For years, fly reels were little more than gorgeous ornaments on handsome fly rods. And they all used essentially the same drag system – a click-and-pawl gear system that applies consistent, but little, pressure to incoming and outgoing fly line.
Once disc-drag fly reels hit the market, though, fly fishers suddenly had more options than they knew what to do with. Today, the market is saturated just about to bursting with more reels than you could ever fish in a lifetime.
So, how do you pick the best fly reel for you, especially when you have to consider factors like fishing style, price, where the reel was built, whether it balances your rod properly, and how much you’ll actually fish the thing.
That brings us to the topic at hand. Today, we’ll look at the best fly reels under 100 dollars, and we’ll also go into detail about some of the things to consider when buying a new fly reel.
You Get What You Pay For
As with any product in fly fishing, you largely get what you pay for when it comes to fly reels. The best fly reels run steep prices that are often as expensive, or more, than what you paid for your fly rod. Personally, I think those reels are overkill for the majority of fly anglers. Most of us are fishing for trout, and it’s rare to run into trout on a consistent basis that demand the full stopping power you see packed into some of these reels.
Now, that doesn’t mean fly reels under 100 bucks are bad. Far from it, actually. It’s a lot easier to find a good reel on a budget than it is to find a rod, I think.
Just remember that you’re likely not going to find a brand-new, machined, lightweight reel for under 100 bucks. What you will find, though, are plenty of options with rock-solid drag systems and ample arbor sizes.
And if you don’t know what an arbor is, then this is the perfect segue into the next topic.
What do you need?
As a fishing guide, I’m often asked for my opinion on various gear that my clients use. The question I hear most often is “What do I really need?”
The folks who ask me that question are on the right track, because they’ve realized that fly fishing is less about what you want, and more about what you need to get the job done. Granted, you can get the job done the way that you want (sometimes I’ll fish dry flies all day long, just because, for example), but that’s not really what we’re here to talk about.
The reality is that you need a reel that does just a few things:
- You need a reel with a solid drag that’ll help you land fish quickly
- You need a reel with a large arbor to increase your line retrieval rate
- You need a reel that balances your fly rod
Do you need a reel machined from aircraft-grade aluminum and fitted with brass parts? No. But they certainly look great, which is half the reason reels like that are on the market.
The drag system you pick in your reel is largely dependent on the kind of fishing you do. For example, here in the Rockies, I spend a good deal of my time fishing for smaller trout, on small creeks. There’s really no need for anything more than a click-and-pawl reel, because I so rarely get into fish that push 15 inches.
Now, when I’m floating the Green River – my favorite piece of water in the world – I switch over to a disc-drag reel because the average fish size in that river right now is 17 inches. Combine that with the swift, deep currents in the Green, and you have a lot of force that the fish and river can exert on your line. A good reel helps keep that all in check.
For most trout anglers, you can find a good disc-drag for less than 100 bucks, but the majority of fly reels at this price point will be some sort of click-and-pawl system. Again, for the vast majority of trout you catch, this is likely all you’ll need.
The arbor of a fly reel refers to the diameter of the reel where you attach the fly line backing. The larger the arbor, the more line that your reel picks up with each rotation. If you’ve ever used an old reel, you’ve likely noticed how many more turns of the reel it takes to bring in all that line you cast. That’s largely due to older reels being built with a smaller arbor. This allowed the overall reel to be smaller, which resulted in a lighter-weight product, before machined aluminum was widely available as a reel material.
Most of the reels on this list have a larger arbor, but you can likely find a normal or mid-arbor in this price range, too.
Finally, it’s important to ensure that whichever reel you buy will properly balance your rod. What this means is that your reel should provide enough of a counterweight to your rod that you can balance your rod on just one finger, right near the head of the cork grip.
This balance improves your casting performance, accuracy, and decreases the amount of swing weight you have to deal with. That means you won’t get as tired as quickly from long days of casting flies to rising trout.
So, with all of this information out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the best fly reels under 100 bucks.
The Redington i.D. is a fun reel that gives anglers tons of options for customization, all at a price point below $100. One side of the reel spool is completely flat, and Redington sells a ton of different stickers you can use to decorate it and add a personal touch to your reel.
That alone has made the i.D. a successful product, but cool stickers and personalization aren’t the only reason to buy it. It also has a surprisingly great drag system that works pretty well under pressure.
I bought one of these as a gift for a friend of mine, who needed a new reel for his 3wt rod. He’s caught big carp, brown trout, and rainbows on it, and has yet to complain about the reel’s performance. Whenever we fish together and my friend is using the i.D., it seems like it works as well as you could expect.
Now, the i.D. is heavy. That’s the biggest knock I have against it, since it’s not an ideal reel for lighter rods. But, if your fly rod lies in the budget range, too, then the i.D. should serve as a great counterweight for the usually heavier lower-end fly rods.
All that said, the i.D. is a solid reel, at a great price, and if it’s one that you really enjoy, go for it. You probably won’t be upset that you sprung for it.
The Redington Zero is a lightweight reel that’s die-cast instead of machined. How exactly does that happen? Well, Redington opted for a design they say can’t be machined, and didn’t use a disc-drag system, either. A simple, non-adjustable clicker is all the drag you have, but in most cases, it’s all the drag you need. Plus, the Zero comes in about as many colors as you could hope for, so you’ll always have an option to match virtually any fly rod.
The Zero also has a fairly large arbor, all things considered. It’s not as big as something you’d find on Redington’s higher-priced reels, but it’ll still pull line in fairly quickly.
One of the downsides to this reel is that it doesn’t have an anti-reverse feature. That means you’re more likely to create a mess of fly line when pulling out long sections for big casts. It also means that a big fish can potentially spool you out without you being able to do anything about it, but that scenario is incredibly rare.
I’ve fished the Zero on big and small water both, and it performs well enough on big water to work in a pinch. It really shines, though, working to balance light reels on lighter rods.
Orvis Clearwater is probably the best reel on this list. First off, Orvis is one of the most respected brands in all of fly fishing, and for good reason. They’re known for quality products, and even their entry-level gear is among the best you’ll find.
What sets the Clearwater apart as such a fantastic fly reel is its drag. The disc-drag is smooth, infinitely adjustable, and has little startup inertia. This means when a fish makes a sudden move, there’s almost no hitch in the drag as it engages. In some cheaper disc-drag reels, startup inertia is a problem that leads to broken tippet and lost fish.
The Clearwater is also a large-arbor reel with impressive line pickup. This thing hauls in line quicker than any other reel on this list, and it does have an anti-reverse feature. The spool also releases easily, via a small switch on the opposite side of the drag knob. This makes adding spare spools – or undoing tangles – a breeze.
I’ve used this fly reel on various rods, for tons of different species, and it has yet to let me down. The only thing I can point to as being less-than-fantastic is the weight. It’s a heavy, die-cast piece of gear that weighs down lighter rods, but not as badly as other reels. And, the weight of the Clearwater lends itself well to durability. This fly reel feels darn near impossible to destroy, and even after dropping it on asphalt and rocks, it still works like a charm.
As I’ve already said, the Clearwater is almost certainly the best reel on this list. If I had to pick one of these reels to use for the rest of my trout fishing, it’d be the Clearwater.
Okuma SLV 56
Available at: Amazon
This is the cheapest reel on the list, but it’s still a great option. Okuma is a brand you’ll find at a lot of big-box outdoor retailers, and I see them paired with a lot of entry-level rods. The Okuma SLV is a smooth disc-drag reel that looks more expensive than it is, which is always a plus.
This reel is durable, too – a lot like the Clearwater. If it weren’t for the fact that the Clearwater has a drag that’s just a bit smoother, then the Okuma might take the top spot on this list.
As it is, this is one of the best fly reel options you’ll find for less than 100 bucks. There’s nothing that really makes it stand out from the pack other than its price, and there’s nothing that you can really use as a point against it aside from what you’d normally expect out of cheaper fly fishing gear.
Finding a good fly reel for less than 100 bucks is a pretty easy proposition. Fly reels have come a long way in recent years in terms of functionality and affordability. It’s honestly hard to find a reel that’s a bad one, although they do exist. What you’re looking for in the sub-$100 category is a reel that’s not too heavy, with a drag that’ll help land bigger trout, and hopefully, some anti-reverse features built in to prevent spooling and massive tangles.
The most important thing, though, is to make sure that the reel you get properly balances your rod. Fishing the right reel on your rod can make all the difference, especially if you’re spending all day throwing dry flies. A well-balanced rig makes the days that much more enjoyable.