Before I get into particulars here, let me say that I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, a world class fly fisherman. I bought my first fly fishing set-up when I was 17 or so. It cost $20 and came from a then-small company named Cabela's. In those days, they mailed you a catalog and you filled out a form and mailed them a cashier's check for what you wanted.
I actually caught more fish on that first rod using worms than I did using flies. I used it through college, and in 1985, I bought my first graphite fly rod. I think it cost me $75 or so and I thought I was in the big leagues. I continued to use the old reel and line from my Cabela's rod. In those days, to be honest, I used spinning gear more than fly fishing gear.
In 1987, I moved from New England to CA and started to fish in the Sierra Nevada. I got re-hooked on fly fishing. In 1989, I bought my first ever quality fly fishing set-up. The rod was a 9', 5 weight rod from Fisher, a now-defunct company from the LA area. I bought a Ross Gunnison G-1 reel that I still use to this day. I even took a fly casting class and began tying my own flies more regularly. My trips to the Sierra Nevada were infrequent, but fairly productive.
Late in 1995, I had $500 to spare. My grandmother had died, and despite not having much money, she left me $500 in her will. When I was younger, she was the person who took me fishing. No one else in my family fished except my mom's parents. I decided to spend that $500 on a 9 foot, 5 weight Sage RPL+ fly rod, mostly as a way of honoring and remembering my grandmother. And for the past 18 years, that rod, with the Ross reel, has been my primary set-up.
I do have an 8 weight Sage rod that I purchased in Alaska for salmon fishing. That one has a Ross Cimarron reel, but I haven't taken it out of its case in almost 15 years.
When my son took up fly fishing a few years ago, we put an Orvis Battenkill reel on the Fisher rod and he used that. On occasion, he would use the Sage rod and he liked that rod better than the Fisher.
And last season, we both got to take some casts with a 5 weight rod from Rock and River Rods - a company here in Vermont. I may still buy one of their rods for my son. Their rods are extremely responsive and they are a great value as well.
So, that was a long story, but the main point is that I'm not a guide, I don't fish huge numbers of days each year, and I don't cast lots and lots of fly rods. So, as you read the reviews below, keep that in mind.
Earlier this season, I decided that I wanted to get a new rod - preferably a 4 weight for fishing in the smaller streams here in VT. I also wanted to drop the length from 9" to 8'6" or maybe even 8'. I did lots and lots of reading on the internet. For the rod, a review at Yellowstone Anglers provided me with most of my input. I ended up with the Hardy Zenith, Sage One and Orvis Helios 2 as my top choices. For reels, I looked primarily at Abel, Hatch, Ross and Orvis. In some ways, I thought that buying a high end reel on a lightweight rod would be overkill, but I figured I'd go for the best combo I could afford to buy.
For the reel, I read as much as I could, and eventually decided I wanted a sealed drag. That eliminated only one of the brands. After that, price and aesthetics became more important. I loved the look of some of the very high end Abel reels, but the price was simply too much. And, while the Hatch and Orvis reels had similar price points, Hatch had a deal for a second spool at a discounted price.
So, this is what I ended up with:
Hardy Zenith rod - 4 weight, 8'6"
Hatch Finatic 3 Plus reel
I loaded the reel with Hatch backing and Rio Gold line
For the second spool, I've got the same backing and a 5 weight Scientific Anglers Trout line. But, to be honest, I'm having so much fun with the four weight rod that the second spool still hasn't been used.
The rod has exceeded any expectations I had. It is light and I can cast it all day. It loads well and I get more distance from it than I expected. This is part of the reason I haven't even fished any of my five weights this year. Even on bigger water, I'm getting the distance I want from the four weight. The "head length" on the 4wt Rio Gold is 46'. I'm able to cast that distance quite easily with the rod. I can probably get just over 50' on a cast. I'm sure there are many casters who could use a double-haul and get 60' out of this combo, but I'm not one of them. But, fishing in Vermont, 50' is plenty most of the time. And, at 30' or closer, the flexible tip of the rod allows me to be very precise in my placements. When I pick up my older RPL+ these days, it honestly feels like I'm casting a telephone pole. It is stiff and fast, but nowhere near as responsive as the Hardy.
And, that flexible tip is making a huge difference when nymphing. I am detecting way more strikes now and catching more fish with nymphs than ever before. Also, only once this year have I overreacted and set the hook too hard. With the tip flex, I have a little bit of help from the rod that prevents me from popping the tippet when setting the hook.
So, the rod is light and I can cast all day. Despite years with a 5 weight, I'm getting sufficient casting distance. The casts feel precise. The flex in the tip helps me to detect more strikes. Basically, it's everything I wanted and then some.
But, why did I pay so much money for a reel? All a reel does is hold the line for you, right? Well, most of the time, that's true. I know that when people are fishing for very large fish, the drag on the reel becomes a big factor. The drag allows the reel to assist in tiring out the fish. Most reels use a drag based on cork and metal. Most of the time, that type of drag is just fine. Sure, the drag may be slow to release at first and it might not be super smooth all the time, but it usually works. Until it doesn't. And it's usually when you have a big fish on the line that it fails. By then, it's too late to buy the more expensive reel you'd thought about.
Before I continue on to a fish story, I should mention that the reel is beautiful. It's simple and flawlessly machined and assembled. It's a reel I can imagine my son using long after my fly fishing days are over. The reel came with a nice neoprene case. The second spool came with another neoprene case. It looks really nice and it is a nice match with the Hardy rod. But, I was talking about drag.
Trout season often gets off to a slow start here in Vermont. We had freezing rain the night before the season opened this year. I've fished opening day in snow showers in the past. My first few days out this year, I caught nothing at all. But, the first fish I hooked this season was no shrinking violet. It was a fat wild brown who didn't like the look of my net at all. He had aggressively hit a large brown stonefly and wanted nothing to do with the net. Three times, I got the fish close enough that I had the net in the water. All three times, that fish found a burst of energy and took off into the fast current, with only the drag slowing him down. And the drag functioned perfectly. When it was time to release, it did so smoothly. The pressure was even and the release continued smoothly even as the fish got into deeper faster water.
After three runs like this, I got the fish to net, snapped a couple photos and returned this beautiful brown to the river. And then I started to realize that just because I was fishing a lower weight rod, I still had a reason to have a high quality drag system on my reel.
I've been out 8 or 9 times this year. I haven't landed fish every time, but I've done OK. My nymphing has gone very well, my success with the one big fish made me happy, and my arm never gets tired from hours of high-stick nymphing.
I'm sure there are other combos I might have gotten that I would like just as much. But, this outfit has exceeded my expectations and I'm not even itching to fish the five weight rods these days. I'm actually afraid to let my son fish the new rod, because he might not want to give it back.
Yes, it's a very expensive set-up, so high expectations are warranted. But, both the rod and reel deliver in all respects.