The Best Fly Rods and Spinning Rods for Backpacking
Wyoming golden trout taken from a lake at over 10,000 feet
Owner of Alpen Fuel, Shaun, is an experienced angler with two decades of experience fishing mountain lakes and streams in Montana and Wyoming. Back in high school, he was got his start backpacking with a fully inflated float tube into remote lakes. Now he is a little wiser and chooses to leave the float tube at home. Every summer, Shaun plans backcountry trips to explore little blue lines and blue dots way off trail. His favorite high country fish are hard won trophy brook trout and golden trout.
Anglers headed into the backcountry have a huge array of tackle options to pick from. But which rods are best for high country travel? We help sort through the clutter to bring you our top picks.
When people think of backcountry fly fishing, they think of small fish that are easily caught - the type of fish you can catch on a bare hook. While that may be true in some cases, there are plenty of lakes and streams that harbor fish over 18" inches that can put a serious bend in a fly rod. If you are chasing fish in a wide open lake, casting from a barren shore, you need a rod that can throw weighted flies long distances into wind. On the other hand, if you are fishing small streams, a shorter, lighter weight rod is a better pick for navigating brushy stream banks. A smaller rod also makes catching 8 inch brook trout a blast!
Fishing for golden trout, Beartooth Mountains, Montana
When I head into the backcountry, I primarily fish lakes with a few streams mixed in to keep things interesting. Since the fly sizes and casting requirements can be so different between lakes and small streams, I carry two fly rods. This approach serves two purposes; 1) I have the ideal rod for each task, and 2) I have a backup rod in case I stumble and break one. My ideal rod choices are a 6wt for lake fishing, and a 3wt or 4wt for stream fishing. If you are strapped for cash and can only pick one fly rod, a 5wt is probably the way to go. A 5wt can handle weighted lines and flies, but is still small enough to make stream fishing enjoyable. If you are headed to a river like the South Fork of the Flathead River in Montana that has both cutthroat and bull trout, you may want to pack a 4wt or 5wt for trout, and a 7wt or 8wt hucking streamers for bigger bulls. This two fly rod approach has served me well in the backcountry. While I have never broken a rod deep in the wilderness, I don't want the first time to ruin a trip! Even if I am going primarily to fish just lakes (or streams for that matter), I pack two fly rods. You never know when you might have to adapt and change your destination up in mid-trip! Fire closures and trailhead changes can make you switch to Plan B in a hurry.
Our top picks for fly rods have several things in common. They are relatively inexpensive and have good warranties in case they break. You don't need a $900 GLoomis NRX rod in the backcountry to catch fish! Alpine fly fishing is hard on gear. There is no soft place to sit, let alone put down equipment when changing flies etc. Alpine rocks are abrasive and can ruin a high dollar fly rod in a hurry. All of these rods are also 4pc designs, which allows for easy transport on a backpack.
Echo Base - Check price on Amazon
Coming in at around $100 bucks, our top pick for a budget rod is the Echo Base. All Echo rods are designed by casting champion Tim Rajeff. The Echo Base is extremely durable and offers a ton of bang for your buck. In fact, they are the go-to rod for western fishing guides whose clients can be rather hard on gear. We have fished a 4wt version of the Echo Base for the last few years. During that time we have caught cutthroat, brook, and golden trout, and too many bluegills to count. I originally bought it for my wife and steal it every chance I can get! The Base has a medium-fast action (more fast then medium) which is enjoyable and easy to cast, and still has lots of power to punch casts when needed. Echo Base rods come in sizes 3-8wt. Echo rods are covered by a lifetime warranty for the original rod owner. If you need an inexpensive reel to pair this rod with, check out the Okuma Sierra fly reel. It won't win any beauty pageants, but it is definitely our top pick for a budget reel (under $40!). If you want to step it up a little, the Lamson Liquid is a great choice.
Orvis Recon - Check price on Amazon
If you have a little bigger budget, consider the Orvis Recon fly rod. My very first rod was an Orvis Clearwater (another great budget pick by the way), so I have a soft spot for their rods. I fished that rod until it had a thumb indent in the cork from my casting thumb. But back to the Recon. The Recon gives you a lot of performance and quality for the price. It has a medium fast action and is really a great looking rod. The wood reel seat in particular is pretty eye catching. While I don't own this rod, I have cast it at the local fly shop and loved the rod's action and aesthetics. Pair this rod with a Lamson Liquid or Lamson Guru and you have yourself an awesome setup for lowland and backcountry fishing both!
Spinning rods are incredibly effective tools for for fishing mountain lakes. I almost never use spinning rods for fishing mountain streams. Primarily, this is due to the fact that small fly rods are an incredibly fun and efficient way to fish small streams. When I go on a mountain lake trip, I always take two fly rods and one spinning rod (yes I am over prepared, and no I have never regretted this approach). Having a spinning rod along can make or break a trip for me, especially when fishing lakes that have inadequate backcasting room for a fly rod. Spinning rods can be used in a wide variety of ways, from vertical jigging, to casting deep running spoons (our favorite is the Thomas Buoyant), spinners, fly and bubble, and even for small crankbaits. While we won't dive into tactics in this article, a mountain lake spinning rod needs to handle a wide variety of lures and fishing methods.
Trophy 17" brook trout caught on a Thomas Buoyant Spoon
Backcountry rods, like fly rods, need to be durable and ideally have a good warranty or repair program backing them up. They need to be long (6ft or longer) to make long casts. They need enough backbone to land a hot golden trout running over a rock reef, and still have enough bend to be a fun fishing tool. We recommend a light action as most ultralight rods are too 'bendy' to effectively cast and fish even medium weight lures. For lines, 6lb monofilament is usually sufficient. We have caught 8-9lb trout at low level lakes on this exact rod and line setup while ice fishing - it's more than enough to handle high mountain lake fish, especially if you know how and when to apply rod pressure. Plus, the 6lb line will cast far better and give more natural presentation than 8lb. We prefer Stren MagnaThin monofilament. Alright, let's get to the rods.
St. Croix Triumph Travel Spinning Rod - Check Price on Amazon
St. Croix has a well deserved reputation as one of the premier rod manufacturers. We have used their spinning rods on everything from panfish to muskies with great success. Their Triumph travel lineup (4pc) make ideal mountain lake rods. The Light action comes in a 6ft length, which is long enough to seriously launch any lure you tie on. It also comes with a nice lightweight fabric case, which is ideal for strapping onto the side of a backpack. The Triumpf rod is backed by a 5 year warranty.
St. Croix Premier Spinning Rod - Check Price on Amazon
If you want a little higher quality rod and don't mind a two piece (2pc rods actually break less than 4pc rods due to the fact there are less joints to come partially apart and break during a cast or while landing a fish), take a look at the St. Croix Premier series. It comes in a 6.6ft light action. The extra length will give you even further casting ability than the Triumph. You also get high quality cork grips, nice guides, and premium SCII graphite construction. This rod also comes with a 5 year warranty.
Get out into the backcountry and catch some fish! Let us know in the comments what rod you prefer!