, and probably my choice if I were ONLY fishing smallmouth bass. A 7wt has just enough backbone for a great fight yet enough power to get the fish to the boat. When you jump up to an 8 weight rod, the world is your oyster. I would say the 8wt rod covers more species of fish worldwide than any other rod size including bonefish, carp, steelhead, most salmon, largemouth, smallmouth, pike, alaskan sized rainbows, redfish, and on and on. It is an extremely travelable rod that every fly angler should own. Largemouth bass love diving into heavy weed cover once hooked and having the backbone of an eight to pull them out is pretty handy, belive me. Hooking up on a big 20 inch smallie in heavy current and your six weight is going to feel helpless. An 8 weight fly rod in the midwest is an extremely valid weapon of destruction.
The final category covers the biggest fish we have living in our local waters, pike and muskies, bringing us up to 9-12wt rods. The 9 weight ais a bit light for a big muskie and the flies you would throw, and too heavy for all day every day bass fishing. If you were only targeting Pike I would say the 9 would be a great rod. A 10wt rod will do it all, big pike and big muskies. I have caught my two best muskies on a 10 weight, a 44 and a 49.5. The 49.5 I felt like I wanted an 11 or 12wt to have a bit more control over the fish once hooked. I’d say if you were only after BIG muskies an 11wt would be the way to go, but every weight over ten and your wrist will be paying for it. Gabe, the big muskie hunter, regularly fishes a 12wt rod when there is a good chance at a 50 plus inch fish. These bigger rods translate over to saltwater fishing as well so that is one thing to consider when you buy a 10-12 weight rod.
So, if I could only have a quiver of three rods to fish in the midwest my top pics would be a 4wt for trout fishing, an 8 weight for bass, steelhead, salmon carp and pike, and a 10wt to chase muskies. If I could have a quiver of five rods to fish anywhere in the world I would choose a 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 weight. By no means is this the law, and ideally my quiver would consist of rods from 1-14, but how many of us fish enought to warrant having 14 complete set ups?