One of the consistent complaints I hear from people looking to get into fly fishing is that the cost of entry is simply too high. Experienced fly fishers usually scoff at this, having slowly acquired all their gear over a period of years, but as the Immortal Hank Patterson puts it…
…the newbies have a point. Without careful planning it is easy for your first fly fishing trip to turn into a several hundred, if not thousand, dollar experiment. An experiment your significant other will almost certainly resent.
However, there is another danger in getting started: buying garbage gear. If you are looking to ensure that you don’t like fly fishing a good start is to try casting a bad rod, get soaked in poorly made waders, or spend a day fighting a cheap line. As such one of my goals for the next year is to try to highlight gear that works well at a reasonable price.
The most core piece of fly fishing gear is the rod. Hell, some people don’t even use a reel. However, the rod is also one of the places where things can get really expensive fast and most “entry+” level rods (read: a rod you wont want to replace immediately), such as the Orvis Clearwater and Fenwick Aetos, are hovering around the $150-200 marks. By the time you add a cheap reel, cheap, backing, and a reasonably good line this puts your starter package somewhere around $300, much more than most people want to spend.
To get around this you have a few options. First, you can buy one of the “kits,” which package a rod, reel, and line all together at some discount. This is how I started fishing, as most people did, but the savings here aren’t huge (though see the Echo Base at around $150, which I have never cast but gets phenomenal reviews). Second, you can check the used market, which regularly has these “entry+” rods floating around at steep discounts after people try the sport and give it up. Third, you can wait for an absurd sale on a good rod. Enter the Cabela’s Prime Fiberglass Rod.
As one piece, slow action, fiberglass rod, the Prime is a rod you expect to come out of some tiny shop making crazy stuff to stay afloat, not from a mega-behemoth big box like Cabela’s. They come in weird sizes (6″ 6′ in 4 weight?), are difficult to transport, and I imagine even more difficult to sell. I have no earthly idea how this rod got past the chopping block at corporate headquarters, but God bless the mid-level manager who had the guts to suggest it and the executive who had the good sense to look the other way. Early takes from the king of fiberglass, Cameron at The Fiberglass Manifesto, were really positive and from the first time I held one at my local store I could tell that Cabela’s managed to make a rod that was not only interesting, but also appeared to be good.
Unfortunately the Prime also cost $150+, which is significantly above my “hmmm that looks interesting” outdoors gear budget. Low an behold, when the price fell to a crazy $50 a few weeks ago (as of this writing there are still some sizes available at this price), I just couldn’t resist. Curry jumped on the 7 ft 4 wt, me on the 6 ft 3 wt, and Padre grabbed one of each.
Fit and finish better than you would expect on a $150 rod, and absurdly good for a $50 rod. Compared to my old Orivs Clearwater (which retails at $198), the cork has less filler, the wraps are better, and the blank looks much classier. On the downside, the wood in the reel seat doesn’t look great, the up-locking foot is very thin, and I wish the snub-nosed half wells grip had more figure to it. Still, in this price range I can’t think of a rod I’ve seen that looks better.
None of that matters, however, if it doesn’t catch fish. To find out how they acted with a fish on, Curry and I took our rods to the only place we were sure we could not get skunked, my beloved Fossil Creek.
The plucky little three weight had more punch than you might expect. Despite the fact that it is a slow action rod it has a good strong butt that will do the work if you give it time to flex. Paired with a Leland three weight line and an AZ Wanderings furled leader I had no problem throwing single tungsten-bead headed nymphs. However, when I tried stepping up to a tungsten-bead headed nymph and a size 10 woolly bugger things went awry and the rod ran out of gas. Still, this is stronger than expected performance from a six foot three weight glass rod.
Prior to this trip Curry had been a dedicated Tenkara fisherman. By the end of the day he was throwing reasonable loops, which is a testament to how newbie friendly glass rods are.
It even got him his first fish on traditional tackle before the sun hit the water.
Throughout the day we caught several fish in the 8-10 inch range and had one monster on that managed to wiggle himself off the hook while I was trying to net him. In my experience roundtail chub, the main quarry in Fossil Creek, fight harder than smallmouth of comparable size, and each of these put a solid flex in the three weight. The big guy in particular (who looked to be 12+ inches, only a little smaller than the state record) bent the rod clear to the cork.
In case you are a trout snob and don’t like looking at chub, know that the Prime can catch trout too. On a previous trip I used to rod to pull two nice rainbows out of a micro-stream, both of which the Prime fought surprisingly well despite very tight quarters. There is no reason you cannot bring in good fish on this rod.
We also caught countless, as in we literally lost count, tiny fry. These remained fun on the three, but looked a little banal on the four. If Fossil Creek has any real problem, as a fishery, it is that it is hard to keep the little fish off your fly long enough for a big one to take it. This is a good problem to have.
So what are the downsides? For one, you aren’t going to get a brand-new made in the USA rod for $50. The Prime tries to hide it’s “Made in China” scarlet letter, but if you look close enough you will find it:
Second, it only comes with a rod sock, not a tube. This is acceptable on a $50 rod, but if you were paying full price it would be genuinely annoying. I guess the accountants had to get involved at some point, and in the grand scheme of things it is nothing a little PVC pipe cannot fix.
Lastly, and this is an odd thing to say for a glass rod, my three weight is a little rear heavy. This could be solved by going with a lighter reel, as I am using my Orvis Battenkill Disc II (review HERE), and Curry’s four weight felt much better.
In summary, these are rods that punch above their weight at $150. At $50, they are stupid good. It is rare that entry level prices line up with gear you will never feel compelled to replace, but as small stream rods the Prime falls square into that category. I, for one, will be keeping mine.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.