Published Feb 18. 2010 - 14 years ago
Updated or edited Oct 28. 2021

Fly Reel Blues

The article is in essence about fly reels, but diverges into bikes and even cars, GFF partner Martin Joergensen wonders why fly reels have to be so expensive. When manufacturers can make cheap and long lasting bike hubs, why can't fly reels be the same?

40 dollars worth of mechanics - This Zebco reel has a suggested retail price of about 40 US$ - about 10 times less than most fly reels, which are sooo much simpler
A Nexus hub - This is far more complex than any fly reel. Yet you can buy this with a whole bike built around it for about the same or even less than the price of a medium to high end fly reel.
A reel must be able to take this! - Any of my reels have to be able to endure a complete submerging in saltwater and work fine after that - without any rinsing or cleaning! This is my Okuma Helios, which has been under many times.
Reels and hubs
Martin Joergensen/Zebco - Martin Joergensen/Shimano - Martin Joergensen

A couple of years ago I bought my wife a new bike for Christmas. Now, this bike cost me about 4,500.- Danish kroners or what amounts to about 800 US$ or 600 Euros.
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!

Lamson Anniversary - The anniversary model of Lamson Litespeed is much like the original - very nice looking.
The new LiteSpeed - The newer LiteSpeed series from Lamson also feature some special designs, but in my eyes the first version is still better than the recent ones
Radical reel design - Lamnon's LiteSpeed reels are some of my favorite reel designs. I like the looks - and they work!
Waterworks ULA - A very special reel both with regards to design as well as mechanical construction.
Martin Joergensen - Kasper Mühlbach


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 breaks 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!

Charlton -
Charlton - The Charlton reels are both beautiful and very well made
Martin Joergensen
Megoff complexity - The fantastic Megoff titanium reels are far from simple.
Titanium dreams - Megoffs reels have their own raw but yet beautiful brutality
Martin Joergensen/Megoff - Martin Joergensen


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$.

It's a reel, reel world! - I've tried quite a few reels in my time, but only few stood the test.
My reels
Martin Joergensen

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.

Rust! - This should not be able to happen on a reel, which is sold as "Completely saltwater and corrosion resistant". Not!
Sand and salt creeps in - Removing the lid on this Scierra Traxion reel reveals that sand has crept in - and so has saltwater of course.
Breaking down
Martin Joergensen

Breaking down

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...

'nuff ramblin'

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.

I had the blues before... about my jackets and my boots.

When people ask me what fly reel to buy, I usually recommend the Okuma Helios reel left and right. It's set at about 120-130 US$ and offers a very good reel for the money. I have had one and abused it in my usual manner for years, and it still works without glitches. For a price of about 150 US$ it's a bargain.
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.


Hi Martin, a short ...

Hi Martin,
a short example for your point: In 1986 I was at a watch- and clockmaker in the Schwarzwald as a Business Analyst. I was told that a digital clockwork cost 2.50 DMark when purchasing it. Another 2.50 DMark for the rest of the watch; plus assembly costs, A Rolex Oyster analog watch was sold for the same price as the digital Rolex Oyster with a clockwork of 2.50 DMark. Its always the same - just find a fool; let him have a good feeling and he will pay for a turd as much as for a nugget of pure gold. Or why using a Porsche to buy milk at ALDI if a FIAT 500 will do the same job.
Best regards

Martin, Rods and ...

Rods and Reels are expensive for one reason only, once upon a time when only extremely rich people fly fished on waters stolen from the common man they alone kept the price high to keep the peasants away. With the advent of lotteries and big wins, peasants grouping together and buying out the rich man things started to change and small firms started to produce rich mans toys at common mans prices. Three or Four firms who produced rods and reels like Sage and Hardy knew that mankind in general are vain mainly, the rich and idle and a few commoners so they kept their prices high to achieve a select clientell who would carry the word about these firms and their excellent rods and reels hoping to get into the back door of the common mans clubs and win over the common man to seeing things their way, thereby keeping the costs of fly fishing high and inflated.
My collection of seven rods consists of Reddinton RS3, Greys, Sharpes of Aberdeen, La Cie, Vision and Abu, Reels are mainly Greys and Vision Koma's these do me nicely and I can cast just as far with a £245:00 rod and a £65:00 reel as most people I know who use Sage and Hardy Rods and Reels. Fish caught Trout only, I do as well as the best and a lot better than the average. Salmon I do not touch the reason for this is simple for each rod caught salmon taken last season were it was allowed, cost the average fool £3900:00 per fish here in the UK, the vain are paying more and more and the rich are still robbing them. Please keep these little things going Martin, they help me to raise a laugh and a chukle, making fly fishing that much more enjoyable. Re the max power remark on comparison of a cheap chinese made bicycle hub and a machined fly reel, investigate chap it is amazing where some of the expensive rod blanks and reels are manufactered. Before being polished and engraved and tarted up and appearing on tackle shop shelves to be snapped up by vain people who put their trust in a name and not their ability. Martin, Thank You again this site never ceases to amaze me.

I've always noticed ...

I've always noticed that many of the budget reel advocates always fail to mention one detail: Pride of ownership. This has nothing to do with snobbery or one-upsmanship. It's the feeling of using a quality made tool, that can one day proudly be passed on to your children. And that pride of ownership is probably felt even deeper by someone who has to work hard and save their pennies to afford a luxury item. I've owned Pflueger Medalists, etc and I have no doubt that they've landed many a fish. But I grew tired of having to glue in the frame screws that always came loose, and straightening the flimsy stamped spool rims that bent all too easily. So now, I buy the best quality reel (and an extra spool) I can afford. I can appreciate it's superior construction and watch like precision, and will one day pass it down to someone who will hopefully appreciate it just as much. And the articles argument about high prices being applied solely to fly tackle is just incorrect. Have a look at Shimano's $700 Stella spinning reel, sold in freshwater sizes no less! I cannot afford a $700 reel to have when I go bass fishing. But I don't deny it's quality, and if money were no object, I'd be proud to own one. Saltwater surf and offshore reels can be even more expensive. Go price a Van Staal or Accurate spinner or Accurate’s Platinum lever drag reel and you'll see that luxury fishing items are not relegated to just fly fisherman. These are QUALITY items. Yet someone who never owned one will be the first to proclaim how "overpriced" they are on some internet bulletin board. I've heard the same argument applied to such diverse products as automobiles ("Lexus is overpriced, my last Chevy lasted 15 years!"), wristwatches ("My Timex can tell the time just as well as your Audemars Piguet") and tools ("I'd be a fool to buy Snap-On tools when I have a Harbor Freight right down the road"). And this brings me my final point. Budget items may very well work under low stress applications, or for the occasional user. But see how many professional fishing guides or tournament anglers use budget tackle. Or ask any good mechanic who relies on his tools for a living if he shops at Harbor Freight.

Look at a Penn 30SW ...

Look at a Penn 30SW international reel. It withstands far greater stresses and has a far better drag than any fly reel, has far more precision parts, can shift between two speeds, and costs $580 U.S.. Penn sells fewer 30 SW reels than Okuma sells Helios reels, so forget the economy of scale argument. Offshore anglers can probably match fly fishers snob for snob, which seems to discredit a link between ego enhancement and the exorbitant price of fly reels. Fly fishers' purchase of $100 U.S. nail clippers, $300 U.S. pliers, and $1000 U.S. fish poles indicates the bizarre willingness of fly fishers to be grossly overcharged is not restricted to reels.

TENKARA. My comment ...

TENKARA. My comment is this; if you fish small waters with small fish all well and good to use a tenkara system. On the other side of the coin if you fish big water with fish that average 4 lbs fishing without a reel is an act of stupidity. New Zealand Dept. of Fish & Game regulations ban this form of fishing for sports fish though it is permissable to fish for bait fish this way and I have had fun catching small rudd at the rate of 60 an hour with what Coarse Anglers call a whip. However this is not what I think sport (Game) fishing is all about.

Well well, maybe it ...

Well well, maybe it is time for some more simplicity and ZEN in our sport. I have discovered Tenkara, the Japanese form of fly fishing with a 11-13ft long carbon fibre rod. Mine is 12ft long and significantly less than 100grams heavy. Reels? Don't need one, you attach the line directly to the tip. So much fun!

Right on the money, ...

Right on the money, Martin. Reel prices ridiculous. My most expensive reels are a Martin 72 multipler and a Kamikaze 9-12wt I use for steelheading and salt water respectively. I bought them new because, I used gift certificates I got from answering on-line surveys. If it weren't for that, I would have bought used.

Large, powerful, long running fish is the only reason you need an expensive reel , is for the drag system. The fact is, for fish under say 20-30 pounds, you really don't need more than a line storage device. You could get away with just a cleat to wrap the line around.

Fortunately, you can pick up reels for around ten dollars, including shipping, on ebay. Fly reels are like cars, never buy a new one. Let someone else take the depreciation hit.

All easy: It really ...

All easy: It really hurts to spend lot's of money for tackle. But the good news (and that is why we are doing it): The only way to cure the pain is not to catch salmon in even more expensive water!

With the current mov...

With the current move to off shore manufacture of product reels are no exception. I have found a manufacturer in china whom appears to give exceptional value for conventional reels, most are less that $100 US with freight. They are simple fool proof designs proven by major manufactureres world wide.
Look at the web sute for Weihai Shinyi Fishing Tackle.
My last reel cost $50.50 inc P&P and I regard it as a real bargin.

I agree that flyfish...

I agree that flyfishing gear in general is overpriced, but it's a combination of what the traffic will bear, and volume. How many spinning reels are manufactured for each fly reel, ya reckon? I'm a machinist, and I know about CNC processes. You can make a million way cheaper per than you can make a thousand.

Right on the nose wi...

Right on the nose with your rant Martin!
Fly reels are simple center pin reels that do not require micro fine machining except in the bearing. The best I have come across down here in New Zealand is all S/S of surgical quality. In this one the spool is bushed with 2 units which run on a shaft with lubricating grooves. Drag is a simple clicker backed up by an exposed rim and your finger or palm. The back and spool are of an alloy, what I do not know. There is no name on the reel and I bought it second hand about 10 years ago for the equivelent of $25.00 US. There is no sign of deteriation in that time and it has been well used and helped to account for many fine trout in the 2 to 4 kg range. Of course as an avid angler I own many rods and reels but this little gem is my pride and joy.

Martin Joergensen's picture

Max, I don't real...


I don't really understand your argumentation... especially not the rod comparison.

When you refer to quality are we then talking finish, craftsmanship, durability, design or...? Quality is in the eye of the beholder. I think my 20 US$ Pflueger is great quality as is my not-quite-so-20-dollars hand and custom made LAW reel. Is the LAW better quality than the Pfleuger? Sure it is! But is it 30 or 40 times better as the price indicates?

What I say is that no reel - and I mean NO reel - requires so much work and so expensive materials that it can be transferred directly into a price tag of several thousand dollars.
That is pure Damien Hirst!
There are lots of reasonable reels out there, which are both well finished, well made, durable, nicely designed and are sold at reasonable prices and not the price of a family car.

Sure you can find this phenomenon anywhere: expensive bikes, cameras, watches and whatnot. Prices are set to what people are willing to pay. If your reels sell fine at 500 US$ why would you lower the price to 100? You might still make a margin at 100, but the nature of business is to make as large a margin as possible.

Well, luckily we're entitled to our own opinions, and while you might think that a Charlton reel is great at 1000 US$ or more, I'll stick to my trusty Okuma's and get about 10 reels for the same price - or one reel and a nice fishing trip.


Again Sir, since you...

Again Sir, since you obviously have absolutely no quality sense by comparing a cheap china made bicycle hub with a machined fly reel, I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that you can buy a 10 meters long telescopic match rod in Germany for approx. £30. In your mind, what objectives justify then that I should spend £600 on a new G.Loomis NRX rod which is only 2.75 meters long..? Yours beautifully, Max


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