Fly Fearlessly (well, sort of) With Fishing Rods

  • By Pete Robbins

Some people might argue that anyone who wants to fly at all these days is a glutton for punishment. That may be so, but I believe there are too many distant great places to visit to avoid it altogether. However, if you’re like me and you enjoy traveling long distances specifically to fish, at some point you’re probably going to want to trust your precious rods to the airlines. In that case, you may indeed be a masochist.

Count me in that “glutton for punishment” category because I’ve probably taken over 30 air trips with a rod tube as part of my baggage. I’ve been to Brazil, California and Florida multiple times each, and to western Mexico seven times. Some of these times I could have borrowed rods, but if I’m going on the “trip of a lifetime,” I want to be sure that I have tackle that’s up to the test. Some places provide crappy gear. Others provide good gear, but it gets beaten on and may end up missing guides or otherwise compromised. As a result, when in doubt if it’s possible I bring my own sticks.

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve only suffered rod breakage on one occasion – nearly two decades ago, when I didn’t know some of the little tricks that I’ve learned over the years. I’ve had my tube “temporarily misplaced” on two occasions, with no damage resulting from that delay. I’ve also had TSA go into my tube multiple times, on one occasion leaving the latch open, with no problems. Of course, no system is foolproof, and now that I’m writing this I’m likely to suffer the karmic injustice of getting my rods broken on the next trip, but I feel that my system minimizes the risk of problems. I hope it helps you, too, and if you have any additional guidance, please send it my way.

Before You Go

  • First, determine whether bringing rods is altogether necessary. If you can avoid flying with them, that’s your best option. Many fishing lodges provide quality sticks to their guests. If you’re going to visit a friend, ask to borrow some of his rods. If you’re going someplace where you won’t be able to borrow rods, and you only need a few, you might just want to buy a few inexpensive ones when you arrive, or purchase them online and have them shipped there, and then leave them there for next time. It might not cost more than baggage fees.
  • Second, if you’ll only need a few rods, consider investing in three- or four-piece travel rods, which you can likely bring on the plane with you. Most serious fishermen have a bias against multiple-piece rods, but companies like Loomis, Daiwa and St. Croix all now make travel rods that are much better than their predecessors.
  • Next, before booking your ticket, figure out which airlines going to your destination allow rod tube sized luggage at all. Typically, if they allow skis or surfboards or other bulky gear, you’ll be in luck, but carefully check size limitations. For example, American Airlines will allow a tube up to 126” in length. Delta, on the other hand, allows tubes up to 115”, but anything over 62” will be charged oversized baggage fees. Southwest, which is generally fairly generous on luggage, only allows tubes up to 91” long and 3” in diameter. Others are even more strict. While an accommodating desk clerk may let you squeeze a 92” tube on when the limit is 91”, don’t count on it, and certainly don’t count on being able to get one on if it greatly exceeds their allowances.
  • If your ticket is a code share trip, be sure that the airline you’re actually traveling on has the same baggage policy. If you buy a ticket through Airline X, but one or more of the flights will be on partner Airline Y, and Y doesn’t allow your tube, you’ve got a problem.
  • Print out the airline’s baggage policy and put it in your carry-on bag for future reference.
If you only need a few rods, three- or four-piece travel rods might be ideal for you.

If you only need a few rods, three- or four-piece travel rods might be ideal for you.

Getting the Right Tube and Getting it Ready

  • There are a number of quality rod tubes on the market, some of them adjustable to accommodate rods of lengths up to 112” long. I try to limit the rods that I bring to 7’6”. Why? It’s semi-arbitrary, and there are certainly times I’d prefer to have a 7’11” cranking rod or flipping stick, but I feel like when I get much past the 7’6” point the tube becomes more unwieldy – harder to get through customs, harder to put in some vehicles (remember, you won’t always have your big truck or SUV at distant locations). Use your own judgment on this one.
  • I own two tubes, one from a California company called SKB (www.skbcases.com) and another from Plano. The SKB, with a retail price of about $150, is virtually bulletproof. It had three stainless steel latches that are hard to inadvertently dislodge and carry an unconditional lifetime warranty. I’m told that you can run it over with a car and it will be fine. It is a beast. The downside? It only holds seven or eight rods, and the maximum length is 7’2”. I could usually live with the length limit, but when my wife travels with me to Mexico we usually have more than eight sticks. So we needed something with more capacity. That led me to the Plano Telescoping Rod Case (less than $100), into which we’ve put up to 15 rods and had room for more. It has a molded handle and wheels on the bottom which make long lines at the ticket counter or customs a breeze.
  • You will need to have your name visible on your rod tube in multiple places. If you are headed to Brazil and the tube goes to Johannesburg, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to figure out who it belongs to. You can attach a luggage tag to the handle if you like, but count on it getting ripped off by man or machine at some point. Much better to have it permanently etched. If your tube is a lighter color, like the gray SKB, write your name, address, phone number and email address on the tube in large block letters in indelible marker. If it is black, like the Plano, print all of that information on a piece of white paper and then affix it to the tube with a generous amount of clear packing tape. You can do this in several places on the tube. I also do the same with a business card on the inside of the tube for good measure.
  • If you have a telescopic tube like the Plano and expect that you will consistently use it at the same length, do not rely on the small plastic latch at the tube’s “knuckle” to stay in place. Instead, take a large amount of duct tape and secure it in place. If the tube were to collapse in travel, it might not crush your rods, but it would put unnecessary strain on them.

Packing the Tube

  • Figure out which rods you can afford to lose. In other words, you have to assume that every rod you travel with will get broken at some point in the trip, so don’t bring grandpa’s irreplaceable heirloom stick unless you want to be crushed.
  • Once you figure out which rods you need, if there’s room for one more, add it. It can either be a duplicate for the technique you expect to utilize most, or an “all-purpose” rod (for example, a 7’ medium-heavy) that in a pinch will do a lot of different things reasonably well.
  • Once you’ve selected the rods you want to take, the easiest path would seem to be to slide them in the tube, close it up, and be done with it. Now you can watch TV and drink beer. Don’t do that. Take five extra minutes and you’ll be glad that you did. Remember, graphite is brittle and if you let the rods rattle around in the tube, they are going to get damaged. Assume that baggage handlers will drop the tube, hold it upside-down, or otherwise mistreat it. You don’t want the rods to be able to move at all in the tube.
  • Find an old bed sheet. It can be a Star Wars or Pokemon bed sheet that you no longer use, or one that’s ripped. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Lay it out on the ground. Put one rod at the edge and fold it the sheet over. Then lay another rod, with the tip facing the other way, next to it, and fold it over again. Remember, the rods are brittle, so a layer of sheet in between each one and the next is critical. When you lay them out, make sure that no tip extends beyond the longest handle. That way, whether the tube is right side up or wrong side up, the rods inside will be resting on a butt rather than a tip.
  • Once you’ve rolled up the sheet with the rods nestled inside, take four or five long cable ties (AKA, zip ties) and secure the bundle. Even with 10 or 12 rods, it should be a fairly compact package. If you want to be extra careful, you can take bubble wrap or rags and secure them around each end.
  • Not only does packing your rods in the sheet protect them, but it also makes it harder for some unauthorized person to open the tube, slide out a single rod and take it for their own future use.
  • Slide your “rod burrito” into the tube. It should go in smoothly. Test that you can close the tube without pressuring the ends of your precious contents.
  • If you are using a large diameter tube like the big Plano, there may be room for the rods to shift around. If you’re taking soft plastics on your trip, you can shove some of them into the tube. American Airlines, for example, allows your tube to be up to 50 pounds – I guarantee you that your rods and tube combined don’t weigh that, so you can reduce the weight of your other bag by transferring worms, Senkos and the like. Don’t use all of them – because if they lose your tube then it’s double trouble – but enough that you could live without for a day or two. If you don’t have soft plastics, there’s nothing wrong with taking a few t-shirts or pairs of socks and putting them in for cushioning. If you have a few inches of extra room at the top, shove in a t-shirt or towel to keep the rods from sliding up and down if they’re upended. Now you should have a largely stationary insert.
  • Latch the tube shut. If you want to lock it, be sure to use a TSA-approved lock or they may cut it off or – even worse – pull the tube aside for further examination.
  • A friend had even his TSA-approved lock discarded, so assume that you’re not going to get it back no matter what. With that in mind, I prefer to just use a couple of loosely secured cable ties through the latch. If the examiners want to cut them off and go inside, I’m out a few cents. Be sure to put more cables ties in the tube or in your checked luggage (not in your carry-on) for the return trip home.
  • Once the tube is packed, take a picture of it with your cell phone.
This group of rods is waiting in the garage, ready to be safely stowed in the rod tube and flown to the fishing trip of a lifetime.

This group of rods is waiting in the garage, ready to be safely stowed in the rod tube and flown to the fishing trip of a lifetime.

At the Airport

  • Plan to arrive at the airport earlier than normally necessary. While this is always a good policy, assume that something about your fishing-related baggage is going to cause a time-consuming headache.
  • Once you’ve arrived at the airport, if someone is dropping you off and going home, ideally they’ll put you at the door closest to your check-in counter. If you’re leaving your vehicle at the airport while you’re away, assuming you’re not traveling alone, have your travel partner drop you at the door while he parks the vehicle (or vice versa). If you have to get the tube on one of those shuttle buses from a parking lot to the terminal, there’s a good chance that you will either whack someone else in the head with it, or it will get stepped on, or both. Try to minimize on-the-ground travel distances.
  • If there is a line at the counter, leave your other luggage at the back of it and take your tube to the counter and leave it there. Otherwise you are going to whack someone in the head or drop it as you try to weave through the maze of roped off lines.
  • Don’t joke about the contents of your tube. The airlines never thought it was funny, and in the post-9/11 world it can get you in some seriously deep kimchi.
  • If you followed my advice, above, you brought the airline’s baggage policy. I can just about guarantee you that in most airports the clerk will have no idea that your tube is allowed. Calmly take out the policy, with key sections highlighted, and show it to him or her. If they still act confused, politely ask for a supervisor.
  • In 2017, we came up with a new strategy. If the desk agent and the supervisor can’t figure things out, put it in “another language.” Compare your rods and tackle bag to skis and a boot bag when making your arguments.
  • In 2017, we also learned that sometimes a luggage “embargo” will prevent the computer from printing out bag tags for your tube AND your bag. If that happens, they can MANUALLY write out a second tag. Don’t take no for an answer.
  • Once they’ve correctly agreed to allow your tube on board, they may try to charge you an inapplicable fee or oversized baggage fee. Once again, be polite, and point to the policy. If they refuse to budge, pay the amount that they request. You can always petition the airline after you return. I had this happen on a recent trip and American Airlines did the right thing. Better to pay now and risk not getting the fee back later than to not get your rods on the plane.
  • Make sure that they place the bar-coded final destination tag (properly marked) on your tube before it leaves your sight.
  • Once the airline has agreed that your rod tube is proper baggage, politely recommend that they have a porter carry it down to the airline rather than putting it on the conveyor belt. Sometimes those belts have turns that aren’t tube-friendly and your baggage is likely to suffer before the mechanical apparatus gives way. If it takes a tip to get him to carry it, it may be the best $5 or $10 insurance plan you ever buy.

Upon Arrival

  • Normally I am not a fan of pushing children and old ladies out of the way, but when you get to the baggage claim area, make sure that you stand right where the luggage comes onto the belt. Typically a rod tube will come out through an “oversized baggage” door, but occasionally some new baggage handler will put it on the belt instead. Those belts have twists and turns that may not accommodate a seven foot plus tube, thereby pretzeling your one piece model into a two-piecer.
  • Assuming that your tube comes out looking unscathed, it still makes sense to pull it off to the side, and check to see if it’s been opened. If the TSA has inspected the inside, they will leave you a little form letter. If they haven’t been inside, just check to make sure that everything seems to be in one piece. It’s going to be tough enough to pursue a claim for damages under the best of circumstances, but if you leave the premises and come back later to try to argue that they owe you money for broken rods, you’re asking to be turned down.
  • If the tube comes out and it’s obvious that the tube itself or the contents are damaged, first take pictures with your cell phone of the problem, then immediately go to baggage services to plead your case.
  • If the tube does not come out, you’re in for a treat. Now you have to hope that not only do they find it, but that they get it to you in time for your trip. If you’ll be near the airport, that’s not a problem. If you’re flying into the Amazon jungle in a few hours, all of your hard work may go for nothing. Fortunately, with bar coded luggage tags, it’s now much easier for the airline to find your bag anywhere in the world than ever before, assuming you play the game correctly.
  • Go to baggage services resolved not to lose your cool. These employees are used to dealing with aggrieved customers, but it’s not their fault that your tube was lost. More importantly, no one is going to want to help the hothead yelling at them about their incompetence.
  • The baggage folks will likely show you a chart of different luggage types – all sorts of suitcases and duffels. It should have a rod tube on it, but it may not. It may show a smaller tube built for fly rods. To the extent you are capable (if you’re in a foreign country this may prove tough), explain that yes, they are fishing rods, but no, it does not look exactly like that. Fortunately, you have the cell phone picture of your tube that you took at home. Show it to them. Watch the recognition wash over their face. You have made their difficult job easier.

Coda

  • Assuming you have your rods and have reached your fishing destination, now it’s time for a cold front, a monsoon or some other calamity to make fishing difficult. Seriously, though, you’ve passed a tough test and now you can worry only about the same things you worry about every day on the water – making the best presentations and not making mistakes.
  • When it’s time to return home, be sure to take all of these steps again. While you may not be quite as stressed as you were on the way to trophy-land, you still don’t want your rods scuffed, broken or lost.

The lengthy nature of this advice may seem excessive, and perhaps all of these steps are not strictly necessary, but I am a firm believer in an “ounce of prevention” being worth more than a “pound of cure” when it comes to fishing travel. Whether it’s a once in a lifetime journey, a chance to fish a new water, or a tournament on a distant venue, you want to have the right gear with you. Rods, despite their high quality, are fragile and valuable, and to all of us bass-obsessives, the idea of arriving and finding them broken or missing is almost too difficult to contemplate. As I wrote above, I can’t guarantee that following my plan will guarantee you trouble-free travels, but I can assure you that it’ll minimize the chance of needless heartache.