Thursday, August 30, 2012

Keep Calm And Carry Wildeye Swim Baits

I’m positive that you will enhance your fishing experience once you’ve gotten the hang of fishing with curly tail grubs.  When you fish with live bait, the bait does the fishing, but when you fish artificials, you do the do the fishing by making the lure resemble something they want to eat; you have to know how the fish think.  The next fishing lure every angler needs in their tackle box uses the slogan, “Think Like A Fish,” it’s the Storm Wildeye Swimbait.  They are soft plastic bodies molded around an internal weight.  There are some pros and cons to these lures, let’s just get the cons out of the way and then we will be free to discuss how truly awesome these things are.

My current Wildeye collection.  Note the sunfish
on the right with the missing tail.

Most Wildeye Swimbaits have a single dorsal (back) hook and a ventral (belly) treble hook.  The treble hook tends to get snagged a lot.  When fishing in areas with a lot of snags, you can take the treble hook off; it’s only attached with a split ring.  The lure isn’t quite as effective without the treble hook, but it’s better to lose fish than to lose lures.  Also, a big fish tends to wreck these lures in a fight.  The soft portion may be torn from the solid center, the tail may be bitten off, or the lead weight may be knocked loose from the dorsal hook.  Honestly, any fish you can catch that’s big enough to wreck a lure is something to be proud of.  Release the fish, and keep the lure as a trophy.  And the final issue has to do with quality control.  Sometimes you will get a lure that won’t swim straight, or the tail won’t move during the retrieval.  I’m not sure if it’s the packaging or the production.

Ventral hook removed.

Despite these setbacks, Wildeyes are amazing lures!  They are usually sold in packs of three, and usually cost around $5.00.  They are shaped and painted in many different body styles to resemble a wide variety of small fish that big fish eat, so these things attract just about any kind of fish that may occasionally eat smaller fish, and they are pretty easy to use, just cast out and reel in.  The tail paddles on the retrieve making it look like a swimming bait fish, hence the name swimbait.  You don’t have to work too hard to impart action into the lure, since the tail does it for you.  The final reason you should have Wildeye Swimbaits in your tackle box is because of the size of the fish they catch.  I am consistently shocked by the monsterous fish caught on these!  The smallest fish caught with these was a 10” musky while bass fishing; to this day, it was the only musky i’ve ever caught.  Here’s my list of fish caught on Wildeye Swimbaits.
  • carp
  • chinook salmon
  • freshwater drum (sheephead)
  • largemouth bass
  • muskellunge
  • northern pike
  • rock bass
  • smallmouth bass
  • splake (brook trout X lake trout hybrid)

Suspending Wildeye
Swim Shad.
In streams for smallmouth bass, I like to use a suspending Swim Shad much like I’d use a Mister Twister.  Cast upstream ahead of pools, or along cover likely to hold fish.  The suspending Swim Shad sinks ever so slowly as the current carries it through the pool and into the mouths of hungry fish.  When I “Think Like A Fish,” I imagine the bass think it’s a dazed minnow, and they can’t pass it up!

In the Great Lakes region, when the salmon are running up the streams in late summer, I like to cast a weighted walleye Wildeye (walleye Wildeye, walleye Wildeye, walleye Wildeye) into deep holes just before dusk.  The eyes of the walleye pattern glow in the dark, and this drives the salmon crazy, and they will strike out of anger!  A lot of times there will be deep holes under overpasses that hold big chinook.  If you’re ever driving over a bridge in the fall and notice cars parked all along it, chances are pretty good that the salmon are running.

West Michigan's White River under the countyline bridge.

White River from the bridge.

This beautiful chinook took a Wildeye walleye.

My cute little wife talks to seagulls
along the inner Muskegon Channel pier.
Another place I love Wildeye Swimbaits is deep channels and harbors.  Use a sunfish pattern; you can cast them along the rocks of the breakwater and reel them back in to try to lure out largemouth or pike.  You’ll want to retrieve right away when the lure hits the water to avoid getting hung up on rocks and driftwood.  Fishing along the rocks is fun and effective, but what I usually do in the channels and harbors is cast out as far as I can and let it sink to the bottom.  Reel back just fast enough to make the tail move, give some little rod tip twitches, and HOLD ON!  You’ll never know what you’re going to catch, but you’ll definitely know when a fish is on.  I caught so many big sheephead out of the Muskegon Lake Channel on these.  I know sheephead are not the most sought after fish, even considered “rough fish” (more on rough fish in a later update) but they are among the strongest fish I have ever caught!  The long casting technique was how I was fishing when I caught a 24” splake. Such a beautiful fish, and I didn’t have a camera with me.

In Great Lakes marinas, like Milwaukee’s McKinley Marina there are usually some nice fish, like bass, brown trout, carp, pike, walleye, and in the fall, salmon, but lots of snags.  If you get hung up, make a mental note of it.  You don’t want to lose your lure on a picnic table that someone used for ice fishing that didn’t get removed before the thaw, but it probably provides cover for a really nice bass, be careful!  Fish love the shade provided by docks, and the shoreline has some nice rocks for cover.  “Think Like A Fish” and have fun, I bet you can figure it out!

even carp will strike these! notice the sunfish
Wildeye in his mouth.

same fish, Mckinley Marina, 2010

There is one more lure that everyone needs in their tackle box that I will talk about in my next post.  It’s sort of a last resort, when you don’t know what the fish will strike, you’ll be glad to have this Jedi Master of a lure in your arsenal.  Hope the suspense doesn’t kill you!

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Straight Talk on Curly Tail Grubs

assorted curly tail grubs
My collection.
The first lure that every angler needs is the Mister Twister Curly Tail Grub.  Mister Twisters are very natural appearing soft plastic and the slightest movement in the water will cause lifelike motion in the tail.  You can get a package of 20 Mister Twisters for around $3.00, there are also variety packs with several colors.  You’ll need to buy jig heads as well but those are also super cheap.

Since you have to rig Mister Twisters yourself, they are highly customizable.  You can get heads painted in colors that stand out from the color of the lure, or heads that have eyes painted on them.  I usually get very small unpainted jig heads.  Mister Twisters come in many colors, with the most effective being chartreuse flake, pumpkin pepper, purple, and black, but they are all good.

three curly tail grubs
purple, pumpkin pepper,
and chartreuse flake.  I
ran all out of black.
When rigging, make sure the hook
goes the opposite way of
the tail.
Rigged like this, the tail is more
likely to get hung up 
on the hook.

The most amazing thing about Mister Twisters is that they catch just about anything!  Here is a list of fish I have caught on them.
  • Bluegill
  • Sunfish
  • Crappie
  • perch
  • rock bass
  • bullhead
  • creek chub
  • smallmouth bass
  • largemouth bass
  • northern pike
  • walleye
  • sucker
  • carp

When fishing in a bass stream or river, I like to use the smallest jig head I can cast.  Cast them up and across the current to the head of a deeper pocket, or just alongside cover likely to hold fish.  The lighter head makes the lure sink very slowly and naturally in the moving water.  I retrieve the line just fast enough to keep it tight while my lure bounces across the bottom, and if the line goes tight, set the hook!  In the Milwaukee, I’ve caught many smallmouth, some nice rock bass, one 24” carp, and even walleye using this method.  One day earlier this summer, my dad and I caught about 40 fish in the Milwaukee River in just a few morning hours.  My dad borrowed my spinning rod and used Mister Twisters, I used my fly rod and Woolly Buggers.  It was seriously like video game fishing!

Smallmouth on a hand tied Woolly Bugger while
fishing with dad.
One of dad's smallmouths on a
Mister Twister

Nice one!

Nice sized rock bass on the fly.
Beautiful fish.
Rock bass on a Mister Twister.
Chartreuse flake FTW!

When I lived in Michigan, I would fish the rocky walls of the Muskegon Lake Channel using Mister Twisters under a float with good success.  In this situation, a bigger jig head can be used.  The float would go about 4’ above the lure, then cast almost parallel to the rock wall.  The ebb and flow of the water between Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake will keep your float and lure moving along the rocks while the waves give it vertical motion.  The lure will present itself to spaces between the rocks and dark hollows where panfish, largemouth bass and rock bass love to hide.  If your float disappears under the water, set the hook!  This technique also works along the rocks in Veteran’s Park in Milwaukee, or out on the rocky section of the breakwater, and even right in front of the Milwaukee Art Museum!  Don’t be afraid to climb out on the rocks, find one that looks fairly level and sturdy and make it your home.

A dreary summer day under the Art Museum

The wings of the museum close and open at noon.

This big perch took a black Mister Twister

The rocks along Veteran's Park with
the breakwater in the background.
So much cover for fish.

When I'm in Michigan, My dad, my brothers and I would go out in my dad’s fishing boat and fish in inland lakes.  Most of the time we’d go to Twin Lake on weekday evenings.  Twin Lake is close to home and not too big, so it doesn’t get a lot of fishing pressure during the week.  On the water, you simply cast your line out, then let the breeze push the boat.  You can give your lure some twitches by lifting the tip of your rod occasionally, but a lot of times, that isn’t even necessary.  Largemouth bass or northern pike won’t hesitate to suck up a purple Mister Twister just crawling by at a snail’s pace.  When Kyle, my youngest brother was just a little toddler, we wanted him to feel like he was fishing.  What we did was gave him a yard sale kid’s rod with a brown Mister Twister on a huge orange jig head (we called them “pumpkin heads”) and let his line drop about 8’ below the surface, just to make him feel like he was fishing.  The waves kept his lure moving up and down, and wouldn’t you know it, he caught the biggest bass of the day “pretending to fish.”  It must have been 17” long!  Poor little boy, it scared the crap out of him!  I still remember him crying out “Put that whale back!”  

Magician Lake.  Kyle's all grown up now.  My dad and my other
brother Shane in the background.

If you don’t have access to a boat, fishing from shore is still a lot of fun.  Cast toward docks, lily pads, downed trees, anything that gives fish cover.  You can also just cast out and steady retrieve your line back in, big bluegill will give chase!

Because of their affordable price and effectiveness for so many species, if you are only going to fish with one artificial lure, Mister Twisters are the one.  But i’m betting, once you get into fishing with artificials, you’ll be hooked!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Keeping it Real With Artificials

Have you ever seen the film A River Runs Through It?  If you have, you must surely remember how the main characters looked down on bait fishing.  Don't worry, most people won't look down on you.  If you're happy catching your limit of bluegill on worms, then more power to ya!

Live bait can be extremely effective, and if you are just desperate to catch something, a worm on a hook under a Poké Ball float is the way to go.  But even the most hardened bait fisherman is bound to have some artificials in his tackle box.

There are many reasons to fish with artificial lures, they can be used to target specific species of fish, generally attract larger fish, and require you to be more involved because you need to make the lure appear to be alive and edible.  There are some places, usually trout streams, where fishing with live bait is actually illegal.

Lures come in so many forms that you can lose your head if you don’t know what you’re looking for.  The prices can range from under a dollar to upwards of ten or even twenty dollars!  However, there are some artificial lures that are super effective for many kinds of fish that are very reasonably priced.

For my next few posts I will discuss the three affordable lures that no fisherman should be without.  I will also share some techniques that I find particularly successful in specific situations.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


When I decided to start a blog, the hardest part was coming up with a clever name.  Weeks were spent trying to come up with something clever and catchy.  It had to be related to fishing, but not so serious, like “EXTREME MIDWEST BASS FISHING,” because, if you can’t tell, I’m rarely ever as serious as a heart attack.  But a recent fishing event came back to me and provided all the inspiration needed for a name for a blog.
scenic stretch of the Milwaukee
Milwaukee River
It was a warm July evening.  My wife was putting our little girl to bed and I had a couple of hours to sneak out and wet my line; I had recently tied a batch of black Woolly Buggers that I was excited to try out.  I drove a little north of downtown Milwaukee to fly fish a stretch of the Milwaukee River near the Capitol bridge.
This July was hot and dry, so the water was low and warm, so warm in fact, that as I put my feet into the water, I had to look down to see if I really was in the water.  I was.
I waded across the river to a boulder at the head of a deeper pool that usually holds fish.  This day it held suckers, but no bass.  An overhanging willow tree also failed to produce fish.
I made my way toward another spot a few hundred yards upstream and across the river.  A pool with numerous boulders and a couple of fallen trees in it.  Plenty of cover for bass.
The first few casts drifted and swung through the pool with no strikes, but eventually there were hits and misses, there were fish in this hole!
small smallmouth bass
Milwaukee River smallmouth
Finally, there was a strike and a successful hook set, and an eight inch smallmouth bass was reeled in and landed.  A few more followed, ranging in length from about seven to twelve inches.
After the bass stopped hitting, I started to head back downstream.  There was a pocket of still water completely cut off from the current by boulders, and I could see bass in there. There were a lot of weeds between me and the still water, but I decided to trod through rather than circumvent them.
I started casting into the pocket and stripping back, but had no hits.  The bass in there were rather small anyway.
At this point, I started to walk back to the point where I initially entered the river to try one last pool, usually the best pool.  I began to trod through the growth again, and just as I reached the edge of the weeds, I kicked what I thought was a large log.  But this was no log, as it began thrashing about, scaring the hell out of me!
My heart felt like it was going to go all Alien on me and burst through my chest!  I’m scrambling to get away!  What is it? Is it a longnose gar?  A snapping turtle?  A walleye?
The monster made it’s presence known from under the weed line, it was, in fact, as they say, more afraid of me than I was of it.  It was a great big common carp, about the largest, most harmless fish in the entire Midwest, if not the world.
I was relieved, and I kind of thought to myself, “What the karp!?!” as I thought about a Magikarp evolving into a Gyarados and using Dragon Rage.  I laughed a little, and texted my dad about it, still shaking so bad that I almost dropped my phone into the river. 
I continued up to the next pool and caught several more nice bass, all on my hand tied flies.  Some on a San Juan Worm, some on Scuds and some on Woolly Buggers before calling it a good day.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hook, Line and Sinker

As I mentioned before, just because you got a fishing rod, you are not quite ready to start reeling in the lunkers.    The easiest way to start is with live bait.  It requires the least gear, and you can catch a wide variety of fish, but you’re gonna need something to tie onto the end of your new line, as well as things to make your bait float... or sink.  

yo-zuri hybrid line
Let’s talk about line.  The line on that flea market rod might be older than you!  Ideally, your fishing line should be replaced every year.  The line starts to act a little crazy as it gets older.  It becomes much more likely to tangle, hard to cast accurately, knots won’t hold, and it becomes brittle and more likely to break.  Fishing line is usually sold with a rated breaking strength and the diameter on the package.  When choosing new line, choose the lightest line you are comfortable using.  If you plan on catching bluegill or perch or other panfish, you can probably do just fine with three pound test.  If fishing for big catfish, you might go with twenty pound test.  I personally never use anything above ten pound test.  There is a trade off. As your line gets heavier, you will have less strikes because the fish are more likely to see your line.  Heavier line is also harder to cast than light line.  There are so many different choices for line, and they are changing constantly.  There is monofilament, fluorocarbon, superbraid... maybe someday we’ll have nanotube line!  What I usually find myself buying is Yo-Zuri Hybrid, it’s a nylon monofilament and fluorocarbon hybrid.  I usually use six pound test for all around conditions.

assorted hooks
Click to enlarge
When it comes to hooks, I usually use Eagle Claw.  I’m not much of a bait fisherman, so i’m not in the loop of what the trends are for hooks.  A lot of red hooks have been noticed hanging in branches and telephone lines, and many reviews for “circle hooks” were read in magazines.  Truthfully, probably any average hook will work as long as it’s small enough to fit in the fish’s mouth.  If the hook is too big, the fish will repeatedly suck the bait from your line without taking the hook.

Now, you need to be able to present your bait at the proper depth.  This is where sinkers and floats (or bobbers) come in.  Sinkers are usually made of lead.  Lead is cheap, heavy, soft and easily molded, and terrible for the environment.  If you are trying to be environmentally friendly, there are lead alternatives.  Tungsten, steel, or tin are used to make lead free sinkers.  Tungsten and steel are heavy, but too hard to mold, so they usually come in shapes that would be tied onto your line.  Tin is softer, but not as heavy.  Since it is softer, it is available in split shot.  Split shot is clamped onto your line easily with a pair of pliers.  (Don’t use your teeth, especially with lead split shot.)  If you are just going to fish on the bottom for big bottomfeeders, the sinkers will get you where you are going.  However, if you are fishing for sunfish, bluegill, largemouth bass, and other fish along those lines, you might need to present your bait suspended between the surface and the bottom, because that is where most fish live.  Putting a float on your line anywhere from ten inches to about six feet up from the hook, with a couple of split shot  somewhere in between (make sure your float is buoyant enough to float with your weight) will suspend your bait at a good average depth.  Floats come in all sorts of designs, but the most common kinds are either long balsa floats, or plastic spheres that look just like Poké Balls from Pokémon.  The video game nerd in me loves the Poké Ball floats.  I can draw little faces on them and make them look like Voltorb and Electrode, or just pretend i’m throwing out a Poké Ball to catch a Magikarp.  Gotta catch ‘em all!  Really I see no advantage over one type of float or another.  If anyone has an opinion over what type of float is better for any occasion over another, please share.  
hand drawn face on a red and white bobber
My Voltorb float
hand drawn electrode face on a red and white bobber
My Electrode float
Finally, bait.  Probably the simplest option would be to use earthworms.  In my hometown of Muskegon, Michigan you could buy worms and many other kinds of live bait at any gas station.  In Milwaukee, live bait is much harder to find in stores, but who needs to buy live bait?  Plan ahead, save a glass jar and put some nice moist black soil in it, then wait for a soaking rain.  When the rain has cleared, get out there and start collecting your bait from the sidewalk before the birds get it all!  Alternately, if there is a wooded area near you, you can turn over stumps and logs.  You have to be quick, earthworms are pretty photophobic and will dart into the soil faster than you thought possible.  Many nightcrawlers can be found under logs; a nightcrawler is a very large earthworm used for fishing.  There are almost endless possibilities for live bait.  You can use minnows, crickets, maggots, mayflies and their larvae, leeches, frogs and so many others.  According to my dad, my great-grandfather used to fish for musky with live squirrels, i’m not sure if that’s even legal!  I have also heard of kittens being used as shark bait.  I am strongly against this.  Personally, the most advanced life form I think that should be used for bait is live fish.  Anything more advanced than fish just seems to be cruel, you have to draw a line somewhere.
earthworm and nightcrawler

Once you have acquired all of these things, you are pretty much ready to start fishing!  There is actually one more crucially important thing, you need a fishing license, well, at least in the USA you do.  Prices, as well as laws vary from state to state, so read your state’s guidebook.  If you get caught fishing without a license YOU WILL REGRET IT! 

Fishing with live bait can be a lot of fun, but there might come a time when you want to switch to artificial bait.  Artificial bait and lures will be discussed at a later point.  Now, go catch some fish!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Where Do I Even Begin? (part III)

Okay, so you don’t know anyone with a man cave full of fishing stuff and you don’t have the patience to summon your inner tonberry and haggle your way through a flea market.  You do, however, have some money that you’ve been saving.  Now we are going to talk about the quickest way to dissolve your funds and get you elbow deep in fish slime.
Buying brand new fishing gear is so much fun!  With all the fishing I do, I can only recall three times when I actually went out and picked out a new rod and reel.  When you decide to get new gear, there are some things to keep in mind.  Big box stores may have great selections and even better prices, but a lot of the time the people behind the counter can’t tell you anything about the gear, and a lot of stuff on display is broken.  You are better off going to a smaller fishing shop where the prices may be a little higher, but the staff is very helpful.  They can help you pick out a good rod, and even give you tips about where to fish and what to use.  And if you support a smaller shop, you know where the money is going.
Ultimately, like a wand from Ollivander’s, the rod chooses the angler, but the staff will help it find you!  There are many different choices for handles, length, action (flexibility), reels, guides (eyes), and the number of pieces the rod breaks into.  Most rods are two-pieces.  Two-piece rods break down small enough to pack and carry without sacrificing a lot of strength. One-piece rods will always be stronger, but harder to store away, or put in the trunk of your car, so there is a trade off.  A good starter rod would probably be a 6’6” medium action two-piece rod with an open face reel.  Long and heavy enough to catch some big fish, but delicate enough to feel the smallest trout strike your bait while still being easy to transport and store.  Later on if you feel the need, you can worry about rods for specific fish, such as an ultralight rod for panfish and a heavy action rod for catfish.

A great rod for fishermen of any skill level is the Ugly Stik, made by Shakespeare.  Ugly Stiks are made in the USA, quite affordable, and among the most durable rods made.  You will not find a better rod for the price.  Most Ugly Stik rod and reel combos range in price from $20.00 to $50.00.  As testimony to the reliability of an Ugly Stik, they have a seven year warranty against defect, but if you break it when you run into a tree while off road biking from one fishing spot to another (as I have), you’re just going to have to try to repair it on your own. 
big salmon from mckinley marina
My medium action 6'6" Ugly Stik strung with 6 pound
 test line caught this 32" chinook salmon out of Lake
Michigan in downtown Milwaukee after a 45 minute fight.

If you are looking for a brand new fly rod, there is a lot more to a fly rod setup than just the rod, reel and the line.  There is the thick braided line that is tied to the reel, this is called the backing line, or, just “the backing.”  The backing is tied to the fly line, which is the portion that is cast.  The end of the fly line is then finished off with the tapered leader which is usually about 9’ in length.  Your fly can be tied to the leader, but as the flies break off, or are cut off and changed, your leader will get shorter and thicker.  To add this length back, you need to tie on a very fine section of line, called the tippet. There are some good starter kits that have most, or all of these things.  My first fly rod was a two-piece Scientific angler 5/6 weight 9’ rod.  It came with the rod, reel, backing, fly line, and leader.  The kit also came with instructions on how to tie all the correct knots for each of the different types of line, because it needed to be assembled.  What I like about this is that you will get firsthand knowledge of how to put it all together.  I don’t think they make that exact kit anymore; the one I see on the shelves at Gander Mountain and other places is a four-piece rod with everything assembled and ready to go. It also comes with some flies and an instructional DVD.  This kit costs about $110.00.  Cabela’s makes a good affordable fly rod under the name “Three Forks,” you can pick up a rod with all the line on the reel for $74.99 on the website.  My current fly rod is a two-piece 8’ 6” Three Forks 5 weight rod and reel combo.  Three Forks is an all around great rod for most occasions if you don’t have pockets overflowing with gil.  If you do, go somewhere that specializes in fly fishing.  They all have at least one high quality rod with the beginner in mind.  A local shop in Milwaukee, called The Fly Fishers, has some really nice fly rod and reel combos for around $300.00, and they sell used gear!
Once you have gotten a rod, there are still some other things you will need before you are really ready to get out on the water. If you get a rod at a thrift store or from dad’s man cave, you can assume the line needs to be replaced.  Even the line on a brand new rod may need to be replaced rather quickly.  There are also tackle boxes, hooks, lures, floats, sinkers, and all kinds of fun stuff yet.  We will talk about these things in a later post, until then!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Where Do I Even Begin? (part II)

In my previous entry, possible scenarios to help in acquiring some free fishing gear were discussed.  Getting free gear is good, however, most people will probably take a different route.  If you don’t care how old your equipment is, yard sales (or in Milwaukee, rummage sales) and thrift stores are  good places to start, and there is probably some good gear out there if you're persistent.
You may find good gear at a yard sale, especially in a town known for fishing.  Guys upgrade their gear and just need to make room.  Look for an Ugly Stik brand.  Ugly Stiks can take just about any punishment you can give them.  You may even find a tackle box full of lures for around $5.00, buy it!  Even if the lures aren’t new or current looking, they can be fun to experiment with.  Some of those old wooden lures are collectors items!  My dad probably still has wooden musky lures he inherited from his grandpa.  These things had teeth marks in them from musky and pike striking them!  Now, just about everything is plastic; nothing tells the history of the life of a lure like teeth marks in balsa.

garbage cans full of fishing rods
Time to make room for new gear.

Thrift stores such as Goodwill will sometimes have many rods.  So many in fact, that it may be overwhelming trying to find one worth buying.  They must get nice rods in occasionally, but they probably go quick, be persistent.

A good fishing rod is probably expected to outlive the original owner, so an estate sale rod could be an amazing find!  
Another good place to look for gear is at a flea market.  Haggling is expected, the price they put on the label is just a suggestion. Offer half the price, compromise at 3/4.  If there are two rods for $7.00 each, offer $10.00 for both. Tell them you liked another one you saw for less money several aisles down. Never pay what the tag says at a flea market.  You probably shouldn’t pay much more than $5.00 for a Goodwill/rummage/flea market rod, especially if it doesn’t come with a reel. And my personal opinion, never use a spincasting reel, sometimes called a closed face reel.  If it is a Zebco brand, pass it up.

shiny closed face reel
If you’re looking for a fly rod, things are a little different. These things are considerably more expensive, even for a cheap one.  So if you come across a fly rod that seems to be intact with a reel for $50.00, go ahead and try to haggle down to $40.00.  If the seller won’t budge, it’s your call, buy it or walk.  My suggestion is to pay close attention to the reel. If it looks like it is metal, it is probably a rather expensive reel. Consider buying the rod.  Plastic reels are of course, cheaper, so you might pass on it.  
In the Cabela’s near Milwaukee, they have the “Bargain Cave,” so I assume they all do.  There is always tons of fishing gear in there, but most of it is broken.  However, I’m pretty sure that a person who is persistent enough could come out of there with a nice year old rod with hardly a scratch.  The carry case for my fly rod came out of the bargain cave, and I use it all the time.  It has even been used as a weapon once to fend off some idiots in a van.
These are just some examples of practical ways to get cheap gear.  There are online options too.  You could come across good gear on Ebay or Craigslist, and if a brand or model is given, do a google search and read user reviews to learn more about what you're looking at.  That way you aren’t just making a shot in the dark when picking one rod out of a million at the local Salvation Army. Good luck out there!