I’ve been trout fishing for a couple decades but it’s only been the last seven or so years that I’ve developed 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 served me well for the first few seasons and I couldn’t be happier. It 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 4/5 reel for about $40, and for the years I’ve owned it, It has given me no trouble whatsoever. 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. Plus, if I somehow drop it into a backcountry lake, impossible to retrieve, it’s no big loss.
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.
$40ish • 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 $140, depending on the size you choose. • BUY
The reel I bought for my first good piece of fly fishing gear was made by Orvis and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since. Their slightly above entry-level Battenkill reel is beautifully made and an inexpensive upgrade that will last many, many years.. $98 • BUY
Waders aren’t necessarily mandatory if you’re just getting into fly fishing and want to try it out, but once you know this is something you want to keep doing, they become mandatory in a hurry. Simms makes terrific waders at a range of prices. Their Tributary model, entry level, comes in around $180 for mens and womens. • BUY
Photo: The author in Wyoming with about $150 total in gear. Courtesy Margaret Donoghue.