Fly reels have come a long way from the Pflueger Medalist you used growing up. Some weigh next to nothing, while others have enough drag to stop a truck. Manufacturers have achieved these new levels of performance by using new materials and cutting edge design. But how do you tell the difference between cork and Rulon drags? Is Delrin smoother than graphite?
Throughout the years a lot has been written about fly fishing equipment. Blogs, forums, magazines, manufacturers are full of information. There have even been several head-to-head tests of fly rods. Reels, on the other hand, have been virtually ignored. Why? Fly Reels are hard to test. It requires a lot of expensive equipment, knowledge, and time. We set out to break that mold.
We wanted the test to remain objective, so the first part of the test is purely scientific, and we’ll give you all of the raw data to draw your own conclusions. But, we’re also going to tell you which reels we like best.
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What makes a great saltwater fly reel?
That’s the question we asked ourselves when we conceived this test. We asked around. We wanted a drag that could stop a fleeing bonefish, yet was smooth enough to protect light(ish) tippets. We also wanted a reel that was light enough to cast all day long, and one that could hold enough backing (at least 150 yards) in case that baby tarpon turns out to be bigger than a baby. Finally, we wanted a reel that could pick up line fast with minimal level winding and withstand all of the rigors of saltwater use.
All spool measurements were taken using a digital caliper and weights were captured using a digital scale.
Testing the drags was the tough part. Luckily, we teamed up with the folks at Admet, the makers of the best universal testing machines on the market. They set us up with one of their fully customized eXpert 2600 Dual Column testing machines.
Each reel was then filled with backing and attached to the base of the eXpert 2600 via a custom machined reel mount. The backing was then attached to a hook which is attached to the load cell. We then set the machine in motion and measured the force nearly 1000 times per second. Richard Gedney, founder of Admet, explains this in more detail.
We tested all reels with backing only. We found that when fly line was on the reel, it shifted around too much to get consistent results. Rigging Matters.
Arbor Size and Retrieval Rate
When a bonefish turns and starts swimming toward you, you need to reel as fast as you can to keep the fish on. It also means fewer turns to bring in that trophy catch. Therefore, bigger IS better, as they say.
For those of you who don’t know, the arbor refers to the mid-section of the spool. Think of the hole in the donut. Following the analogy, the larger the diameter of the hole, the larger the arbor. All of the fly reels we tested claim to be “large arbor”, but we discovered that there was quite a variation between reels.
As you might expect, the classic Tibor Everglades was the smallest at 1.58 inches, nearly 42% smaller than the Ross F1 at 2.73 inches.
But what we really care about is line pickup, and therefore, that’s what we scored as part of the test. To get this, we needed to determine the circumference at 2.2 cubic inches. That’s how much space 200 yards of Dacron backing takes up. The formula is:
Not surprisingly, the results were very similar. The Tibor Everglades was the smallest at 7.57 inches, 23% smaller than the winner:
Winner: Ross F1 Fly Reel, 9.79 inches per turn
For many years, the trend in fly reel manufacturing was to make the arbors larger and the spools wider. Why? It helps keep the weight down and gives you a fast retrieval rate. This comes at a price, however, which is you having to act as a level wind every time you reel in your line so that the line doesn't pile up. A few reels have started to buck this trend - namely, the Hardy Ultralite DD, and the Lamson Speedster. These reels have large narrow spools. That's exactly what we were looking for. The top four reels came in within a few hundreths of an inch:
Bigger reels are more flexible. They hold more line and give you more options – like being able to put a 9 or 10-weight line on an 8-weight reel. We calculated estimated volume using the following formula:
This calculation isn’t exact because some of the spool designs featured arbors that weren’t flat, but it does give us a basic idea of reel capacity. While all the reels we tested were “8-weights”, there is clearly no standard here. 200 yards of 20lb Dacron takes up about 2.2 cubic inches when wound reasonably tightly. The largest reel could easily take an extra 100 yards of backing.
Side note: Because this category is about flexibility, and the Hatch 7 Plus also accepts a Mid-Arbor Spool, which is even bigger than the 8080, we decided that they would share the victory.
As fly fisherman, we’ve become obsessed with weight. Rods are pushing the limits, some weighing in at less than two ounces. Reels are getting lighter too. Why are lighter reels better? As rods get lighter, you need lighter reels to balance them. Moreover, when you’re casting all day a lighter outfit is easier on your arms. The lightest reels in this test were lighter than most trout reels, while the heaviest weighed in at over 9 ounces (over half a pound!).
We tested reels from $100-$800. Prices don’t necessarily correlate with performance, the Orvis Mirage took 3rd place in our test, and cost hundreds less than the most expensive reels. We were even more surprised when the Sage 1800 reel, the least expensive in our test, tied for 4th place.
So, what are you paying for? The more expensive reels tend to offer a greater level of customization. Abel lets you customize virtually every single part of the reel (even the drag knob and reel seat), and even offers hand painted options from great artists like Derek DeYoung. Tibor offers custom engraving and some of the most beautiful metallic finishes ever created.
Winner: Sage 1880
A sealed drag is a key component of any good saltwater fly reel. It keeps salt and sand away from all of the important parts. But, there’s more than one way to solve this problem. Classic reels like Tibor and Abel have proven this through countless world records. By using very few parts, and making them easy to access/service, they’ve achieved great results without “sealing” the drag.
We weren't able to fully test the quality of various drag seals (this is typically done with a “freeze test”), but we do know that some drags are more sealed than others. For the purposes of this test, we scored reels with male/female connections lower than the drags with machined connections like Hatch and Hardy. Note how the reel on the right requires you to insert a rod into the drag system, where the Hardy (left) attaches the spool directly to top of the drag.
Sound is an important, yet often under appreciated, part of a fly reel. Drag sounds provide a lot of feedback when fighting a fish, which is useful, but they also add to the excitement of catching a fish that makes a great run. At Trident, we prefer reels that have both an incoming (when reeling in) and outgoing (when the fish is taking the drag) sound.
We knew that reels like Tibor sounded great, but we were surprised to hear (pun intended) how well the Ross Momentum LT sounded. It's great!
Look, Feel, & Special Features
We can talk about fly reel performance all day long, but when it comes down to buying a reel, look and feel is just as important. That’s why top reel manufacturers offer dozens of custom colors and 100s of possible combinations. This is purely subjective, but there's unlikely to be many people who prefer the feel of a Redington over a Tibor. So, we gave you our opinions on the matter.
A few of the reels also had some interesting special features, like the Sage 8000's "Dial-a-Drag", which allows you to pre-set your drag level as you pull off your fly line. Abel also built their reel with VERY few parts, making it incredibly easy to service. We gave these reels an extra point for ingenuity.
Want to know about spare spools and changing the retrieve? Check out our reel notes at the bottom of the page.
When you're spending half of your paycheck on a fly reel, it's important that you know the manufacturer is going to stand behind it. Thankfully, every reel we tested came with a lifetime warranty from the manufacturer. Unfortunately, there's a "handling fee" associated with it. Except for Hatch. They stand behind their product so much that they don't even charge you a fee if it breaks.
We scored this based on the % of the original purchase price the fee was.
What differentiates a freshwater fly reel from a saltwater fly reel? Drag Strength. When you’re trying to stop a bull redfish, 3-4lbs of drag isn’t going to cut it. Ideally, you’ll want enough drag to match your tippet size, less a few pounds of water drag (the force of the water on the line). For bonefish, that means at least 8lbs. Baby tarpon or big stripers – 10-12lbs.
We measured drag strength by averaging the force after the reel hit its peak (about 2 inches). Surprisingly, only two reels in the test had drags that exceeded 10 lbs of drag. The winner of this category, the Hardy Fortuna, had over 30lbs of drag!!!! We had heard the claims, but didn't believe it. Watch check out this video of the Fortuna breaking 20lb Dacron:
Winner: (by a HUGE margin) Hardy Fortuna X
If you troll the fly fishing forums, there's a lot of talk about start-up inertia - and with good reason. But let's back up. What is start-up inertia? All drags work in essentially the same way - two plates create friction which slows the spinning of the spool. There are two types of friction: static - when the drag isn't moving - and kinetic - when a fish is pulling on the drag. Start-up inertia is the initial force required to get the drag started. So, it's actually a bit of a misnomer. It should actually be called "static friction". So... who cares?
Because static friction is greater than kinetic friction, it causes a drop in drag force immediately after the fish starts pulling on your line. Here's what it looks like on a drag graph:
You'll notice that this reel requires over 2 lbs of start-up force. If we're using 8 lb test tippet, we now need to set our drag to a maximum of 5-6 lbs so that it doesn't break the tippet. Effectively, we're losing 25% of our drag strength. Because all forces are exacerbated at higher speeds, imagine how much drag is lost with a bonefish traveling at 15-20 miles per hour.
Needless to say, we were very surprised to find out that start-up inertia was actually fairly low for most reels, but a few reels really stood out. The Hatch Finatic and the Ross F1 both had virtually zero start-up inertia.
A Note on Drag Smoothness
When we saw how good Admet's machines were, we were planning on including a category for "drag smoothness". When we tested it, however, we found that most of the drags were actually very smooth, and would have no impact on any real fishing application. In fact, the testing machines were so accurate, that we found that the position of the line on the reel made more of a difference than the drag itself. So, we didn't score it, but if we had, the Ross F1, would have been the winner.
We weren't all that surprised when we tabulated the results and the Hatch Finatic 7-Plus turned out to be the winner. Everyone that's ever picked up a Hatch fly reel knows that they are an incredible piece of equipment. It's beautifully machined, and has a silky smooth, very well sealed drag. They also have the best warranty in the business. If we had to find something wrong with this reel, it would be that it doesn't have as much drag as we'd really like to see.
Counterpoint #1: Which reel will I be taking tarpon fishing? Easy. The Hardy Fortuna X. When drag performance is what matters most, Hardy is the unconditional winner.
Counterpoint #2: If you're only going to be using your reel in freshwater (or for relatively small fish), the Ross F1 offers the smoothest drag and the most protection for light tippets.
The raw data
Reel Notes and Drag Strength Graphs
|1. Hatch Finatic 7-Plus|
|2. Hardy Fortuna X1|
|3. Orvis Mirage IV|
|4. Sage 1880|
|4. Cheeky Mojo 425|
|4. Tibor Everglades|
|4. Lamson Guru 3.5|
|5. Sage 4280|
|5. Sage 8080|
|6. Abel Super 8|
|6. Sage 6080|
|7. Tibor Signature 7-8|
|7. Ross F1 #4|
|7. Ross Momentum LT 4|
|8. Lamson Vanquish 7.8LT|
|9. Redington Delta 7/8|
|10. Redington Rise 7/8|
We'd love to hear your feedback on this test. Please leave a comment below.
If you've gotten this far, I commend you - it's a novel. Don't forget to check out the other posts in our great fly fishing blog.