Gear Review: Affordable Fly Rods
It seems like fly fishing is more accessible and more affordable than ever, and this is largely thanks to the many inexpensive gear options that are available to anglers. However, with greater demand comes more choice for consumers, and many product offerings just don't live up to the hype. For the angler who wants to try fly fishing but doesn't know where to start, or for the experienced angler who wants a backup rod that can preform well when called upon, we've put together a list of our favorite affordable fly rods (ordered by cost). It is worth noting that we have fished and owned all of these rods, so these reviews are from experience.
Echo Base (Retail $89.99):
I purchased this rod using the Amazon app on my phone immediately after breaking my favorite 5wt fly rod on a large rainbow trout in PA. I had plans to continue fishing on a week long trip to visit family, but had only packed the one rod. The Echo Base rod had received very good reviews, was available for one-day shipping, and was only $90, so I pulled the trigger.
Upon receiving the rod, I was extremely impressed. The rod blank was a beautiful blue with alignment dots, and the wraps, snake guides, and stripping guides all looked serviceable and of better quality than I expected. The reel seat is plain black metal, without any wood inset, and one up-locking ring holds your reel in place just OK. The cork grip is sufficient, but is nothing to write home about.
The rod came in a hard rod tube with a protective rod bag inside. The tube and bag seem cheap, but it is great that a $90 rod comes with a protective tube at all and this should be standard with fly rods these days (I'm looking at you, Temple Fork Outfitters).
When it comes to performance, this is where the Echo Base shines (at least compared to its price tag). The 9' 5wt rod is a medium/fast action and seems to have the power of a 6wt rod and is a little slower than other medium/fast rods on the market. It also takes a higher weight line to load up properly, so I recommend over-lining this rod. Its swing weight (how heavy the rod feels when you are casting it) is pretty heavy, but if you want to throw a lot of streamers, double nymph rigs, or big dry flies on larger rivers, you'll appreciate the backbone this rod provides. However, due to its stiffness, this rod is certainly limited at short range. Nonetheless, I have landed trout up to 24" on this rod without any issues. I have also landed schoolie stripers, smallmouth, and largemouth on this rod. While it may not be as enjoyable to cast as some of its more expensive counterparts (mostly due to the weight), it is a rod that looks and casts like a rod twice its price.
Regarding offerings and warranties, the 4-piece Echo Base is offered in models from 3wt up to 8wt. Shockingly, this entry level rod comes with Echo's Full Lifetime Warranty.
Redington Path (Retail $139.99)
There is a lot to like about this entry level rod from Redington. The natural colored rod blank offers a medium/fast action and the power the rod provides seems accurate for its relative weight. The double up-locking reel seat is significantly better than the reel seat on the Echo Base in both looks and function. The cork grip is a combination of cheaper grade cork and what looks like a composite cork-like material at the ends. The grip has a nice look, but otherwise is nothing special. The rod also comes with a hard protective rod tube, which has built in rod dividers for the 4-piece rod.
The Path is offered in weights from 3 to 8, with the 3-6 weight rods having a wood inset on the reel seat and the 7-8 weights providing a metal, anodized reel seat safe for saltwater use. There is also a combo available, which includes a machined aluminum reel, entry level fly line, and a leader. The combo is typically available on sale from several online retailers, with sale prices matching the retail price for the rod itself. I've found one of these sales that is going on now, which is linked in the rod's title above.
Similar to the Echo Base, the Redington Path rod is heavier than most moderately priced fly rods, but can still be fished all day without too much arm fatigue. If you're looking for your first 8wt rod to handle lake run trout or saltwater stripers, or you are simply looking for a 5wt rod to start out, this is certainly a rod worth considering. The Path comes with Redington's Lifetime Warranty.
Fenwick Aetos (Retail $169.99)
The Fenwick Aetos is the winner for performance from our affordable rod lineup. Much to my surprise, this fly rod, often seen on the shelves of Walmart, is a true fishing machine. Of all the sub-$200 rods I have owned and used, this one performs much higher than its price suggests. However, maybe I shouldn't be surprised, since Fenwick has been making quality rods for many years. As with most of Fenwick's rods (both spin and fly) this rod comes with their Limited Lifetime Warranty, which protects against manufactures defects and some user errors for the life of the rod. However, unlike most other fly rod brands, this rod isn't covered for accidental breaks (like from the car door).
The Aetos is a beautiful blue color with individually hand numbered blanks. The guides are black chrome, which some may like, but I do not prefer. In my opinion, they don't look as good and are more easily scratched or damaged than traditional chrome guides. The double up-locking reel seat is a combination of black and silver metals, which looks nice and functions very well. The rod features an all-cork grip that has a nicer feel than the previous two rods, but still uses a lot of filler - meaning it is a cheaper grade of cork. To round out the rod specifications, this 4-piece rod is offered in many lengths and 3wt through 10wt. It comes with a hard rod tube with built in rod dividers.
The action and weight of the Aetos is really where this rod shines. The blank's taper provides a very light and fun to cast rod, while still maintaining the quickness and backbone that we often see in higher priced moderate/fast action rods. The rod provides good touch and finesse at close range, but also throws a lot of line with ease for those 50-60 foot casts.
Orvis Clearwater (Retail $198)
The Clearwater rod has long been a mainstay in the affordable rod category. The last version of the Clearwater rod (prior to its overhaul in 2019) featured an olive green blank, double up-locking reel seat, chrome guides and hardware, wood reel seat insets, and a great taper and rod action. I own two of these "old" Clearwater rods and fish them as often as my other rods twice the cost. However, I think Orvis took a small step back with their updates to the new, 2019 Clearwater rods that are available on their website.
The newer Clearwater rod is a gray blank with a boxy white logo area, similar to the design of the H3 rods. Unfortunately, this styling is not something that has grown on me, but others may disagree. When I got a chance to test cast the new version of the Clearwater, it cast well and certainly felt worth the money. However, it felt heavier and not as crisp as the previous model. I also noticed that the hardware has changed and the reel seat in particular has a cheaper look and is now a single up-locking design meant to look like a double up-locking. However, the up-locking ring does a good job of holding your reel in place and doesn't seem to come loose. The new Clearwater rods come in many lengths from a 3wt to a 12 wt. The rods come with a protective rod tube and Orvis's 25 year warranty.
Even with the recent changes, the Orvis Clearwater still makes our list because of the build quality, 25 year no questions warranty, great Orvis customer service, Orvis rod upgrade program, and the ability to test cast this rod in stores across the US. This rod still casts better than many other rods in its price range, and if purchased as an outfit, the reel and line that come with the rod will last you several seasons of heavy fishing.
It is worth noting that you can still keep your eye out for the previous Orvis Clearwater models, which are an olive green color. In my opinion, these rods are a small step better than the newer versions.
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