Would you rather retrieve hundreds of yards of anchor line by muscling it over the rail or by using a bow roller? A quick follow-up question for the tough guys who opt to haul it across the rail: How will the anchor line look after grinding back and forth over that hard surface several times while tightly stretched?
Greg Stotesbury, sales manager for AFTCO, uses this anchor-rope analogy to illustrate the difference between ring guides and roller guides on fishing rods. Even high-quality ring guides may prove inadequate for certain big-game applications. "Our roller guides are all about protecting the line from abrasion," he says. "Roller guides really come into their own when fighting fish that weigh a multiple of the line's breaking strength. For example, when targeting 100-pound sailfish on 20-pound line or 500-pound marlin on 50."
AFTCO traces its roots back to 1958, when an avid marlin fisherman named J. C. Axelson grew unsatisfied with roller guides available at that time. Working in the basement machine shop in his Newport Beach, California, home, Axelson (who owned a company that made parts for aircraft and the oil-drilling industry) personally crafted roller guides that met his demanding standards.
Since then AFTCO has developed a variety of roller guides destined for duty in distinct arenas of the offshore battleground. Rod builders (custom and production) choose guides that match a blank's line-class rating and intended purpose. The company's roller-guide lineup consists of Lightweight (for 2- to 30-pound line), Regular (16- to 50-pound), Heavy Duty (20- to 80-pound), Wind-On (30-pound to unlimited) and Big Foot Super Heavy Duty (80-pound to unlimited).
Differences among the models include materials, size and design features that take into consideration the guide's intended line class. Along with obvious qualities such as strength and corrosion-resistance, knot clearance ranks high on the priority list. "Doubled 30-pound mono easily passes through our Lightweight guides. At the other end of the spectrum, we design the Big Foot series with more than a quarter-inch of knot clearance to accommodate Bimini twists in heavy line," Stotesbury says.
Built to Last - And Perform
A roller guide's basic blueprint contains a frame that houses a wheel-shaped roller. A pin (covered by a sleeve or bearing) passes through the center of the roller to provide support and keep it turning freely. A screw in one end of the pin holds the assembly together.
"Roller guides are not especially sophisticated, but they're useless if not made correctly," says Steve Gustlin, proprietor of All American Roller Guides. "Some of our tolerances measure as fine as 0.00005-inch. Such exacting specifications assure the rollers turn smoothly and evenly - and salt water won't penetrate the bearings."
Extremely tight tolerances give All American the confidence to back its product with an unconditional lifetime guarantee. "We've been in business for eight years and have replaced fewer than a dozen roller guides. Most problems arose because somebody got resin in the guide while building the rod," Gustlin says.
AFTCO's nickel-silver frames bear triple chrome plating for extra durability in saltwater conditions. The stainless-steel roller rides on a bearing made of an even harder grade of stainless steel. "We coat the bearing with a dry-film lubricant called Aflon, a Teflon derivative, and apply a proprietary grease at the factory," Stotesbury says. "Designed for longevity and low maintenance, our guides come out of the bag ready to fish and can go at least a couple of years before you need to take them apart for cleaning and lubrication. Many are still out there working after more than 20 years."
Gustlin estimates that heavy-duty-class guides account for about 70 percent of the market, so he focuses on this niche - but overbuilds his products to guarantee performance. "Our arched, U-shaped frames are extremely strong so they'll withstand loads you could apply with any class of fishing line," he says.
All American manufactures titanium and stainless-steel guides with similar production sequences. Frames begin as flat sheets of metal that gain form and finish through a progressive die-stamping process interspersed with polishing treatments. First, the parts are tumbled in a 3-foot-diameter drum containing small cylinders of aluminum oxide, a polishing medium that removes burrs and sharp edges.
Once stamped into shape, the frames are tumbled with tiny pyramid-shaped pieces of a special plastic, which smooth the metal. "Then, we grind and flatten the feet in perfect alignment, and line-ream the guides so the rollers run exactly centered in the frames," Gustlin explains. "For the final step before assembly, we tumble the frames in crushed walnut shell to achieve a fine luster."
While most anglers expect to see roller guides on beefy rods, few think of them as beneficial in light-tackle applications. "Fishermen have a misconception that you can't cast with roller guides. You can cast just as well with rollers as ring guides, especially when using our Lightweights," Stotesbury says.
These guides feature triangular graphite frames supporting titanium rollers; rather than stainless-steel screws, titanium clips hold them together. The graphite frames offer flexibility, durability and reduced weight. "Designed to replace ring guides on casting rods - in fact they're lighter than most ring guides - they handle light and thin-diameter lines ranging from 2-pound mono up to 50-pound braid," Stotesbury says. "Lightweights have become very popular among king mackerel anglers. Other guys use them on rods for live-baiting tuna, and on tarpon and sailfish rods."
Anglers have also discovered that roller guides keep superbraids moving smoothly, as long as they pay attention to compatibility between line and tackle. Stotesbury warns, "We designed Big Foot guides to handle heavy, large-diameter monofilament, so I don't recommend using 30-pound braid with them because such thin line could jam between the roller and frame."
New Designs and Materials
Light weight doesn't always mean light tackle. Line-guide manufacturers must keep pace as rod makers invest in new materials to develop light-yet-strong blanks for offshore fishing.
Gustlin says All American makes a limited production of about 100 sets of titanium roller guides per year. Though considerably more expensive than stainless steel, titanium offers advantages that include extreme lightness (a full set of guides weighs just 1.44 ounces), greater strength and absolute corrosion protection. "Titanium will not corrode, not even after prolonged exposure to salt water," he says.
Three years ago, All American introduced Neptune Spiral roller guides, which mount to the underside of a heavy-tackle rod and eliminate rod twist when fighting fish. "Pressure from traditional guides tends to torque the rod - that's why it can get hard to manage a reel and crank it smoothly," Gustlin says. "Spiral guides carry line under the rod, so the harder a fish pulls the more stable the rod becomes."
He also says the spiral guides are selling much better than anticipated. "We had hoped they would account for about 7 percent of annual sales; they currently represent 22 percent."
Whether made of stainless steel or another metal, roller guides last longer and work better when anglers take care of them properly. "Use the hose," Stotesbury says. "I wash my rods with soap and water after each trip and can go four or five years before performing detailed maintenance on guides. When needed, I disassemble guides, wipe them clean and apply a dab of waterproof grease to the bearing. I recommend Penn reel grease."
Gustlin also recommends routine freshwater washdowns with mild soap. "If you take the guides apart, put the bushing in a cupful of 90-weight oil for a minute and then reassemble. That's how we treat them at the factory," he says.
A final word of warning from Stotesbury: "Stay away from spray lubricants! They tend to leave a film that gets gummy and attracts junk like salt crystals and dirt that can interfere with a roller guide's proper functioning.".