Fly Fishing Gear: What to Spend On and What to Skimp On

by | Feb 16, 2020 | 38 comments

Last week I wrote a piece about selecting a fly reel, because while choosing a basic line holder may seem like one of the easiest decisions to make in fly fishing, things get complicated when your needs are specific. Most things in life are that way. The simple, quick answer to any quandary tends to satisfy for an average situation. But as we expand toward the edges, that simplistic, centrist solution applies less and less.

And so it is with fly fishing gear. There is no best recommendation for anything. But, with that acknowledged, I’m still willing to share my own opinions and preferences, accepting that some natural dissent inevitably follows.

The article about fly reels kicked off a good side discussion too. Namely this: What’s the best stuff to spend money on? What gear matters most and what matters least?

I like this topic. Because it’s taken me decades to learn that what I thought I needed wasn’t nearly as important as the things I hadn’t yet thought about. Heh heh.

That’s the truth. I’ve spent more money on the wrong gear than I have on gear items that are sticky — on the things that I don’t want to be without. My wife laughs at me whenever I get excited about something that’s better than expected and damn near perfect. Because I always say the same thing: “I want one of these for the rest of my life!”

Good gear does that for you.

Surely, I can’t fit everything into one article, but I’ll try to tick off the important categories. What follows is a list of fly fishing stuff that matters most to me, from most important to least. If something doesn’t make the list, you can assume that I have no opinion on it. But you might have one. So feel free to make the argument in the comments section below.

Tough Stuff

A quick note on durability: There’s no point buying anything that isn’t built to last. Buying the cheapest of anything is usually a bad decision, especially in this industry. So, as we make it to the bottom of the list, it’s important to still buy quality gear — it just doesn’t need to be the most expensive.

 

THE LIST

— — —

Boots and Traction

For me, this is where it all starts — where the rubber meets the road, where the boots hit the trail and enter the water.

Without excellent foot support and good traction, none of us lasts long out there. I was built to fish hard. This is how my Grandfather hunted, how my uncle taught me to fish and how my Dad instructed me to approach everything in life. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing your best. And for me, that carries over to fishing. I don’t allow for quitting early as an option, because I’ve made too many wonderful river memories by hanging in there, refocusing or relocating, and trying to make something extraordinary happen.

In another article, titled “How to stay in the fly fishing game for a lifetime,” I argued that your health and physical fitness is the first thing that matters. Likewise, fishing starts from the ground up. The boots are your base. You won’t go far without good foot support and traction.

READ: Troutbitten | How to stay in the fly fishing game for a lifetime

I choose boots that are built with sturdy mid soles and overbuilt uppers. I want ankle support with a sole that hugs my foot and keeps it there. And I value that kind of foot support over being lightweight. Flyweight boots might be great for a few trips. And sure, every ounce of weight you shave from each step matters for stamina. But for wading rough terrain, day after day, I have a hiker’s mentality. Foot support is first.

Traction is the obvious pairing here. Once you’re in the river, you can’t fish if you can’t stand solid. Casting and reading water means nothing if you are too concerned with falling down. I like Grip Studs and aluminum solutions, like Rock Treads, the best. (Neither one works everywhere, but both are supreme in the right situations.)

I’ll add that the right wading staff and a well-thought-out system for carrying it is the proper compliment to great boots and studs.

READ: Troutbitten | What about the wading staff? Thoughts on choosing and carrying a wading stick

Get that base set up solid, with comfort and support. Boots and traction. There’s your foundation.

 

Waders

They all leak. And we all know this.

But how long can you put off the inevitable? And how much can you trust the manufacturer to repair or replace the waders? These are the key questions.

I’ve worn the following brands of waders: Simms, Redington, Cabelas, Patagonia, LL Bean and Orvis. After all that, and multiple different pairs from each of those listed brands (seriously), I choose Simms, Orvis and Patagonia.

I have friends and clients who’ve worn every other brand out there, too. Everyone has an experience and an opinion on waders. They all leak. And that’s where every story about a guy’s waders always begins.

Warranty matters — a lot. If a seam fails early, that’s the company’s fault. So you want a brand that stands behind what they sold to you.

But if you rip through thorns everyday. That’s your fault, and you want a pair of waders that are relatively easy to patch and repair. Also, low cost waders with thin, cheap fabric can’t take a beating. Wear something like that in icy conditions a couple times, and the waders will fail from the added stress, leaving you wet, cold, miserable and pissed off.

I had waders from one of the other companies listed above. And while fishing five days a week, they leaked within a couple months. I returned them, and the company replaced the waders — over and over. We did this back and forth six times, until I realized that cheaper waders with a great warranty aren’t really worth much. Likewise, I had waders from another company listed above whose customer “service” fought me tooth and nail about their leaking ankle seams.

High dollar waders should buy you a good warranty. And what matters is the actual service — not just some ribbon-laced blue sticker that reads “Guaranteed for Life.” Investing in high quality waders is worth it.

Perhaps just as important is the way a good pair of waders fits — how it feels and functions. The industry leaders are constantly improving their designs, and the best of them listen to feedback from anglers. Most of the other companies are just along for the ride.

To me, when I step into my waders in the pre-dawn, under the dim light of the 4 Runner’s hatch, I take for granted that I can trust the waders to keep me dry and comfortable all day long.

Spend some money on your waders.

Troutbitten | Recommended Gear

Tools and System Stuff

The things that we carry with us, that we slip in and out of pockets a hundred times a day, is next on my list. I’m willing to spend more money on each of these items, because in truth, none of them are expensive. Here’s what I mean . . .

You can buy the best hemostats for less than twenty bucks. So don’t buy cheap hemos that aren’t designed for the job. Titanium-bladed nippers are not necessary (but they are nice). I find that standard fly shop nippers do pretty well for a while. But once they’re dull, I replace them — because they only cost a few dollars. Zingers and retractors matter too. Don’t buy garbage. Fly boxes should be well designed and fit your system. Consider if a box is waterproof, if it’s strong and how it holds the flies. How do you carry the tippet spools? What type of split shot do you use? How do you store wet and used flies?

These are tools that we work with all day long. Make sure they are quality pieces to put your hands on, and don’t cut corners on a ten dollar item.

Photo by Austin Dando

Pack / Vest

Just like waders and boots, any means of carrying this stuff must be comfortable and well designed.

There are a lot of moving parts on a pack or vest. Zippers and Velcro closures are prone to failure. And you might get by for a couple seasons with a cheap pack if you only fish a dozen times a year. But once you’re giving over some of your life to chasing a trout, then boosting the quality of your pack is the next logical step.

Fly Rod

For many anglers, this long list of what to spend your money on probably starts with the fly rod. I’ve heard it said that the rod is the most important piece of fly fishing gear, because that’s what is in your hands on every cast. The rod and the line are what deliver the fly, right? So isn’t that what matters most?

In short, no. I do recommend buying a quality fly rod. And that can be had these days for around $200-$300. Spending much less than that usually buys you the kind of gear that can hurt your development and hinder your technique. But spending more doesn’t come with the promise of more fish in the net, either.

What we have are diminishing returns for the money invested. Is a $900 fly rod actually $700 better than the $200 model from the same company? No, it’s not.

That said, the more you fish, the greater your skill-set becomes. And at some point, you may start to wish your rod could perform in ways that it doesn’t. So while a high-end rod may not be seven-hundred dollars better, a perfect tool is something to behold, and the more you spend time with various fly rods in your hands, the more you’ll come to appreciate the subtle and sometimes startling differences between brands and models. Quality counts.

Warranty also factors into the decision for a fly rod, just like waders. They all break if you fish long enough.

Photo by Austin Dando

Flies / Hooks

One could argue that the hook is the most important thing in the chain. And I’ll grant that without a quality hook, you’ll lose the biggest fish of your life. But landing that trout does not require boutique hooks for twice the price, either.

I lean toward stout wire hooks of 1X or 2X strong for sizes up to #16. And when I must go small or with thin wire, then I spend top dollar.

READ: Troutbitten | These Hooks Bend Out

If you’re buying flies instead of tying them, then choose flies tied for quality first and not production first. No matter how many times I’m told by someone that fifty-cent flies are a good value, I’ll never be convinced. Sure, you’ll catch a handful of ten-inch fish on those flies — maybe a couple dozen. But you’ll pay the real price, again, on the biggest fish of your life.

This is another case where quality counts, but it’s also a place where you can save money, mostly by tying your own flies with moderately-priced hooks.

Tippet

I’m not into overpaying for tippet.

I do appreciate soft and strong nylon material for fishing dry flies, and the cost of fly shop nylon is fine with me.

But I don’t believe the hype for the highest priced fluoro.

For years, I’ve used fluorocarbon marketed to gear fishermen, sold at a third of the price. Then I manually load it onto smaller spools. I do this down to the diameter of 5X. Anything below that, and I prefer the superior breaking strength of fly shop fluoro.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Shop Fluorocarbon too Expensive? Try some Finesse

I do acknowledge the (slightly) higher quality and (sometimes) greater breaking strength of name brand tippet. I simply don’t find it a necessary thing to spend money on.

Fly Reel

Because I dug so deeply into this in the other article I won’t go into great lengths here. To summarize, a basic fly reel is fine for most trout. And this is one place where you can save a lot of money. But if you find yourself throwing long leaders and tight lining at great distance, then you have specific needs, whether you realize it yet or not.

READ: Troutbitten | How to pick a fly reel — And why I choose the Sage TROUT

Fly Line

As we near the bottom of this list, we run into another item that other good anglers may very well put near the top.

Sinking and intermediate lines are a whole different ball game. And because I don’t use them much, I won’t offer an opinion on whether or not the highest priced lines are worth it.

As for floaters, I’ve fished with many of the best lines on the market, and for my needs, I find no reason to spend top dollar on a fly line.

I do plenty of long, delicate casting with dry flies. But I’m not enamored with the newest tapers or the special polymers of top-shelf lines. I believe the leader is far more important in dry fly fishing.

READ: Troutbitten | Dry Fly Fishing — The George Harvey Leader Design

Again, like everything else on this list, quality matters, and that’s where all good gear begins. I keep coming back to the Scientific Anglers Air Cell as my go to fly line. Look at the taper specs. You’ll be surprised how close it is to the most expensive lines.

Photo by Austin Dando

Net

For me, the fish holder comes in last. You can fish with a tennis racquet strung up with a simple tackle-shop bag if you want. Of course that’ll be heavier . . .

Rubber mesh bags are required gear these days — better for the fish and better for not tangling up flies. I also want a bag that’s deep enough to hold a river beast when he comes around. And all of that can be had for a relatively low cost.

READ: Troutbitten | Things That Are Good — The Fishpond Nomad Hand Net

For years, I fished with an inexpensive laminated wood-framed net. But these day, my choice is a Fishpond Nomad Hand Net. And by my own standards here, that’s pretty expensive. So let me finish things this way . . .

Choices

If I was a millionaire, I’d still try to fish on the cheap. Overpaying and wasting, of any sort, just bothers me. And yet, as the years go by, my gear improves. “Overpaying” isn’t what it used to be. Because I’ve grown into a sport that has become my career. And because my skills have (perhaps), gotten to a point where I can appreciate the differences in high-end gear, I now spend more than I used to.

But not on all of it . . .

Fish hard, friends.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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Be part of the Troutbitten community of ideas.
Be helpful. And be nice.

38 Comments

  1. One every important advise about longevity in your fishing equipment , boots , waders , jackets , gloves that are always going to be wet . Not to leave them wet in your car trunk , bag or garage. A must to allow them to hang over night in a non damp place allow to air dry when possible . They will last a heck of alot longer …C. J. White

    Reply
    • Great point

      Reply
  2. I’ve been out with Dom and (as usual) this article rings true. He’s very practical and the guiding gear he carries (and recommends) makes economic and utilitarian sense.

    I love good, sturdy gear that works well and often think of an encounter at a high end equipment store in Roscoe NY. Early in my renewed fly fishing adventures I was meeting my more experienced cousin and that day might include some rain. I went into the outfitter store with $75 to spend on a rain jacket. The floor manager was busy gearing up what appeared to be a “city person.” I looked around, didn’t find anything in my price range and while realizing help would not be on its way had to acknowledge the manager was rightfully “playing a bigger fish” than I would ever be. Fair enough. I went across the street to the general store and bought a $2 vinyl pancho (and felt i was overpaying!) That afternoon a thunderstorm blew in. Aided by the thin plastic covering somehow I survived the wind and downpour while admiring my cousin’s rain gear. After the storm there was a wondrous sulphur hatch and trout were caught.

    Over the past 4 years I’ve graduated to better gear but the lesson remains: you don’t need the most expensive gear to catch fish or be your best fishermen.

    Reply
    • Right on, Greg.

      Dom

      Reply
  3. I am curious about your picture showing the rod holder rig inside the vehicle. Would you describe it? I get the general idea from the picture, but can you store rods full length or do you break them down? One way to save money on gear would be something like that pictured as opposed to a $700 rooftop box.

    Reply
    • Hi Larry,

      That’s not my picture (it’s my friend, Austin’s pic), but I believe that is the Smith Creek Rod Holder, or something similar. Another friend made his own system with bungee cords and some other parts. Pretty good alternative to a rod vault. Break the rod down in two pieces (still strung up), bind the pieces together with something (I use my wife’s hair tie) and place the rod in the car. That method works with or without the suspension system, but of course the suspension system keeps things out of the way.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  4. I’m with you on the fluorocarbon. Been winding Berkley Vanish on old Rio spools for years.

    Reply
    • If you’re looking for something else, give the Seaguar Finesse a try. It’s worlds better than Vanish. At 5X comparable diameter with Vanish you have 2 lb breaking strength. Nearly the same diameter with Seaguar, you have 5.2 lb breaking strength — and it’s a more flexible line. It’s a great option.

      Reply
      • I totally agree with the Seaguar being superior. Besides what Dom said about the 5.2 lb breaking strength, one thing few people talk about is manufacturing consistency. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Similarly, tippets that are not manufactured to great precision has no more break strength than its thinnest spot. Seaguar is unbelievably consistent. They invented the stuff and is still the class leader. I use the Seaguar Red Label because it is stiffer and therefore better for tag rigs. The 4 lb stuff is so strong I always use it for the local tailwaters, where the trout often reach 20″+

        Reply
        • No offense but I suspect if you used a micrometer the red label would not be uniformly the diameter it is listed at. I have used blue label, red, invizx, and finesse and vastly prefer the finesse for nymphing. You’re right about the stiffness…the red label is way stiffer, I use it for my bulk saltwater leader for conventional bait fishing…

          Reply
  5. Great Article, I too agree about where to get most bang for your buck.
    One item of gear that has saved my waders from wear is a pair of long knee and shin pads. (eBay item number:390583402052)
    I find that most of my leaks are pinholes from the barbless hooks, they penetrate the wader very easily.

    Reply
    • Interesting. I have the Rothco’s tactical ones and they are garbage, started falling apart after only several uses. Still use them but the quality is terrible. I wish a company would make ones that weren’t black/dark colors and were specifically designed with fly fishing in mind.

      Reply
  6. Amen!
    I’ve never had a fish poke its head up out of the water to ask what I paid for my gear before it would favor me with a bite. On the other hand, if I’m sitting back in my car because my cheaply built stuff broke, that fish would never have had a chance to get a look at my gear. And if I drowned because I wore cheap duds and couldn’t stand up oy there, I guess nothing else matters.

    Reply
  7. Thanks for a great article. Waders are also on the top of my list. I’ve used Simms for years, and they definitely make some great waders, especially the G4Z. But, like you, I don’t want to spend more than I have to. After considerable research, I found Dryft Primo Zip Waders, with virtually identical if not superior specs at half the price. I fish 60 days a year, and have used them for 4 years now. The booties leak because I walked across a gravel parking lot with no boots on. Alas, stupidity was not covered by the warranty. However, the 5 layer uppers have not given me any problems. Dom, if you plan on carrying waders in the future, I highly recommend you have a discussion with this small company.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Michael.

      Reply
  8. I just buy a $2 nipper. Every time it gets dull, I just run it on my grinder for 10 -20 seconds and it is sharper than new. I also prefer my cheap hemostats over the pricier ones — first, it fits my hand better. Second, it is lighter weight. Third, there are cutters at the hinge and I use them to cut small branches off when I get my flies hopelessly tangled in the bushes.

    Reply
    • I’m picky about my hemostats. I need super thin tips, black dull finish, wide loops and very strong metal. = Dr. Slick Spring Creek Clamps.

      Reply
      • Can you tell us your reasons for those parameters? Maybe I am missing something.

        Reply
    • Check out the Boomerang line cutters. Built in zinger, super precise cutting tips, and work as scissors for trimming flies. I originally bought these for cutting braid and when I gave them a try for fly fishing I never looked back.

      Reply
  9. Hi Dom,

    Top of my list would include Quality Sunglasses and a magnifier or specs for tying knots , changing flies etc.

    Stephen

    Reply
    • Good call.

      I left sunglasses off on purpose. Because, although I really, really like the Costas I got as a gift, I can’t say that I catch more fish with them. Basically, I believe all the other stuff listed is more important.

      That’s just me.

      Dom

      Reply
    • Buy the magnifiers at the Dollar Store. They work as well, and you don’t mind if you dropped one in the river.

      Reply
    • I’ll second the advice to get cheap readers. I own a pair of Suncloud bifocals ($85) but the rectangle with the magnifier always seems to be exactly where I’m trying to spot a rise or a slight flash. It’s also a distraction during a long cast. I think I’m better with a pair of sunglasses for the water and a cheap pair of readers (with a lanyard) for tying.

      Reply
      • Hi George,

        I have the same setup , cheap readers that I can quickly access for changing flies etc. and polarized sunglasses for actual fishing. For me fishing is all about soaking up & savouring every moment.
        For me quality sunglasses enhance this experience.

        Stephen

        Reply
  10. Wading Boots
    Teddy Roosevelt said it best: “there are no answers-only intelligent choices”. If you fish a lot and are under 50 paying 550 for Danner/Patagonia boots for life will be extremely “cheap” by the time you reach my age -73.
    Or looking at it from Warren Buffet’s view-price is what you pay-value is what you receive. I agree anything with the Simms name on it is well thought out and it may be expensive but it is also worth it.

    Reply
    • Good call.

      Reply
  11. What to skimp on: expensive amadou drying pads.
    I use Bounty paper towel 1/2 sheets folded. One roll will for about $1+ will cover a lifetime of dry fly fishing – and provide superior water absorption.

    Reply
    • Agreed.

      Reply
  12. Kevin. Is this your first time ever reading an article on Troutbitten? Dom is a “rich boy hobbyist”? Dude — sorry, but that’s laughable.

    Reply
  13. Yeah waders, been through alot of brands and styles over the years. I hate to say it but i have great luck with waist high 3.5 neoprene stocking foot from cabelas , yes there heavy, buuut they are durable as heck i bushwack alot run and gun and they hold up well.

    Reply
  14. In the not-skimp category: waders with zippers. This is for obvious reasons. I’ve been wearing such waders made by Dryft, and, so far, they’ve worked very well.

    Reply
    • See though, I don’t get the zippered waders thing. I owned a couple pair. Here’s my rant against zippered waders:

      1. Heavier. Don’t like the way they tend to sag down.

      2. Less breathable. The zipper section, and taping beside it takes up a significant piece of breathable fabric and turns it impermeable.

      3. Still have to take the belt off.

      4. They don’t allow you to pee any easier than regular waders, because the zipper doesn’t really come down low enough.

      Instead, I relieve myself this way. No troubles:

      https://troutbitten.com/2018/12/09/how-to-pee-with-your-waders-on/

      Clearly, people like them. I just don’t get it.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • It’s nice to disagree respectfully, Dom, so here goes. I don’t see any difference in 1 and 2 between my regular and my zipper waders. I don’t take my belt off; I simply zip down with my belt on. It’s pretty easy. As for #4, I guess it depends on one’s anatomy, but the Dryft waders I use sip down plenty far for a very comfortable relief session. I read about your system, and I think that it’s ingenious and works. It’s just that my zipper waders work better, for me at least. In the end, to each his own pee.

        Reply
  15. I find creative ways to enjoy great gear and experiences without breaking the bank.

    Be patient and wait for discounts on prior-year “it” rods, reels, fly lines, etc.

    Buy multi-use items. The wool, half-finger gloves Dom likes for fly fishing are equally effective for bow hunting. My Gore-Tex shell is used for skiing, hiking and fishing, making a wading jacket unnecessary.

    Finally, take advantage of services like Airbnb while out of town, or camp, if that’s your thing. One of my favorite stays is a cozy room in a cool village just a few minutes from world class steelheading. It’s about $40/night.

    Reply
  16. I thought it was just me that thought all waders leak!

    Reply
  17. Hi Dom,

    Looked through the postings for how you carry all your essentials but to no luck. I found the wading belt carry post and the net and the c&f flybox. Is there a post I missed? Every year I can never seem to get fully dialed in.

    How to carry your gear on the water isn’t essential to catching fish, hell you can put it all in a backpack but that’s not efficient. I’m a vest guy but I have yet to find a one that really nails it for everything I carry. I tried a sling but never warmed to them. I tried a chest pack but I like to look down and see where I’m stepping. Its mighty slick where I fish. I also like how a vest distributes weight across my shoulders. Granted to each his own.

    I believe carrying gear efficiently will help in catching fish so to me it is essential. If it is all laid out so you know where everything is you have your flies in or on the water that much faster.

    If anyone has a vest they truly love can you name it? Would be grateful. (I’m aware what I carry might be different than you. I err on the side of more is less I have to run back to my car 4 miles away)

    Reply
    • Dave – Not a perfect solution but I use the Patagonia Sweet Fish Pack (now discontinued, but you could probably find something similar from another manufacturer). It is a combination 28L backpack with a fly fishing vest that you can attach to the backpack straps (the vest part can be taken off and worn solo as well). You can google up some old pics to see what it is. I clip my net and my wading staff (both on retractors) to the fabric loops on the back of the pack. A 750ml Smart Water plastic bottle with a Sawyer Mini screwed on top goes in the side pocket and is my lightweight water source for the trip. Bear spray goes in the other side pocket (had a very close encounter several years ago and I’m glad I had it – always carry it now). Many times I am hiking miles into the national forests in cold weather without cell signal or the chance of seeing anyone else and I need to be prepared for the worst (the pack allows me to carry some other basics like an emergency locator beacon, survival blanket, basic first aid, raingear, etc.) that I couldn’t carry with just a vest or sling. Really the only downside is that the hip belt is not designed for true hiking (i.e. not padded and not wide enough to rest on your hips and redistribute the weight from the shoulders). I have gotten years of use out of this pack and it is still going strong, got it for $50 on ebay some time ago.

      Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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