Don’t Be Afraid of Inexpensive Fly-fishing Gear

A sub-$40 reel can catch just as many trout as a $500 reel .

I’ve been trout fishing for more than a decade but it’s only been the last couple of years that I’ve begun taken on the never-ending obsession of fly fishing. Why’d I wait so long? Because I thought fly fishing was insanely expensive (it certainly can be) and a complicated bore to learn. I was already catching plenty of backcountry trout with spinning tackle, why bother to take on a costly new method? Made sense to me.

Then I borrowed a buddy’s fly rod and reel, miraculously landed a couple trout on my first time out and suddenly I understood. I often have more fun getting skunked while fly fishing than I do actually catching fish with lures. This is a cliche often spouted by longtime fly fishermen, but it’s totally true.

But even though I was hooked from the get go after trying fly fishing I was still completely intimidated by the cost and complication of entry. To work around that, I borrowed a page from my spincasting playbook—I bought a sturdy but inexpensive reel to go with a hand-me-down rod and boom, I was in business for less than $80, including fly line and a decent selection of flies.

My inexpensive setup has served me well for the past couple seasons and I couldn’t be happier. It’s landed me Montana trout from the Gallatin, plenty of cutthroat trout in the Sierra, and lots of panfish in Marin County lakes.

I bought the Okuma Sierra 5/6 reel for about $36, and for the couple years I’ve owned it, I couldn’t be happier. It sports a diecast aluminum frame with a one-way roller bearing and a stainless steel drag system. You can switch quite easily from right to left-handed retrieve in about two minutes. The drag is adjustable, but really you get only “very little drag” or “a whole ton of drag” but really, for a reel of this size, drag isn’t that important. It’s a got a faux-wood grain crank handle which looks pretty cool too. It’s a perfectly simple little reel with very little that can go wrong and I expect it to last many years with no problems.

For the most part, I use this reel on backcountry trips into the high Sierra. I carry it in a beer coozy and occasionally drop it onto granite, pavement, rivers. The trout I’m usually fishing are small—less than two pounds—so my reel is effectively just acting as a line holder. An expensive drag system is great when you’re trying to land eight-pound brownies, but for skittish stream trout, a bulletproof, reliable reel like the Sierra is ideal.

Does it feel as good in the hand or as smooth as a $500 reel? I really hope not for the sake of people who spend $500 on reels. I have fished with a few pricey reels and, boy, you sure could adjust the heck out of the drag, I guess. But I didn’t catch many fish with them.

I’ve also fished with people who were sporting shiny, fancy reels and brand new rods, and waders that cost more than my entire fishing kit combined. But they didn’t land any more fish than me and my sub-$80 setup.

That’s not a testament to my superb fishing ability—far from it. It’s merely an anecdote to point out that it’s not the cost of the gear that lands the fish. I waited way too long to dip a toe into fly fishing because I was worried about spending too much money. Turns out, cheapskate fly fishing is not only possible, but the best way to start a debilitating lifelong obsession.

$39 • BUY

Wanna get into fly fishing on the cheap? Could do worse than these bits of kit

Redington makes some pretty compelling fly-fishing gear at great prices. Their Crosswater Combo comes set up with everything you need: reel, rod, and it’s pre-spooled with good line, all for around $115, depending on the size you choose. • BUY

The reel I borrowed for my first time fly fishing was made by Ross and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since. Their entry-level Eddy reel has a nice big arbor to help reel in line quickly. $75 BUY

My Okuma Sierra is becoming harder to find, but their SLV model is just as good and just as much a bargain at around $54 • BUY

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Showing 19 comments
  • Isaac

    You should give Tenkara a try!

  • Loren

    Or buy used! When I got into fly fishing, I had a $120 Cabela’s rod/reel combo (worked really well…great quality and value). Two years ago I upgraded, by buying used online. About $250 altogether for an upgraded setup. Is it vastly better than my Cabelas? Probably not. But I have noticed slightly improved casting.

  • Daniel

    Great article, but I think its not the same case for saltwater anglers, the need for a sealed and corrosive resistant reel is a must, and the winds could range from 15 to 20 on a not so good day, a cheap rod is just not gonna perform in these conditions, specially if you are fighting big fish.

  • Fromheretowhere

    I’ve no doubt witnessed the new wader wearing orvis commercial walking in lakes in the Sierras. The last time, I was on an overnight trip near Kaiser Rd fishing with my inexpensive gear that I love, just having fun catching trout using a new spinner on my fly rod. Around 10am I see a few guys walking up and one is wearing waders. He proceeds to get in the water and struggle with getting his line out. This was backcountry entertainment at its finest. After about 5 minutes of untangling and retangling he gets a cast off and proceeds to fall into the water. I was so caught off guard I laughed out loud which quickly alerted them that their comedy of errors was being watched. After dipping the top of the waders in he decided to fish from shore for five more minutes before heading for better water. Back at the trailhead I realized the group was a family and I had attended school and played sports with the boys in school. We had a good laugh and compared notes. I think in the end the beauty of the sport is you can do it how you want. No piece of gear can teach you how to fish and no fly can catch fish if it ain’t in water! Get out there as often as you can with what you can afford. Really great article!

    • Kristoffer Miller

      I love the Kaiser Pass area! So random reading someone talking about it on a forum…I had to comment. I grew up fishing that area and one of the few things I miss about CA. Tight lines!

  • Jim Childers

    Like all fishing,its the results that counts,not how your gear looks,the fish don’t see the gear.

  • JJ

    Totally agree- fly fishing doesn’t have to be expensive. Better yet, ditch the reel. My latest trail-running load-out includes a Tenkara fly rod. No reel, just line and rod. The only way to get any more simple & lightweight would be to catch ’em by hand.

    • Dara Morgan

      I just purchased a Tenkara and can’t wait to try it out in the Sierra this summer.

  • Cassandra Nugent

    Yea a lot of our gear is not very expensive! We are huge outdoors people, and have a lot of outdoor activities that we like to do so we definitely are budget friendly, and we are still successful when we go out and hunt or fish! I also write an outdoor/adventure/lifestyle blog with my fiance it’s

  • Chris Waddell

    Hi Justin. I agree, I have had a scierra okuma for about 9 years (a 7/8) and I love it, it’s a great wee reel. I use it on small rivers and stillwaters and it has landed me several nice trout already this season (I live and fish in beautiful Scotland). I have mainly bargain gear and while I am no expert I still catch fish. Anyhow, tight lines folks and keep the faith!

  • Robert

    The rods are just sticks with guides. If you can cast you can use about any rod for for small stream fishing. A 30 ft cast is plenty. I use a 15 $ crappie reel with clicker drag. It’s light weight . I don’t need backing. Spend your money on good line

  • Tobybul

    I have an okuma 9 wt large arbor and it’s just as good as my orvis. My rods are. St Croix. This article lacks discussing the cost of rod’s, fly lines, waders, etc. I have yet to find inexpensive fly lines.

    Bottom line, the fish does not know whether you are wearing a $100 or a $5,000 outfit. They don’t care.

  • peter

    Great article, and spot on too. I started fly fishing 35 years ago. Shortly thereafter, I noticed that it was becoming rather gentrified. I ended up quitting in disgust as it was increasingly difficult to avoid being sucked into the Volvo driving $500 rod casting crowd. I’ve recently picked it up again for the sheer joy of it. There is nothing like fooling a wild fish with something you made yourself. And, as the author points out, I am doing it with the same bargain stuff I used back then. Thanks for posting this.

  • streamfisher

    One can appreciate the value of fly fishing on the cheap. I would consider, also, the value of quality, authenticity, connection to nature and so much more. If you’re not going to immerse yourself in all that fly fishing has to offer, if it’s an occasional activity – you’ll enjoy yourself with cheap. If you already do or desire to know the feeling of being connected to nature and yourself, read on…

    I totally agree with the author on his comments about enjoying fly fishing even if not catching fish. I know old timers who cut their hooks at the bend so they never catch a fish. There are so many more reasons they are out there, They are connecting, momentarily with fish, with nature, and themselves. Sounds corny but couldn’t be more true. Fly fishing is unique in that you are more connected to what you’re doing than other forms of fishing. How do you achieve this zen place? look for quality, look for you.

    What is my quality? One of my favorites is my 10 foot custom made graphite rod that weighs less than your cell phone. Yes, it does cost a few dollars. You’re not going to find a cheap 10 foot rod that weighs less than your cell phone. btw, I also agree with the author on reels. Fly fishing is about being connected. Expensive reels do too much work for you. My view is you should be using your hands to manage a fish. The reel is there just for putting the line when you’re not using it 🙂 It’s enough for me to be able to change spools without hi-tech drag. One caveate as has already been mentioned in a previous posting is saltwater. If you’re fishing saltwater, you need a reel that can handle that.

    There is nothing more unique in fly fishing than the craftmenship of a fine bamboo rod made by an expert who only make about a dozen a year. They understand the uniqueness of each peice of bamboo they use and work with it to make perfection. It is truely a work of art. The end product is a rod with action that is like no other rod. My most expensive rod is a ‘boo’ that has had several previous owners and is over 100 years old. Yes, I use it. Yes, I am rewarded every time I use it.

    Sylk braided line
    Labor of love is a fly fisherman who uses sylk lines. Every time you go fishing, you have to clean and take care of this line. I do not have this patience, but if I could have someone do this for me – I would love to use sylk. So smooth and delicate how it lays on the water.

    Most fly fisherman I know do buy flies but also make their own. I always buy flies from the local shops where I go. They are hand made by the peson I’m buying them from and they know what fly to make for a given day and even time of day. That being said, making your own flies is also part of the overall experience. I am far from a crafty person at making flies but I have learned how successful a simple pattern can be. If you are crafty, like a friend of mine, he makes superior flies of which he always puts his first one of a kind behind glass.

    These are my tips. If you choose to immerse yourself, you will find your life for the better body/mind/soul. It is no surprise to me that fly fishing has proven itself to be very successful with such groups as Project Healing Waters, an organization that takes veterans of war and those who suffer PTSD out to the river as well Casting for Recovery, a charity for breast cancer and many other groups.

    tightlines to you all,,,

    • Kevin

      Thanks for taking the time to provide such a detailed response.

  • Tim

    I love fly fishing (albeit I’m not that great at it). But once I went Tenkara it was hard to imagine any other way to fish. Simple, simple, simple.

  • D

    Tenkara is like Tele skiing…completely pointless and should have gone the way of the VCR.

  • Lucas Bryant

    I think you should try Tenkara. It’s worth! I had 2 and I’m very happy with it 🙂

  • Fred Rickson

    Cheap gear is OK until it isn’t. Saw a fellow show up in Placencia, Belize with a cheap Reddington rod. Hooked a medium barracuda while playing around in town and the rod snapped. Week shot.

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