Minnesota and Wisconsin must have some of the highest per capita tarpon rods in the country outside of Florida. Most of these rods, of course, will never see a drop of salt water, unless you count the tears – because muskellunge anglers lose a lot, whether it’s icy gales of November, chronic tendonitis or, worst of all, trout.
But one thing we don’t cry over anymore is the struggle to find a decent musky cane. Large saltwater rods were the only option back when the musk craze started a decade ago, but there are now a handful of specialized “predatory” rods on the market, some made by rod designers who understand that you don’t use a musk cane the same way you use a tarpon cane.
A saltwater big game rod is designed to be fast and light, to occasionally place small flies with precision in the wind, while having an iron backbone to wear down giant fish. They are refined and sturdy, yet delicate and neatly stored away when not on the bow of the dinghy.
A musky rod needs to be fast enough to throw giant, heavy flies on heavy lines, yet forgive enough to do so all day. It has to fight a giant fish just long enough to put it in the net – think roping up a steer, not braking a locomotive – and be tough enough for boat service drifting on the rocky, forested rivers of the upper Great Lakes.
A quick note on rod weight ratings. For the size of the musk flies I prefer to fish – based on those I have received or purchased from some of the best levels and guides in the business – a 450 grain full sink line is perfect. You really need an 11 weight rod to throw them. A ten with a 400 is perfect for small flies, and late season giant hunters might prefer a weight of 12 with a 500 or 550 grain line. But weight class 11 is bread and butter.
Of course, in the hands of the right pitcher and paired with the right line, any rod can be used. Many muskellunge have been landed on unsalted tarpon stalks, however inelegantly.
But there is another major problem with these rods: the cost. A budget-conscious angler looking for a five- or eight-weight rod has many options, and many good ones. This is not the case with the 10 and 11 weight rods, which often approach a thousand dollars. There are 10 budget weights – and very few 11 – but all too often it’s either a telephone pole or a noodle.
But now we have musk cane options. Sometimes they’re just rebadged saltwater rods, and sometimes they’re specially designed. Usually you will see a stretch of fighting extended, and sometimes a full well extended grip. Most of the time, like any specialty rod, they are placed near the highest price point in a particular company’s range.
This is why when I saw that Orvis was introducing an 11 weight 9’4 “rod into its entry level Clearwater line, I was intrigued. I have a few other Clearwater rods and I find them. better than you would expect for the price They are made in Asia like all rods at this price point but designed by the same rod store that gave us the three award-winning Helios designs.
The Clearwater Rod Series is the epitome of my rule of low budget gear buying: always choose low-cost models from a high-end company, rather than high-priced models from an entry-level company. range.
Once I got a demo in my hands I was more than impressed. Our musky camp team picked it up during a three-day snow squall in late October in northern Minnesota. We had wind, cold, waves and very few fish encounters. We didn’t have time for a lot of line trading, wiggle testing, or long distance casting. We just fished.
On paper, it’s almost the perfect musk cane. It’s an 11 weight, which already places it in the vast minority of budget rods of any style. Extended Combat Stick is a great feature for the Deep Eight, or what Wisconsin guide Chris Willen called “fifty percent of your cast.” Orvis went further and in fact added the 4 “from bout end to rod length – that’s 9’4” in total. They also improved the reel seat design of previous Clearwater models which is very nice as the reels tend to loosen when you cast all day. The double locking rings are heavily knurled so you can check the tightness even with gloves on. An unchecked wishlist item is an extended grip on the front of full pits – which adds good leverage for musky bickering and the option of two-handed throwing – but that’s surely too much to ask of. this price.
During our musky blizzard camp this rod handled my standard 10-14 inch flies comfortably with the Orvis PRO 450 grain depth load and my Scientific Anglers 450 grain Sonar 25 Cold sink. It’s labeled as ‘quick’ action, but it doesn’t feel ‘quick’ compared to the 11 weight Helios 3D or my 11 weight Helios 2. It’s soft in the right places to cushion the shock of your wet fly when your timing isn’t perfect, while having a very low perceived swing weight. It is a very fishable rod that has not worn us out.
Photo: Tom Hazelton
As for the fish fights: well, muskellunge just need to be ridden. You give them no quarter, no slack, no line. As long as it’s not a noodle, any heavy rod will do. While we didn’t land muskies this weekend, a friend of mine landed no less than three in one day on the Clearwater this fall, and said it got them easily into contention.
General fit and finish
If you take a closer look, you can see imperfections in the epoxy and the wire wraps; this is true for most imported rods. But the effect of the gray white, the modern badge that matches the style of the H3 and the subdued colors is that of a cane that doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. Ditto for the grip: rubberized at the ends, decent cork in the middle. It is not a fancy cane. It is a working rod. Make it dirty and gooey, and forget about it. That should do.
At $ 249, this rod has no interest in casting as well, or having those wishlist features. It is significantly inferior to its closest competitor, the TFO Esox, which itself is excellent value for money. Personally, I think the Clearwater is the best rod too, especially when it comes to swinging weight. And it’s backed by the Orvis 25-year warranty.
What does not work
I wish Orvis had brought out this cane five years ago. I have a cheap to medium 10 and 11 weight stack, neither of which worked perfectly. I was asked “which rod should I buy for muskies?” dozens of times, and until now, I had no choice answers, at any cost. The Clearwater is suitable for any angler, from dabbler to musky junkie.
Photo: Chris Miller
Are there more beautiful musk canes? Are there lighter and faster musk rods? Yes to both. But not at this price. Not even close. There are also plenty of heavy, clunky imported 10 and 11 weight rods for this price – and more – that aren’t fun to throw, let alone all day.
A musky guide boat would be well equipped with a handful of these in the racks, just as a curious, musky first-time angler would be well-armed with one as their first dive into the world of Esox.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ORVIS CLEARWATER 11 FLY ROD WEIGHT 9’4 “(via Orvis)