Text and images by Craig Smith
For the last week I have been testing another great "budget" fly rod.
This time it was the Temple Fork Outfitters (TFO) NXT Black Label 690-4. (6wt 9 ft, 4 section). TFO has been producing affordable fly tackle for at least 25 years [yes, I do understand that “affordable” is a subjective assessment]. I selected the 6wt to test based on it's all around usefulness locally for fresh and saltwater and for some Sierra Nevada lake and river fishing.
The main points:
The rod is a semi-gloss black color with black wraps and has an anodized aluminum reel seat. Reel seats with wood inserts are pretty but anodized aluminum will last longer and hold up to salty environments. TFO calls the action on these rods as “moderate" on their website where the the rod is listed separately but “moderate- fast” with the listing for the combos. I don’t know why there is a discrepancy since the rod is the same. In my subjective assessment they are a bit closer to some moderate fast rods I have used. This is a good action for novices to learn casting and it is a good action for an all purpose fly rods for anglers of all skill levels. The rod isn't as light as some other 6wt rods in the TFO line up, but those rods cost at least $60 more. The rod doesn't feel particularly heavy. TFO lists the weight as 4 ounces on their website. I didn't bother to put it on a scale to verify. This is heavier by 1/2 to 3/4 ounce compared to higher end rods but I don't really feel this is much of an issue. It was not tiring to fish.
I tried about 10 different lines on the rod and spent some time fishing San Diego bay with it. For me I found that it was plenty accurate at close distances with a floating line. By close I'm talking 15 to 30 feet where most trout fishing in streams occurs. One thing I noticed is that I could feel the road load with only about 15 feet of line out, something that is often difficult to do with fast action rods. I was able to consistently hit a 12 inch target out to 40 feet. For me, accuracy dropped a bit beyond that but not horribly so. I was more accurate at longer distances with a TFO Axiom II-x but that is a rod that costs about 2.5x more.
The rod seems to have a bit more swing weight (feeling a bit tip heavy) compared to rods that cost 2X or more, but this is inline with similar priced sticks and I have cast more expensive rods that seemed to have a greater swing weight. It's not a deal breaker and I didn't notice it much when casting heavy sinking lines or floating lines.
For most floating line work the rod performs well with a WF-6-F line. I tried the Cortland 444 Peach, Rio Mainstream, Rio Gold, and Rio Grand. The rod has enough reserve power that you could go up to an 8wt line and cast bass bugs short to medium distances out to about 50 feet with no problems.
We don’t have any streams locally to test on, but working on grass and a local lake I was able to perform both positive and negative curve casts, reach casts, and aerial mends to my satisfaction.
With intermediate (slow) sinking lines I found a WF-7-I line to be a better match than a WF-6-I, but I have found this to be the case with most graphite rods that I have used for the last 30 years. You may find that a WF-6-I works just fine for you.
For 10 or 12 foot sink tip lines a WF-6-F/S or WF-7-F/S worked well ("F/S" stands for floating/sinking).
With full length sinking lines a WF-8-S seemed optimal, a WF-7-S ok, and a WF-6-S harder to cast. Again this matches my experience with other rods in the past. The first 30 ft of a WF-8-S line weighs about the same as the first 30 feet of many integrated shooting taper lines so this is not really out of line.
The rod handles heavy integrated shooting tapers well. The rod really responded well with a 24 or 30 foot 200 or 250 grain head line. I used the Teeny T-200, and Rio Avid 24 foot sink tip (older 200 grain or current 6/7 wt version). I also tested with Rio Outbound Short 6wt lines with different sink rates. These are also integrated shooting taper lines. The Outbound Short 30 foot head weight is actually about 3 line weights above the AFFTA standard so you don't want to go up a line size with a Rio Outbound Short line. just match the label on the box to the line rating on the rod. I had no problem launching 75 ft casts with these lines, but in my hands the rod does better in the shorter distances compared to something like a TFO Axiom II-x. I wasn't trying to cast any farther. Even casters with new to the sport can make longer casts with integrated shooting tapers than they usually can with standard weight forward lines.
Some nits to pick (none of which would keep me from recommending the rod):
- There is only one stripping guide. I believe this can cut a few feet off the best distance that can be achieved. The single stripping guide is also typical for rods in the lower price ranges so this is not a big gripe. I do wish that single stripping guide were one size larger.
- The rod tip has a bit of bounce on recovery at the completion of the cast. It is more noticeable when making long distance casts. This can cause some slack and loss of distance as the line shoots out. Still, it is less prone to this than most lower priced rods in the past. You might not even notice unless you compare against some rods that cost 2x to 3x as much or more.
- No rod tube included when purchasing the rod alone.
- No section alignment dots. I can align the guides. So can you. I have seen plenty of rods with misaligned alignment dots too (does that make them misalignment dots?). I didn’t miss them.
- The rod has a reversed half wells grip (tapered to a narrow front). I prefer full wells grips on 6wt rods, especially rods that I will be doing a lot of long range casting with. The wider front section of a full wells grip provides a bit more support for the thumb, resulting in less fatigue over long sessions in my experience. Half wells or cigar shaped grips have been the standard for 6 wt and lighter rods for decades. Still, I was ok with this for a four hour fishing session repeatedly casting integrated shooting taper sinking lines.
- The 6wt rod is not available with a fighting butt. If you want a TFO 6wt with a fighting butt you need to step up to the Pro III series. I fitted an aftermarket EVA foam fighting butt to the rod I was testing. Unfortunately the product I used is no longer available. Since I use 6wt rods frequently for light saltwater work I prefer having a fighting butt. Not a deal breaker in my opinion.
Some nice features of note:
- The reel seat has two locking rings which secured tightly with finger tips though they did not turn as smooth as the rings some other more costly reel seats. But, they didn’t bind up either. They did not loosen up during a four hour session of constant casting and fishing.
- During a four hour session on San Diego Bay casting heavy lines none of the ferrules loosened up. I'm used to this occurring with less expensive rods. Loose ferrules can lead to poor casts or broken rods.
- Rod finish is nice with clean wraps and finish. The finish on the wraps seals up the space where the guides meet the blank so there will not be a problem with salt intrusion. The semi gloss black with white label and writing looks nice but the fish won't care.
- The grip is made from reconstituted cork - think hundreds or thousands of small pieces of cork glued together with a high quality adhesive and then shaped into a handle. This type of grip isn't the prettiest and many people think of them as being cheap and ugly. This type of grip may be less expensive, but they have a slightly rough feel that is easy to maintain a grip on with wet and or slimy hands. Also, compared to standard cork we have these days, you don't have all these filled in pits and gaps where the filler works its way out over time. I actually prefer this type of grip to the old standard cork for its durability and grippyness (is that a word?) and am not bound by tradition. I have had custom rods made for myself with this type of handle material. Function trumps cosmetic appeal in my opinion.
- The grip is a bit smaller in diameter than many grips on other rods. This is a great grip for folks with smaller hands, including kids, but not too small for anglers with larger hands.
The sum up:
The rod works for me really well out to about 60 feet, though I can get more out of it. That is plenty for most fly fishing. I can cast farther with it but that required a bit more work compared to my more expensive rods. If you are going to be primarily fishing in the 60-100 foot range then other rods are a better option, but how often are users going to fish that distance with a 6wt rod.
The rod is a nice performing rod for its intended target purchasers of new fly anglers and folks that need a backup rod and I can recommend it. I’d be happy chasing bluegill, crappie, bass and stocked trout in our local lakes as well saltwater species in our local bays and in the surf with this rod. It is a good value on it’s own and even a better value when packaged in a kit.
The TFO NXT Black Label series retails for $169.95 and comes with a rod sock but no tube. The NXT Black Label Combo Kits comes with a rod, TFO NXT Black Label reel (cast aluminum and large arbor spool with an adjustable disc drag), a weight forward floating fly line, leader, backing, and a covered rod/reel case for $229.95 for the 4, 5, and 6 wt rod kits and $239.95 for the 8wt rod kit. Purchasing the combo kit saves over $150 over purchasing those items separately.