It had to happen. The melding of the growing popularity of saltwater fly fishing with the enthusiastic acceptance of multi-multipiece rods (those of five or more sections) by freshwater fly fishers has led rod makers to start producing saltwater rods - generally those of 8-weight or above - of five or more pieces. Some makers offer only one or two such saltwater models, but at least three - Powell, Sage and Winston - cover the waterfront from 8- through 12-weight rods. These new rods beg the question of whether they are simply novelties or have practical application.
Some may remember - it's not been that many years - when the casting qualities and durability of three- and four-piece saltwater rods were questioned in comparison to standard two-piece rods. Those questions have been largely answered, as anglers today have enthusiastically accepted multipiece rods for saltwater. Multipiece rods are easy to carry, easy to assemble and perform every bit as well as two-piece rods, by virtually every angler's accounting. But how many pieces are too many?
Rod designers will tell you that from an efficiency perspective, a two-piece rod is best. No, actually, portability aside, they'd tell you a one-piece rod is the best. As Jerry Siem explained, "Don Green [Siem's predecessor and mentor at Sage] has always been a proponent of maximizing a rod's efficiency. And since any added weight decreases efficiency, the addition of ferrules decreases efficiency." Siem clarified, however, that any particular action could be closely duplicated in two-, three- or five-piece models. He also admitted that the efficiency loss was largely insignificant. In fact, the weight differential between two-piece and five-piece rods is pretty minimal.
Numbers for the ubiquitous 9-weight, using the Sage RPLXi, show the two-piece version weighs 4-3/16 ounces, and the five-piece, 4-5/16 ounces (with the three-piece in between) - an insignificant amount. More important than absolute weight difference is any change in weight distribution that might occur along the length of the blank. A five-piece rod is, in one sense, a three-piece rod with ferrules added closer to the tip and to the butt. The added ferrule in the butt section is in a portion of the rod that doesn't affect casting, but the added ferrule in the tip can. Thus, while the overall weight might not change much, adding or shifting weight to the tip can make the rod feel heavier than the actual weight differential might suggest.
While casting is a primary consideration of any fly rod (except, perhaps, those used for blue-water big-game species), other performance characteristics apply to five-piece rods just as they do to two- and three-piece rods. The rods must variously protect tippets, lift fish and must be durable. Woody Wood at Powell noted that their five-piece AXS rods were tested extensively from Central America to Alaska for over a year with zero breakage. "They're as strong if not stronger than the equivalent three-piece rods, have just as much line speed, and haven't lost anything in lifting power. You can pack everything in a carry-on bag, and the only inconvenience is having two extra sections to put together."
Rod makers are producing both spigot and tip-over-butt ferrules that are as strong and durable as the blank itself (if not more so), but only if the ferrules are fully seated. Improperly seated ferrules can create stress points and result in rod failure. Contemporary ferrules are best seated by firmly pushing and twisting the sections together snugly, and an occasional coating of paraffin helps to ease the process as well as minimize wear on the ferrules. Shorter sections mean that ferrules will be placed closer to the rod's tip - the most active section of the rod - where there is more energy, more movement and more stress. Correspondingly, the tip section has the greatest likelihood of a ferrule working loose and either falling off or failing under stress. Regardless of the number of ferrules, they should be checked occasionally to ensure that they are still securely seated. All else being equal though, adding ferrules increases the probability of something going wrong.
Putting the Pieces Together
I've had the opportunity to cast and fish with several of these rods. Since rod performance is very much a function of personal preferences, I won't suggest that my experiences will be similar to yours. I will say that most of these rods perform extremely well, including many of the less expensive models. Any differences are generally no more than one would find when comparing one brand of rod to another. Some are faster, some slower. Some have stronger butts, some weaker. None was, in fact, less than an acceptably good fishing rod, and most will hold their own against any of the fewer-piece rods.
That there is little, if any, noticeable difference in feel or actions shows that the material technology available today, and more importantly the skills of the rod designers, have produced five-piece rods that are very comparable to the equivalent two-, three- or four-piece rods. They're really good, and where they're not extremely close to the equivalent few-piece rods, it's usually for one of two reasons. First, the rod designer intentionally varied the design with a specific purpose in mind. Or, perhaps the designer had a bad day - it can still happen. In essence, the angler is faced with the same process used to choose any rod: cast the rod, fish it if possible, and determine if it meets your needs.