What Do You Get at Each Price Point for Fly Reels?Published on 09/26/2022 · 7 min readFly Fishing Expert Rylyn S. breaks down the different price ranges of fly fishing reels to help you find a reel that's the right fit for your budget!
Photo by Tim Foster
Choosing a fly reel can be quite a daunting decision. Nowadays, there are numerous options available at varying price points. My general rule is to first pick out your fly rod and a great line to pair with it. Then, what’s left in your wallet is what you should spend on the fly reel.
I truly feel that the fly reel isn’t as important as the other components; it is a glorified line holder. Though if you are a saltwater fisherman or targeting bigger freshwater fish, then of course there are some exceptions. So, with fly reels, I generally recommend finding one that is the correct size for your setup and doesn’t break the bank.
Here in Missouri, my wife and I do a lot of fly fishing while floating—which can take a toll on our equipment. A good fly reel, in my opinion, does not fail; the spool stays secure, doesn’t fall off, wobble, or seize up.
I find that most fly fishers have three concerns when it comes to buying a fly reel: price and quality, capability, and durability. Each of these factors should be equally important when choosing yours.
If you fish often and are hard on your equipment, you probably should not buy a cheap reel. But if you fish 3-4 days a month—where most of your time is on a local stream catching panfish, bass, or trout 5-12 inches in size—you probably do not need to buy an overly expensive fly reel. Buyer’s remorse is strong when you drop $500+ on a piece of equipment you did not need.
So, will your fly reel simply be used to hold your backing and fly line when you catch smaller trout or freshwater species? Or do you often target larger fish?
What Are Fly Reels Made of?
Most fly reels are made from composite plastics or cast aluminum. The overall cost of the reel is a reflection of the time, energy, design, and materials required to manufacture it. If your eyes are caught on a higher-priced fly reel, it is probably because the quality reflects a more intensive build process.
What Do You Get at Each Price Point?
Fly Reels Under $150
In this category are reels geared toward the beginner. An affordable fly reel worth buying can sometimes be hard to find. It also needs to be durable. No one wants to be scooping their fly line out of the river because the spool fell off or their reel broke altogether.
The best fly reel in this category is the Lamson Liquid. Lamson-Waterworks is known for its conical drag system—which consists of a pair of precisely matched conical elements drawn together with spring tension to produce variable rates of smooth rotational braking. It is also built from pressure-cast aluminum, making it an extremely hardy fly reel for its price. And the drag system is completely CNC-machined—Computer Numerical Control allows for a more precise construction on fly reels. Rather than melting the materials and pouring them into a cast, a CNC-machined fly reel is cleaner and lasts much longer.
There are options for purely saltwater anglers as well. The Redington Behemoth is an affordable reel that I have battled large bull reds with and it earned its keep. I don’t recommend chasing sharks, tuna, or tarpon with this fly reel, but it can handle big-game fish when the opportunity arises.
Fly Reels $150–300
I call this category the “sweet spot” for freshwater anglers. These reels are mostly CNC-machined and durable enough to handle long days on the water, in the drift boat, or on the bank of the local river. These rods will last for years while helping to keep affordability in mind. This range is great for trout, bass, salmon, and panfish fly fishing.
My top suggestion here is the Lamson Guru. Made in the U.S. with a fully sealed, conical drag system, this fly reel is ready to bring in whatever you throw at it on the water. It is, by far, the most rugged fly reel in this group. I have thrown this reel around a time or two, and it still performs as it did straight out of the box. If you are looking for a reel that will not need to be replaced within a few years, this is the route to go.
The Orvis Hydros is another great option. Fully machined with a sealed drag system, this fly reel will perform for both freshwater and saltwater fishers. The Hydros is a great fit for anglers wanting a well-featured, high-quality reel at a middle-of-the-road price.
Fly Reels $300–500
Attention to detail is in play in this price range. Many anglers consider these fly reels as something like jewelry for their fly rod setup. Most of these reels are fully machined and exceptionally lightweight. These reels also feature advanced drag systems, and other parts in the spool are kept out to create a lightweight product with “glamor.”
The Sage Trout’s classic aesthetic has a romantic appeal yet is packed with today's best performance features like the modern sealed drag system and large arbor features. Also, believe it or not, this fly reel is known for its acoustics. It looks like a classic reel and it sounds like one. This is an appeal to many anglers who like to take a step back in time.
The Lamson Speedster features freshwater and saltwater options and looks great on any fly rod. The reel may get its name from either its high line retrieval rate or its hotrod-like appearance—with its narrow spool, inboard-mounted handle, and outer diameter significantly larger than most large-arbor reels. The narrow spool prevents the line from bunching up while retrieving, and the added circumference and inboard handle improve the retrieve rate.
Fly Reels $500–850
Saltwater anglers, I truly feel this is your “sweet spot.” Saltwater can take a toll on gear, and line-screaming fish can wear down a good drag system. These reels are built to handle the hardest-pulling fish; they feature the strongest disc drags on the market, the highest braking power, and are built for handling the corrosive forces of saltwater.
The Ross Evolution R Saltwater features the best and most powerful drag system on the market today. This reel is fully sealed, made from bonded carbon and fluoropolymer, and features a stainless steel interface machined from 6061-T6 aluminum alloy. It is built to be rigid and durable for the tropical element.
Also, Orvis’s American-made option, the Mirage USA, is a lightweight, high-tech reel for both freshwater and saltwater fishing. It boasts zero start-up inertia and an incredibly smooth drag that will protect the finest tippet while fighting the biggest fish like Tarpon, Redfish, and even Musky.
And for purely freshwater anglers willing to spend this kind of money on a fly reel, check out the Hatch Iconic. You’ll never have to replace it due to its warranty, the durability of its machined aluminum materials, and its effectiveness in all water situations.
Fly Reels $850+
These fly reels are great talking pieces and feature some of the coolest-looking designs on the market. Also, the most advanced saltwater fly reels are in this category. And, several great vintage options—like Hardy—fall into this category. The disadvantage of vintage fly reels is they aren’t covered under a warranty. If broken, they will be hard to replace. Leave the vintage reels for displays on the shelf or the occasional trout outing on a small stream.
For those searching for a more unique or fully customizable reel, look no further than Abel. From wood reel handles to tarpon-printed spools, these fly reels are one of a kind. These fly reels outperform most fly reels on the market and are completely made right here in the United States. There is a fly reel design for everyone within the Abel family.
Connect With an Expert
I’ve owned many reels in my lifetime, and I’ve been surprised a few times: sometimes I’ve had to send pricier models back for repairs; other times I’ve been shocked by how well lower-priced units have held up—especially on the rock banks of the Ozarks or while surf fishing the Alabama Coast.
Today’s fly angler has a lot of great options to choose from within all budget types. As Curated Experts, we’re here to help you find the perfect setup. Whether your impulse is for saltwater, freshwater, the best bang for the buck, or heck, “I want to spend some retirement money,” we’re here to help.