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.
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.
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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.
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.
Get that base set up solid, with comfort and support. Boots and traction. There’s your foundation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For years, I fished with an inexpensive laminated wood-framed net. But these days, 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 . . .
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.
T R O U T B I T T E N