The best fishing rods and reels

The best, most versatile setup for almost every angler, whether they fish in fresh or saltwater with bait or artificial lures, is a simple spinning rod and reel.
It’s easy to spend hundreds on a rod and reel setup, but after testing dozens of combinations, we compiled six of our favorites that offer reliable performance without breaking the bank. 
Our top pick, the Ugly Stik Elite rod paired with a Daiwa BG reel, costs less than $200 together, rates highly in terms of durability, and is versatile enough for a variety of anglers. 

Most people don’t take the best care when handling and storing their fishing rods. They either skip over rinsing them off or put the rods and reels away wet, and when it comes time to dust off the cobwebs, they clumsily jam them through doorways and into their trunk or pickup bed.

I know this to be true because this is exactly how I am with plenty of my gear. I don’t want to have to worry about a simple fishing rod and reel — I’ve already got enough going on when making my way down to the beach or boat, as I imagine most other casual anglers do, too.

Enter Shakespeare’s Ugly Stiks, the fishing rods made famous by commercials featuring them being used and abused in every way imaginable. Run over by cars, bent parabolically with purpose, jumped and sat upon by children in backseats of SUVs — you name it, they’ve survived it (more or less). I’ve only ever broken one, but that was only because I had put it through the throes of a full circle out of sheer curiosity, which I admitted to the company before they went ahead and sent out a replacement anyhow.

These are the principal reasons why I immediately recommend the Ugly Stik to most people looking for a basic fishing rod. These are by no means “high performance” fishing rods, and they don’t lend to the same casting accuracy as a meticulously handcrafted rod, but they’ll serve the majority of anglers. The number one problem with most fishing rods for the average person is that they’re made of high-modulus graphite, which is lightweight, but often terribly brittle, especially for something that not only has to withstand the elements but merciless human hands.

Spinning reels, while generally more sturdy, still fall victim to the elements (namely the sea) and general carelessness. While I’ve yet to find a fully sealed drag at a reasonably affordable price, the seals on Daiwa’s updated BG line are as impressive as I’ve seen on a reel under $100, to date.

I’ve had mine for two years, during which time I’ve left them in the rod holders of my skiff on the marsh, dropped them in the sand, mud, sea, and countless times onto fiberglass decks, and I haven’t even cleaned them once. This past weekend, my 3500 series caught me multiple striped bass in the 20-30-pound range without so much as the suggestion of a groan.

In short, this is the most battle- and fool-proof spinning rod and reel combination I’ve discovered, and with marginal care, should survive most hands as long as — if not longer than — most rods and reels on the market, regardless of price.

Here are the best fishing rods and reels:

Best overall: Ugly Stik Elite spinning rod and the Daiwa BG spinning reel
Best trout/freshwater fly rod and reel: Orvis Clearwater IV package
Best saltwater fly rod and reel: Temple Forks Outfitters Clouser 9-Weight with the Redington Behemoth
Best bait and bottom fishing rod and reel: Tsunami Airwave Elite with the Shimano Baitrunner D
Best trolling rod and reel: Shimano TLD trolling rod and reel combo
Best rod and reel for deep-sea bottom fishing: Tsunami MH Slow Pitch Jigging/Casting Rod and theShimano TLD

Updated on 7/20/2020 by Rick Stella: Checked the availability of each selected rod and reel combination and updated the prices where necessary, and updated the links throughout. 

The best fishing rod and reel overall
Shakespeare/Daiwa/Business Insider

The Ugly Stick Elite spinning rod is highly durable, and when paired with one of Daiwa’s BG reels, you’ve got an unbeatable combination. 

Ugly Stik makes some of the most utilitarian fishing rods on the market, and they also happen to be among the most affordable. The Elite spinning series rod is highly durable, and if you do manage to break one, the company will ask few — if any — questions before replacing it within the 7-year warranty. Paired with one of Daiwa’s BG reels (one of the few widely available sealed reels for under $100), minimal maintenance should keep this setup in your quiver for many years to come.

While there are higher-performance, and arguably more durable spinning rods on the market, it’s difficult to beat Shakespeare’s Ugly Stik line until you start doubling or tripling your budget. Although Shakespeare mysteriously discontinued the original Ugly Stik series in 2013 — the hardy rods which truly earned them their namesake — I still use an array of newer models for just about everything but fly fishing and offshore excursions for pelagic fish like tuna and mahi mahi. That’s not to say I haven’t managed to catch these fish on other Ugly Stiks like the more robust Tiger Elite series.

The Ugly Stik Elite comes with Shakespeare’s new single-piece stainless steel “Ugly Tuff” guides, which unlike other rods within this price range, take quite a beating. Some anglers who fish braided line have had trouble with grooves being cut into these guides, which can result in heavy fraying, but I’ve used mine for a couple of years now and have yet to spot even a nick on any of the guides on my rods.

While I don’t recommend braid to every angler (especially a novice prone to tangles), if you do plan to fish with braided line, it may be worth considering stepping up to something along the lines of Tsunami’s Airwave Elite series, but again, I haven’t had any trouble at all.

The Ugly Stik Elite has a soft fiberglass and graphite tip, which, apart from making the rod more resilient to breakage, offers a little more sensitivity that’s ideal for bait fishing without entirely compromising the stiffness throughout the rod, which still makes it a viable lure fishing rod. Lure anglers looking for a stiffer option will find Ugly Stik’s Inshore Select model more amenable, but less likely to survive abuse.

Shakespeare has dominated the affordable fishing rod market for several decades, but the race to create the best affordable spinning reel has intensified over recent years, with several companies going neck and neck. Right now, Daiwa’s redesigned BG reel is hard to beat with most sizes offered for under $100. The biggest difference between the old BG is that the new version is better designed for the increasingly popular braided line.

Lastly, Daiwa’s BG wins out thanks to its partially sealed drag (that is, the stack of washers that keep tension on the reel’s spool). Although it’s more corrosion-resistant as opposed to corrosion-proof, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a reel with a fully-sealed drag at 3 or even 4 times its price.

Pros: Rod is responsive at tip for bait fishing, but keeps a sturdy backbone for strong hook sets and lure fishing; reel is extremely smooth and accommodating of braided line

Cons: Ugly Stik’s new models aren’t as indestructible as their predecessors, Reel isn’t fully sealed

The best fly rod and reel for trout and most other freshwater species

Orvis’ Clearwater IV outfit comes with everything you need to start hitting trout streams right away, which is pretty good for a modest $311.

I’ve had multiple Orvis Clearwater outfits over the years, and the new Clearwater IV has been my favorite for an affordable, all-around trout rod. Yes, you can spend 10 times as much on a fly rod, but it could take you just as long to be able to point out any significant differences apart from actual physical weight. I’ve personally broken three of these rods through my own fault, and Orvis has repaired or replaced them each and every time (sometimes for a nominal $30 fee).

Fly rods and reels are defined by the weight of the line they cast, which effectively correlates to the size of fish they’re designed to target. The Clearwater IV 9-foot 5-weight is about as versatile as a trout fishing fly rod gets, and the mid-flex rating makes it perfect for surface (or “dry”) and subsurface (or “wet”) fly fishing, both of which appreciate softer and stiffer flexibility, respectively. The cork handle holds up over the years, and that is often where other inexpensive fishing rods fall short. But even if your cork handle does start to fall apart, Orvis has you covered there, too.

The reel is nothing special, but fancy fly reels are anything but necessary for most trout fishing applications, and so long as you keep it out of the saltwater, the Clearwater IV reel should last about as long as any. If, however, you must take it into the brine, be especially sure to disassemble and thoroughly rinse it with fresh water afterward, leaving it out with the reel and spool apart to fully dry before reassembling.

Moreover, the drag on the reel isn’t anything to write home about, but it will handle large trout (up to about 10 pounds) in fast water without much, if any trouble, which is about all I’ve ever asked of a 5-weight reel. Fly line, backing, and even a leader are all included. They are all usually separate expenses that easily add up to over $50, so this package is even more of a steal.

Frankly, for a trout rod, there’s little if any need to look further, but if you’re after something more lightweight and technical, the Sage X rod and reel combo is a worthy jump, and the partially sealed reel that it comes with will likely outlast Orvis’ Clearwater IV.

Pros: Versatility, includes line, backing, and leader, 25-year warranty

Cons: The reel doesn’t come well-greased, so make sure to take it apart and apply reel lubricant before initial use

The best fly rod and reel for most saltwater fish
Temple Forks Outfitters/Redington/Business Insider

The Temple Forks Outfitters Clouser fly rod is a balanced, sturdy, delicately-tapered fly rod, and when paired with Redington’s Behemoth fly reel, you’ll have a trusty saltwater setup for under $400.

A 9-foot 9-weight is your standard, middle-of-the-road fly rod and reel for general saltwater usage. A 7- or 8-weight is more popular for bonefish, while a 10- to 12-weight is more appropriate if you’re after tarpon (10 weight for smaller fish, 12 for the 100-pound+ range), and anything above a 12-weight is generally saved for offshore pelagic species like mahi mahi, tuna, and billfish.

Temple Forks Outfitters is a cooperative comprising a dream team of fly fishing’s greats, from founder Gary Loomis (of G. Loomis) to Lefty Kreh, Bob Clouser, and Flip Pallot — among others — and there are few people I’d trust more to advise me on a quality fly rod at an accessible price. One such person, venerated Turks and Caicos flats fishing guide Captain Will Valley of Bonefish Unlimited, swears by them.

The one thing you might notice if you happen to find yourself switching between an outfit like TFO’s Clouser fly rod with Redington’s Behemoth reel and a fancier, exponentially more expensive setup like Sage’s Salt HD rod paired with a Tibor Everglades reel is weight, which does have a bearing on your ability to cast all day.

Throwing a fly rod does tire your arm out more quickly than most other forms of recreational fishing, and a few ounces will make a difference throughout the day, but it isn’t worth the price tag for most anglers, novice and seasoned alike.

Redington’s Behemoth reel has been a hot topic for a couple of years now, and although I haven’t personally gotten my hands on it, the swathe of positive reviews and personal recommendations I’ve encountered — particularly Hatch Magazine’s, especially after reading that it survived a tangle with a bottlenose dolphin (don’t worry, it wasn’t harmed) — have left me in good faith that I won’t be disappointed when I get mine.

Pros: Rod flexibility increases with amount of line being thrown, increasing casting distance, especially for otherwise hard-to-cast wet (sinking) lines and weighted flies; reel has smooth drag

Cons: Rod does not come with a rod tube ($29.95), which you’ll need to buy if you’re going to travel; Reel is not anodized, but few if any reels are at this price

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