The rod and reel are the two staple tools a fly fisherman uses to chase fish. But, for many fishermen, the reel is a much less important piece of equipment than they may realize (sorry to break it to you).
Depending on the type of fishing you do, I would sometimes recommend saving money on your reel, and instead spending it on a better rod or higher quality fly line. Of course, buying top of the line everything is the best route, but as we all know, any hobby worth having is a hobby that can get extremely expensive extremely fast.
I, for one, can spend money on fly fishing equipment faster than Robert Kraft in a “massage parlor.”
So, if you’re looking for a new fly reel and you’re trying to save some money, you came to the right place, because we’re going to discuss the best fly reel for under $100 today. But first, let’s talk about reels in general.
What does a fly reel do?
A fly fishing reel has 3 main purposes: to hold the line, to reel in the line, and to provide resistance to fish while you’re bringing them in.
The role of holding in the line may seem obvious, but in many situations, it’s the rod’s most important function. Many fishermen may never have more than 50 feet of line out of their rod, but the reel will still hold more than double that plus 50-150 yards of backing.
Having that extra line in the reel is necessary for “just in case” situations, and to help balance out the weight of the rod. To have to carry that much line around with you while you’re fishing would be ridiculously inconvenient, so having a reel to hold that line is a requirement for successful fishing.
The fly reel also serves to accomplish the task of its namesake— reeling in the line. In situations that we will further discuss later, reeling can an almost secondary task, as fishermen will usually be bringing in their line and fish with their hands. But in other situations, having a smooth, reliable method of quickly bringing in your line is imperative.
And lastly, the reel functions to provide resistance to fish that you have hooked. It does this by at least one of two mechanisms: mechanical drag systems, or manual resistance.
Mechanical drag systems are features of reels that make pulling line out of the reel harder. While you’re fighting a fish, this helps bring the fish in more quickly and safely.
Manual resistance reaches the same result, but it is achieved by simply pressing your hand against the reel as the fish pulls out line. While theoretically this can be just as effective as mechanical drag in certain situations, there are many situations that would make applying manual resistance ineffective.
What should I look for in a fly reel?
So, now that you know a little bit about them, what qualities and features should you look for in a fly reel?
If you’re fishing for small trout (less than 18 inches), panfish, or small bass in fresh water, your reel is going to primarily serve only two of the three previously mentioned functions: holding the line and reeling in the line.
Fish of these size don’t require mechanical drag systems to effectively bring them in. In the rare cases that you catch a fish significantly larger than what the water you’re holding is used to, you’ll often be able to use your hand on the reel to provide resistance to the running fish.
For this type of fishing, the quality of the drag is not at all a primary concern. You’ll be able to fight the fish with the drag tuned all the way down, and it won’t cause you any problems.
But, if you’re fishing in saltwater, for large trout, bass, or any other hard fighting fish, having a smooth drag is imperative for successful fishing. If your drag catches or slows while you’re hooked into a running fish, you’re going to snap your line, cuss like you just stubbed your toe, and lose the fish.
So, if you’re doing that kind of fishing, you need to be sure the reel you’re using has a quality drag. For reels under $100, that is somewhat rare.
Best Fly Reel Under $100
With all that information now on the table, here’s a list of what we think are all contenders for the best fly reel under $100:
The Orvis Clearwater fly reel has one of the most impressive drag systems that reels at this price have to offer. And since it’s is available in 4-6 weight and 7-9 weight, this reel can stand up to the task of most fly fishing situations.
It has a matte gray powder coated finish that makes it look sleek as well as protects it from rusting. The large arbor makes holding large amounts of line and quickly reeling it in easy and effortless. And the disc drag system has the stopping power for even saltwater fish.
If you do choose to use your Clearwater reel in salt water, though, be sure to thoroughly rinse it off afterwards, as that is not what this reel is made for.
This is a quality reel from a notoriously quality company. It’s perfect for small fish, and will even handle large freshwater fish and some in saltwater. If you’re looking for a good first fly reel, or an extra reel to hold different types of line, the Orvis Clearwater is an excellent choice.
Reddington’s Zero series of reels are incredibly lightweight, high quality, affordable reels that come in 2/3 weight and 4/5 weight.
This is the lightest weight fly reel on the market. It utilizes an aluminum-anodized clicker that functions similar to a drag to cut down on weight and cost. The handle is soft to the touch and allows optimal grip and control, even when wet.
This reel is specifically optimal for light weight fishing situations. These can range from fishing small streams for trout to throwing dry flies for panfish. The larger of the two models could even handle medium sized trout on typical trout streams.
The reel comes with a lifetime warranty, though with the strudy die-cast construction, you’re likely to not run into any issues. This is an affordable, ultra-lightweight, high quality reel perfect for a beginner fly fisherman, or a veteran looking to add a smaller rod and reel to his collection.
The Crosswater is another affordable reel from the trusted Reddington brand. It comes in 4/6 weight and 7/9 weight, meaning it covers a variety of fishing situations.
The reel has a sleek design with a matte black finish that is unique in reels at this price range. It’s constructed from durable polymer and has a disc drag system that can handle head shakes, quick runs, and hard pulling fish.
The large arbor design of the Crosswater holds plenty of line and can quickly retrieve it.
But, you get what you pay for. The reel is not known for it’s longevity, and only has a 1-year warranty. For the reel to last longer, you’ll have to take good care of it.
Temple Fork Outfitters NXT
TFO’s value reel is their NXT model. It’s a lightweight, high performance large arbor reel that places quality and affordability as it’s primary aims. In my opinion, it meets them both with flying colors.
The reel is made of featherweight cast aluminum that makes carrying and casting it all day a breeze. It has a disc drag system that’s reliable and effective as any other at this price range, and the easily removable spools make this a reel that can be fished in a variety of situations.
It comes in both 4/6 weight and 6/8 weight, and makes for a solid, go-to reel for freshwater fly fisherman looking for a good deal.
Whenever I’m asked about high quality, inexpensive fly reels, I always have to mention the Pflueger Trion because it saved my trip once.
I was in Belize fly fishing with my dad, and assumed that I would be able to use a rod and reel from one of our guides to fish with on our off days. I was wrong, but desperate to find equipment. The bonefish were swarming off our condo’s beach.
So, I desperately looked around town to see where I could buy tackle. I found a fly shop that only sold $500 reels and $1,000 rods, and wasn’t looking to make that kind of an investment. But I also found a hardware store that sold cheap fly rods and Pflueger fly reels.
I bought the Pflueger Trion and spent hours that week casting at bones, and even hooking a few.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend the Trion to anyone targeting fast running bones like I was, the drag system just isn’t that reliable. But it got the job done, and I would feel very confident using it to fight freshwater fish.
It comes in 4/6 weight and 6/8 weight, has a stainless steel spool, and a surprisingly reliable disc drag system.
Best Fly Reel Under $100
If you’re just getting into fly fishing, you don’t need to spend big bucks on your fly reel. Especially if you’re not fishing for big or powerful fish, the reel just simply isn’t that important.
But you still want to get the best quality reel for the price, and that’s what these 5 reels are. They aren’t the best money can buy, but at under $100, they’ll get the job done.
If you buy one of these reels, let us know what you catch with it. And share this article with your fly fishing buddies to help them out.