Thursday, September 29, 2016

Four Months with my Swift Epic 686, plus Backstory


Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for August, 2015.  There were two historically significant events at this temporal nexus:
  1. The Fading Angler spends a day with a guide in southern Minnesota's Driftless Area.  Guide Dan brings along a 4 weight TFO Finesse rod that seems to mesh better with my casting "skills" than the stiff 7-foot Sage Approach 3-weight I brought along.
  2. The Fading Angler gets a chance to test-cast the brand-spanking new Sage MOD at Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig, MT.  The MOD is Sage's "moderate action" rod, sitting somewhere between the actions of the fast ONE and "advanced slow-action" CIRCA models.  Very quickly, something amazing happens:  I am able to shoot line at the conclusion of forward casting strokes.  I'd never been able to do this before.
This was chronicled in more detail here on the blog last year: Fly Angler: Headhunter or Head Case?

Being a scientist (at least in my own head), I immediately implemented a new top-secret operation and intelligence protocol:
Fading Angler's Cientific Exploration Purporting to Learn Actual Nowlegde and Truth, better known by the codename FACEPLANT.
(You might want to grab a coffee, Diet Mountain Dew, pint of beer, or a double bourbon before continuing. Oh, and a grain of salt.  Bring the shaker...)

In case you hadn't already noticed, this is a far cry from your "normal" product review.  See my bio at right for the cautionary unapologetically verbose label.  I use this kind of write-up to organize my thoughts and preserve the memories of a journey that brought me together with a fantastic combination of rod and fly line (oops, foreshadowing!)  I had the chance to communicate with some very knowledgeable (and famous!) individuals along the walk.  Finally, I didn't want my first impressions to be my only experimental source of data for analysis.    Thus warned, if you have neither the time, patience, nor fortitude to endure my verbal meandering, you're welcome to invoke Prince Humperdink from The Princess Bride and manually scroll way down to the Conclusions section.

Okay, I tried to warn you.

Project FACEPLANT (S)Cientific Method Steps

  1. State your hypothesis and providing supporting details
  2. Research available data
  3. Experiment to gather more data
  4. Analyze data and draw conclusions

Hypothesis and Supporting Details

My brief encounters with softer, more moderate-action fly rods were both positive experiences, even before I got some serious casting instruction in September of 2015.  I began to wonder if this was a general theme?  Could it be possible that a slower rod action (relative to the 5-weight Sage rods I'm used to) would be a better fit for my physical abilities?  Parkinson's Disease often causes stiffness, slow movement, and weakness of the muscles, starting more intensely on one side.  I've learned that this a product of "uncontrolled noise" in parts of the brain that can't seem to regulate themselves when dopamine-producing cells die off.  The noise interferes with the muscle's ability to relax, as well as the normal signals that get sent when, for example, I want to pick a size 18 zebra midge out of a fly box.  The signals get messed up by this interference, much like the noise you hear on your car radio when you're losing that station playing your favorite song from the [insert your favorite music decade here]'s.   Excerpt from
Conversely, disturbances [i.e. noise, FA] in this feedback loop, or in the neurotransmitters which maintain it, can result in a host of motor disturbances, ranging from the rigidity of Parkinson's disease and catatonia to chorea, hemiballismus, or "restless leg syndrome."
Without a doubt, Parkinson's Disease has slowed my movement, because it takes more effort and concentration to push a deliberate signal through the noise of a malfunctioning neural network.  Perhaps it was difficult to develop a good cast with a fast rod because it's harder to feel, react, and keep up with fast-action rods.  Two encounters with slower rods suggested that it would be worth investigating.  But, the teacher I feared most in high school taught me this:
Show me once, I see an exception.
Show me twice, I see a coincidence.
Show me thrice, and I begin to see a pattern.
Funny that an English and Communications teacher also taught me a foundational scientific principle.  Thus, the next phase of Project FACEPLANT was initiated.


I'd heard and read that Winston rods were generally slower-action than Sage.  For fun, I have been an avid reader of Yellowstone Fly Shop's various rod shootouts for many years.  But, it seems that they only like lean toward the faster-action end of the spectrum.  Classification: entertaining but not useful to me.  But, I'd heard that fiberglass rods also fell toward the slower-end of the rod action spectrum.  So I wandered alone into the Internet wilderness, with Google as my only compass, in search of fiberglass truth and (k)nowledge.

All fiberglass roads lead to The Fiberglass Manifesto and Cameron Mortenson.  I think of him as The Fiberglass Prophet. He shared his vision of angling, and many were converted to the hallowed ways of casting with fiberglass.  After forty nights (or so) lost in the wilderness, this pilgrim found his way into the light and started reading articles and comments.  While assimilating all this data, two thoughts coalesced from the bits and bytes of reading:
  1. For small streams and dry flies, two inexpensive rods had made positive impressions on many fiberglass folk: the Redington Butter Stick and Echo Glass.  These were regard as good entry-level glass rods.  Since I had a hard time deciding between them, I did what my wife would do: I bought the cute one.  (The Echo was just not attractive to a noob who's accustomed to flashy graphite finishes.  Sorry.  Where do I turn in my man card?)  I also looked at the Scott, but had a Hillary-type coughing-fit when I looked at the pricetag.
  2. Swift Fly Rod Company's Epic rods were the talk of the town, nay, the world!  Many indicated that the Epic FastGlass® was a great intermediate step between slow/medium fiberglass actions and fast graphite rods.  Maybe this would be similar to the Sage MOD that my heart truly longed for, though my stomach turned at the $850 price tag! (It did not help at all when Mark Raisler posted a review of the Sage MOD on the Headhunters Fly Shop blog back in March. He suggested the MOD might not become your new primary rod, "but it could be the mistress...")  Briefly distracted, I buried the fantasies of the MOD and refocused on the Epic 686.  I didn't own a 6-weight yet and had read tales of folks using the Epic 686 (6-weight, 8-foot 6-inch) for everything from streamers to midges.
Not having any fun at all...
I decided I wanted to try the Epic 686, especially configured with a fighting butt.  In April of 2014, I spent a couple of days on the Missouri River in Montana that left me wishing that my 5-weight Sage Z Axis was equipped with one.  We were repeatedly floating through a hole and pulling out an average 19-inch fish every time. The problem was that the big springtime fish were in the mood to fight and run, repeatedly.  Without support, my Parkinson's-afflicted arm started to hurt after fish #10 or so, but my guide Joe advised me he didn't care how much my arm hurt, so suck it and fish like a man!  It might have been nice to have a fighting butt to jab into my soft gut for some support while my guide was being a total sadist, forcing me to catch big fish after big fish completely against my will!

Anyway, I liked the idea of the fighting butt, the ability to toss streamers, and the shorter-than-9-foot length.  I spend a good amount of my angling time each year on small springfed creeks, usually under an overhanging tree canopy. A 9-foot rod is just too much to handle in these cramped quarters (at least for me.)

I also learned that the Fiberglass Prophet (aka Mr. Mortenson) provides a unique missionary service to aid in the conversion of the "unwashed masses": he maintains a loaning library of sample fiberglass rods for folks to try, with only a minimal shipping expense.  I contacted him, expressed my gratitude for his work, and inquired if he might have an Epic 686 available to borrow for an upcoming return trip to Montana.  He did not, but he suggested I contact a friend of his: John Arnold, co-owner of Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig, MT.  John graciously offered to set me up with his Epic 686 for a couple of days.  I also started to make plans to spend a long afternoon at their shop, perhaps test-driving the Sage MOD again and it's less-expensive younger brother, the PULSE.  Life is what happens when you're making other plans, and an April snowstorm clipped all of that except for a day with the Epic 686 on the Missouri River.

I should also note that just before this trip in April of 2016, I made contact with one of Cameron's disciples: Father Fiberglass aka Howard Levett.  Like me, his favorite words are, "I told you so!"


So the experiments began with Phase I... Would the Epic 686 be a good fit for a slower fly angler with a neuromuscular disorder?  Would a floppy-noodle Butter Stick 4-weight be useful on small creeks compared to short-stiff graphite rods?

The initial Epic 686 experiment was chronicled early this year: Trout Trek Part III - Slowing It Down with Epic FastGlass®.  A couple of excerpts:
The real test came when I switched over to my right arm, my "Parkinson's side."  Very natural feel.  The rhythm was easy to find.  I managed some distance and wind resistance.  Better than my Sage Z-Axis with the Slow Hand.  So far, the data support the hypothesis.

Considering I don't yet own a 6 weight and I'm looking for a streamer rod that can multitask, it's very likely I'm going to have one of these before very long.  Where's my tax refund?
Tax refund, indeed.  It turns out that if you want a fully-assembled Epic 686 directly from Swift in New Zealand, it's going to run north of $800 U.S.  I was briefly tempted to abandon the Epic and go to the Sage MOD.  The Temptress.  I love Sage's stuff.  We own far too many fly rods, most of them Sage.  They're American made, for Yankee Doodle's sake!  (Not that I mind supporting New Zealanders and their economy at all!  Please don't ban me from the country.  I've got Bucket List items there! And is it okay or insulting to call them "kiwis"?)  Alas, reports on the MOD suggested that it isn't necessarily all that great for streamers.  And I knew by then that the Epic 686 has a powerful backbone in those lower sections.    Sorry, MOD.  Maybe I'll rent you from Headhunters for a while next year.  We'll have a secret fling...

Phase 2, Part I: Investigation and discussion with the Maestro of the Manifesto revealed this information: a high-quality, custom-built Epic 686 could be had for under $650.  I reviewed a list of folks with a history of custom Epic 686 builds, I found myself drawn to one in particular: W. Jude Fly Rod Company.  After an email swap, where proprietor Bill Hickey referred me to his photo album on Facebook, we scheduled a phone call.  We chatted for an hour, and we walked me through every little detail of selecting components and building the rod.  It was fantastic.  I couldn't wait to get my hands on my Father's Day gift.  Alas...
You rush a Miracle Man, you get rotten Miracles.
Bill was able to obtain the blank for my rod sooner than expected from New Zealand, and construction began.  You can check his Facebook photo album of how it turned out, and there will be several "proud Papa" photos displayed here.

Phase II, Part II - We parked the Mobile Hotel® at our favorite campground in early May and left it there until Father's Day.  For six consecutive weekends, we had our own cabin by a trout stream.  Immediately, I began fishing with the 7'6" 4-weight Redington Butter Stick.  As the name implies, it's smooth.  So smooth that I immediately gave it the nickname, "Mellow Yellow."  I started to learn to feel where my line is, and occasionally slow down and throw some decent loops.  I got better and liked it for casting small dry flies.  It wasn't very useful for nymphing, which I resort to frequently when I can't raise a trout. The lustre started fade.  Just then, the Epic 686 in "So Blue" color scheme arrived from W. Jude Fly Rod Co.  You can read about my early efforts with both fiberglass rods by rewinding to Fly Rod Thoughts: Swift Epic, Redington Butter Stick, and Sage ONE.

One of my favorite features of this rod is the custom-turned grip
with just a hint of character.
Later in the summer, I had the opportunity to take the day-glow blue Epic 686 (nicknamed "Monday") on some outings to some larger water.  This gave me a chance to run a couple of different fly lines through their paces.  I started with a Rio InTouch Gold WF6F.  I loved the distance measurement color scheme and the feel that it gave me out to about 40' feet.  I was fishing with Bill Hickey of W. Jude Fly Rod Company, the rod's maker, and he agreed that the casting started to fall apart with the WF6 Gold line after that.  He let me try a DT line on his 5-weight CTS Quartz S-Glass rod.  I *think* I could feel a difference but it could also have been a different in weight.  He encouraged me to consider a DT line.

Phase 3: Serendipitously, during all of this excitement and writing, I was put in contact with the gentleman that founded 406 Fly Lines in Livingston, MT.  Tom Brodhead was retired and decided to try making fly lines specifically for fiberglass rods.  He says he succeeded because nobody told him it couldn't be done.  His products have gotten great reviews, and he offered to send me a line.  I asked if we might instead try meeting up around Yellowstone during my family vacation trip out west in August.  Tom drove 2 hours each way from Livingston, MT to meet with me and let me test-cast his lines.  We used my new Epic 686 rod and a few of his. I was worried that "shiny new toy" syndrome might affect my judgement.  I thought I could feel improvement at all distances, but the difference beyond 40 feet was clear.  We walked back across the street to Blue Ribbon Flies and I made my purchase, supporting both 406 Fly Lines and a great fly shop.  Tom is a great guy who's doing fun and great things in his "retirement."  Thank you Tom!!! 

Phase 3 testing didn't occur until September.  I finally loaded the 406 DT6F onto an idle reel and fished with weighted nymphs over Labor day weekend.  Although I didn't consider this to be a comprehensive test because of limited distances on a small creek, I confidently and successfully tossed an indicator, split shot, and two nymphs for a few hours without tangling.  The next weekend I went fishing with Father Fiberglass (aka Howard Levett) at his favorite spot on Clear Creek west of Denver.  Said spot includes a wide-open section that allowed long cast attempts.  This was my first time swinging the 406 Fly Lines DT6F line beyond 20 feet.  I can't imagine it getting any easier.  I felt COMPETENT with this combo, both in distance and accuracy.  Yes, I had to take a couple whacks at a few spots to get exactly where I wanted (occasional breeze gusts) but I never felt like I was fighting my equipment.  Quite the opposite, in fact, I felt like I could reach every spot I wanted to hit and managed a couple of tricky (for me) drifts.


After all of that muck you just waded through to reach this section, I can tell one small story that answers the question, "Is a slower/more moderate action a better match for me and my slow muscles?"  It goes like this...
Since I started fly fishing, I always wanted to be able to peel line off my reel and "feed it" out when false casting, but I never could.  I couldn't get the timing to work because everything was just happening too fast.  You should have seen the smile rise over my face the first time I was able to peel and cast line as a coordinated effort.

In hindsight, I took a risk ordering a custom Epic 686 FastGlass® fly rod and allowing my ego to mark the rod as its own territory.  But my rod Monday is a beast in kitten's clothing.  I've caught little brookies and browns tossing asize 16 parachute Adams no more that 15 feet while under a tree canopy.  Yet, this rod makes it easier for my weakened muscles to lift 30' or 40' of line off the water and recast.  It provides the strength since mine is fading.  I have no doubt that strength comes from being a 6-weight.  The rod's moderate action and 406 DT6F fly line combine to make it very compatible with me and my current physical abilities.  The risk was worth it.  I can actually shoot line, and the 8-and-a-half foot length is still useful, though not ideal, under a tree canopy.  I have fallen in love with this rod and find myself committed.  I can't wait to get this thing back to the Missouri River in Montana and see how it handles a 22-inch rainbow trout.

As much as I hate to mention the show "Mythbusters" in any kind of scientific context, I'm going to borrow from their pop-culture scale for rating "scientific validity" of a give hypothesis or myth:
  • BUSTED - Debunked.  Experimental data either contradict or do not support the hypothesis
  • PLAUSIBLE - Data suggest that the hypothesis may be correct
  • CONFIRMED - Experimental data fully support the hypothesis
I'm going to objectively classify my results  in the spectrum between Plausible and Confirmed.  All of my subjective observations suggest that moderate fly rod actions are a better fit for my current neurological and physical condition, but there were no efforts to eliminate or control other variables, such as line weight.  It was a combination of moderated rod action, heavier line weight, and line profile that have brought me to my current sweet spot.  Ultimately, I can only draw one irrefutable conclusion at this time:
Further testing is needed.


This little journey was only possible because of the support and generosity of many good people and businesses:
  • Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig, Montana - I'm grateful to the shop staff for letting me try the new Sage MOD 5-weight just a couple of weeks after its release to the general public. Thank you to co-owners Mark Raisler and John Arnold for enduring a stream of emails and allowing me to borrow a Swift Epic 686.  I wish the weather would have let me spend a full afternoon with you.  You got lucky... (Incidently, I'm still trying to suppress the urge to pursue one of the new Epic 476 5-piece "Packlight" rods due to John's glowing recommendation. I sense some kind of 4-weight 7'6" rod comparison test is needed.)
  • Cameron Mortenson and The Fiberglass Manifesto Blog - It's been said that Cameron is single-handedly responsible for the renaissance that brought us to where we are today in the fiberglass fly rod market.  Lofty!  Yet he's down-to-earth enough to exchange emails and help me along the way when I had (multiple rounds of) questions.  Without Cameron's blog, I don't know that I ever would have discovered Swift's FastGlass®.
  • Joe Bloomquist, Missouri River Lodge & X-Stream Fly Fishing, Wolf Creek, Montana - Joe patiently helped me adapt to the borrowed Epic 686 during an afternoon of floating the Mo'. Joe, thanks for all the time on the river and happiness that you, Lindsey, and your guides have brought to my family since 2010.  I wish I was exaggerating when I say that you probably saved my life, but I don't think I am.
  • Tom Brodhead, founder of 406 Fly Lines in Livingston, MT - Tom reached out to me after reading about my adventure with the loander Epic 686 and subsequent decision to have one built.  I thank Tom for taking the time to drive many hours out of his way to meet up, chat, and demo his lines.  I think his DT6F line is exactly right for me and my Epic 686. (If you ever get a chance to meet Tom, do not miss that chance!!!)
  • Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone for hosting the meet-up with Tom.  I purchased my 406 line from them.  Also had a chance to shake hands with John Juracek.
  • Rod builder Bill Hickey aka W. Jude Fly Rod Company - I can't imagine a more excellent first experience for someone to have when ordering a custom fly rod.  All told, we probably spent over three hours on the phone between concept, parts selection, grip design, and status updates.  I was very happy when he called out of the blue one day.  "You know that reel seat you wanted?  Now that I have it in hand, I'd like to try to talk you into something else..."  Flawless craftsmanship.  I will be a repeat customer.  Go look at his work, please!
  • Father Fiberglass, Howard Levett of the Wind Knots and Tangled Lines blog, for throwing my four favorite words back in my face.
  • Swift Fly Fishing Company - Thank you for giving the world FastGlass® and the Epic line of rods.  For me, it's the perfect spot between too-slow and too-fast.  Perfect for a Fading Angler.  And getting an email from Carl McNeil, one of Swift's co-owners, was just too cool for words.


  1. Fun read. I can't wait to give it the Eddie test.

    1. Thanks, Eddie. Yeah, that needs to happen. I'd love to see what you think of it as a streamer chucker.

  2. I enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed listening to the debates. That being said, excellent review! I told you so.

    1. Ouch. If I hadn't caught a 12 inch brown trout (measured!) about an hour ago, less than 50 yards from where I'm sitting in the dark right now, next to a noisy creek and a fire, and drinking one of my favorite Oktoberfest beers, I might be hurt.

    2. No need to be hurt. At least you're out and enjoying life.

    3. And I even managed to get Mrs. FA into a couple of fish on Saturday!

  3. "Scientific?"......You keep using this word?.....I do not think it means what you think it means?

    Awesome read Chris! I enjoyed it very much. Love to read folks detailed thoughts on a given piece of glass.

    1. Inconceivable! You not only managed to throw in a Princess Bride reference, but you applied it with sublime perfection!

      Hope to see you later in the month.

  4. God willing and the creeks don't rise....looks like it will happen. :)