Choosing the Right Gear

Picking out new fly fishing equipment should be a fun experience. Excellent gear is readily available for any species you might want to catch on a fly rod. So much gear in fact, that the task is sometimes daunting, especially to those just getting started or targeting a new species or fishery. And while it is hard to find any truly bad products from the major fly fishing manufacturers, it is definitely possible to get the wrong gear. Helping fly anglers filter through the options to choose a setup that is right for them is something we do in our shop on a daily basis. This guide is our attempt to provide the same service online.

 Rod and reel outfit resting on a conch shell.We hope the information below will help you make an informed choice when shopping for gear that will work best for what you want to do. If you need help along the way, please give us a call or fill out our contact form.  If you already have a pretty good idea of what you want, you can browse our online store for individual items or view recommendations for complete outfits. 

Living in central Florida, we have access to some of the best fishing available anywhere. We also have the opportunity to talk to the people manufacturing the gear that will eventually make it into your hands, and we get to try it out on the water. Within an easy drive, we can fish for redfish, speckled trout and black drum on the flats, snook and tarpon on mangrove shorelines, larger tarpon off the beach and in backcountry areas, largemouth bass, panfish, American and hickory shad, and nearshore species such as cobia, tripletail, large jacks and the occasional dorado. A single stop at a gas station and some cash for a cheap hotel will get us into bonefish, permit, and tarpon on the flats, snook on the beach and freshwater exotics such as peacock bass and Mayan cichlids.  We haven’t tried every combination, but we know what works and can help you select gear that will do what you need. Our gear suggestions are based on equipment we fish ourselves and can recommend with confidence.

What are your expectations?

Before you start looking at specific items, determine what you are expecting your new equipment to do for you. Are you looking for a first fly rod? Is this a rod and reel you will be using regularly or is it just a backup in case you break your primary rod? Are you chasing a specific species in a specific location or are you looking for an all-around setup?

It is easy to make the mistake of buying gear that represents what you want to be doing rather than what you are likely to be doing. If you live on the coast, have been fly fishing for redfish for years and want to go chase adult tarpon, then by all means pick up an 11 or 12 weight. If you live in Central Florida, have been freshwater fishing for a few years and want to start fishing saltwater, look at an 8 weight setup you will use regularly close to home. Leave the tarpon setup, as well as the 9 weight for the permit trip to Belize you hope to take in a year or two, for later.

Fly held in hand with storm in background.Most of us will be better served by a “generalist” all-around setup that does a lot of things well, rather than a highly specialized option. This will likely mean a 9’ 4 piece fly rod in your chosen weight, along with a matching reel and a weight forward floating line. While specialized one-piece rods, extra-short structure rods, long nymphing rods and ultra-fast rods are ideal in some cases, their uses are, by definition, limited. They have their place, but their place is usually in the rod rack of a fly angler who already has a hand full of more “all-around” fly rods.

It is worth doing some experimenting with fly lines. They are relatively inexpensive and can make a big difference in how your outfit performs.  Adding a new line, such as an intermediate tip, long-belly or short-head line, can tune your outfit to different situations and help you catch more fish. Lines are complicated. If the choices seem overwhelming, or if you’d prefer not to spend a lot of time doing research, ask your local fly shop for suggestions.  

What’s Your Budget?

As with most things, up to a point, the more you spend the better the product you get. This does not mean that it’s always worth picking up the most expensive equipment you can afford.

There are many good rod and reel options available at moderate prices. Very fishable fly rods can be had from as little as $150 to up past $1000. A functional freshwater reel can cost $50 or less, with a high end machined aluminum option priced past $1000. The “sweet spot,” where you get excellent quality, often an American made product, and great value starts at around $300 for fly rods and $250 for fly reels.

Plan to spend a little less money if:

  • You are just getting into fly fishing. You won’t yet know what rod action you like, how much time you will spend fly fishing, and how much you will enjoy it.
  • You are buying a backup outfit.
  • You are buying an outfit for a seasonal fishery or a trip and aren’t likely to use it regularly.

Plan to spend more money if:

  • You have a well-developed cast and know what rod action you like.
  • You fly fish in saltwater. A rod with good components and a machined bar stock aluminum reel will last much longer than lesser gear.
  • You chase fish that are particularly strong fighters, such as bonefish, tarpon, sailfish, big jacks, trevally etc. This applies primarily to the reel.
  • You are hard on your gear. Well-made equipment, especially reels, will stand up better to abuse. You don’t necessarily need to buy the best but choose something at least in the mid-range. With the exception of the least expensive options, most rods and reels carry great warranties against damage.
  • You get satisfaction out of having high-end gear.

Researching Equipment Options

Researching rods and reels online.If you’re like us, then you enjoy reading about graphite modulus, bend profiles, drag materials, and fly line coatings. Many manufactures make detailed product specifications available on their websites. If you are a little less interested in the technical side, they also offer descriptions of their products, explaining what they can do for you. Reviews and product comparisons are widely available online and in magazines. If you have friends who fly fish, they will certainly have advice to offer as well.

Every year there are one or two wide reaching and generally well done reviews of current fly rods and reels. These can be helpful but don’t assume the top rod would be the best rod for you. While it is true that the “winning” rod is sure to be a good one, it is likely that the 5th one down the list would actually be a better fit for you. What you should take away from these reviews is not what rod is best, second best and third best but what 5 or 6 rods that are in your budget would be worth taking a closer look at.

 It is easy to get paralyzed by all the information available. In the end, there are probably a half dozen reels and just as many rods that would be great choices for you. We believe that the ideal second-to-last step in the process is getting information from a specialty fly shop whose staff understands the type of fishing you will be doing. A shop like ours can listen to your goals and brand preferences, ask a few questions about your experience, your budget, and how you typically fish, and suggest some options.

The Test Drive

After you have gathered information and advice, it’s time to go shopping. It’s helpful to see a reel in person and hold it in your hands before making the final decision, but this is much more important with fly rods. If you have the opportunity, try a rod before you buy. Numbers and opinions only tell part of the story. What really matters is how a rod fits your casting style and the type of fishing you plan to do. 

Too many people test a rod by stripping out most of the line at their feet and seeing how far they can cast. The rod they can cast furthest wins. For the vast majority of us, this is not a realistic test

 Before trying out a rod, consider how you will use it. Will you be making long casts into the wind? How about 15’ casts at fish that suddenly appear in front of the boat? Will you be wade fishing? Can you drop a quick cast in front of the redfish that swims up behind you? Can you control the loop well enough to punch under a dock? Can you make a delicate presentation with a small popper to an opening in the lily pads? When you are trying out a rod, visualize the casts you will actually be making on the water and try to mimic them.

Keep in mind that the line makes as much difference as the rod. A true-to-weight bonefish line will cast very differently than a heavily front loaded redfish line. We try to keep at least a couple demo line options on hand so we can switch them out depending on the rod and the customer’s casting style and preferences. This is good to remember after you have made the purchase as well. If your new rod just isn’t performing as you’d like, a simple line change may resolve the problem.

What Weight Should I Get and What Should it Do?

Different fly anglers prefer different gear, often even different weights, for the same species and fisheries. That said, there are patterns to what people choose, and good reason for those choices. Here is some information on the most common types of outfits we sell and fish ourselves.  

5 weight Freshwater Outfit

Largemouth bass  with fly rod and reel.A 5 weight outfit is an ideal all-around freshwater setup. It is perfect for panfish and small bass and works great for trout as well. It is also what we recommend for our local winter American and hickory shad run. If you are just getting into fly fishing and have access to freshwater, this is probably the best place to start.

I personally love fishing 5 weights. When fishing freshwater, I usually have at least one on the boat, rigged with either a small popper or a small baitfish pattern. While I don’t use it to target larger fish, several of my biggest largemouth bass, including an 8 1/2lb fish caught on a baitfish pattern, have been landed on 5 weight rods.

What’s important:

A 5 weight outfit should be fun to cast. Focus on getting a rod with which you can make accurate casts and, if the situation demands it, delicate presentations. While a 5 weight can handle larger fish, it is primarily a tool for presenting smaller flies to fish weighing up to a couple pounds. A high quality reel is nice to have, but most 5 weight reels are primarily used to hold fly line. If you plan to use this setup to fish for larger fish, choose a reel with a smooth, adjustable drag.

6 weight Freshwater Outfit

A 6 weight outfit is our second most popular all-around freshwater setup. If you plan to throw larger flies and target larger bass but still want to have fun with panfish and cold water trout, a 6wt may be just what you need. It is a little heavy for small panfish but will still work fine.

If you do some saltwater fishing, it is worth spending a little extra to get a rod and reel that can handle exposure to saltwater. A 6wt can be used for smaller saltwater species as long as you fight fish effectively and you are willing to break larger fish off if tiring them to the point where they can be landed will endanger their health.

What’s important:

A 6 weight rod is a “crossover” weight. Some 6wt rods are designed for relatively light freshwater use while others are beefed up for larger fish, bigger flies and more trying conditions. Pick a rod that will do what you want and make sure the line matches your intended purpose. Most 6wt outfits we put together are of the heavier variety. For larger bass and light saltwater use, look for a good, preferably saltwater safe, reel with an adjustable drag and a rod with a fighting butt. A floating bass line, which will load your rod for short casts and carry heavy flies, is a good match. Although manufactured and marketed for freshwater use, most bass lines work quite well in saltwater in all but the hottest conditions.

7 weight Bass/Light Saltwater Outfit

A 7 weight makes a great bass rod. It’s still light enough to enjoy a fight with a smaller bass but it has the backbone to throw larger flies and to pull fish out of heavy cover. For those of us who like to go a little light, it is also an excellent saltwater weight.

Seven weight rods are somewhat underappreciated. They are too heavy for freshwater panfish and too light for many anglers to easily cast on a windy saltwater flat. While probably not the ideal primary rod, this is a great crossover weight if you fish both fresh and saltwater. There’s no weight I’d rather have in my hand when stalking a slicked out flat for redfish or bonefish or for fishing mangrove edges for small to medium sized snook or baby tarpon. If you fish saltwater a lot, then having a lighter rod on the boat when the wind dies to nothing and the tails come up can mean more fish and more fun.

What’s important:

Choose a rod based on what you plan to do most. If this will be primarily a freshwater rod, or if you prefer to make short casts to saltwater fish, get something with a slightly slower action and a flexible tip. This will allow you to make short, accurate casts and to throw a more open loop when using larger wind resistant bass flies. If this will be primarily a light salt rod that may get used in windy conditions, a faster rod may suit you better. Go with a heavier bass or redfish line for closer casts with heavier flies. If you plan to make longer casts into the wind, you will be better off with a lighter bonefish line that has a longer belly and rear taper.

If this will be a bass rod, then the reel will primarily function as a line holder and is far less important than the rod. If you plan to use it for saltwater, then get a good reel with a strong, smooth drag. At some point you are likely to hook into a large fish with a rod that is a little on the light side. A quality reel will allow you to move the odds to your favor.

8 weight Saltwater Outfit

Redfish with fly rod and reel.An 8 weight is the perfect option for redfish, speckled trout, bonefish, black drum, snook, small jacks, baby tarpon . . . basically anything of small to medium size that you are likely to encounter on the flats and around mangroves. If you are just getting into saltwater fly fishing, this is most likely the weight to start with. It is heavy enough to handle some wind and do battle with strong fish, and light enough to cast all day.

This is the most popular saltwater weight. Consequently, rod manufactures work very hard to tune their 8 weights to perfection, and there are lots of excellent options. If you’re going to have just one saltwater rod, this should be the first weight you consider.

What’s important:

For most of us, the 8 weight is a workhorse. It will be used to pound mangrove edges, blind cast for trout, punch casts into the wind for fast moving bonefish, and precisely place flies in front of tailing redfish on slicked out flats. That’s a lot for one rod to handle. 

An 8 weight rod with the right line should be able to punch long casts into the wind, pick up line off the water to reposition, and direct tight loops under mangroves and docks. When you hook a fish you need to have the power to turn it away from structure and control it near the boat.

A strong butt section and midsection will give you the strength you need for long casts and fighting fish. More give in the tip, and possibly the midsection, will give you loop control and the ability to make close casts.

Because an 8 weight fills so many functions, you will want a reel that will excel at whatever it is called on to do. Get a high quality saltwater reel with a smooth drag.

9 weight Permit Outfit

Unless you’re chasing smaller fish, permit are just a little too much for an 8 weight outfit. A 9 weight will provide the backbone to cast heavily weighted, wind resistant flies into the ever-present wind, then effectively fight a permit to boatside. A 9 weight is also ideal for oversized Louisiana redfish, large bonefish in the wind, and big snook. 

What’s important:

A 9 weight should do everything an 8 weight can do. And a little more. If you are fishing for permit you will need to be able to make close casts as well as 60+ foot casts into the wind. You will want to be able to pick up and lay down line easily. Permit oriented lines have longer bellies and rear tapers, making it easier to control longer casts in the air and pick up and reposition line. If you are using your 9 weight for something other than permit, a more heavily weighted redfish style line with a shorter head might be a better option. You will lose some line control on long distance casts, but will be able to more easily make relatively short casts with big flies and punch casts under mangroves. 

11 weight Tarpon Outfit

Just a few years ago, a 12 weight was the only weight for tarpon. Rods are stronger and lighter than ever before, and the 11 weight has taken its place. If you are chasing records, or fishing deep water for large fish, you may still want to fish a 12 weight. For the rest of us, an 11 weight is an excellent option. It is lighter in the hand and will cause less fatigue. Because it casts a lighter line, it can more easily make delicate presentations to spooky fish. An 11 weight also works well for cobia, large jacks, oversized snook, and other nearshore species. 

What’s Important:

You will be casting larger flies into the wind and doing battle with some truly large fish. Your rod must be able to deliver the fly and then stand up to a long, hard battle. Your reel needs to hold at least 250 yards of backing and have a smooth drag with plenty of stopping power. There are some good moderately priced reel options for those who only fish heavy rods occasionally. For those who fish tarpon regularly, this is not the place to go cheap on the reel.

If you’re just getting started, a standard floating tarpon line is probably the best option. An intermediate tip line, which gets the fly down more quickly and keeps it a little lower in the water column will sometimes provide an advantage. 

Try it Out

Once you have your new equipment, spend some getting comfortable with it. Every combination of rod, reel and line will be a little different. A new rod and/or line, in particular, may take some getting used to. Practice casting at a variety of distances to learn the timing and the amount of energy required for a cast.  Try picking up different lengths of line off the water. See what happens when you punch the rod aggressively, then slow down and see how it reacts when it is underpowered. Adjust your drag, making sure you know how rotating the drag knob corresponds to a change in drag resistance. A few minutes of preparation will pay off when a fish comes along. 

We hope this information makes your next buying decision a little easier. While we have highlighted some of the more common types of setups for our area, there are many more options available and lots of potential choices within the suggestions we have made. Please let us know, by filling out the contact form or calling our shop, if we can help you with a decision.

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