Fly-fishing is fun because it’s hard. While any mouth breather with spinning gear can hurl Powerbait into a river, fly-fishing demands paying extra-close attention to discrete changes in bug activity, river conditions, and water temperature to hook a choosey rainbow trout or stealthy big brown. In this challenge lies the joy.
Fly-fishing quickly becomes crazy-making, however, if your gear falls apart or underperforms and thwarts your attempts to coax a trout to eat. This dry bag’s worth of gear includes items from across the price spectrum and stuff I’ve tested and used on dozens of outings. If a trout gets away, this reliable, performance-oriented kit won’t be to blame.
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An Ideal Trout Setup
Sage Trout LL
The Sage LL is the ideal dry-fly rod, or damn near close to it. The reincarnation of Sage’s Light Line series from the ’90s, the medium-action LL loads smoothly at the midsection and unrolls line for über-delicate presentations; I enjoyed the heck out of casting it to high-country cutthroat last year. Yet, for all the LL’s buttery smoothness, it doesn’t feel like a wet noodle in my hand. I’ve had no problem making tight, technical casts with it, or zipping flies across midsize streams. Available in three- to six-weights, the LL will set you back a tidy sum, especially if you pair it with Sage’s gorgeous Trout reel. Still, it’s my desert-island rod—assuming desert islands have rising trout.
Moonshine Rod Co. The Drifter
Over the past few years, Tennessee-based Moonshine Rod Co. has been making stans out of trout bums, and the Drifter makes plain why. Proletarian-priced and handsomely built, the rod outperforms competitor models that cost twice as much. Equally impressive, the Drifter comes with a lifetime warranty and a spare tip, a rarity not only for a sub-$200 fly rod but for any fly rod. It’s available in ten different weight-and-length combos, from a 7.5-foot three-weight to an 11-foot seven-weight trout Spey. I’ve been fishing with the three-weight recently, and I suspect I’ll start seeing more of them on the river as the Drifter earns more converts.
Orvis Encounter 5-Weight 9-Foot Fly Rod Outfit
Orvis owns the entry-level rod market, in large part because of the Encounter outfit. The five-weight 9-foot rod comes with everything a fledgling angler needs to get started (short of tippet and flies): a reel, floating line, backing, and a leader. The Encounter, given its weight, can handle trout, smallmouth, pike, and a number of saltwater species. It’s not the absolute best-casting stick on the river, but that hardly matters when you’re learning. You need something that’s durable, suited for a variety of different species, and not stupid expensive—assuming you also need to buy waders, boots, and a mile-long list of other gear. The Encounter checks all those boxes.
Steelhead and Salmon Spey Rod
Sage X Spey
Sage makes some of the world’s top single-handed trout rods, so it’s no great shock that the company also produces a mighty fine two-handed rod for landing bigger species. The fast-casting X Spey produces tons of power and speed, which makes shooting line a relative cinch. Sage’s proprietary KonneticHD Technology is largely responsible; the high-density composite fiber makes the graphite blank recover fast and results in super-tight line loops. I am by no means a champion Spey caster, yet I had little trouble launching streamers on the Deschutes last season, owing largely to the X Spey.
Trout Spey Rod
Redington Claymore Trout Spey
It’s a head-scratcher why more anglers don’t use trout Speys. These mini two-handed rods help you rocket streamers to trout dozens of yards beyond most anglers’ reach, and, given their lightweight sizes, won’t overpower your catch when you get an eat. Better yet, they require almost no backcasting space, a huge perk if fly-snagging trees hug the bank (and when do they not?). The fast-action Claymore is a particularly stellar trout Spey, and not a terribly pricey one at that. The two-weight 11-foot model I tested was fairly stiff, in a good way, so that I could really feel the rod load and shoot line, and yet the tip’s sensitivity was comparable that of a nice six- or eight-weight single-handed trout rod.
I have three Hydros reels, in various sizes, and I’m surprised I don’t own more. The large-arbor design is big, chunky, and perfect—and also not terribly heavy, at 7.7 ounces or less. I hate babying gear, and the reasonably priced Hydros doesn’t need to be, with fully sealed bearings and a sturdy aluminum-alloy body. Orvis has tweaked the Hydros a good bit over the years. The current iteration retrieves an impressive ten inches per turn. But the main appeal is the smooth drag, which can be cranked up to 14 pounds of resistance, in the event you hook a giant.
The Zero is a model of simplicity. Introduced in 2016, the roughly three-ounce minimalist reel harkens back to old-school click-and-pawls, like the Pflueger Medalist, which use a simple gear system to apply line tension, as opposed to a modern disk-drag system. The result is a less fussy design that’s virtually fail-proof. The catch is that click-and-pawls exert next to no resistance, so if a fat trout or smallmouth runs with your lure, you’ll have to palm the reel to slow it down. But that’s a fun challenge should you have the good fortune of hooking such a trophy.
Flycraft Stealth Base Package
For many anglers—at least those of us who don’t spend our days giddily rolling around in piles of cash—a five-figure McKenzie-style drift boat is prohibitively expensive. The inflatable two-person Flycraft Stealth is not only far more affordable, it’s also a great little boat by any measure, and easy to transport. The Base Package includes a 12 by 3.8-foot raft, an aluminum frame, oarlocks, seats, a pump, an anchor system, and nearly everything else you need to hit the water. A few years ago, a buddy and I wore out smallmouth on the Raritan River in a Flycraft Stealth, then easily loaded it in the back of his pickup at the end of the float. Good luck trying that with a McKenzie.
Outcast Fish Cat 4 LCS
Let’s say you don’t have a spare $3,295 lying around, and a Flycraft remains financially out of the question. You can still get to hard-to-reach hotspots with the Outcast Fish Cast 4. The 14-pound pontoon has a 250-pound load capacity and includes two large storage compartments for gear. Also, you can trick out the float tube with accessories and upgrades.
Simms Freestone 12-Liter
I’ve been using a Freestone Fishing Hip Pack for the past two seasons and have no intention of changing things up. With a 12-liter capacity, the water-resistant Freestone is large enough to hold at least two fly boxes, a sandwich, a small first-aid kit, and other personal effects. Then, on the outside, the pack has straps for securing a water bottle, three handy little side pockets for tippet and other odds and ends, and—perhaps most novel—a back-panel sleeve for securing a net. The Simms Flyweight Pack Fishing Vest is a good alternative if you have to hike deep into the backcountry to your favorite fishing spot.
Cliff Outdoors The Super Days Worth
There’s little difference between most fly boxes, since they all more or less accomplish the basic task of keeping your flies in place. An exception is the especially crafty Super Days Worth, a 6-by-4-inch, triple-layer box made in Wyoming. Foam strips on the right panel store dry flies, while an adjacent solid foam piece holds meaty streamers, without the hackles of either getting crushed when the box is closed. On a third panel, six magnetic-backed compartments keep midges and other tiny flies in place. That way, you can keep a full fly arsenal on hand, in one box, during an outing.
Nippers & Forceps
Loon Outdoors Iconic Kit
You can get away with using cheap nippers and forceps of the sort sold at most fly-shop checkout counters. But if you favor overbuilt, decidedly tough gear, the Loon Rogue Quickdraw Forceps and Nip n Sip 2.0, sold together in this package, are as indestructible as fly tools come.
The Flyweight makes trekking to far-flung honeyholes a less daunting endeavor, thanks to its hybrid hiking-and-wading design. Each mid-cut boot has a grippy Vibram Idrogrip sole and, at 1.25 pounds, weighs far less than a typical wading boot. I wouldn’t hike the Pacific Crest Trail or anything like that in a pair, but I covered seven miles a day in the Yellowstone backcountry and could have gone twice as far. The Flyweights are perfect for wet-wading but also work well with waders. That said, if you intend to tackle big, swift water and need heavy, supportive boots—especially ones compatible with studs—try the Redington Prowler-Pro. Or if you’re on a tight budget, Cabela’s makes some solid low-cost options.
Simms BugStopper SolarFlex
This lightweight hoody protects against two things that can quickly make a trip absolutely zero fun: bugs and sun. Its quick-drying polyester has UPF 50 protection. More impressive is the permethrin, an EPA-approved synthetic insecticide, that’s incorporated into the fabric to help repel mosquitos, ticks, fleas, and chiggers. I have a closet full of fishing shirts and jackets, but the insect protection distinguishes this one from the rest.
Duck Camp Drifter Relaxed Fit
Outdoor-apparel upstart Duck Camp has gained a strong following since its 2016 launch, and the breathable men’s Drifter pants are no small reason why. Made of two-way stretch nylon Taslan, the Drifters are a bit sturdier than most other wading pants—perhaps their biggest appeal. Plus, they can pass as normal, non-fishing pants, especially in River Rock gray, so you can get away with wearing them to the office without seeming like you just stepped off a drift boat. For women, try the Orvis Outsmart Wading Pants that boast UPF 30 protection and built-in insect repellent.
Simms G4 Pro
Simms waders can definitely trigger sticker shock. But if you want incomparably tough, breathable waders that move with you and, barring an act of God, won’t need replacing after a season or two, they remain your best bet. Manufactured at Simms’s Missoula, Montana, headquarters, the G4 Pros are nearly puncture- and tear-proof, with a three-layer Gore-Tex upper and four-layer Gore-Tex lower and seat. That’s gear-speak for mega-tough. If you do somehow manage to tear a hole in your G4s, Simms will repair them for free within a year of purchase, or for a small fee after that. The G4’s hand-warmer pocket, comfy suspenders, and built-in fly patch are all the more reason to pony up.
Simms G3 Guide Z
Simms doesn’t make the G4 Pro for women for some reason. But the company’s top women’s model, the G3 Guide Z, includes many of the same high-end design features, namely a three-layer Gore-Tex upper and a four-layer Gore-Tex lower. My wife owns a pair, and they’re the only waders she has worn that fit her well and seem as though they were actually designed by women—a frustratingly rare quality.
$268.34 (11% off)
If you can’t bring yourself to drop $750 on waders—and who can blame you, honestly—you don’t have to settle for junk. I’ve worn a pair of Redington’s Sonic-Pro on and off (though mostly on) for the past seven seasons, and they’ve yet to leak or require patching. And those seven seasons included trips to Montana, upstate New York, the Great Smokies, the Colorado backcountry, and beyond. I wouldn’t hesitate to fish with the same Sonic-Pros in all those places again. If you’re really on a budget, try Cabela’s Premium Breathable Stocking-Foot Fishing Waders, which go for around $130. I wore them in Alaska for a week and they did fine.
Yewchati Lightweight Cotton Trout
Filson Dry Sling
The latest entry in Filson’s fishing line takes something that the company does well—dry bags—and merges it with something that a lot of other companies do poorly: sling packs. Whereas other water-resistant models inevitably leave your fly box drenched, Filson’s is made of heavy-duty waterproof nylon that, coupled with a waterproof zipper, keeps its contents secure and non-soaked. And with a 20-liter capacity, the sling has enough space for a day’s worth of gear. The Dry Sling is a bit pricey for what it is, especially considering that Filson’s excellent Dry Backpack goes for $175. But it’s certainly a well-made piece of gear, with only one significant design flaw: no external straps for a water bottle or fly-rod tube. (Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute to The Filson Journal.)
Over the past five or six years, you’ve probably seen more Fishpond nets in the bottom of drift boats or clipped onto fly vests than those made by any other brand. This is no coincidence. Fishponds are effectively indestructible, they weigh next to nothing (less than a pound in the Hand Net’s case), and their rubber-mesh netting keeps your fly from getting snarled. Genius gets recognized.
Rod Travel Case
Filson Rugged Twill Compact
Do you need this? No, probably not. Is it handsome and handy? Hard yes.
J.R. Sullivan is a contributing editor for Field & Stream. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Garden & Gun, and Men’s Journal.
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