One of the hardest fly fishing choices for beginners is finding and choosing a good fly rod and reel combo. A good fly fishing 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.
I recommend you don’t buy a cheap rod from a discount retail store or any cheap knockoffs. Instead, I recommend several very affordable fly rod and reel combo kits that are perfect for beginners. All of these rod/reel combos blend quality with a relatively low investment that will help you learn to fly fish without breaking the bank.
Any of the fly rod and reel combinations noted below will be well worth the money for beginners, and they all make great gifts. Before I started testing and reviewing rods and reels for Man Makes Fire, I most often fished a 9-foot, 6-weight Sage fly rod. 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.
These days, though, for most fly fishing for trout, the best fly rod and reel combo I choose is usually a 9-foot, 5-weight fly rod with a weight-forward floating fly line, which is the kind of fly line most combos come with. A 9-foot 5-weight is the most versatile size of fly fishing rod and reel combo for trout, and it’s the fly rod size I recommend most for beginners.
(If you need help understanding how to choose a fly fishing rod or how to choose a reel, I’ve added more detailed recommendations at the end of this guide.)
What are the top 10 best fly fishing rod and reel combos?
Best Fly Fishing Rod and Reel Combos for Beginners 2020
These fly fishing rod and reel outfits are solid performers that are aimed at beginners. They tend to have medium-fast actions that cast best at short and midrange distances and feel great for a wide variety of casting skills. Most combos in 2020 come with fly line, which helps your initial costs as you get into fly fishing. For most new fly fishers, I recommend a solid entry level combo that will help them save their budget for additional useful gear like waders and/or wading boots (which are often purchases that you can put off until you’re ready).
1. Cabela’s Bighorn Fly Combo
The Cabela’s Bighorn Fly Combo has a forgiving moderate action and overall price-to-quality ratio that’s hard to beat. If your budget is really tight, the Bighorn Fly Combo is the best fly fishing rod and reel combo for under $100 — read our full Cabela’s Bighorn review for more detail.
The Redington Crosswater reel provides a nice update to this popular entry-level rod. Redington makes several other combos, but the price-to-value ratio really shines with the Crosswater Outfit. It’s been a great casting rod for beginners for years, and we’re fans of the bright blue rod, too. We also appreciate the included rod/reel case, which simplifies storage and packing for fishing trips.
A solid step up from the Cabela’s Bighorn, the Cabela’s Synch fly fishing combo offers smoother castability and an upgraded reel, plus you get an included rod/reel combo case. It’s all surprisingly good for the price point. Note: If you’re looking for an entry-level 8’6″ 4-weight — which is a great all-around option for kids or for smaller streams — the Synch Fly Combo is hard to beat. Read our full Cabela’s Synch review for more detail.
The Echo Base fly rod doesn’t feel as smooth in the hand as some of the other fly rod and reel combos in this guide, but the Echo Base fly rod delivers surprising accuracy and distance. Choose the Echo Base Fly Rod Kit for beginners starting out on bigger water or if you want to cast larger flies, streamers and nymph rigs. Truly a dependable workhorse here. (The photo above doesn’t show the fly line, but the Echo Base Kit comes with fly line, backing, and a leader.)
The newly updated L.L.Bean Quest Fly Rod Outfit includes a handy rod and reel combo case, but more importantly, it comes with L.L. Bean’s legendary “100% Satisfaction Guarantee.” At just under $150, the overall value is spot on. If you’re an L.L.Bean fan, there’s no reason to stray.
These fly fishing outfits offer an enviable blend of quality for the cost. If you can afford a bump to your budget, these combos will last years and feel great every time you pull them out. Many fly fishers will never feel the need to upgrade from these great fly rod and reel combos. If these last four fly combos fit your budget, these are far and away my favorite midrange combo picks.
7. Orvis Clearwater Fly Rod Outfit
The new Clearwater fly rod has a medium-fast action that excels in short and midrange casts. Better yet, you also get a 25-year guarantee on the rod and an excellent price point for the overall quality. The new Clearwater Large Arbor Fly Reel is fantastic for the price point — it looks great, feels good, and works very well. In fact, we like the newly designed Clearwater reel a bit more than the rod. Either way, we’re big fans — check out our full Clearwater Combo Review for more detail. Oh, one more thing: Orvis has a wide-range of options, including Clearwater Saltwater Rods.
The Redington VICE Combo blends a fast-action rod that casts above its price point with a solid reel. Remington created this new combo for existing fly fishers looking for an affordable upgrade from their previous entry-level systems. The company succeeded — the VICE Combo delivers the best performance value because the rod casts so well for the price. Read our full Redington VICE review. One more thing: We’re fans of the green — it looks fantastic in natural light.
On its own, the Cabela’s Rogue is a great fast-action fly rod offered at a very competitive price point — it’s one of our all-time favorite fast-action fly rods with a midrange price point — read our full Cabela’s Rogue review. As for the reel in the combo, the Cabela’s RLS+ reel has been a popular customer favorite for years — it’s Rulon disc drag system is surprisingly smooth for the price.
Sage is best known for its high-end (and relatively expensive) fly rods, but the company has created an affordable midrange fly rod/reel combo in its Foundation Outfit. From Sage’s perspective, you get a so-called “entry-level” rod and reel that really fishes above its price point. Read our full Sage Foundation review for more detail. Beyond its sweet stealthy all-black design — which is so cool, by the way — the Foundation Rod is Made in the USA and boasts the best overall craftsmanship and performance in a readily available fly fishing combo. If you appreciate the USA and can afford it, choose the Sage Foundation Outfit.
Bonus: White River Fly Shop LUNE Reel/Fenwick AETOS Fly Rod Outfit
The Fenwick AETOS fly rod has been a long-time favorite fly rod for fishers looking for high-end fast-action casting performance . . . on a budget. Bass Pros Shops and Cabela’s have paired the Fenwick AETOS with their White River Fly Shop LUNE Reel to create a combo offering. It’s a good deal, but beware: This particular combo doesn’t come with included fly line and backing — so you’ll need to also get fly line and backing as well.
High-End, Drool-Worthy Fly Fishing Combos
The very highest quality rods and reels almost never come in pre-packaged combos. There are many great high-end fly rods from many manufacturers, and the competition and craftsmanship at this level means that most any $600-plus rod will fish well for most fly fishers. However, few beginner fly fishers have the budget to drop that kind of money.
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!
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 is a better choice. 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. (If you truly want a super packable 6- or 7-piece travel fly rod, check out our guide to the Best Travel Fly Rods.)
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. For example, 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 today’s inexpensive reels now 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 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. Any sort of hiccup with a hooked fish on your line 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.
What is the best fly line for beginners?
If you’re not getting a pre-packaged combo, you’ll need a fly line and backing. For most trout fishing, that means you’ll want a weight-forward floating fly line that matches the “weight” listed on the base section of your fly rod.
One of the higher-quality, better value fly lines is the Scientific Anglers Mastery MPX Taper Fly Line — it’s 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 can ramp up well past $100? They’re not worth it for most beginning fly fishers on a budget. Seriously, wait until you’re a fanatic to worry about investing anything more than $40-75 in a fly line — or for that matter, investing in speciality rods that require special fly line tapers.