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Gear Review: Eight quality fly rods that won’t break the bank

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Todd Tanner over at Sporting Classics Daily recently did a good review of trout rods from the growing sector of affordable, quality fly rods that perform well. Check out his take on trout rods that “that keep performance high and sticker shock low.” Feel free to check out our similar review of moderately priced 9-weight fly rods, Off the Beaten Path.

With autumn days cooling and growing shorter, and the holidays just down the road, it’s only natural to think about the fly rod you might want to give someone special this Christmas. And for those of you who’ve been especially nice (as opposed to naughty), it’s the perfect time to remind Santa about the rod you’d like to find under your own tree.

Since we’re looking at gift rods, it makes sense to choose models that keep performance high and sticker shock low. With that in mind, here are eight inexpensive trout rods I’ve put to the test over the last few months. I hope you’ll find a great rod for yourself—or even better, for a good friend or loved one to enjoy through the entire 2015 season.

Mystic Reaper sports fine craftsmanship.

Mystic Reaper sports fine craftsmanship.

Before we dive in, I’d like to offer a special thanks to Scientific Anglers, who supplied the System 2 reels and Sharkwave lines for the testing, and to Orvis, St. Croix, Mystic, Redington, Cabela’s, LL Bean, Fenwick, and Sage, who built the rods that made the cut for this column. With one exception—a rod we’ll give away via Sporting Classics Daily—all the gear in this particular story will end up at Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center or in the hands of young fly fishers who wouldn’t otherwise have access to such excellent equipment. By the way, each rod here is a 4-piece model that’s easy to pack and carry. So let’s get started.

Orvis Clearwater, 9-foot, 5-weight ($198)This past spring, while we were rigging up to fish Rock Creek, I asked Tom Rosenbauer of Orvis about the Clearwater series. I don’t remember Tom’s exact words, but I do recall the gist of his answer: The Clearwater is a seriously nice rod for the money. After spending time on the water with this rod, my only concern is that it offers too much performance for the price. I have no idea how Orvis is selling this rod for under $200—but they are.

This particular Clearwater is quick and powerful, with enough backbone to cast the entire line, yet you can still feel it load at normal fishing distances (25 to 45 feet). It throws beautiful loops with very little effort, and while it likes a firm casting stroke, it’s also reasonably forgiving. The cosmetics are nicer than you’ll typically find with an inexpensive rod, and the green blank and black wraps are handsome but understated. If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas gift, the Orvis Clearwater deserves your serious consideration.

St. Croix Rio Santos, 9-foot, 5-weight ($130) St. Croix is known for building extremely nice rods at very reasonable prices, and the Rio Santos is no exception. The rod has a firm butt with a slightly softer tip, and it’s versatile enough to handle a wide range of fishing situations and casting strokes. The Rio Santos really shines with dry-fly presentations at average casting distances. The rod forms nice loops in close, and it’s accurate and fun to cast. Which doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to rear back and let it fly. A good caster can push the Rio Santos out to 75 feet. Its real strength, though, is in tight, where most of us fish on a regular basis.

The Rio Santos sports an olive blank and olive wraps. The black reel seat is utilitarian rather than fancy, but for the price of a night on the town, you can have a well-made rod that will last for years and handle the majority of angling situations you’re likely to face.

Mystic Reaper, 9-foot, 5-weight ($229) It’s not always easy to find a rod that does everything well—drys, nymphs, streamers; in close and far off; plenty of backbone but also plenty of feel—for $750. The fact that Mystic’s Reaper does it all for a third of thatl—heck, for less than a third—is one of life’s ongoing mysteries. I took the Reaper down to the Missouri River, where it handled both hoppers and tiny bugs with ease and came up aces with a couple of truly oversized brown trout.

Just as importantly, the fast-action Reaper throws tight, gorgeous loops and, assuming there’s no operator error, will put your fly on a dime both near and far. I’d like this rod a lot at twice the price. As it is, the Reaper, which comes in an understated brownish olive blank with brown wraps, is one of the true bargains of the fly fishing world.

A nice quiver...

A nice quiver…

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