Friday, March 1, 2013

To Go Big or Go Home: Advice for Purchasing Your First Fly Rod Outfit

On my last blog post I talked about my first HOSSFLY (Historic Ocean Springs Fly Fishing Club) meeting. At that meeting, there were several guys that were new to the organization who joined simply to start fly fishing.  During which they asked for advice on gear they should purchase to get started.  This started an extremely intense debate, and one that ultimately was of little help to these poor guys who just want to flip the buggy whip and catch a few fish.  During that discussion, a lightbulb went off in my head; time to blog.

The big debate that erupted was whether or not your first fly rod should be a cheap $80-$200 setup or whether you should pull out all the stops and spend the big bucks ($500-$1000).  The argument was that you'll end up purchasing the high dollar hank equipment eventually anyways. By purchasing that first rod, you're ultimately setting yourself back on what you could potentially spend on a new Sage, Orvis, or G. Loomis flyrod. Hindsight is 20/20 and here is my hindsight. I actually posted when I first bought my gear if you'd like to see where I started. Below are several elements that should be considered when purchasing your first fly rod.

What Weight Should I buy?
When first starting off this is the very first question a fly fisherman needs to ask. It's a function of the fish you expect to catch. That's for certain.  However, as your skill and competency grows with your fly rod, this will become a more complicated question each time you purchase a new fly rod.

In general, the best all around fly rod for inshore saltwater fishing is an 8 weight rod. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it is a formidable foe for inshore speckled trout, flounder, and redfish that you will catch most anywhere.  I would put my current setup up against a nice bull redfish at the islands any day.  I've also seen monster black drum combated with this weight.  It will give you some extra power for casting large flies in heavy wind also. For somebody just starting off, an 8 wt. rod will handle just about any thing you'll catch as a newbie to the sport.

Taken from Michissippi Fly's Blog.  Biggest Fish I've seen caught on an 8 wt. so far in person.
As you're competency increases with practice and experience, you're going to find that an 8 wt. can be overkill at times. Legal size Redfish will test your 8 wt. regularly, but you may find yourself hooking up with small school speckled and white trout for which your 8 wt. is just too much power. For anybody that's found said schools, they know all too well what a blast such a situation is and what an opportunity it can be to put a good fish fry for family and friends together.  I believe a solid 6 wt. in these situations is the perfect rod.  For saltwater fishing however, a 6 wt. is about as light a fly rod as I would venture.  Even when those schools are hitting, there is always the possibility of hooking up with something much, much bigger. The size of your fly rod really should be a function of how and when you plan to use your fly rod and the only person that can answer that question now is yourself. Do a bit more research and see what others say before you decide what you want to purchase.

These were caught when a 6 wt. would have turned these schoolie specks and flounder into Tarpon!.
After the decision has been made on the right weight fly rod to buy, the tough decision is ahead.  At this point, it's really important to establish a budget because with fly rod outfits, the sky is the limit.  Somebody can spend $2000 on a set up and not catch anymore than the next person with a $200 setup.  There are two options when purchasing your first fly rod. If you're a bargain hunter, you can buy the set up piecemeal wise or you can buy fly fishing outfits which come ready to fish.  If you decide to buy all your parts and pieces separately, you're going to need to buy a rod, reel, backing, fly line, leader, and tippet material.  For that reason, I'm going to speak to the best of my ability to each in the following sections, starting with the fly rod outfit.

Fly Rod Outfit

This was the route I went when I decided to purchase a fly rod.  It got me on the water quickly as I had already practiced on a friend's fly rod. For the novice fly fisher it takes a lot of the initial headache of learning all the knots to connect your leaders and backing.  Don't let your new pre-spooled fly fishing outfit dull you into a false sense of security.  At some point, you're going to have to learn how to tie knots, and tie them well.  In this day and age with the youtube and the self proclaimed fly fishing experts (you're welcome), learning to tie knots is not hard.  Try not to make the mistake, however, of waiting until you need the knot to learn it.  There are hand books galore that you can keep with you until you've mastered the knots enough to tie without.  I recommend purchasing one for placement in your fly bag or vest pocket.  Failing to do so is asking for a very frustrating situation in which you have a limited time to catch fish and an inconvenient nail knot you need to tie your leader to your fly line with that you've never tried tying before.  Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

Learn This Knot! Used to attach your leader and backing to your fly line. Yes that's a straw.

Any fly rod you purchase should be a 4-piece fly rod.  They pack down to small and convenient sizes and are easily kept in a vehicle for that instance where you see a piece of easily accessible water and need to cast a line.  Also, airports will allow you to carry on a 4-piece fly rod in the protective container.  Check your reel though. Apparently TSA thinks you're going to strangle somebody.  I've already carried on my rod with me twice on trips up to Michigan.

Now the big question, what to buy, so many options!  I can only give recommendations here, as my list of equipment I've casted vs.whats out there is unbelievably small. Here's the fact, Jack. While I do not believe you need to start off with the super high dollar equipment out there, you need to realize that picking up a fly rod is a bit of an investment.  You can purchase the $80 special at the local sporting goods store, but you're going to get what you pay for in that realm. It is so much better however, to go and put you're hand on the product and test it out before you purchase it.  Find a flyshop.  My first outfit was the L.L. Bean 8 wt. Quest II that I first tested at their superstore in Freeport, Maine.  At $139, it was in the right price range that I could justify spending the money to get started.  For my first rod, this made sense, especially after my first winter and spring of relatively unsuccessful fishing trips.  I would not change this decision for a more expensive set up.  I have moved on from this rod, but having a nice backup rod that didn't cost me an arm and a leg is a priceless feeling when you're in the middle of a bayou surrounded by tailing redfish.  Even the master fly caster that taught me my first casting lessons said that it was a good purchase and will be a solid backup rod when I venture into nicer equipment.

Here are a few things to pay attention to while you're selecting your equipment.  First, Redington is a division of Sage. I do not believe that a Redington fly rod starts with Sage blanks as some people suggest. I have casted both and you can tell a distinct difference. However, I do believe Redington makes quality rods and are a great starter to experienced rods.  They offer an 8 wt. with a very nice fast action that allows you to load the rod quicker.

Took this image from the Cabela's Website on 3/1/2013. Redington Pursuit.  Good solid starter rod that comes as an outfit.
Another thing to pay attention to is what your rod is made of.  Typically, rods are made of fiberglass, graphite, or bamboo ($$$$$$$$$).  However, in the starter price range you will likely only find fiberglass and graphite.  Fiberglass rods are fun to use once you have learned to cast a good bit, due to their flexibility. Don't make the mistake of starting with a fiberglass rod as the flexibility isn't as forgiving when you have bad casting form as you likely will when you start.

Understand that typically the reels in the low dollar outfits are lower quality.  This typically doesn't matter that much as you rarely use your reel.  Be aware that saltwater corrodes the uncorrodable.  I do not believe equipment exists that fully is corrosion resistant, despite what manufacturers claim, so clean your gear after each use.  Otherwise your reel will sound like a gravel truck when you do get your first screamer on your drag. This goes for all of your equipment and is another reason a 4-piece rod is so important.  Smaller segments are easier to clean under a kitchen sink. Avoid the temptation to hit it with the garage hose against the wall while still assembled.  Salt collects in every nook and cranny and a detailed cleaning after you've disassembled your rod and reel is always required.  Even on my new Orvis I got for my birthday, I've started to notice slight corrosion where the line guides connect to the rod despite cleaning it after each use.  This is a frustrating fact of saltwater fishing and constant battle.

Piecemeal Fly Rod Setup

I've never actually priced it out, but I would be curious to see if a skilled online bargain hunter could assemble a higher quality fly rod than the outfits that are mentioned above.  I think if you found the right bargains, it might be possible.  Only go this route if you have the patience to check online fly shops regularly, and are prepared to spool your line on your own or pay somebody to do it for you. Also, pay attention to your shipping costs as any bargain you may find on each part separately may be decimated once you factor shipping in.  I think this option should only be considered if the buyer is a little more flexible on cost.

My advice regarding your rod is not much different than what I mentioned above in the outfit section.  I thoroughly believe that the only thing of high quality in outfits are the rod. The reason they can offer everything at that nice little price is due to the economy of scale.  This is where you want to spend the bulk of your money though.  Your rod is, by far, the most critical part of your set up.  My upgrade was an Orvis Clearwater II ($225) on  The difference between that rod and my LL Bean is like night and day. Shop around though. Sage likely has a nice lower end rod to compete with Orvis. The Redington that I recommended above comes non-outfit and would also be an excellent foundation for a great starter fly fisher.

This is really where your price savings on your first fly rod piece meal outfit can come from.  When I'm kayaking in the surrounding bayous, I will regularly get redfish on to my reel.  However, they rarely truly test it.  A cheap reel will get you by, but beware the components.  Check that the drags are sealed and corrosion resistant. Again, salt water is your enemy.  My current opinion is to buy the cheap reels and if they do corrode out, go buy a new one.  Cheapos are everywhere, on every major sporting good site.  Even if you replace two reels, its cheaper than the Tibor Reel that is going to last you forever and stand up to a 150 lb. tarpon.

My buddy recently purchased a Lamson Konic that he seems pretty pleased with.  He bought a 6 wt reel for his 8 wt rod to reduce the weight and ultimately the fatigue in his casting arm at the end of the day.  It was a pretty slick idea, and may be an option for fly fishers with shoulder and elbow problems. Smaller reels hold less line though, and if you have a fish of a lifetime on, that could be a devastating day.

Lamson Konic 8 wt. @ Flyshack.Com, $119 with free shipping

Backing, Fly Line, Leader, and Tippet Material

After you've spent the effort to piece together a perfect deal, you need to ensure that you find just the right cost to quality ratio for your line until you can afford to upgrade. Unlike conventional fishing gear, you need to give serious consideration to what you're spooling your reels with.  Good fly line can greatly improve your casting ability. Your backing is typically the longest length of line on your reel and is tied to the reel spool itself. That is followed by your fly line, which carries the energy for casting your flies and is equally as important as your leader which ultimately attaches to your fly and is most likely to break during a battle with a monster.

I can't express how unimportant your backing is after you've gone and spent all your hard earned money on a reel and rod.  It's dacron. It's the same stuff as braid. Don't fret too much over what you purchase.  For an 8 wt., I'd get 20-30 lb. backing and call it cake.

Your fly line is important. To start with, get a WF (weight forward) tip, floating fly line. Purchase the correct weight for the rod you have purchased to start off with. As you progress in your skills, you may find yourself experimenting with mix matched fly line and fly rods.  If you cast 8 wt line with a 7 wt rod, there are those that say it loads the rod quicker, allowing for faster response times to quick moving fish.  This will cost you distance, which may not be of concern for certain fishing situations.  When you shop, you'll see all different types of line options "customized" for the particular fish your targeting.  That will typically ensure that you're line is suited for the temperature environment you'll be fishing in although this isn't something to be incredibly concerned with.

The latest fad in fly line is texture. There are literally grooves along the line intended to cut down on the friction of the line leaving your rod.  This allows you to cast further (a plus), makes your false casting louder as your line slides through your guide eyes (a minus for spooky fish on windless days), and I've found that the line memory in these products is worse than untextured fly lines.  Catch a dozen flounder or speckled trout in the early morning hours on that textured line and tell me how that open sore on your finger feels.  The texture literally will cause "rope burn" on the pressure finger of your fish fighting hand. Finally, textured lines are expensive. Add another $100 to your fly rod outfit. Despite its drawbacks, textured line is worth it for me. It offers forgiveness for bad casting form while sitting in my kayak which is where I spend a majority of my time fly fishing. Below is what I have on my Orvis Setup for Redfish.
Scientific Anglers Mastery Textured Saltwater Taper, Taken from Scientific Anglers Site 3/1/2013, $84.95 MSRP
The last aspect to consider is your leader.  The break strength is a function of how much of a cowboy you are. I use exclusively 12 lb. leader material for my exploits here on the coast, but I think there are guys who would think I'm crazy.  If ladyfish or other fish with abrasive mouths are going to be in the area or start popping my lines, I carry 15 lb. to 20 lb. tippet to add as a shock tippet.  The length of my tippet depends on the water clarity.  Here in Mississippi, the water clarity is zero to zilch to nada.  It's not Key West here so you can get away with a 9' leader.  If I'm fishing at Horn or Ship Island where the water clarity ranges from zero to good, I'll slip on a longer leader or add tippet to the end for length.  The longer the leader/tippet, the further your fly will be from the unnatural looking fly line floating on the surface, increasing the odds of a hookup.  However, the longer the leader, the better your casting form must be to ensure your line stays loaded while casting.

Brands of flylines and leaders will become a personal preference after experimentation.  Scientific Anglers has worked very well for me since adding it to my rod, and I likely will continue to spool my rod with that until I am displeased with it. As for leaders, I use Rio Redfish/Seatrout leaders, the logical selection as they are the primary species of fish I target here in Mississippi.  These are my preferences, it doesn't mean they are the right for everybody.

There is a lot in this blog to digest so I wanted to recap it all with my main takeaways:
  •  If you're fishing for Speckled Trout, Flounder, Redfish, or any other inshore saltwater species, an 8 wt. will likely bring you the most initial success landing your first fish on a fly rod.
  • Concentrate on the quality of your rod and worry less about other items in your outfit. Your rod is the most important piece of equipment you will purchase.
  • An outfit that comes ready to fish will likely be your cheapest entry level option and many good options exist.  Do not dismiss this option as a decent back up to your next nicer fly rod option will be welcome when you snap that brand new $500 beauty on a snagged tree limb.
  • Piecing your fly rod together is a good option if money is less of a concern, although it may be possible to link together a few clearance items and bargains on the internet to assemble a great startup outfit. Do your research and you could end up with a higher quality set up for the same price as the outfits
  • Saltwater is your enemy.  Buy corrosion proof equipment and operate under the assumption that it's not.
  • Purchase your initial backing, fly line, and leaders with the intent that you will potentially upgrade as you grow in skill.  You've spent all that money on you're new setup and while a high quality expensive fly line may be easier to cast, its not essential initially.
Your outfit will unfortunately only be a small part that will determine your success in picking up fly fishing. Practicing casting is key and if you can afford lessons, that will help you even more.  I cannot stress that enough.  I received one lesson and pointers from more experienced fly fishers than myself and that got me running once I hit open fields to practice.  I practiced for a month prior to even casting at my first fish.

My final point where I get preachy is to follow. I'm 26 years old.  I've been a working adult now for three years. I don't have $2000 to spend on fly rods. One day I might but even then, I don't know if I could stomach an $800 broken fly rod tip because I was impatient and closed it in a car door by accident. Fishing, however, is about my only hobby and I spend more of my recreational dollars a year on this hobby than any other. I want to make sure that my equipment is reliable and puts me in the best position to hook that 30" tailing redfish from my kayak.  That's all this is about for me and I hope you find what it's about for you too. Good luck with your shopping and finding that balance that fits your lifestyle.

Tight lines everyone!

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