Finding stellar fly reels is about as simple as finding a great fly rod – so long as you know what you’re looking for. More often than not, I’ve found that most folks don’t really know what to look for in a reel – especially for trout fishing.
So today, we’ll look at different types of reels, their application to trout fishing, and then go through a list of the best fly reels under 200 bucks that are currently on the market.
Types of fly reels
When you go shopping for a new fly reel, you’re going to run into almost as many options as you do with fly rods. This gets overwhelming quickly, especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. And I think it’s a bit easier to narrow down what you need in a fly rod than it is from a fly reel. Often, fly reels are touted as having a drag system that’ll stop a freight train in its tracks – or some similar marketing hyperbole. But do you really need all that stopping power in your fly reel?
The answer is that it depends – just like everything else in fly fishing – on what you’re tying to achieve.
Most trout anglers won’t find a lot of use for a disc drag fly reel – that’s just the nature of trout fishing. Getting into a fish that demands all the stopping power of your disc drag fly reel is pretty rare. I’ve been fishing for most of my life, and aside from the few times when I was intentionally targeting big trout, I’ve gotten by with a good-old click-and-pawl reel.
Of course, that begs the question – just what is a disc-drag reel, and what’s a click-and-pawl? And why might you want one over the other?
Let’s take a look at that.
Disc drag fly reels
Disc-drag fly reels are the most popular on the market, and for good reason. They offer rock-solid performance, even at lower price points, and have the ability to handle really large fish.
This drag system works based on the same principles that your car brakes do. Metal washers are placed inside an enclosed space, and when you tighten the drag, you’re increasing the pressure those washers place on the spool of your reel.
You run the risk with disc-drag systems, especially in cheaper fly reels, of catching or hitching at the beginning of a big fish’s run. This is known as startup inertia, and a big reason that some fly reels cost so much money is due to their ability to almost completely eliminate startup inertia.
Most disc-drag systems are built to be infinitely adjustable, meaning that there’s no set stopping points on the drag knob for tightening down your drag. This is great, because it allows you to fine-tune your drag to any given fishing situation. However, in a lot of lower-end fly reels, this option doesn’t exist.
Finally, a disc-drag is obviously great if you want to stop big fish. They have more stopping power than any other type of reel. The question to ask is if you really need that power, or if you’d be fine with something a bit less beefy. For most trout anglers, a disc-drag system is really overkill. Unless you’re fishing big water, or consistently going after big fish, you can get a perfectly serviceable reel without breaking the bank on a disc-drag system.
Click-and-pawl fly reels
These are the reels I’ve used for most of my angling life. Click-and-pawl reels utilize a gear, a spring, and a “pawl” or “clicker” to apply even pressure on your reel. This means the same pressure is being put on your line going out, as it is coming in.
You don’t have to worry about startup inertia, nor do you need to concern yourself with tightening your drag during a fight. The one-setting drag system of the click-and-pawl reel makes it incredibly simple and easy to use.
And, while this isn’t true on every level, most click-and-pawl reels are lighter than disc-drag ones. There’s a lot less material in the dray system itself, which is one reason that these reels tend to be lighter. In addition, the reel itself isn’t designed to handle as much stress as a disc-drag, so the click-and-pawl reels are usually smaller. That makes them inherently lighter as well.
Fly reel sizes
Another thing to take into consideration when you’re buying a new fly reel is the size of the reel’s arbor. The arbor is the diameter of the spool where you attach line. In the case of fly reels, this would be the diameter of the spool where you tie on your backing.
Reels come in three arbor sizes – normal, mid, and large. The bigger the arbor, the quicker you can retrieve line. So whether you’re reeling up to move to another hole, or need to reel in line quick to offset a fish running straight at you, a large-arbor reel is usually what you want.
We’ve all had those experiences of using old reels – or watching someone using one – where they have to just wind and wind and wind to get line in. That’s due to their “normal” arbor size, which is fairly small by today’s standards.
I prefer mid-to-large-arbor reels, as I’ve found they really do make a big difference in line retrieval rates.
So, with all of this information percolating, what’s the next step? Well, it’s finding the best fly reels under 200 bucks that are available right now. Picking the right reel depends on your fishing habits, and what you plan to use the reel for, but so long as you’re able to identify what those needs are, and how they’ll impact your choices, you should be good to go in finding the best fly reel for you.
Orvis makes some of my favorite fishing gear I’ve ever used, and their Battenkill fly reel is right up there with the best. It’s a classically-styled click-and-pawl reel, built from lightweight, modern aluminum, which gives it an outstanding light weight and gorgeous looks. The metallic finish is sure to turn eyes on the river, and there’s something joyous about the sound of the reel when a big fish is making a run against its drag.
Again, this is a click-and-pawl reel, so if you need something with a drag that’ll stop larger fish, you might want to look elsewhere. However, for most trout fishing, the Battenkill is about as perfect a choice as you can find. It looks fantastic on older rods, bamboo, or fiberglass. So, if you fish any of those rods, it’ll lend a great deal of credibility to your look on the water.
Available at: Trident Fly Fishing
This is probably the best reel on this list, just from a drag standpoint alone. The Hydros is a cast aluminum product, but it packs an incredible drag inside. And, the updated version is lighter, more ergonomic, and functionally better than its predecessor. The drag on the Hydros compares to what Orvis offers in the Mirage, their top-of-the-line disc-drag fly reel that I’ve used everywhere from Pyramid Lake to Alaska.
The only tradeoff you make with the Hydros is that it’s a heavier reel. That’s how Orvis is able to offer such a great product at a price below 200 bucks. It’s a fantastic piece of equipment, but you’ll notice the weight after a long day of fishing.
That’s worth it, in my eyes, however. Orvis narrowed up the spool to prevent line stacking, and they redesigned the reel seat foot so that you won’t kink your leader up when wrapping it around your reel. On top of that, the drag is further sealed against any kind of dirt or debris that might interfere with its performance. In short, it’s almost miraculous that Orvis put the Hydros out at a sub-200 price point.
But they did, and if you’re looking to get a fly reel that’ll last as long as you can fly fish, the Hydros is your best bet.
The Run is an impressive piece of gear from Redington. It’s outrageously light, especially when you consider that it’s cast aluminum instead of machined. Redington says the Run is designed in such a way that machining it would be impossible, which is why they opted for a cast reel instead.
Regardless of the validity of that claim, the Run is still light, with a pretty good drag to boot. The drag has a bit of startup inertia, but not to the point that I’d worry about losing a big fish over it. Adjusting the drag while a fish is running is easy, and it puts the brakes on fish pretty well. A guide friend of mine on the Green River in Utah has a few of the Run reels, and they’ve stood up to the abuse he’s put them through as a guide.
The Run also sports a carbon-fiber disc-drag system, so it’s similar to what you’ll find in something like the Hydros. For most fly fishing situations, the Run will serve as a more than adequate reel.
No list of the best fly reels under 200 bucks would be complete without the Redington Behemoth. When this reel came on the scene a few years back, it really revolutionized offshore fly fishing. It’s an absolute monster of a reel that’ll handle tarpon, permit, and bonefish, but also comes in sizes appropriate for trout fishing.
The Behemoth is so impressive because its performance far exceeds its price. And the spool design is something that catches a lot of eyes, too. It’s a deep “V” shape, which Redington says helps avoid line stacking problems, especially when you’re hooked into a bonefish going on a blistering run.
The Behemoth is incredibly popular for guides and anglers chasing saltwater fish, and that alone should be a testament to its value. If a reel like this is used frequently in those conditions, then the trout sizes are more than enough reel for even the meanest of browns or spunky rainbows you’re liable to find.
Sage Spectrum C
Sage isn’t the first name you think of when looking for new fly reels, but they honestly make some decent offerings. The Spectrum C is one of their best-value reels. It’s completely die-cast aluminum, but each model of the Spectrum C features an exclusive-to-Sage drag system that’s tuned for the reel’s size. So your five and six weight reels will have a drag tuned for trout, as opposed to the eight weight reels, which likely will be tuned for salmon and steelhead.
The Spectrum C also boasts a large arbor, so line pickup and retrieval isn’t an issue. One interesting thing to note is that Sage decided to machine the drag knob and handle, so you get higher-quality performance from the two parts of the reel you touch the most.
At the end of the day, picking the right fly reel for you and your setup boils down to what you’re fishing. If you’re primarily a trout angler, the bigger reels are a bit overkill. Stuff like the Battenkill is perfect for the vast majority of trout fishing. But, if you’re adventurous, or get into some big fish more often than not, you’ll want the peace of mind that comes from the rock-solid drag in reels like the Hydros or Behemoth.
Go find these reels at your local fly shop, play around with them, and see which ones best matches your needs. Just like with fly rods, it’s important that you get as much hands-on time with the reel before buying it. Doing so ensures that you’re not surprised by the reel when in the middle of a fight with your next big fish.