by Scott Sadil
I’m always a little surprised when equipment fails. I’m rarely capable of affording the best money can buy, yet like most everyone else I’ve learned from experience that you get what you pay for, and it’s foolish to show up for genuine sport with gear you can’t trust.
Plus, there’s the obvious aesthetic factor: if I’m going to handle a tool hours on end, I want it to be something that gives me pleasure both to look at and wield, knowing full well that much of this pleasure comes from the satisfaction one enjoys as a job gets done and gets done right.
My boatbuilder’s lineup of secondhand Stanley planes, for example, are just about spot on – each one reasonably affordable, with more life in it than I have left in me – tools built to do real work for a lot longer than I’ll be able to do it.
And just so you know: In a brief missive regarding the uneven quality you find in sporting equipment, especially fly-fishing gear, that’s the closest I’ll come to identifying any manufacturer by name.
Still, as with a shelf full of common yet capable hand planes, I glance at my tangle of rods and reels and whatnot and think What can go wrong? Fly-fishing gear seems pretty simple; like those hand planes, not a lot of moving parts. Which is why you’re surprised when, say, that new line you paid $100 for fails to make it through a season, its surface suddenly resembling the paint job on your twenty-year-old Subaru, the feel of the line in hand like running a saw-sharpening file through the increasingly deep – and painful – creases in two or three of your favorite fingers.
Then again, you’re reminded, once more, that although there’s not much moving, what does move moves again and again and again.
I come home from a spell in Baja and, inevitably, I have gear that needs to be repaired or replaced. I don’t know whether to be surprised, or pleased by evidence of so much heavy use. I concede that 50-plus days on the water, fishing by yourself, puts a lot more wear and tear on gear than it might have originally been designed for. But you have to wonder when cork grips disintegrate under the palm of your casting hand, when the insides of guides end up swinging from your line just because your backing knot keeps running off the reel, rattling out through the rod tip.
Reels, of course, will often leave you wondering when enough is enough. Thirty-some years ago, when Peter Syka and I began throwing flies in the Baja surf, we discovered just how cheap our first saltwater reels really were. By way of perspective, this wasn’t long after Tom McGuane offered up what now seems like one of the quaintest passages in all of literature when he had a character in Ninety-Two in the Shade intone, “A hundred smackers seemed steep at the time; but when you’re in the breach, as I am now, a drag like this is the last nickel bargain in America!”
How much will that same reel cost you today?
I faced the question, in the here and now, while piecing together a lineup for one of those trips to someplace new, where you’re not sure what you’re going to find. All you know is that you had better be ready for a little of this, a little of that. There could be some bigger fish involved; I pulled out an eight-weight and a reel and an extra spool that had performed admirably recently on some Alaskan silvers fresh from the sea. Maybe order another spool for a full-sink lake line?
But when I picked up the reel and turned the handle, I could barely get the spool to spin.
I wasn’t as frantic as I might have been trying to locate and fix the problem in some backwater camp. But everything I tried led to nothing in the way of a solution. Something in the drag was toast. Those hot, heavy silvers had left it fried.
A $500 reel designed, I would have thought, for just those sort of fish.
What’s with that?
I’ll let you know if I ever find the answer.
Gray’s Angling editor Scott Sadil has nothing but respect for every piece of fly-fishing gear he’s ever owned – unless it no longer does what he needs it to do.