Fly fishing on a budget? You betcha!

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

A young guide came to me the other day and asked, “What’s your favorite fly rod?”

“The one I’m fishing at the time,” I answered with a smile, recalling the various rods I own.

The bare bones of fly fishing are a rod, reel, fly line, leader and tippet, and a fly. If you have the money, you can buy more rods, but also waders and wading boots, a vest or wading pack, sunglasses, headwear, gear bags, a net, a thermometer – the list goes on. But, let’s stick to the essentials.

Start with flies. Fish can’t tell what brand of fly rod you use or how expensive your waders cost, but they can see your fly. The best way to get flies on the cheap is to tie them yourself. Once you learn the fly patterns you’ll be using, it’s simply a matter of learning to tie some flies, or shelling out a few bucks to get what you need to catch fish.

Consider leaders and tippets. Why is this important when weighing costs? Because it’s frustrating to fool a fish into taking your fly, only to have it break off due to poor quality tippet or leader. With the invention of knotless tapered leaders a few decades ago, anglers were able to fish a leader that already included a tippet section. However, most anglers use a knotless, tapered leader and tie on a section of tippet material. Over the long term – say a season or two – you save money if you buy multi-packs of leaders in a few lengths and sizes, and have a selection of tippet spools in various sizes.

You wouldn’t buy a Ferrari and put Wal-Mart tires on it, right? A high-quality fly line will upgrade any rod. For about $75 you can find fly lines that are durable and cast well. But don’t stop caring about your fly line the moment you stop fishing. Be sure to clean it after each time on the water.

Use a quality fly rod. When creating a budget for your fly-fishing gear, consider spending a good chunk of change on your rod. Of the necessities, a rod will be your most expensive purchase. With the plethora of makes and models, seek advice from your local fly shop. Cast a variety of rods and, if possible, demo a few before you buy.

The reel is essential, but need not be elaborate. Most fly-fishing situations call for a quality reel, but not necessarily the most expensive one. A reel’s main purpose is to store excess line, allowing it to come off the reel when a fish is making a run. Buy one with a decent drag system and parts that are protected from grit and grime. Ideally a high-quality, fully encased and sealed drag system is preferred, but big fish can be landed on reels with less quality systems. Durability is important, perhaps even more than drag mechanics. Oftentimes a reel’s durability can be felt by handling the reel in the store – if it feels strong in your hand, it will most likely get the job done.

These days my quiver of rods and reels fills a moderately sized coat closet. In that closet is the first fly rod and reel combo I purchased nearly 30 years ago, and a glance at the rod case conjures many memories. The reel still works and my pocketbook would be fatter had I quit at these two. But, I’d be having a lot less fun.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner, owns a guide service on the Missouri River.