Flylords caught up with Swift Fly Fishing & Epic Fly Rods, a fly rod company based down in New Zealand. Their line of rods are custom built by the angler for the angler. The vibrant colors of their blanks and popular models like their FastGlass® rods are unique to a very saturated fly rod market. Epic also offers “Ready To Wrap Fly Rod Kits”. Check out the full interview below with Carl McNeil to learn more about the company.
Flylords: Who is Carl McNeil?
Carl: Jack of all trades. I suppose first and foremost I’m a fisherman. Like most Kiwi kids I was taught to fish as a young boy and moved to fly at about 13, buying an old glass rod with proceeds from my paper round – and that was the end of it.
Fly Fishing became all-consuming, then came the total obsession with fly casting; studying for the Fly Fishers International Casting Instructors certification and then Master Fly Casting Instructor. A subsequent stint on the FFI international testing committee and service as an associate editor for the FFI casting publication “The Loop”. In 2015 I was fortunate enough to receive the Presidents Pin for services to fly casting, and later the FFI conservation award.
Somewhere in the middle there – film making – we were awarded the Drake Mag Fly Fishing Film Festival Movie of the Year in 2009 for ‘Once in a Blue Moon’ – which now feels like a lifetime ago. This only added fuel to the fire and Jeanie and I went on to make a couple more.
Definitely an ‘all or nothing’ person.
I live in Wanaka, a small resort town in New Zealand with my wife and business partner Jeanie and daughter Jessie. I play Ukulele badly. Love pre 80’s rock, Jazz and Blues, anything by the Grateful Dead. I have an unhealthy obsession for old trucks which I hope to pass on to my daughter (together we are currently restoring a 1983 Range Rover Classic) And Design – mid-century furniture at the moment, but generally anything with a design aspect. I have been known to enjoy a beer (or whiskey) or two.
Flylords: When did Epic Fly Rods begin?
Carl: Jeanie and I had been successfully making fly fishing films from about 2009, I was on Sage Pro Staff and doing quite a lot of fly casting, teaching, examining and speaking. The move to fly rods came about 4 years later and for two reasons I suppose, initially, I simply wanted to make a better fly rod for myself. I had become a little disillusioned with the mass produced rods I was seeing – there’s not a lot of fly rod in most $900 rods. And some somewhere along the line the fun had gone out of it for me, we were all taking ourselves far too seriously – I don’t believe the industry has improved in this respect.
During a time of fairly intensive teaching, I was also increasingly seeing fly casters arriving at classes with rods that were simply too stiff to cast and fish well – great for chucking yards of line out on the grass, but not so good for fishing. And so one day I simply decided to build a better fly rod – it’s written on the whiteboard beside my desk – I see it every day. Clearly I had to enlist a lot of help along the way, and I no longer build fly rods – we have some very clever people here who do a far better job than I could ever hope to.
Flylords: What makes you different from the other brands on the market?
Carl: Quality, personalization, and service.
First and foremost it’s quality – I’ve always bought the best gear I could possibly afford at the time. And we invest more of our customer’s hard-earned cash in the very best blanks, components, and cork available. We use the very best composites tech available and while we don’t want to get lost in the ‘tech arms race’, quality and attention to detail are where it’s really at for us. We don’t want to be the biggest, nor the cheapest – just the best. Being best means many things, it encompasses everything from the best possible experience to the smoothest casting fly rods possible.
Each rod is made to order with tender loving care for the customer that ordered it – we don’t mass produce anything. This is old fashioned crafting delivered with a technology twist. Trev, our workshop manager, and head Rodmeister oversees everything with an eagle eye. You will not find a better built or more beautifully finished fly rod anywhere.
The best inputs we can make toward great customer service are to build products that are extremely high quality and trouble-free.
I remember reading a line by Yvon Chouinard, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something along the lines of “Any challenge I’ve had in business I’ve been able to overcome by addressing quality”. I find that to be a very powerful & clarifying concept.
This is the sole reason we have to a large extent, resisted conventional retail. We have the privilege of working with brands like Howler Brothers who are a great fit. But generally, we prefer to have a direct relationship with our customers.
Years ago when Jack Charlton resumed making fly reels under the Mako brand I ordered one – a day or so later he actually called me here in New Zealand to thank me for the purchase and explain there would be a wait on the reel and spare spool I had ordered. I was absolutely floored, starstruck. A few weeks later he called again to let me know his wife was down at the post office about send it to me – this is the most caring and generous act I’ve ever experienced in this or any other industry. I’m a customer for life and have never bought any other saltwater reel.
Customer service is an overused trope for sure. However, Jack Charlton taught me an invaluable lesson. Anglers don’t just buy fly gear, they buy an experience. To that end we ensure each of our customers know all about the ‘epic experience’ and our reputation and reviews reflect that. Most presale or gear enquires are answered by me each morning, Adam and Jeanie make service a top priority.
From a personalization perspective, we are unique. Offering the ability to design your own unique fly rod online. Your preferred grip style, blank color, and real seat – right down to a custom inscription. But being able to do that within a very clear development and production framework that is not bespoke and easy to support from both a customer and service perspective. I think it’s very cool that we get to do that for people – it’s what I would want.
Flylords: What’s it like having a home base in NZ?
Carl: On a personal level, I love New Zealand and can’t think of any place I’d rather be, regardless of where I’ve been in the world New Zealand is a great place to come home to. From a product development perspective, New Zealand is the perfect laboratory in which to develop fly rods.
Business-wise the tyranny of distance to our major markets can be a challenge – but necessity being the mother of invention that challenge has pushed us to develop gear in such a way as to overcome a few obstacles. Take breakages for example, I know exactly what it’s like to bust a fly rod tip and having to wait out most of the season to get a repair back.
Considerations like this have necessitated using a ferrule system that would allow any section on any rod to be replaced immediately – without asking customers to return the rod to get a replacement section re-rolled and fitted. This impetus on ease of use necessitated a change in how we choose to roll our blanks. With regard to shipping, we can fire a package into the US in less time it takes a domestic package to ship from the East Coast to the West Coast – don’t ask me why, it just happens. 80% of all that we produce goes to the USA.
Flylords: Why Fiberglass?
Carl: There was never a clear decision to work with glass initially. I simply wanted to make the very best fly rod possible for a couple of specific applications on my favorite streams. At the time most of my close to home fishing was for large trout in quite small water, so a smooth flexing rod that was tough, well finished and durable was where it was at. A light and yet very strong rod would allow me to go down a size to fish lighter lines and get better presentations – yes, I’m a dry fly snob at heart.
That road led to glass so I dusted off a couple of old glass rods (one was the original rod bought from my paper round) and fished them exclusively for a season. The strength and durably were there for sure, but they were heavy, couldn’t track straight and were decidedly lacking in the quality component department.
Long story short I worked on a taper with a composites company that would replicate my favorite old Carbon Fiber rod (you guys call it graphite) – an old Sage SLT 590
Each blank I received to test had to be built into a rod – that’s how it started.
One afternoon after many prototypes and casting sessions in the park I really thought we’d hit on something special, the rod was sweet like honey, smooth like butter and I could almost pop out a whole fly line (something I can no longer do). The first “Epic Fly Rod Blank” went into production.
Nowadays the latest S-2 glass composites allow us to improve on what we originally did.
Initially I built the rods myself, but that soon got out of control and having a limited attention span never helped. Finding a skilled rod builder in New Zealand to add to our little team proved problematic. The solution was not to build fly rods at all – instead, we’d take all the great components we’d sourced and developed and bundle them up into a kit with a fly rod building manual that even I could follow. Epic “Ready To Wrap Fly Rod Kits” were born and are still our most popular product today.
While we started out in a little “glass niche” which developed into our trademarked FastGlass® product, our Nanotech carbon Fibre rods are now amongst our most popular fly rods.
Flylords: If you had to suggest one rod for a saltwater angler and a freshwater angler from your collection what would they be?
Carl: That’s a tough one, really tough – as we all know, there’s no perfect fly rod. And fly rods are fun, hell, if you were a golfer you’d have 14 golf clubs. It depends hugely on species, how you fish and how you cast. I’ve learned from a casters perspective one size does not fit all and our approach now is to think more about fly casting than fish species.
FastGlass is pretty bulletproof and doesn’t experience the blowups, the “catastrophic failure” that can occur when things go pear-shaped with a carbon fiber rod. The tougher and more flexible glass composite also tends to wear out big pelagics faster and fish tend not to knock and struggle against a softer rod to the same extent as a very stiff rod (it’s kinder on anglers as well).
These properties actually lend themselves to bigger rods in the salt. However, because of their flexibility glass rods tend not to be so good at lifting – so glass is probably not your first choice if you are chasing deeper water species or fish prone to sounding, such as Tuna. Over 12wt, glass is just too heavy.
At the other end of the scale those resilient properties fit well with freshwater rods on the lower end of the scale.You can land very large trout on our 4wt FastGlass without a problem. If you are chucking big cone-head streamers all day and don’t want to smash your rod our 6wt 686 is perfect.
At longer lengths – above 8 1/2 feet, glass, even ours, is not well suited in my opinion. And for two-handers, carbon fiber is definitely the way to go.
Glass has more soul and is just more fun to fish, however it’s not as precise and light as carbon fiber. – it’s a tough one.
If I was going on a saltwater trip and wanted something versatile that was pretty much indestructible – I’d go for the Bandit. At 8ft for a 10 weight, it will handle just about anything.
Out on the flats casting all day, I’d go for the Carbon Fiber 890C
Flylords: Any fun projects or products on the horizon for 2020?
Carl: It’s head down bum up this year. We’ll release a new spey reel based on our Hubless design, a new 4wt carbon backpacking rod, and we’re having a play with an interesting new resin. A few new reel seats will make an appearance – including something from Italy. And we might give luggage a nudge – will see how it goes.
Flylords: How much time goes into the design and creation of one rod?
Carl: The design takes months, months of blank iterations, adjustments, measurement and casting. The actual time taken to build one of our studio rods varies according to the model – but in general about 10 hrs for the 30 or so steps taken. Of course that can’t all happen at once, the elapsed time is about a week. Our order list normally sits at around 4 to 5 weeks from order to delivery – often longer in peak times.
Flylords: Best fish to target on an Epic Flyrod?
Carl: It’s tough to beat a trout sipping dry flies in my book, if I had the choice to go fishing for any species this afternoon I’d probably be in the Keys chasing Tarpon on our FastGlass 12 weight – aptly named the ‘Boca Grande’ or perhaps Bones somewhere in the Pacific.
But the best fish is the one you’re chasing – I’ve never met a bad one