One of the hardest fly fishing choices for beginners is finding and choosing a good fly rod and reel combo. You probably understand that a good rod will help you learn and make it easier to cast and catch fish while a bad rod might be so troublesome that you give up the sport altogether. The challenge is to find the best rod and reel combination for the money. And the money that matters? Your budget.
Don’t buy a cheap rod from a discount retail store. Instead, there are a handful of rods that are perfect for beginners — a blend of quality with a low investment that will help you learn without breaking the bank. Any of the rod and reel combinations noted below will be well worth the money for beginners, and they all make great gifts. Plus, for guys who already have a favorite rod, these combos give you a chance to pick up a backup rod (in case you break yours while fishing) or get a size and weight combination that you don’t have. For me personally, I have a 9-foot, 6-weight Sage that I received as a gift that is my go-to rod for trout, while I also bring along a little 7.5-foot, 3-weight Cabela’s Three Forks rod and reel combo.
How to Choose a Fly Fishing Rod
Fly rods are rated by “weight,” which is the thickness and weight of your fly line. So a 5-weight rod is rated for a 5-weight fly line. They come in different lengths, but a 9-foot rod is the sweet spot for most anglers. In fact, the most versatile rod, especially for trout, is a 9-foot, 5-weight fly rod. You can’t go wrong with this size as a gift or for a first rod.
At the same time, if you know you are going to fish primarily on small creeks, you could get a 4-weight fly rod or even an ultralight 7.5-foot, 3-weight fly rod. Alternately, if you know you want to fly fish for bass or fish lakes and big rivers with big streamer flies, a 7-weight or 8-weight rod might be smart. For steelhead or salmon, you would want at least an 8-weight rod.
All that said, if you want to fish primarily for trout, stick with a 5-weight or 6-weight rod . . . in 4-pieces (see also, How to Choose the Best Fly Rod for Trout).
How to Choose a Fly Fishing Reel
Reels have evolved into large arbor designs that let you reel your line over a big cylinder rather than a small axel. Instead of reeling line furiously around a pencil, newer reels work more like wrapping line around a soup can — basically, they let you reel in line faster.
Even cheaper reels these days come with larger diameter spools and are lightweight. More expensive reels have better fit and finish, plus they have smoother drag systems. A drag, by the way, is the part of a reel system that lets the line leave the reel when a fish takes off hard. A smoother drag will let you set it with a wider variety of minute pressure differences, and the drag will stay put at the setting you intend. In addition, a finely made drag system will engage smoothly without sticking — and any sort of hiccup can be enough to snap your tippet (the smallest portion of your leader) and break off your fly.
Which means you’ll lose the fish.
And maybe lose the fish of a lifetime.
But don’t worry. You can catch huge fish with today’s entry-level reels. I’ve caught hard-fighting coho salmon on entry-level reels, and even brought in a 23-inch brown trout on a tiny entry-level reel rated for super-light 3-weight fly rods. Both were on Cabela’s Three Forks Combos. The key? Set your drag lightly, and if you hook into a big fish, gently apply pressure to the outside rim — the palming rim — of your reel during big runs where the fish takes off fast and hard. The technique is to not stop the reel from turning, just slow it down a bit and put more pressure on the fish without snapping your tippet.
It’s a technique, which is part of the challenge and joy of fly fishing in the first place.
Best Fly Fishing Rod and Reel Combos for Beginners
These outfits are solid performers, but if you fall and break your rod, the manufacturers typically won’t repair them for you without an extra charge. Still, at these prices, you can buy two without breaking the bank.
- Cabela’s Three Forks Rod with Prestige Plus Reel Fly Combo
- Orvis Encounter Combo — also available directly from Orvis or from Fishwest.com with free shipping on most orders
- Redington Crosswater Outfit Fly Combo
- L.L.Bean Quest II Fly Rod Outfits — comes with a sweet rod and reel case as well as L.L. Bean’s legendary “100% Satisfaction Guarantee”
Best Fly Fishing Combos for the Money
These outfits offer an enviable blend of quality with better no-questions-asked replacement warranties. If you can afford it, these combos will last years and feel great every time you pull them out.
- Orvis Clearwater Fly Rod Outfit — 25-year guarantee! — also available directly from Orvis or from Fishwest.com with free shipping on most orders
- Cabela’s LSi Fly Rods with Prestige Premier Fly Combo — the Lamson Liquid option offers a nice upgrade to the reel
- L.L.Bean Silver Ghost Fly Rod Outfit — gotta love the craftsmanship at this price point, and if L.L.Bean is still sold out of this combo, you can get the rod and reel separately
Drool-Worthy Fly Fishing Combos
The highest quality rods and reels almost never come in pre-packaged combos — and there are many great options from many manufacturers, and the competition and craftsmanship at this level means that most any $600-plus rod will fish well for most fishers. When price is not a factor, these three can’t-go-wrong rods and reels boast superior craftsmanship and overall performance. The key here for beginners is that one of these rods and reels won’t instantly make you a better fly fisher, but they will help you make the leap from an intermediate fly fisher to an expert — if you put the time in on the water, of course!
- Hardy Zephrus FWS Fly Rod with Hardy Ultralite CA DD Fly Reel
- Orvis Helios 2 Fly Rod with Orvis Mirage Reel — you can turn most rods into combos directly from Orvis
- G.Loomis NRX Lite Presentation Fly Rod with the Ross Evolution LT Fly Reel or the Galvan Torque
Fly Line Recommendation
Need a fly line recommendation? If you’re not getting a pre-packaged combo, you’ll need a fly line and backing.
One of the best fly lines is the Scientific Anglers Mastery MPX Taper Fly Line — hard to go wrong with it, but if the price is out of your budget, pick up the Orvis Clearwater Fly Line or the Rio Mainstream Trout Freshwater Fly Line. The three options above are flexible, versatile lines that will pretty much handle whatever you need to do. What about the dozens of other options? Not worth it for 95 percent of fly fishers unless you’re looking for a specific taper for a specific kind of fish or style. (Seriously, wait until you’re a fanatic to worry about it!)
The links above all go to Fishwest, which offers free shipping on all orders above $49.95. If you pickup your Scientific Anglers Fly Line Backing and a 3-pack of Rio Powerflex leaders in addition to a fly line, boom, you’re above the minimum and scoring free shipping from a reputable fly fishing outlet with spot-on pricing.