Why You Shouldn't Go for the $150 Fly RodPublished on 07/06/2023 · 14 min readIf you're new to fly fishing, you might be tempted to buy the cheapest rod. Fly Fishing Expert Baily Dent explains why you'll want to invest in your first rod.
Photo by Good Luz
A first fly rod is a legendary thing. It doesn’t matter how long you end up sticking with the sport, your first rod purchase will always hold a special place in your heart as the instrument that opened a whole new world for you and an incredible new way to connect with Nature. Odds are if you are talking to an angler that has been fishing for decades and got started in the sport with a high-quality rod, they probably still have that rod today in a place of honor.
My love for fly fishing started the way that it does for so many people, on a family vacation at the age of 12. My grandmother Posy decided she wanted to go trout fishing after seeing Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, and I decided that sounded pretty fun to me too—especially if any of those guys looked anything like Brad Pitt! I was literally hooked after that first adventure. I borrowed the 4-weight Orvis Rocky Mountain the guide sold Posy on that first outing for fishing trips to Wyoming and Colorado, and then random brook trout adventures with friends through my college years.
It was 15 years after my first experience with fly fishing when Posy passed away that my first fly rod was officially handed down to me. Nearly 30 years after it was originally purchased, I still have that rod and fish it or lend it to friends who want to try out the sport.
If you're trying to figure out what to spend on your fly fishing gear, check out What Fly Fishing Gear Can You Save on, and What Should You Splurge on?
The most common question people ask when first purchasing a fly fishing rod is how much does a good fly rod outfit cost? You could walk into your local box store and spend as little as $20-$50 on an entry-level fly rod. It will cast and basically act as a fly rod should, but I can tell you right now, you’re not going to be happy with it because it probably wasn’t even designed by someone who has ever spent any time with a fly rod in their hand.
To really get the best fly fishing rod to start with, you’re going to want to spend at least $150-$250, and at that price point, there are some excellent rods from manufacturers that look great and cast extremely well. There are plenty of people who will never want to spend more than that! With the quality of the rods in that price range—unless buying Made in America is important to you—there almost isn’t any reason you would need to spend more when starting out.
The first time or two you fish, you are not going to be able to tell the difference between a Blue Light Kmart Special fly rod combo or a high-end $3,000 bamboo rod. You’re just going to be trying to figure out how to manage to get all that line and that tiny little piece of fluff on that really long pole across the river to the fish! A base rod and reel combo kit is going to be in the $150-$250 range, and these fly fishing combos are a great option for someone who has never picked up a fly rod in their life and just wants to try out the sport with a good quality setup. Rod combos are also fantastic options for a first set up for kids. These kits are great because they come with the whole outfit—rod, reel, and line already pre-spooled—to take the guesswork out of it for a total newbie. Curated even offers kits, like the clearwater series from Orvis or the Orvis Encounter, and these fly fishing outfits come with a net, nippers, clamps, and even a fly box full of flies. This will cover everything you need so you can get right out on the water without even having to set foot in a fly shop!
However, if you find that you really are getting serious about the sport, it’s not going to take you long to realize you just aren’t able to get the casting distance you need to get that fly all the way across bigger water or that the fly rods at this price point just don't have the sensitivity or feel you're looking for. You might also begin to see signs of wear and tear on the rod after a few outings. It might be time to upgrade your rod and your reel. The reality is that the mid and higher-grade rods are more expensive because they are made of higher-quality, more durable materials. And those materials are going to cost more!
I know from personal experience how beneficial it is to go with the mid-range rod. While my first rod is by no means my only one any longer, it will forever have a place of honor in my quiver, and it is still in use 30 years later. The mid-range category of rods in the $200-$500 price point is going to offer you the best value as a new angler who has decided they want to be in the sport. Not only are they actually going to last you a lifetime, but they will also grow with you. That added extra cost up front is going to be worth it simply in the durability, accuracy, and extended life span that a rod will have over the lower price point models. Most of these rods will also have a lifetime warranty, so if anything ever happens to them, and at some point, you will break a tip (or shut it in a car door or window), you can get the rod replaced or repaired for a fraction of the price of a new one.
As with any sport, the sky's the limit as far as expense. The nicest high-end new rods and fishing equipment can cost obscene amounts of money and some fly fishermen just feel the need to buy the most expensive fly fishing gear they can. But what is the best fly rod for the money? Does a more expensive fly rod make a difference? Is the $1000 Winston or Orvis Helios really better than the $250 Echo rod? The Winston is going to be lighter, the rod's material will be more technologically advanced and higher-grade not just a graphite rod, and it will be stronger for sure than a cheap rod. These things alone will probably give you a rod that is going to help your cast somewhat, but is it ultimately going to make you a better angler? The truth is no.
As your skill with a fly rod grows, you will find your understanding and appreciation for the mechanics and feel of a well-crafted rod will also evolve. An experienced angler with a top-of-the-line rod in their hands has an advantage over anyone, but putting that same rod in the hands of a lesser experienced person doesn’t mean they are going to catch the same fish. Ultimately it's about what rod works with your budget, your style of casting, and what feels the best to you.
Type of Action
As you start browsing fly rods you will see them described in terms of action. Mid-flex or medium-action rods are a great place to start for the new angler. These rods flex in the middle of the rod during the cast to make them the most versatile and forgiving of all the rods. They are going to be fairly easy to cast and will be able to introduce you to all styles of fly fishing—from nymphs to dries, all the way to throwing small streamers, and are going to be suitable for both saltwater fish and freshwater fishing.
Another commonly seen type is the tip-flex or fast-action rod. These rods bend closer to the tip. The stiffness of these rods gives you more power and is a benefit to have when you are casting into the wind or if you are going to be focusing mostly on larger fish such as bass, walleye, pike, salmon, or steelhead. They will have the stability, power, and accuracy and will be the best rod to get a big heavy streamer far out across the water and cast long distances when bottom fishing on lakes. These tip flex rods when purchased as 3 and 4 weights and in a longer 10' or larger size are ideal rods for Euro nymphing due to the sensitivity of these rods.
Finally, there are full-flex or slow-action rods. These slower action rods are most commonly fiberglass rods or bamboo rods. They are very easy to cast and are prized by traditionalists because they offer an increased level of feel and provide the most gentle presentation of dry flies. The downside to a slow-action rod is that they are not commonly as versatile and are not generally suited to being a great rod for someone who is looking to only have one rod to be able to nymph, throw dries, and swing streamers. They generally lack the power and distance for the bigger flies.
Another important factor to consider as you are shopping for your first rod is going to be the rod size. Many new anglers ask what the best fly rod length is for beginners. This is only part of the equation and is going to be determined by where you will be fishing the most and for what species.
Rod weight is the other key factor in determining rod size. If you are on the East Coast and are looking to trout fish both on small streams for brook trout as well as larger water for rainbows or browns, an 8ft 6in, 4-weight rod is a great place to start. It is going to be small enough for those mountain streams and will make fighting crappies super fun but have enough backbone to fight average trout species.
If you are going to be in the West, targeting bigger trout species and large fish, stepping up to a 9ft, 5-weight or 6-weight fly rod for cutbows and cutthroat trout is a great option. For those anglers mixing in some bass fishing, I usually recommend a 7-weight rod for the added boost when throwing a heavier lure like streamers, and this is an ideal weight for bass fishing rods. Saltwater anglers will want a minimum of an 8-weight rod and go up from there depending on which species you will primarily be targeting. Talking to a Curated Expert can really help you with the finer points in choosing between these different sizes and fly line weight options, especially if you are trying to target multiple species with just one rod.
The final part of the equation will be deciding which brand of fly rod to choose. Temple Fork Outfitters or TFO, Shakespeare, St. Croix, and Redington are all known for making high-quality, budget-friendly fly rods. These rods are not going to have the exact components, such as the lack of a hook keeper, and the finishes aren’t going to be quite as nice as some of the mid-range models, but these are the best budget fly rods that are going to be easy to cast and are very forgiving. They are great for the angler that just wants to get started in the sport or for someone who can only get out on the water to get a few bites every now and then.
Stepping up a little in price gets you some really quality rods and companies. These rods are going to come with better warranties and a premier customer service experience than some of the less expensive rods. They all also come with rod tubes and most even come in combos that include reel, fly line backing, fly line and even a tapered leader. You can also find some really amazing craftsmanship on some of these outfits, as well as a little more diversity in terms of the action and feel of the rod. These rods are going to be a little more sophisticated in the materials they are made from and will usually have carbon fiber and other space-age type materials in the blanks and aren't just straight graphite rods like many of the lesser expensive sticks. They will also tend to have a higher quality cork grip, and many offer an anodized aluminum reel seat as well, making them great options for saltwater fly anglers with their versatility. This is an important feature to consider for saltwater fly fishing as the water will break down the cork handle and erode wooden reel seats so these options make the rod essentially maintenance-free in these situations.
The Orvis Clearwater is always a great place to start. This is the rod that replaced the Rocky Mountain line I started with. These rods are durable and have a nice feel to them. The medium-fast action makes it very forgiving for someone just learning to cast, and Orvis has done a beautiful job on the finish for the reel seat and guide wraps and the included reel has a great disc drag on it for the price point. This rod combo also comes with a 25-year warranty and is the best fly fishing combo out there in this price range for new fly fishers and intermediate anglers alike. Echo is another great mid-range company that also makes a workhorse of a rod and offers some great saltwater options at this price point, like the ultra-fast action Echo Boost. Sage is another great innovative company that makes great rods at this price point as well and is a very popular choice among many anglers. They are known for producing some great fast-action rods with lots of cutting-edge technology.
There are also some small-batch rod companies out there like Moonshine Rod Company, who are producing some awesome rods at this price point. The Moonshine rods are fast-action rods that have a great feel to them for nymphing and throwing dry flies and offer some incredible touches and finishes. Their Midnight Special line features a hand-turned reel seat with some beautiful exotic burls. These rods are definitely usable works of art that are a joy to fish and come in under $325, making them particularly hard to beat.
When you think of fly rods, there are some legendary top brands that come to mind like R.L. Winston, Thomas and Thomas, Scott, and Hardy. Hardy has been building fly rods for what seems like forever and has pioneered so much in the fly fishing industry that it’s no wonder that these rods command a hefty price tag in order to add one to your arsenal. Hardy was one of the first companies to mass-produce and perfect building bamboo fly rods. While rods like this are not commonly fished anymore, they have such finesse and feel to them it’s no wonder traditionalists are still collecting Hardy bamboo rods that are decades old.
Rods in this highest price bracket are not for everyone, but they are exceedingly special. These rods command that kind of price tag because they are meticulously hand-crafted and built out of the highest-quality, most durable materials, are incredibly lightweight, and come with the latest and greatest technology that will still hold up for generations to come. You’re not just buying a fly rod here, you’re buying something that will become a family heirloom to be treasured, used, and passed on for generations. It could be argued that this factor alone makes them worth any price tag.
Ultimately, what you should spend on your first fly rod comes down to what suits your budget, your casting style, and the type of water and species you intend to target. There are so many great fly rods out there these days that it’s hard to go wrong! However, if you are able to spend more on that rod, it will ensure you receive a higher-quality and longer-lasting stick that will be in service for many years to come. Perhaps best of all, one day your first fly rod will find its way into the hands of a future angler who will come to love the sport as much as you are already starting to.
If you're not sure how much to spend on your reels, check out What Do You Get at Each Price Point for Fly Reels?
If you have any questions about finding the right rod for you and your budget, chat with me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing Experts here on Curated, and we'll be happy to get you set up with free advice and recommendations.