John Merwin’s last blog post was both revelation and relief for me.

Revelation because you simply don’t expect the fishing editor of Field & Stream to tell you he uses and enjoys $39 fly reels. Relief because I’ve been shopping around for a new reel to put on a custom five-weight rod and it seems to answer a question that’s been bugging me throughout the entire process, which is: why the hell are high-end fly reels so damn expensive and do I really need one?

Case in point: On the left we have a used Sage 3200, discontinued but still bringing a couple hundred bucks on the used market. On the right, an ordinary current-production Calcutta 200B that retails for around $199. The Calcutta is mine. The Sage I stole from my brother because I own zero nice fly reels, all mine having been purchased from pawn shops for about the same price as a McDonalds Happy Meal.

Take apart the Calcutta and you’ll find gears, ball bearings and lots and lots of forged, machined and intricately-connected parts. Take apart the Sage and you’ll find, well, not a whole lot. Now I realize the Sage is a click-pawl reel and as such doesn’t have a drag but I’ve looked at a lot of drag-equipped reels in the $150 to $300 range and I have to admit I just can’t see why they cost so much. And don’t get me wrong: this isn’t about bass vs. trout equipment or elite vs. Bubba attitudes. The same argument could very easily be made about baitcasters because in terms of pure functionality there isn’t a helluva lot of difference between a $69 Ambassadeur C3, a $200 Calcutta or a $450 Conquest. But from a manufacturing, materials and machining standpoint I can at least see where the price increases come from.

Not so with fly reels, at least to my eyes.

Does my lack of sophistication simply blind me to what high-end fly reels bring to the experience? Are they simply that much harder to make than a baitcaster? It’s an honest question because I’m wavering here on my impending reel choice. On one hand I’m a degenerate high-end tackle junkie who would love to pair up my new rod with an equally classy reel. On the other hand I am chronically impoverished, so if John Merwin says a $39 reel will get the job done admirably and won’t get me laughed off the river (I’ll let my casting do that) then I find it awfully hard to break out the piggy bank.

Any thoughts?