While it is technically possible to land really big fish with light tackle, it requires a lot of patience and the mobility to take the fight to the fish. If you lack either or both of these advantages, consider purchasing a rod with plenty of backbone and a base the size of a hoe handle. A preferable approach would be to match the rod, reel and line with the species and appropriate technique, and then use your wits and the inherent advantage of leverage and persistence to finesse a fish into submission.
Reel design drives rod selection, so you really need to know which is appropriate for your specific application. Saltwater rods are divided into two main categories or families; baitcasting and spinning, but technically there are numerous subdivisions such as bottom fishing, surfcasting, inshore, offshore and others.
Baitcasting reels are positioned on top of a baitcasting rod, mounted in a reel seat. Most baitcasting rods have a trigger grip that allows the angler to secure the rod with a forefinger while casting and retrieving line.
Spinning reels are positioned on a reel seat underneath the rod handle. Instead of a trigger grip, anglers secure a spinning rod by placing the reel shank between two fingers of their rod hand to prevent slippage. Line guides are also mounted on the bottom side of the rod at an interval that distributes the stress evenly across the rod blank. The rod handle is an integral part of the design, and helps balance the weight against the length, as well as providing a longer pivot for leverage during a fight.
Length and weight
Once you've made the spinning/casting decision, you'll need to consider length, weight and handle configuration. These physical characteristics are determined by the size of the fish you are targeting, the size of the lure you need to cast and the technique intended. For example, bottom fishing from a boat for grouper only requires a stiff rod of moderate length that can muscle several hundred pounds off of the bottom before you're broken off in the rocks or other debris. Surfcasting requires a very long rod with a moderate to heavy action that will launch large baits a long distance. Naturally, trolling for blues requires a different rod than sailfish or marlin.
Another issue relative to rod length is leverage. Longer rods give you more leverage, and they also bend more which tempers the battle a lot, taking some of the stress off of your line. More leverage is definitely an advantage for any job, especially when you're up against a heavyweight. Longer rods are also a little easier on your back because you're fishing further out and up, instead of straight down.
A rod's action describes the characteristics of a blank during casting and under a load. The heavier the lure or bait, the heavier the action required to launch it. Some manufacturers break down their rods into both power and action, but that's a little redundant since they both address the issue of how much a rod bends under a load.
The action of a rod is a rating, which describes the amount of curvature that occurs in the blank, while the amount of tension remains constant. A fast action rod bends mostly at the tip. You'll find this information on rod charts, when comparing different rods before a purchase, and on the shaft of the rod, near the handle. Some manufacturers use a numeric rating while most simply list them as ultra-light, light, medium-light, medium, medium heavy, heavy and ultra-heavy.
Lure/Line weight is another piece of information that is listed on the rod blank. Recommended lure weights are listed so that you have some idea of what size weight you can cast effectively with a given rod.
Today, most rods are made of either fiberglass or graphite, and some are made of a combination or composite of both materials. Graphite has been highly refined, and in the last few years some of the most amazing rods have hit the market. They're lighter, more flexible, highly sensitive and much more durable than earlier versions. Fiberglass is an old workhorse that provides extreme durability but falls short in the weight, flexibility and sensitivity characteristics when compared to graphite. The upside to fiberglass is that it costs much less, and lasts forever. The downside would be that you will have a moderately effective rod for a very long time. Composites are a blend of both product features that occupy the middle of the road on price and performance.
A pistol grip is the shortest and most common type of handle on a baitcasting rod, but this type of handle is most often found on freshwater and inshore rods. Saltwater rods, especially spinning models, most often employ a longer handle that serves as a fighting butt and facilitates two-handed casts. Cork is the traditional material for handles, because it feels good and looks good. Portuguese cork handles are the best quality. EVA foam is another product that is preferred by some anglers because it offers more durability, is more resistant to temperature changes and the effects of water and wear. The most popular, and most sensitive rod design today is the blank-through-handle design. In addition to increased sensitivity, this type of rod is stronger because the blank runs the entire length of the rod.
Line guides are made of a number of different materials, such as plastic, metal and ceramic. The quality level is lowest in plastic and highest in ceramic. Guides come in either single-foot and double-foot versions, with the latter providing the most rigid and durable support. The length of a rod is the key design issue that determines the number of guides, but cost is also a factor. More guides mean that stress is distributed more evenly across a rod's length, and the smoother a cast will be.
Once you start wading through the power vs. action issue, you'll find that there is a seemingly endless combination of these characteristics for each species. Keep in mind that water conditions will also play a role in the fight. A five pound fish will be a lot harder to land when you're fighting boat speed that has been exaggerated by a heavy tide and high winds. You may purchase what you believe to be the ultimate rod for a particular species, in calm waters, and find yourself wishing you had a rod with more backbone when water conditions and weather turn against you. Perfection is hard to achieve in a sport as fluid and changing as fishing, so don't approach rod selection thinking that the rules are set in stone. That's part of what makes fishing so much fun, so pick a rod that's closest to your needs and go have some.