Why Are High-End Fly Reels So Pricey?

In the Field & Stream blogs John Merwin wrote about the misconception that fly reels need to be expensive to get the job done, touting the $29-39 L.L. Bean Quest II fly reels for bass fishing. Then Chad Love took issue with the prices demanded for high-end fly reels — as compared to popular baitcasting reels — noting that “in terms of pure functionality there isn’t a helluva lot of difference between a $69 Ambassadeur C3, a $200 Calcutta or a $450 Conquest. But from a manufacturing, materials and machining standpoint I can at least see where the price increases come from.”
The fact is that there is a market for the very best and expensive fly reels because: 1. The simplicity of a high-performing fly reel doesn’t mean its manufacturing costs are low (it’s not cheap to acquire and run a CNC machining shop that puts out only a few hundred products a month, or to buy materials in low volumes, or to tweak an anodization process so that it is almost faultless); and 2. a large percentage of fly fishers want gear that will last a lifetime and perform flawlessly, because its often less about numbers and more about the experience of a particular fish (which we don’t want to risk losing), place (which may not be half a mile from a Bass Pro Shop), or technique (which requires landing big fish on light line, often with the odds stacked against us). On top of that, there are more and more high-performing reels in the mid- and lower price range. You only had to be fishing saltwater in the 1970s or even 80s to understand how difficult it was to find any reel at all that would perform as well as $200 reels do now, and then you often had to wait months or years to acquire one.
There’s some latent irony in the debate about expensive vs. non-expensive gear, and it’s this: oftentimes an expert angler can get by with the cheap stuff, whereas novices stand to gain the most from smooth drags, indestructible parts, lighter weights and careful design. I fish with reels today that I probably wouldn’t have trusted 25 years ago — I knew I needed every advantage I could get. I didn’t know what pull a tippet could stand or what would happen if I cranked down just a little more on the drag or what the appearance of the bare spool under my backing was telling me to do. And it’s a good thing I didn’t have to think about it, because I was doing almost everything else wrong.
Of course that doesn’t answer the question of why fly gear is more expensive than traditional fishing gear and whether that’s a serious impediment to folks who want to get into the sport. It only suggests that fly fishing gear buying — and pricing — has a lot to do with confidence, and with the desire to improve the odds in a game that’s inherently self-limiting in its options. Try presenting a size 22 dry fly to a fished-over brown trout using a 10-pound tippet. Once we figure out how to do that we can really bring prices down.

This entry was posted in Gear. Bookmark the permalink.
  • if we apply the economies of scale principle to this discussion, good fly reels aren’t over-priced. for the sake of easy math, let’s be ridiculously generous and say that 1 out of every 10 reels sold is a fly reel. compare a high-end light tackle saltwater reel to a good saltwater fly reel. the mfg’s have to spread the production, marketing, and distribution costs of those reels over the cost of a production run. and those costs are roughly the same. but let’s be generous again and say the fly reel costs 1/2 as much to make. and let’s set those costs at $200 for the conventional reel and at $100 for the fly reel. marketing costs are also going to scale, but not as much because advertising costs are more static. so let’s add $300 for the conventional reel and $200 for the fly reel. Distribution is different because of the difference in market scale as well, and very similar to the difference in marketing costs. so let’s add $100 for the conv and only $50 for the fly reel. now we’re at $600 to get a conventional reel to the consumer and $350 for the fly reel. but here’s the kicker: the fly reel mfg only builds 1/10 as many! by so doing, the conv mfg cuts the unit cost by a factor of 5 while the fly reel mfg has a factor of 1. this is due to the fixed costs of production running about 1/2 the cost either way, but the other half being divided by the number of units. so the adjusted unit cost in our hypothetical example would be $30 for the conventional reel vs. $350 for the fly reel…or over 11 times the true cost of production. in reality, comparitively speaking fly reels are a bargain because the mfg’s take a smaller unit profit margin than the conventional tackle mfgs do.

  • fabumari

    All those numbers and figures sound good – but you can’t put a price on the lifetime warranty and customer service that come with higher end fly reels.

  • halcyonsancta

    I think it’s a very good idea to always buy the best you can afford at the time. I really like stuff with long guarantees – lifetime if it’s available. The market seems to me to provide coverage for all budgets. One of the nice things about fishing is that some chap with a $30 reel can have as much satisfaction fishing as the gal with her $500 Hardy St. George or the guy downstream with his $3000 vintage Vom Hofe… I am pretty sure the fish can’t tell the difference!

  • The reason some reels cost more than $1000 is so that certain people can show them off and tell other how much their reels cost.

  • Sales Rep

    I would have to agree with a lot of the above – for most experiences, owning a $1,000 reel is like owning a Porsche Cayman in the city – you might realize it’s true potential maybe 5% of the time, but it’s still nice to sit around in, or in this case, cast with. I have a couple less expensive reels and a couple that are in the $350 range and there are obvious performance benefits to the higher priced models that I both appreciate and use – they are true functional improvements as opposed to cosmetic. Then there are those cosmetic beauties that may not showcase any quantum leap in functionality, but hey, if you’ve earned it, then own it. If it gives you joy or gets you psyched to cast or be on the water, then by all means, it is a better reel for you.
    As a rep in the fly fishing industry, I would like to enter the concept of value in to the conversation. I often hear, with my premier brand, that the prices are high and that there are good inexpensive alternatives to my product. True, there are. But if my jacket, and other premier brand’s jackets, last 10 years vs. 5 years, then the value proposition of that jacket is the same or better (say $40 a year)than the less expensive option for better materials, design and function. Those premier pieces demand the higher price up front because they create longer lasting value and a better experience on the water. Add the guarantee mentioned above in another post and often times, if it can be afforded up front, the premier product will truly offer the better value over time.
    That all said, get out and fish where you can as often as you can with what you can afford. Time on the water and practice will take you a lot further initially than the gear you purchase. Once you’re addicted, I’ll show you some really nice waders… 🙂

  • This isn’t really that hard. Shimano can make a much more complicated bait casting reel for way less money than Tibor can make a fly reel for two simple reasons: economies of scale, and quality of materials.
    There just aren’t enough fly fishermen out there to let Tibor produce the numbers necessary to market on volume. R&D and equipment and design costs stay the same whether you’re making 1,000 reels or 100,000. Since Tibor’s still gotta pay for those fixed costs, they have to charge more per reel to stay in business.
    And, Tibor (and Abel, Nautilus, Ross, ad nauseum) all make their reels out of big chunks of aluminum with lots of machine time involved. Those machines are expensive; can’t buy a bunch of them (see volume model). The reels are physically large, adding machine time and cost. Finally, Tibor uses next to no plastic in their reels; take apart a Shimano baitcaster and count how many of the parts are plastic (even the ones that appear to be metal).
    Finally, you’ve got the American worker conundrum. We get paid more here. Period.
    One thing I’ve learned covering fly fishing: there’s all kinds of pressures on manufacturers, and most of them have achieved the best balance they can. They’d all like to sell tons of quality American-made pieces of equipment for way less money and still make enough profit to survive. I’d like a gold plated Bentley to drive to the river. Neither’s in the cards.
    There’s nothing nefarious about pricing in fly fishing; it’s just that we don’t necessarily like the way capitalism balances the scales. Would you rather increase the number of anglers on your water by a factor of ten? That’s how the bait anglers get cheap gear. Personally, I’ll pay for the reel, thank you.

  • headforthetropics

    Base your purchases on the following two questions:
    1. Can you (honestly and realistically) afford that $500 reel?
    2. Will that $500 reel make you happy?
    If you have answered ‘yes’ to BOTH of those questions, then buy the reel. Why? Because life is short it’s OK to surround yourself with all the toys that make you happy. Just be sure not to look down on those with $39 reels.

  • Turnip Truck Driver

    Reels, cheap or expensive, what reels? Santiago didn’t use a reel.

  • Rod Murphy

    My Grandfather always told me ‘”Only rich people can afford cheap items” cheap stuff does not hold up and needs to be replaced…..buy the best and it will last a lifetime…ie: cheaper in the long run…tight lines

  • RiverGeezer

    If it brightens your day to fish with $1,000 worth of equipment instead of $250 worth, do it. Let the whiners make disparaging remarks about your Jaguar as they drive by in their Pintos. There’s a reason why those who can afford the best usually buy the best.