How to pick your poison.
Once upon a time, fly fishing was a sport assumed to only be for older white men with healthy pocketbooks, but the times are a changin’. Today, anglers are a much more diverse group, ranging in age, gender, ethnicity, and financial status. At any particular access point, you are as likely to see a group of college kids packed into a mid-‘90s Subaru with $200 rod-and-reel outfits as you are a yuppie couple rigging up alongside their $100,000 Sprinter van decked out with all the bells and whistles. What’s in common is that they all have rods and reels to pursue trout with flies. Below are some favorites among southwest Montana anglers, ranging in price to fit any budget. These are based on the most popular rod sizes, which are 9 feet long and 5 or 6 weight, with reels to match.
It should be said that what you spend on your fly-fishing gear isn’t necessarily a reflection of your skill level or bank-account balance. I’ve seen young novice anglers save all year to afford the best of the best and I recall selling entry-level outfits to the Bill Gates family. The two things I recommend taking a hard look at are rod warranty and reel construction. Most warranties are pretty generous, but fees to send broken rods in can vary greatly. Most reels are made of either cast or machined aluminum. A cast reel is more likely to break if you drop it on the rocks, so consider the cost to upgrade to a machined reel. These are much more damage-resistant and often offer better warranty coverage. Reel warranties vary significantly as well and usually only cover manufacturer defects.
In the end, I always recommend chatting with the crew at your favorite fly shop and learning what they like.
Top of the Line
For those that spare no expense for the highest quality and latest technology, the two rods that stand out are the Scott Centric at $945 and the Orvis Helios 3 at $998. Both rods are at the top of their class for performance. The Centric is powerful, smooth, and lightweight. The Helios 3 comes in two models: F and D. The F stands for “finesse” and caters to the person who prefers a more traditional feel with a softer tip, good for delicate presentations and protecting light tippets. The D focuses more on “distance” to push easily through heavy winds, turn over big flies, and achieve great casting lengths. Also, keep your eyes out for the Sage R8, which will replace the much-loved Sage X and will retail at $1,050.
A couple of reels that stand out from the crowd in this category are the Ross Evolution LTX at $445 and the Orvis Mirage LT at $349-$479. They are very comparable reels that are durable, lightweight, and aesthetically appealing. Both have adjustable drags that offer way more performance than required in most trout-fishing situations.
Middle of the Road
For a mid-priced rod and reel outfit, the Sage Foundation is an easy choice at $650. That price includes a Sage Spectrum C, a cast reel, along with a Rio Gold fly line.
If you like the idea of the Sage Foundation rod ($425 rod-only price), but prefer a machined reel, consider pairing it with a Redington Rise at $219 or the Ross Animas at $360. The Rise is an entry-level machined reel that combines affordability with a modern look, while the Animas offers a modern design and proven quality without breaking the bank.
Get Your Feet Wet
For those looking for budget-friendly options, fear not. This category has grown exponentially in the last decade or more, offering lots of quality lower-priced options. Here, we do start to see less-generous warranty coverage and less-durable reels, which is something to consider before committing. The Orvis Clearwater Outfit comes in at $398 and includes a Clearwater II Large Arbor die-cast reel with Clearwater fly line. This was my first outfit as a teenager, over two decades ago. Although the Clearwater name has stuck around for decades, the technology continues to be updated every few years. If you’d prefer to build your own kit, consider the Clearwater rod at $249 and pair it with an Orvis Battenkill disc reel that comes in at $129-$149, depending on size. This time-tested traditional design is a fully-machined reel at a killer price.
Hopefully this list will help narrow down the search for your first—or next—fly-fishing setup. There are several rods and reels that didn’t make the final cut, but not because they aren’t worthy. In the end, I always recommend chatting with the crew at your favorite fly shop and learning what they like. The local fly-shop staff are an invaluable resource, and fostering a relationship with them will help you make better decisions for years to come.
Jimmy Armijo-Grover is the retail director and outfitting manager for Montana Angler in downtown Bozeman. He’s been chasing fish with flies for nearly 30 years and has worked in the fly-fishing industry since the late ‘90s. Find him chasing small trout and bluegill with his five-year-old daughter.