By “cheap” I mean inexpensive (under $100) and by “work” I mean last you for a good while before eventually needing replacement. There are reels that will never need to be replaced and can be given to your offspring when you pass and they will cost you 6 to 12 times what these reels will cost you. These reels are perfect for someone on a tight budget, for someone just entering the sport who isn’t sure they are going to take to it or finally for a young angler who may not have the experience or maturity to maintain a $800 reel. All of that said, the following options are all very inexpensive and will manage your needs. What you want to look for in a reel is a smooth drag, decent rate of line retrieval, durable finish, comfortable handle design, easy drag adjustment, and a warranty. In the case of these lower priced reels, we cannot be as picky about the finish or the machining process. These reels by no means have it all, but will perform well for an extended amount of time. They represent the best of the entry level, under $100 reels. We fished them all and can honestly say that they work well.
KastKing Katmai 9/10: The Katmai is machined from 6061 bar stock aluminum. The drag system features an instant stop one-way anti-reverse clutch bearing. The Katmai ships set up for left handed retrieve, but is easily converted to right hand. The spool measures 3.75″ in diameter and the lightweight reel weighs in at 6 ounces. Drag adjustment is easy and comfortable. Adjustment is smooth as is the sealed drag system which responded well when dunked in salt water. Reel handle is comfortable and reel feels balanced when retrieving line at speed. We fished the KastKing Katmai on the flats this past spring and experienced zero problems. This formidable fly reel comes with a cloth storage bag and a 2 year warranty. ($73.98)
Piscifun Sword 9/10: The drag adjustment and the feel on the retrieve are both very good. This attractive offering from Piscifun delivers smooth retrieve and performed well in our test on bluefish and striped bass to 30″. With zero hesitation, the drag seems like it would handle fast running fish on the flats quite well. The 6061 aluminum machining, especially for a reel at this price point, is excellent. The looks of the reel aesthetically are appealing as is the array of different anodizing options. The multi-disc cork and stainless steel drag system with one-way clutch bearing is smooth on startup. The drag knob is large and studded with diamond plate which makes it very easy to use even with cold, wet hands. The reel is nice to palm when working in a large bluefish or striper. Piscifun provides a 3 year warranty with this reel. ($74.85)
Orvis Clearwater 7/9: Orvis has been in the industry for ages and has managed to manufacture a quality saltwater reel just under the $100 mark. Take solace in the fact that Orvis is here to stay and any warranty issues will be handled by a company that is clearly a stable pillar of the industry. This cast reel gets great reviews with it’s “smooth” stacked Rulon® to stainless, disc drag. It is on the smaller side for a 9 weight but certainly can manage the line weights it recommends. One common gripe is the lack of a spare spool option, but at this price, perhaps it’s just as easy to purchase a spare reel. ($98.00)
Redington Surge 7/9: The Surge features a cast aluminum frame construction and easy to change spool. It incorporates a large arbor design for quicker retrieve. Stacked disc drag system is designed with sufficient stopping power. Conversion from right to left hand retrieve is simple. They throw in a cloth reel bag and offer a lifetime warranty. Owned by the same company that owns Sage and Rio, Redington is a solid company that is here to stay. ($79.95)
Echo Ion 9/10: With a large arbor for quick retrieves and a hybrid machined/cast design, the Ion is a great choice for beginners or those on a budget seeking to balance single-hand and two-hand rods of all sizes. Designed primarily for freshwater use, they can be used in the salt with a little additional care. Six sizes are available. An optional solid brass drag knob helps balance even spey rods. Echo offers a 12 month limited warranty. ($99.95)
A lot, if not all of these reels are available at online marketplaces that have a system of review, be it a star rating or actual comments. As well, there are numerous message boards where people discuss at length the merits and shortcomings of all things fly fishing, including this very topic: What’s the best cheap fly reel? We have outlined a handful of them here and you will surely encounter more if you choose to continue your education on the topic of entry level fly fishing reels. Finally, if you want a reel that will last you a lifetime, this is not the category of reels you should examine. But if you need a cheap reel to get you out fighting and landing fish now, this is a great list of quality candidates.