The biggest trout I’ve ever caught on a fly rod was snared with an outfit that cost me $20 at the local pawnshop. It’s a 7-foot rod with a cheap reel, and it came with a weight-forward line—all of which probably didn’t cost more than $60 when it was new. The rod is so cheap it doesn’t even have the balance to classify it as a 4-weight or a 5-weight—it’s what the well-known manufacturer calls a 4- to 5-weight. I bought it to have an extra rod for when we’re camping with friends and someone wants to try their hand at fly-fishing. It’s perfect for that, because if somebody breaks it, it doesn’t matter.
When I first bought the rod, I took it out to see how it performed. It casts the way a 40-year-old tow truck drives, but that doesn’t matter, because most of the streams I fish here in Western North Carolina don’t allow for long casts anyway. And most of the folks I pack it for are so inexperienced they can’t tell the difference between casting that rod and one that costs 20 times as much. As it turns out, the evening I took it for a test drive, there was a killer Cahill light hatch going on, and I came upon a big trout in a sweet riffle that was making the most of the feeding opportunity.
Of course, catching that big rainbow had nothing to do with the cheap rod I was using. I approached the stretch of water with the appropriate caution, placed the right-sized fly in the correct position for a natural drift, and set the barbless hook without breaking the light tippet—despite the fact that I was shaking with excitement at the sight of this big fellow’s head as he was slurping up emerging Cahills on the water’s surface.
The truth is, if your sole goal is catching fish, it doesn’t matter how much you spend on a fly rod. But once you’ve fished enough to appreciate a well-balanced (which generally means expensive) rod, it just makes the joy that much richer—and your performance better. Taking the automobile analogy a little further, my current favorite rod is a 9-foot, medium-fast-action 4-weight that drives like a 2-year-old BMW. It roll-casts like a dream, and it’s balanced like a ballerina. It probably cost more than I should have spent at the time, but a couple of years later, the pleasure of quality far outweighs the original pain of cost.
Fly-fishing is a passion that can take a fairly hefty chunk out of the family budget if one can get away with it, and most of us don’t want to do that. If you’re getting out there reasonably often, the gas bill alone is a bite, and then there’s the whole array of vests, fly boxes, nets, fly-tying equipment, waders and miscellaneous other accouterments. To be honest, though, all this stuff is necessary for the fly-fishing neophyte … till you come full circle, like some of the older guys I’ve seen wearing worn-thin waders yet catching and releasing way more fish than I am, using little more than a nice rod and an old metal fly box.
So what’s the practical answer for someone who’s discovered fly-fishing and wants it all but can’t afford to drop a load of cash buying the whole enchilada at the get-go? How can you outfit yourself to fly-fish effectively on a budget?
One sensible approach is to buy a fine rod and reel that will provide years of sound service, and then outfit yourself frugally for a while until you recover from that first investment. It’s worthwhile to start with a rod that’s high above your beginning skill level, because by the time you have cast it enough to have earned that rod by acquired skill and merit, you’ll have something that’s really worth having. In college, I bought a good 5-weight rod; it was made by a respectable company but was definitely cheaper than the sweet number I really wanted. That rod has served me well, but I still regret not spending the additional cash to get something fine. Chest waders and line nippers come and go, but the rod you invest in this year could be with you for the rest of your life.
So what about all that other stuff you need? Well, for at least six months a year, you can wade in our WNC waters in the sport sandals you wear all summer anyway (definitely a frugal strategy), though for the faint-hearted, rubber-bottomed hip boots are pretty reasonably priced. Trappings like nippers, forceps, a couple of tippet spools, some tapered leaders and a modest collection of flies are definitely necessary. I’d add a good pair of polarized glasses to the list, too, though that might seem an extravagance to someone who hasn’t experienced the value of being able to watch fish go about their business. But for the time being, you can get by without some of the other stuff that beckons so seductively from the shelves of your local fly shop, even though you’ll probably wind up getting all those good things eventually.
And should you decide you’re not as into the sport as you thought you were six months ago, a fine fly rod is an investment that will hold its value. What’s more, there are great fly shops in our area whose knowledgeable staff will be all too happy to give you sound advice.
Jeff Ashton lives in Weaverville.