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Are Discount Flies a Good Deal?

by Philip Monahan

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at ask@midcurrent.com.

Question: I keep seeing ads for ridiculously cheap flies on the Internet. (The lowest I’ve seen is 54 cents per dry fly.) What’s the deal? Are they any good?

Alan R. Nutley, NJ

Discount Flies

An Umpqua Feather Merchants Kaufmann’s Stimulator pattern on the left, and a less “spendy” version on the right. Note the poorly wrapped hackle, non-tapered abdomen, and inferior quality deer hair. Photo courtesy of Umpqua Feather Merchants.

Answer: Yet another front in the battle for customers between fly shops and online retailers is the market for fishing flies. A standard dry fly in a fly shop costs anywhere from $1.50 to $2.00, but there are literally dozens of online retailers who can offer patterns for half that price. Hot on the heels of Zach Matthews’s discussion of how fly-fishing products are priced, it makes sense to look at why certain flies cost more than others.

“Umpqua sells a spendy fly,” admits Bruce Olson, the company’s Fly Manager, but he argues that his products are worth every penny. In recent years, Olson has been buying flies from el-cheapo online retailers and comparing them to the Umpqua equivalents, and he has photographed them side-by-side to highlight the differences in quality. The photos shown here certainly display a sharp contrast.

Discount Flies

Goddard Caddis: Note wrongly angled antennae on the discount fly (right), the poorly trimmed body, and the too-large hackle. Photo courtesy of Umpqua Feather Merchants.

“I don’t want to disparage any country or any particular factory,” he says, “but in order to produce flies that cheap, these guys have got to take shortcuts.” According to Olson, many of these companies use inferior hooks and materials, skip important tying steps (such as laying down a glue base on the hook shank to keep the materials in place), and don’t exhibit much quality control. He described one “Copper John” that he purchased online as missing the epoxy over the shellback and the lead under the thorax.

“So, you may have saved a lot of money on the fly, but it’s not a Copper John!” he says, and he notes that such an inferior version of the popular fly won’t perform on the water the way its designer intended. Without the lead, it won’t sink correctly, and the lack of epoxy makes the fly much less durable.

He argues that anglers should look at the cost of a fly in relation to its durability. If the 75-cent Stimulator in the picture here falls apart after the second fish, but the $1.75 Umpqua Stimulator is good for 10 fish, then the cost-effectiveness of the more expensive fly is twice as high. (75 divided by 2 fish=37.5 cents per fish, 175 divided by 10 fish=17.5 cents per fish.) “You gotta do the math,” says Olson.

Shawn Brillon, the fly buyer for Orvis, echoes many of Olson’s sentiments:

“Its all about quality, or better said lack thereof,” he says.  “The first issue is that cheap imports always are tied on very cheap hooks, with strange sizing. I find that a quality fly has to be tied on [name brand] hooks. This becomes very important for big game, such as tarpon, where sharpness and tensile strength of the hook wire are vital.”

For Brillon, the low-cost company’s failure to use top-notch materials, adhere to standard pattern recipes, and ensure that every fly is perfect means the final product doesn’t measure up. “If you have to tie with junk, often the final product is the same … junk.”

Discount Flies

Umpqua’s Flash-A-Bugger fly on the left and a discount version on the right. Note undersize hackle, the skimpiness of the chenille body and poor-quality marabou tail. Photo courtesy of Umpqua Feather Merchants.

Commercial fly tier Scott Sanchez, who has also worked with Dan Bailey’s and Jack Dennis fly shops, notes that it is possible to find good deals on the Internet, but that separating the good dealers from the hucksters is difficult:

“The Internet has changed the fly business, for good or bad.  The good is that you can find some good prices, if you know what you are buying.  The bad is that you won’t get advice on the flies and how and where to use them, and their quality is unknown.  It is hard to qualify Internet flies. Some are very good, just overstocks, but some are not.”

Sanchez also highlights the ethical problems with buying online, noting that the better-known companies don’t run sweatshops.

“Most fly production is done in third world countries—surely for price, but also because they still work with their hands.  I’ve been to factories in Colombia, and the women have solid middle-income jobs.  In the factory that produces my flies in Bhutan, the head tier makes as much money as a doctor.”

Okay, so you’d expect the companies selling the high-end products to have nasty things to say about online discounters. I trolled a bunch of message boards where folks were discussing their experiences, which seem to run the gamut from extremely positive to downright disastrous. Many posters are completely satisfied with the quality of the flies they receive, while other anglers claim that the flies fell apart or didn’t look anything like the pictures on the Web site. All of which means that you’re taking a gamble ordering from these operations. Perhaps it’s a gamble you’re willing to take.

Strangely, the prices of even high-end flies have actually come down—in real dollars—over the last 20 years. Olson pulled out a rate sheet from 1992 and notes that Umpqua’s wholesale price for an Adams dry fly has gone up just 9% since then. The prices for Prince Nymph and Stimulator have gone down, by 9% and 4% respectively, over that time. Olson credits increased competition as the reason for the price reductions. When you consider the rate of inflation since 1992, you’re paying a heck of a lot less for those flies nowadays. And since you’ve spent a few hundred dollars on all your gear, why skimp on the thing that is most important to the actual fish? As Olson puts it, “The fish eat the fly, not the rod or reel!”

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at OrvisNews.com.
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  • Clifton Hoke

    I’m pretty much disgusted with the big dealers in flies. Most of them have fallen apart just from casting, and come unraveled after a couple of fish. What a waste of money. The smaller fly dealers have been doing pretty good in my estimation and the quality in the hook and construction is top notch. 

    • Steve

      There is no company that has a corner on the best flies. You have to look at individual patterns and find ones you like and have confidence in fishing. Personally, I believe the best fly tiers are the dedicated amateurs that innovate, tie, then fish and test their patterns. I’ve noticed an increasing number of big fly houses hiring these guys and paying them royalties for their flies, guidance and expertise.

  • Steve60

    I have found most less expensive ($1 per fly purchased on line) flies to be every bit as good as those purchased from various local fly shops at $2 a piece.  And, it is really disappointing when the $2 flies fall apart!   Generally, those that have cost less than $1 are of poorer quality. 

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think most fish care about hackle quality when they strike a fly but if you fish saltwater or  water that holds big trout you better have a high quality hook or you will get eaten alive.I can’t imagine going after tarpon with nothing but the best hook money can buy under your pattern.An inferior hook would break or get straightened in a heartbeat.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RHQMUXQTEEBIPCIIQYIE5XOXMY Chicken Feet

    I have flies that cost 60 cents and have caught well over 40 fish on them and they still float.  I also have expensive flies that aren’t worth the thread they are tied with.  you get good and bad not matter what you pay.

  • Bhundl3y

    Speaking of internet flies, what has happened to blue fly cafe? They did sell really well made flies on the cheap side.  Can’t get in contact with them since last summer.

  • Dustin

    If you tie your own they are always tied right and the quality is up to you.  With some streamers and bass bugs approaching $4 apiece you can save some money.  I do both.  I’m not real good at dries (proportions) so I buy most of them.  Nymphs and streamers I do myself.  Nothing like tying a few dozen and stoking your fire for an upcoming trip.  It’s a great way to burn an afternoon in the winter.  Wife watches a movie; I tie 2 dozen.  At the end I ask he what she has accomplished.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Allen-Gardner/10225577 Allen Gardner

    I’ve found the http://www.flydealflies.com sells flies cheaper than anyone, and yet all the patterns I fish with catch me well over 20 fish per fly. when I do the math, its hard to justify spending 2 dollars a fly that catches just as many fish as the 50 cent fly. Just have to find an online retailer you’re comfortable with and make a good purchase. Fly Deal Flies has done it for me.

  • Graham Dent

    Most flies are tied in Kenya and quality varies according to how close you control quality and to do that you need good men watching over production. http://www.theflyfactory.co.uk are one such company where prices are not ridiculous, quality good and service good. Where there are little or no controls on quality then you get a poor fly, so these guys who just by on spec can expect variable quality. I hope that clears the air.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kprincejr KJ Prince

    Of all companies to interview about fly quality you chose orvis? There’s a running joke on the upper Delaware that the trout have the orvis fly catalog memorized…and your talking about a company that manufactures most of its products in Asian slave-states. Bummer article and one that doesn’t really blow the lid of the realities of the fly business.

  • War Eagle

    Phil has to lie to continue to try to cover up for companies like Umpqua who pay less than the lower price on the internet for their flies from little starving companies just as bad. Worse, falsely claim to own. They make more in profit than they pay the starving tiers and then the fly shops add another profit. That’s why their flies cost 1.60 to 2.00. Your article is BS written to help try and fix what is a dying business in every respect. Phil must have to lie to keep an income.

  • Nymphermaniac

    The best quality control comes at your own vise. The best satisfaction comes from the take on the one you made. It’s not rocket surgery, and quite easy to learn how to do.

  • mark

    I wont mention all the bs found in this story. But its very bad written PR. I will take one example. “Sanchez also highlights the ethical problems with buying online, noting that the better-known companies don’t run sweatshops”. Ahh…. Friends and family losing money to good online shops and you take the old fashioned approach to defend. Yo don’t create something better you just say that the others are bad, It’s a very biased story. And i think you should take you readers more serious. What a silly examples!

    You can buy great flies online. People that buy at a premium Umpqua, wasting a lot money. I buy a whole range of nice dry flies between 0,50 and 1,50 per piece. Do you really think that that umpqua fly what is costing twice as much is catching more fish or is better. OR that will cast better with it….. Wake up.

    I also know for sure that umpqua is developing “strategy’ around the life time of a fly. Just ask them. He, when they create flies that never break, they don’t sell anymore. So im sure they have a sort of life time policy around the flies they create.

    The images you use to compare things… how bad, silly, and even sad. Thats realy pr from the 70′s, no 50′s.

  • witz

    Retailers selling at the high end must expect that kind of competition. Fly fishing isn’t only a rich man’s sport any more. I quit buying high-priced flies and began tying my own after a chain retailer asked $4 and change for a glades minnow that a chimp could learn to tie in a few minutes.
    After 2 or 3 strikes, an expensive, expertly made fly looks as bad as a cheapie tied with imperfect materials. Both must still look pretty good to the fish if they keep on biting. My own flies, though often inconsistent and sometimes asymmetrical, perform equally well.
    Here’s my test for online discount flies: See if you can twist the materials around the hooks with very little effort. If you can’t, the fly will do. Sharpen the point before you fish it.

    .