I learned the hard way that the best equipment—and thus frequently the most expensive—almost invariably costs the least in the long run.
I was eight or nine years old, and desperately craved a fishing rod and reel to use on a three-acre pond that existed improbably barely a mile from our house outside Tucson, Arizona. The pond was fed by Sabino Creek, and boasted a population of sunfish and largemouth bass—a miraculous opportunity for a desert kid addicted to magazines such as Field and Stream and Sports Afield, which seemed to focus almost entirely on bucolic Catskill trout streams and Minnesota lakes.
I had a job sweeping porches and cleaning the yards of empty new houses waiting to be sold in our sprawling rural neighborhood (50 cents per unit if memory serves), and was slowly saving for a beautiful Shakespeare open-face spinning reel and rod set on display at the Save-Co in town. Then my friend Bruce, always above me on the childhood income scale, showed up with a superb matched Mitchell/Garcia set. Rats, as we said then. Next trip to the store, the Shakespeare combination gleamed at me, still out of reach—but another set in a blister pack was priced exactly at the amount of cash I had, and half the figure on the Shakespeare tag. So I brought home a little push-button spincasting reel called a Compac BEARCAT and its five-foot fiberglass rod.
Sigh . . . Big mistake.
While Bruce’s Mitchell/Garcia reel and sturdy six-foot rod immediately went to work hauling in sunfish and bass for our pond-side campfire and Boy Scout frying pan, my pot-metal push-button alternative immediately went to work malfunctioning. A typical session would go like this: I wind up for a cast, flip the rod forward, and release the button to freespool the line. My lure zings away in an elegant arc toward the eagerly waiting fish—but then the spool cover of the reel detaches and flies off on its own tangent trajectory, taking a loop of line with it. This causes the lure to abruptly reverse its elegant arc and come whizzing back to embed itself in the tip guide of the rod with a thwack.
There were other issues with the reel, and within six months the rod had begun to delaminate and shed vicious little fiberglass splinters. I did manage to catch some fish with that miserable bit of equipment, but the fatal flaw in my impatient attempt at thrift jelled into a lesson that has stuck ever since. When I bought my first external-frame backpack a couple years later, I gritted my teeth and waited, ignored the cheapo stuff, and paid—what was it, $19.95?—for a Camp Trails pack and frame combination, which served yoeman’s duty for the next ten years until I switched to an internal-frame Gregory Snow Creek, again the top of the line at the time and again a faithful and durable piece of equipment—in fact I still have it and could easily rotate it back into use.
In the early 1980s I learned about a new outdoor equipment company called Marmot Mountain Works. They were pioneers in manufacturing Gore-Tex outerwear and sleeping bags, and produced only exceptional, U.S.-made gear—at wincingly exceptional prices*. Nevertheless, over the course of a couple of years I managed to invest in a Warm II Gore-Tex down parka, a bantamweight Gore-Tex goose-down sleeping bag called a Grouse, and an utterly bombproof three-hoop mountaineering tent called a Taku.
That was 30 years ago. I still have every one of those items, and still regularly use all but the tent (which is tight for a couple). The sleeping bag retains probably 90 percent of its original loft; the parka is still the warmest piece of clothing I own. (And that last bit brings up the other salient advantage to high-quality equipment: It doesn’t just last longer; it works better too. You don’t gain much even if your cheap gear lasts a long time if you have to put up with substandard performance in the meantime—you might find yourself wishing it would wear out.) My amortized cost for that parka and sleeping bag must be literally pennies per use.
Thus, despite a penurious career as a freelance writer, I’ve remained faithful to the Church of Good Equipment, whether it be fishing rods, vehicles, or anything in between. Very frequently this has meant waiting for things I wanted right now, or buying used when I wanted shiny and new, and it’s always meant choosing priorities rather than buying every expensive item that strikes my fancy like some Robb Report subscriber. I’m reminded of the clueless interviewer who asked fishing writer John Gierach how a guy with a leaky roof and a 20-year-old truck in need of a valve job could afford a collection of vintage split-cane fly rods. Gierach just looked at the guy and said, “Isn’t it obvious?” Whenever anyone hints that I have more money than I let on, I point to our own cottage in the desert, which encloses a full 350 square feet under its (non-leaking) roof. We have more cover for our vehicles and equipment than we do for ourselves. That’s my kind of prioritizing—fortunately I’m blessed with a wife who agrees.
We’re lucky—not everyone can make such clear-cut choices in today’s world. Raising a family, in particular, creates overreaching priorities that push all others to the rear. Nevertheless, no matter what your circumstances, I’ll always maintain that defaulting to higher quality will save you money—and potentially a lot of grief—in the long run.
Especially if you live near a bass pond.
*Sadly, not any more. Like so many other such makers (including Camp Trails and Gregory), Marmot was sold off by its founder and now produces products offshore. Much of it is still good stuff, but . . . not the same.