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 — before I started testing and reviewing rods and combos for Man Makes Fire — I most often fished a 9-foot, 6-weight Sage that I received as a gift. The 6-weight was great for longer casts on bigger water. To balance the 6-weight, I also carried along an inexpensive Cabela’s 7.5-foot 3-weight fly rod and reel combo for smaller creeks or skittish trout.
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 fly 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 a versatile 8-weight fly rod and reel combo to get you started.
All that said, if you want to fish primarily for trout, stick with a versatile 5-weight or error toward a 6-weight rod if you’re going to be fishing bigger water . . . just make sure you get a 4-piece rod for packability (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 the drag system 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 inexpensive Cabela’s-branded 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 or save any extra budget for a set of waders.
Cabela’s Bighorn Fly Combo — New for 2018, the Bighorn has a forgiving moderate action and overall price-to-quality ratio that’s hard to beat.
Cabela’s Synch Fly Combo — A solid step up from the Bighorn, the also new for 2018 Synch offers smoother castability, plus you get a rod/reel case.
Redington VICE Combo — You get a fast-action rod that casts above its price point — bundled with a solid reel. Remington created this new combo for existing fly fishers looking for an affordable upgrade from their previous entry-level systems. (We’re fans of the green, too.)
Cabela’s Rogue/WLx Combo — On its own, the Cabela’s Rogue is a great fast-action fly rod offered at a very competitive price point. The WLx reel is also surprisingly smooth and well-made for the price. The two together deliver a combo that’s competitive with higher-price rods and reels. (If you’re on the fence, consider saving a bit on the reel by choosing the Rogue/Prestige Premier Fly Combo, which is still pretty darn sweet.)
Sage Foundation Outfit — The Foundation Outfit pairs Sage’s “entry-level” rod and reel to create a midrange+ quality outfit that fishes above its price point (Sage is more typically known for its more high-end rods and reels). Beyond its sweet stealthy all-black design, the Foundation Rod is Made in the USA.
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!
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, many of which are much more costly? 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 investing anything more than $40-75 in a fly line.)