LL Bean's Quest Large Arbor Reel will run you about $50 and is built from die cast aluminum to survive all of your drops. I purchased this reel based on an article from Joe Cermele at Field and Stream, he's got a lot of experience on me, so I'd listen to him.
I so badly want to tell you that the huge steelhead bending my rod in the photo at left was landed. Unfortunately, I cannot. Nor can I tell you the four other steelhead hooked during the same session were landed. Luckily for L.L. Bean, I wasn't field testing one of their nets in Pulaski, NY, this past weekend. Equally lucky for Bean, my horrible landing ratio was a product of the need for 4-pound tippet, a crowded river, and making dumb decisions at critical points in the fight...not the performance of new Quest Large Arbor reel I was using.
L.L. Bean's Quest fly reels have been around for a while, marketed as introductory reels for beginner fly fishermen. The original Quests are made of a composite resin. This year, Bean upped the ante with the Quest Large Arbor series, which have spools and housings made of die-cast aluminum, and some extra beef in the sealed disc drags. The model I got to play with was the #2, and it sells for only $45.
Even before I got the reel wet, I noticed that the tolerances felt incredibly tight while spooling up some 7-weight line. No metal-on-metal rubbing within the frame or jiggling in the reel foot. I also like the no-click line intake and comfortable inward-tapering handle. Frankly, based on feel, I wasn't at all surprised that when I tied into my first steelie, the reel performed flawlessly. The drag was buttery-smooth, and I couldn't feel any torquing or shifting in the frame when cranking like crazy to keep up with the fish. I own a few reels with much higher price tags that don't perform as well, so I'm thinking this utilitarian Quest is going to become a workhorse I lean on often.
Now, you could argue that one trip out cannot gauge overall worth. That's fair, but let's be honest here: if a reel that's ice cold because of the conditions can tolerate the smoking runs of super-angry winter steel without crapping the bed, I don't think it will have any problems dealing with trout, bass, or carp that won't take a fraction of the line half as fast. Whether you're looking for a new reel, or perhaps a reliable back up to keep in the truck, it's hard to go wrong with the new Quest series that range in price from $40 to $50.