Ultralight Backpack Fishing Rod

Southwater Country Park, Great Britain -- photo by Andy Baker, Creative Commons License

Southwater Country Park, Great Britain -- photo by Andy Potter, Creative Commons License

The realization comes quickly to us, that most trails lead to water and most camps overlook lakes and streams. Eventually you do arrive at trail’s end, or at least the part you were looking for, and if you’re a fisherman you wish you had your fishing gear. Then you realize how much it all weighs, and you’re back to buying fishing gear again, which is actually what fishermen spend most of their time doing. (Updated for 2012: See notes inserted below).

Ultralight fishing poles for backpacking aren’t the same as ultralight fishing poles. The first type is anything that’s collapsible and portable, and the second is a one piece rod built for light tackle. I’ve got several suggestions to make about rods for the backpack — the bad, the good, and the compromises.  The obvious solution is the breakdown pole and rod case that you see strapped to the sides of many backpacks on the fishing trails. Many rods disassemble into two or three sections and while in the rod case they’re nearly unbreakable. It’s a bulletproof way to travel, but it’s bulky and there’s extra weight involved. Sure would be nice if there was something that just slipped into a pocket or a corner of the pack.

There is such a thing — the telescoping pack rod — but problems come along with this approach. Many are not constructed very well — line guides break loose, sections jam open, and joints crack. When you finally get into the price range of a good reliable rod — higher than most of us would prefer to go — it collapses to a length that you’ll probably have to stuff into that same rod case you wanted to avoid.


Carbon fiber rod from Uxcell

***Update: For 2012, backpackers and impulse fishermen who just need a dependable and compact rod for the trunk of the car can choose from a much wider assortment of collapsible rods and reels, including bass rods, fly rods and carbon fiber rods. Gone Fishing U.S.A. manufactures a full line of telescoping rods and reels, featured in the ad below. Browse the photos for links to other practical options.

Take good care of your equipment if you decide to go with carbon fiber. Comparable to steel in strength, carbon fiber becomes much more vulnerable to breakage if you nick the rod. They aren’t meant for banging on rocks.


Uxcell’s inexpensive rod works,
but cries out for maintenance.

If you want to save a few dollars, an inexpensive telescoping rod might suit you just fine. Be prepared to fix a few problems yourself, and above all don’t forget to test the rod a few times before you go on the fishing trip. Let faulty products reveal themselves at home where you still have time to deal with refunds or exchanges. If you buy from a local retailer, check the pole over carefully when you get to the car. If you open it up and it comes apart, the exchange department is right over there. Keeping prices low means less quality control, but you can still get a good rod at the low end of the price range, if you’re the lucky one. Usually you’ll know as soon as you open the package and get a really good hands-on look.

For a selection of collapsible pack rods of a quality Americans don’t often see, visit All Fishing Buy to browse telescoping rods from Tenkara and Hera. ***

The best solution I’ve ever found to the pack rod issue is an inexpensive telescoping crappie rod. The crappie rod is long — even the shortest is about eight feet extended — and handy for fishing from banks and poking out through holes in the brush. With light gear it casts pretty well, though there’s drag from the extra eyelets. One of my favorite creek fishing methods is a twisttail grub on a leadhead jig, tossed to the opposite bank and then “jumped” into the water. Gets a lot of strikes from the hungry fish prowling the overhangs and undercuts, and the crappie rod is perfect for it.

The problems I’ve had with this type of rod seem to be universal to this kind of fishing pole. Generally they aren’t built very solid. If you abuse them, you break them, so you’ll have to learn how to play a fish if you want the rod to stay in one piece. Loose line guides are common. Used as they arrive from the factory they’ll probably soon fall apart. I solved that by wrapping the line guides with nylon sewing thread and painting it down with clear nail polish. Even though that pole started coming apart on the first trip out, it lasted a decade beyond after a little work.

What finally killed it was that the last joint in the rod jammed so I couldn’t collapse the rod tip again. I worked at it until I cracked the last fitting, repaired that with thread and epoxy but wound up with that section permanently open anyway. Later the same year, the tip caught on some brush as I was bulling my way through some bushes. I never even heard it break.

Most of the cheaper collapsible rods are built like that one. You can turn them into good rods with only a little work. Reinforce the ends of the sections with thread whipping and a careful application of epoxy and do the same for the line guides. If you fix them before they break, they aren’t likely to cause trouble.

Better but heavier, break-down rods certainly offer more strength. Many full sized rod break down into two pieces, but travel rods  break down into five. For backpacking you don’t need or want the carrying case — wrap the rod bundle with a clean stringer and stuff it in your backpack. Stash a reel and a little box of lures in a pack pocket and your emergency fishing kit is done.  The final kit does take up more space than a collapsible pack rod.

You could go way to the other end of the scale to the genuinely ultralight. The Pen Rod by Coleman seems like a great idea, available with matching reels in spinning, bait-casting and spin-cast styles. Telescoped shut the rod is only eight inches long and fits in a shirt pocket. Altogether it’s the lightest rod and reel you’ll find. What it doesn’t have is durability.

In fact, it isn’t unusual to break this rod by just opening the telescoping sections. The tip is most vulnerable to damage, but every other part of the Pen Rod is less than you’d expect — except maybe the reel. Lots of people like the reels. Fishermen catch fish on these things, but the gear doesn’t always hold together and even with careful fixes of potential failures before they happen, the Pen needs a light touch.

Considering the current low prices for the rod and reel combo it’s still tempting. The warranty isn’t worth a lot — you’ll pay about eight dollars to claim a replacement rod. Interesting gift and an interesting toy — maybe a good idea for the survival kit (even with the tip broken off it’s still a compact fishing pole).

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