Fly Reel Blues
Published Jul 19th 2010
I have always wondered about fly reels. On one hand many anglers describe them as simple line containers. On the other hand most fly reels cost an arm and a leg.
That might seem like a fairly expensive bike compared to what's on the market, but she uses it a lot, and it's a nice bike with an 8-speed internal gear, drum brakes on both wheels and an argon-welded aluminum frame. Add to that an included lock, a kick stand, a rear luggage carrier and a few odds and ends, and the price was not that steep.
Apples and pears
You may wonder why I diverge into biking like this, when I have announced an article about fly reels, and it only gets worse! Next I'll talk about cars.
But there is a reason, so bear with me for a moment.
I want to compare bike and car prices with fly reel prices.
And yes, comparing a complete, modern aluminum bike not to mention a whole car to a fly reel may seem like comparing apples and pears, but the fact is that prices do compare.
Just the rear hub on my wife's bike contains more parts and is way more complex than most fly reels.
But it is probably still more durable than 90% of all fly reels. Think about the harsh environment it works in, the force it endures when you stomp in the pedals and the fact that it will run for years in heat, rain, snow exposed to dust, sand, water and salt with very little maintenance.
And not only did I get that for my 800 US$ - I got a whole bike built around it!
One of my favorite fly reel makers is Lamson-Waterworks. The reason for this love is my purchase of a Waterworks ULA and a Lamson LiteSpeed - both from the time before the two manufacturers became one. These two reels are both design gems if you ask me. The ULA break all barriers regarding shape and weight and is a reel that in spite of its fragile look is very durable. Mine is a living proof. I can break down anything within a season, and I have had and used the ULA for more than ten years.
The LiteSpeed is more conventional with its closed frame and full walled reel case and spool. But the finish and the color sets it apart - matte light gray reels are not common. Lamson has abandoned this color and finish years back, and although the reels are still different, they are more traditional in color and shape now.
The reels are not cheap, though. Like most brand name high-end reels, you're looking at 3-500 US$ for the top-of-the-line models.
A friend of mine bought a Charlton fly reel. Charlton was a reel manufacturer, that made high quality fly reels under 3M/Scientific Anglers' wings, but ceased to produce new reels some years ago (I think they have started production again, but that's another story).
Charlton reels are excellent reels, no doubt, and beautiful too. My friend's reel is a real gem. It's stylish and very well made, and definitely an object of envy.
But if you want a reel for a 6-7 weight rod you are looking at at least a 1,500 US$ bill and should you get the crazy idea of wanting a bluewater reel for a real heavy rod, get ready to part with 3,000 US$! Mint condition Charltons with extra spools are offered at 4,000 US$ and even more. Ouch!
Megoff are not a pair of Russian brothers as some rumors have it, but short for Mechanical Engineering Group Of Fly Fishing. Megoff is Russian and the manufacturer of some real gems in fly reels.
Again: a Megoff saltwater reel is priced close to what's charged for an Indian Tata family car (in India).
I know that that these reels are more complex than most fly reels.
I'm sure they require both skill, expensive machinery, high-end materials (they're titanium!) and quite a bit of work, but I'm almost certain that the process of making a reel is nowhere near as complex and labour consuming as the making of a car. Even a simple Indian one.
But still people pay between 850 and 16-1,700 US$ for a Megoff. A Tata Nano can probably be acquired for a couple of hundred bucks more.
Hardy makes the Zane reel. I refer to it as the inZane reel. It's made in a Titanium version, and retails for about 70,000 Danish kroners here in Denmark, which corresponds to about 13,000 US$!
You don't need to go to India to buy a car for that kind of money. Even with the extreme Danish car taxes I could buy a very decent used car here for that price, and if I went to the US or UK, I could most likely get a cheap truck or family car.
The Zane Ti goes for about 8-9,000 US$ in countries with a softer pricing, and if you aim for the cheap aluminum model, it will only set you back 550 US$.
My fly-gear-is-too-expensive blues
So where does all this number juggling and car and bike talk lead?
It's my fly-gear-is-too-expensive blues.
My theory is that fly gear is so expensive, not mainly because it's expensive to make, but because we are willing to pay these horrid prices.
I once went shopping with a spin fishing friend of mine. He was looking at a top-of-the line spanking brand new model of Shimano rods. Very modern, and with lots of fancy features.
When the dealer announced that he wanted about 150 US$ for the rod, my friend rolled his eyes and almost fainted. He immediately started a very hard bargaining round with the clerk to reduce the price and get some add-ons. He wound up paying significantly less than the list price, which was already very reasonable.
When was the last time you bought a new high end brand name fly rod in a shop for 120 or 130 US$?
It simply doesn't happen. Rods in that price range are generally badly finished, no-name, Chinese jobs. A few brand name rods are available, but they are the same rods, just labeled with a brand name.
40 bucks for a reel... a spinning reel
Speaking of Shimano... they are actually one of the manufacturers, who have spinning reels at fly reel prices. A Stella reel is more than 500 US$, but then you also get state of the art, magnesium and the best technology they can offer. My spinning friend would never part with that kind of money for a reel, I'm sure.
But lucky for him the norm is not 500 dollars. Nowhere near!
I was trawling the web for a construction drawing of a spinning or baitcasting reel, and found the Zebco UL461CX, which seems absolutely nice.
Neat and modern design, four ball bearings, line guide, magnetic brake and whatnot. Judging from the drawing it consists of at least a hundred parts (79 part numbers, I counted, but many used more than once): washers, springs, screws, sprocket wheels and all sorts of special made items. It must take even a skilled worker quite a time to assemble.
And the price?
MSRP is 39.95 US$...
Suggested retail less than 40 US dollars!
I have one reel, which costs less than 40 US$ and that's my very humble Pfleuger, which is a piece of toy compared to the Zebco. The least expensive fly reels are generally wobbly composite (read: plastic) reels, and most seasoned fly anglers won't even glance in their direction.
Good aluminum reels usually start at 2-300 US$ and high end fly reels run 5-600 US$. Real specialties like the above mentioned reels cost much more than that as already covered.
There is a difference
OK, I know that operations such as Shimano and Zebco probably turn out products in huge numbers and that they have large factories in China, inexpensive raw materials, cheap labor and trimmed production lines that smaller operations like Lamson and Abel, not to mention Megoff, cannot match.
And I know that stuff like Megoff's is if not hand made from start to finish then at least not automated, and generally is way better than anything Shimano or Zebco has made.
But still. I can buy 10-15 Zebco spinning reels for the price of an Abel fly reel.
I think one of the main reasons for this is that fly folks are willing to pay, while spinning folks in general are not.
As I mentioned in my article about breaking the LAW, I stick to reels, which run flawlessly for years without too much maintenance, but I have owned reels, which literally fell apart or simply stuck and were rendered useless within a fishing season - some even within a couple of weeks after first use!
Many reels are not built to withstand rough use, but are supposed to be treated carefully and cleaned and rinsed after use. Now, a fly reel is not - or should not be - an intricate mechanical construction. The parts are few and the moving parts even fewer. It should be possible to select materials and construction methods that resulted in an almost indestructible reel.
I see very little reason for fly reels to become complex and vulnerable. The ones I have that work best are if not simple then at least with few, well thought through parts and first of all just sensible constructions.
And making them stainless and unable to oxidize or rust should be easy too. Choose materials and surface treatments that will withstand salt, dirt, sand and other brutal substances.
I have kitchen machines which are indefinitely more complex than fly reels, and they have seen water, salt, vinegar, lemon juice and what's worse. And they last. Sure I wash them from time to time, but even so...
I have bicycle parts that have brought me around the country several times and seen more dirt and sand than any fly reel I own. And they last.
I have cameras that has seen almost as much action and water as several of my fly reels. And they last... almost...
Well, I think I have made my point.
I'm glad I don't manufacture fly reels, because I'm sure the harsh reality of expensive raw materials, high wages and steep production costs would kill me.
I know that it's not a dance on roses to produce anything, and hand making niche items like fly reels is nothing I'd personally venture into.
So I keep on buying them at the price they are offered. I rarely buy at full price, but hunt down bargains, buy used and try to get my hands on all discounted products I can find.
Apart from that my reel habits are like most other fly angler's: mostly expensive. You can read much more about this in Breaking the LAW.