How to Choose a Fly Rod Reel and Line – Post Number 695

| November 9, 2011

NoteSometimes it’s good to turn full circle, and bring good information to those who are just getting started in fly fishing. I was recently inspired to write a long article on how to select your first fly fishing “outfit” after seeing a popular bulletin board showing another “Which fly rod, reel, outfit …” post that, as usual, quickly devolved into brand name throwing-mine’s better than yours thread. They come along every few months, and I dutifully play along. Now, with all due respect to those posts, posters and bulletin board proprietors, I am offering the “ULTIMATE POST” (note the quotes) on selecting your first fly fishing outfit, post number 695, and since this is textbook stuff, I won’t do readers the disservice of breaking it down into multiple posts. For those of you who are well past this phase in your addiction, fret not, Post Number 695 will move down very soon. For the new addicts, please feel free to think for yourselves – that’s what we do at Texas Fly Caster. Corrections and opinions welcome as always.

How to Get Started in Fly Fishing Gear 2011

After years of following countless bulletin boards discussions on fly fishing, one topic raises its head over and over again. That topic begins with “Which …,” and is followed by various words that all fall in the category of fly rods, fly reels and fly lines this person should buy when just starting out in fly fishing. I have finally decided to write the ultimate treatise on your first fly rod, reel and line you should choose for your needs.

How Serious are You?

The first question is; How serious are you about fly fishing, or how serious do you think this disease can get for you? If you donʼt really know much about fly fishing, donʼt have fly fishing dreams when you sleep, or watch/own no fly fishing DVDʼs, then youʼre probably not a 4 on the 1-to-4 scale. Four is for the person who is definitely addicted and is just waiting until someone in their life isnʼt looking to pull the trigger for their first fly rod/reel purchase. At the other end of the spectrum is a one, someone who fly fishes perhaps four times a year, or less, and has trouble remembering which closet their rod is in. A wild card is location. Your location could be more or less conducive to fly fishing.
The more serious you are, the more you want to invest in your initial fly rod/reel/line purchase.

How Serious are The Fish?

Fly rods come in weights. Heavier weight rods require bigger reels to hold bigger lines to throw bigger flies to bigger fish. The ensuing fight is fair when the rod matches up well with the fish – size and species. Matching a fish to a rod is critical because you need to be able to change the fishʼs direction, land and release the fish as quick as possible to help insure the fishʼs survival. (Fly fishing is pretty heavily dominated by the Catch-and-Release philosophy.)
There are other important functions of the fly rod weight as well. Not only are higher weight rods tuned for bigger fish, and bigger flies, they also have an ability to cut through the wind and cast greater distances in all situations.
Rods come in weights from 000 to 14, with those being the extremes. For our practical considerations, we will think in terms of 2 to 10 weight rods. A 2 weight rod is for fighting small fish, typically a pound or less, and these rods come in very practical short lengths to be backpackable into mountain streams. A short 2 can be deadly when stalking cutthroats in streams six feet wide at altitude in Colorado. I consider a 5 weight to be the middle of the road, and a rod to keep in my car at all times.
A 10 weight rod is heavy enough to land tarpon, fight big redfish, and throw the ugliest big flies youʼve ever seen into the wind.
Within the weight categories of rods comes a tricky term “action.” Think of a rodʼs action as a rodʼs stiffness. In general a slow action rod is very flexible throughout, and forces a slower casting motion from you. Most “combos” (rod comes with reel) are a slow to slow medium action. Saltwater rods and big game rods typically have a medium-fast to fast action. More rod backbone translates into easier casting and easier fighting. If you get into large largemouth bass, you will want to consider a saltwater rod as well as heavy bass specific rods.


• Consider learning to cast before even purchasing a rod. Your casting motion will have a lot to do with your happiness with your first rod choice.
• Rod/reel combos typically offer an average line average reel and average rod. If you know you are going to be serious, consider purchasing each separately – tailoring them to your specific abilities and waters.
• Rod/reel combos are the perfect choice for some people. They make great guest setups, and are perfect for someone unsure as to just how serious they will be in a yearʼs time.
• Donʼt buy a freshwater rod if you live near the salt. If you are in freshwater, consider the species and size fish you will be catching. A freshwater carp gives a fight almost as good as any Gulf Coast redfish.


Many fly fishers consider reels glorified “line holders.” The fundamental nature of fly fishing and gear history indicates that fly reels are considered significantly less important to fly fishers than their conventional fishing counterparts. That said, reel manufacturers have conceived clever designs and artwork intended to catch fly fishers. Reels get increasingly blingy as time goes by. The truth is, you are looking for a reel that has a good drag system and balances your rod as closely as possible. Most lines of reels come in incremental sizes that cover different line/rod weights. This is a great advantage to you because you will be able to change the line out if you are going up or down in small weight increments. A typical reel can cover three line weights such as 3-5 or 6-8! Save up for extra spools with backing, or simply change out your line to the rod you are taking, and youʼre good to go.

If you are in this sport long enough, your reels will outlive your rods, and you will find the matchups changing to satisfy your changing rod needs. Rods can be heirlooms. Reels will be heirlooms – if you spend a little extra up front. And most fly reels are such simple engineering that all you have to do is rinse them with fresh water, and youʼre done. Saltwater requires a little extra attention, but remember that machined aluminum is for saltwater applications, while cast aluminum will have a hard time surviving the salt exposure. At the “line holder” end of the engineering spectrum is the “click-and-pawl” drag system typically used in lightweight trout setups. Click-and-pawl reels have no real drag system, and rely on hand pressure on the spool to apply specific drag tension when fighting a fish. Thatʼs how real fly fishers do it! Not really, but thereʼs a time and place for click-and-pawl reels, just not for a beginner.

One reason why reels come in weight ranges is because (once they are loaded with line and backing) they need to balance with the rod. What does that mean? A quick way to see if a rod and reel are balanced is to find your thumbʼs natural resting spot on the cork handle. Then, put a finger on the downside of the handle (reel dangles in down position), and see if and where the rod rests in its natural horizontal plane. Tip down means the reel could be too small for the rod, and tip up means the reel could be too heavy. These tolerances are pretty wide, so unless the balance points are way off in one direction or the other (more than say three inches), donʼt worry too much about this early on. In the long run, an unbalanced setup can lead to casting fatigue. The right reel size also insures that you have enough room for both line and backing for the fish you are after.

When fighting bigger fish, or trophy fish, you will be glad you have a good reel to “go to,” and I suggest every beginner get in the habit of being able to “go to the reel” for any fish at any time. This will make it an exercise in muscle memory when thereʼs a big fish that needs to be disadvantaged by your reelʼs smooth and accurate drag! Having to “go to the reel” is one of the best problems to have in fly fishing, that and wondering if you have enough backing.


• Reels can be high or low tech.
• Reels have specific design and materials for fresh or saltwater use.
• If you care about a reel, pay special attention to the drag system.
• Match the reel to the rod.
• Get in the habit of “going to the reel” to take advantage of the reelʼs drag.


Fly line selection has exploded in the last few years, as marketers at line manufacturers have figured out that fly fishers would buy lines aimed at specific fish. Thus, thereʼs the carp line, and different bass lines, as well as specific lines for other fish. When starting out in fly fishing, you are better off purchasing a line that is multi-purpose. A freshwater bass line could be good for freshwater use, while a general warm saltwater line could work for most southern saltwater applications. Lines that tout accuracy or distance can be much easier to cast for beginners, as they run a half weight heavier than sold. (A 5 weight line is really a 5.5 weight line.)

Breakage is not a concern for fly lines, overall durability is. More expensive lines are more durable than cheaper lines. Clean and re-coat lines regularly, and they will last exponentially longer. Todayʼs water is extremely hard on lines. The first thing you will probably consider changing is your fly line because itʼs the cheapest and easiest component to change. If you spent the extra money on a reel, you may as well plan to shell out some more – for a spare spool / line and backing. You will be glad you did, and backups to your gear are imperative for the addict.


Determine how serious you are. Take a casting lesson, or two, before even purchasing a fly rod and reel. If you donʼt know if fly is for you, spend less for your first outfit. Fly fishing can be frustrating. Once you know youʼre in for the duration, sell off the beginner gear, and upgrade. No matter what, todayʼs fly fishing gear is light years ahead of what passed for beginner fly gear a few short years ago.
Match your rod to your fish, your casting style and your overall fishing locations. You will know pretty quickly that one rod is never enough.

Take care of your gear, and it will always work.

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Equipment, Fly Lines, Fly Reel, Fly Rods, TECHNICAL, Technique, TIPS

About the Author ()

I write. I photograph. I fish, and I live. Visit professional photography website at today!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: