You do not need to drop a ton of money to catch fish.
Starting any new hobby requires buying gear associated with that hobby. It’s kinda fun and exciting looking at all the gadgets and gizmos and whatchamacallits until it becomes overwhelming and daunting looking at all the variations and costs. Below are my thoughts on what you can skimp on and what you really should invest money in.
CAVEAT, years of fishing means nothing… Days on the water means everything. Pre-kid, I was fishing 100 days a year. Post-kid, I’m lucky to get out 15 days a year. Someone who has been fishing for 20 years but only gets over to Montana once a year for 7 days is not the same as a newer angler who is a student at Montana State but can fish 5 days a week and 10 amazing rivers. Days on the water = knowledge = ability to catch fish when others are not. Regardless, there is usually the introductory timeframe and introductory gear then the subsequent graduation to the “next level” of a hobby.
Fly fishing is a sport where you can spend a ton of money in a hurry. It’s also not a hobby where you can reuse or repurpose items. If you’re a rifle big game hunter and want to jump into archery hunting, much of what you own will work for archery. Sure you need a few new things but a lot will transfer. Binos, boots, rangefinder, coolers, tents, many pieces of camo, vehicles, etc. Going from conventional fishing to fly fishing is not that way. When you’re looking at getting gear some items are necessary, some are nice to have, some are silly and useless and pointless. My goal with this is to point out a few key pieces of gear and to let you know you – don’t need a ton of money to catch fish.
CAVEAT, I’m talking about fly fishing for trout. If you fly fishing for bass and carp, those are similar and much of the same gear will work for both species. Saltwater fly fishing is very different IMO. I’m going to go through my gear and my opinions about what’s important and what you can skimp on for trout.
On his hunting podcast “The Rich Outdoors” Cody Rich likes to say, “buy tags, not gear.” I love that. Buy gas and flies and go fishing. Spend money on things that are going to educate you and give you time on the water and experiences. The difference between a high end rod and mid-grade rod is minimal to most of us. But the price difference equals quite a few trips to the river.
- Rod. Orvis Recon $450. It’s considered a mid-grade rod. I love it.
- Reel. Hardy Ultralite $125. Mid-grade.
- Line. Scientific Angler Mastery GPX $75. Mid to high grade.
- Fly boxes. Local Fly Shops $20-30. You can support cool companies like Wynd and Brook or big companies like Tacky, Scientific Angler or Orvis. Or you can support your local fly shop. Fly boxes are like ugly people, it’s all about what’s inside.
- Flies. Ones that I tied and what the shops recommend $2-8 each. High grade. The highest grade!!
- Net. Fishpond Rubber net, long handle. Who cares about grade. Get a net that has a long enough handle and deep enough bag that you can effectively net a trout and it wont flop out all the time. Also, get a rubber net. It’s better for the fish and your flies won’t get stuck. Trust me.
- Waders. Simms Freestone. Lowest grade they make. Keeps me dry for several years.
- Pack. Simms old flywight hip pack.
Everything I own is low to mid grade. Mainly because I choose to not afford high grade stuff. I would love to own a Scott rod one day but for now it’s not a priority of mine.
What you can use in leu of buying new stuff
- Buy Used. There is so much good stuff on Craigslist or Facebook or Ebay. You can save hundreds of dollars buying used gear.
- Backpack. You do not need a fly vest or sling pack or hip pack to carry your gear. Take any bag you have right now and put fly fishing stuff in it. That makes if a fly pack. This is especially true if you are a run-and-gun fly fisher. If you often put a rain jacket, water bottle, lunch and go explore; a backpack is better suited and is more comfortable. Save $150 and use a backpack.
- Regular fishing string. If you are fishing streamers or running a nymph rig you can get away with Stren fishing line. You do not need to pay $14 for 30 yards of “fly fishing” tippet. I use this and it works fine. It is a 50 yard roll. I completely contradict myself below, but hey, fly fishing is nuanced.
- Fly vise starter. You can spend a lot of money on a good vise. They have lots of features that make them more useful and practical. I would rather spend money on material and a good chair than a vise. After several hundred dozen flies you can upgrade.
- Inexpensive drift boat or raft. Safety being the key consideration here. It must float and be safe, and meet the needs of your waters. A skiff is not well suited for class three or four water. You can buy a used drift boat or raft for under $5k. A new boat will run you $12k or more. Or, you can get a SUP or an inflatable kayak. My wife jokes we should get one of those 6’ tall flamingos and fish with it. We float and stop to fish from land so anything that floats will work for us.
- Wet wading. Don’t buy waders. They are nice to have from around October to May, but if you’re going to fish May-September you don’t need waders. Also, if you get a drift boat or raft, you don’t need waders or boots, just use flip flops. Use that advice to convince your spouse you need a boat. “Honey, to save $500 I need a boat!”
- Accessories. Use toenail clippers. Trust me they cut line just fine. Some of these line cutters are $80 or more. Yes they are cool. No you don’t need them. You can get creative with the “accessories” category. For example: medical hemostats work just fine and many doctors will give them to you.
- Flotant. I use Albolene and not flotant. It is 1000x cheaper and works the same. In fact, I refill my small tippet squeezers with it works great.
- Expensive reels. Yes they are cool. The truth is you do not need an expensive reel. I’d buy a good fly line and decent rod and crappy reel. Again, this is not at all true for salt water. You can buy a used fly reel or even a new one for $80 or less.
Stuff you don’t need at all
- Do not buy a leader straightener. Use your hands and pull the tippet. Give it a little friction. If it burns you, that too much.
- Tippet Holders. You don’t need these. They can make life easier, but they are not a necessity. You can keep your tippet in your bag.
- Any rod vault. You don’t need these. Unless you’re a guide or fish every day, you don’t need these. Yes, they are cool. Yes, they are convenient. No, you don’t need one.
- Thermostats. You don’t need these. If it’s too hot, don’t fish. If it’s too cold, you won’t catch anything. Fly shops and the USGS have temps regularly posted.
- Lanyard. You don’t need these. They are really nice in a boat but that’s about it.
- Tape measure. You don’t need this. Just do what everyone else does: guess the length and round up to the nearest even number (usually by a factor of 2”). Example- a 13″ trout is commonly called a 16″ trout, 16″ is 18″… You get the drift.
- Hook release or “catch and release” tool. You don’t need these. Pinch your barbs and everything falls out, usually in the net.
- Pliers. Maybe if you’re saltwater fishing they are nice, but you do not need these for trout. A Leatherman multi tool is cool to have incase you need to fix something but not a high priority item.
- Boats. You don’t need a boat to catch fish. In fact you shouldn’t buy a boat. Learn how to row and take care of a boat then borrow your friend’s boat. If you know how to row, you will get an invite. This is kinda contradictory from above. Maybe go 1/2 on a boat with a buddy. Boats are a necessity for lake fishing, but there are dozens of options.
- 2000 types of flies. We did a fly fishing March Madness bracket where people voted on their most confident flies. The most common flies were no surprise. The top flies were the Stimulator, Chubby, Woolly Bugger, Rainbow Warrior, Hairs Ear, Adams, and Compara Dun. Pheasant tail won overall. If you get those flies in a variety of sizes and colors you will catch trout anywhere in the world.
- Fish counter. We get it! You can catch fish. Soooo many that you lose count. Congrats.
First of all, you’re welcome. Secondly, I just saved you a few tanks of gas worth of stuff. Now go fishing!
What you should spend money on
- Rods- best you can afford but there are plenty of really really great rods for less than $500. Yellowstone Angler does a great job comparing different rods and brands. They have $199 rods in top spots so you don’t need to break the budget to get a great rod.
- Fly line- best you can afford. They are complicated materials and usually higher end ones use more durable materials and are better fitted for your rod. Seriously, this is something that is worth buying. Depending on how much you fish it will last you several years.
- Tippet- It does wear out and does weaken in the sun. Tippet is strong and thin and I think Fluoro is worth the investment. For small technical dry fly fishing I do buy fly fishing tippet because of its thin diameter and strength. I go through a good bit of tippet every year. It can make the difference on a tough fishing trip.
- Quality hooks (fly tying)- Do not waste your time and resources tying bugs on crappy hooks. They will break or straighten. I bought some on Craigslist thinking “they will work” but they didn’t. It was a massive waste of my time and I lost fish on a pretty tough trip. Sometimes it only takes a few fish to make a trip worth it, and this trip, I lost a few good fish because of crappy hooks. No Mas.
- Quality oars and blades for the oars- These are your safety lines in the water. It’s 100% your steering and a good bit of braking. It’s how you control the boat. Don’t skimp on these. Many top manufacturers make an economically friendly oar. Sawyer is the leader in the industry and if you want quality to last, you get these. AND you can add ReConnect powered by Karmik on them to protect your investment.
- Wader boots that are eco friendly- You might need 2 pairs. I said you don’t need waders and you don’t, but if you fish in winter months you do. I also like to wear my wader boots when wet wading and not shoes. I have a boat pair and a winter wading pair. The boat pair has the rubber bottom to not scrape the floor of the boat or raft. We fish from the boat a good bit, but we also get out and fish from the bank a lot. It is nice to have a wader boot on your foot while walking. Plus my boat boots are smaller than my winter pair because wet wading socks are thinner than wader and socks. My winter wader boots are Patagonia boots with aluminum tracks on them so I don’t fall everywhere. Felt is the best thing ever for grip but they can transport invasive plants and animals. They are also terrible in the snow.
- A good nipper retention system-. I have lost soooo many pairs of hemostats. I got tired of losing them to cheap holders. I have these and I have not lost my hemos since (years!). You can pay a lot less for cheap crap but you will have to pay again- buy nice, not twice!
- Anchors– If you have to get a boat, which is part of the fun, please do not use or buy a huge piece of lead that will rub off or chip off and over time pollute your favorite river. Get something new, innovative, cool, eco friendly.
- Conservation– you should invest in the future of your sport. Getting a Trout Unlimited or Backcountry Hunters and Anglers membership will ensure we have trout and spaces in the future. Please spend your money and time supporting organizations that support you.
- Education– With soooo much content on Youtube, and podcasts, and books you can be an expert in fly fishing in no time. You just have to be careful for “influencers” and people who maybe do not know fly fishing intimately and are pushing products rather than value. The best education you will ever get is hiring a guide for a day!
- 12-pack of good beer. You might need a few of these. One for you, your friends and the people you meet on the river and one for the fly shop staff.
There you have it. That is the start of my list. I will put together a list of 201 level fishing stuff to get. Many of them are different and technical but there will definitely be crossover.
Did I get it right? Where did I mess up? Things I forgot? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will hash it out. Thanks for reading.
Robert- Founder and Owner of Karmik Outdoors and notoriously frugal person