When we released our 8-weight reel shootout, we began to demystify fly reels. We proved that cork drags didn't perform as well as modern disc drags. We also showed that it was possible to create a reel with virtually no startup inertia. It was not only was it the first reel shootout that was widely published, but it remains the only scientific test to date.
This year, we tested a reel that many more of you will use: the trout reel. More specifically, the 5-weight trout reel (for your 9' 5wt rod). We also wanted to take our testing to the next level, so we added a couple innovative categories, including a never before done freeze test to see if drags were truly sealed. All in pursuit of one question: What's the best fly reel for trout?
As with all of our reviews, we'll try to remain as objective as possible, and we’ll give you all of the raw data to draw your own conclusions, if you wish. But, we’re also going to tell you which reels we like best.
We couldn't have done this test without your support. Help us by buying your next fly reel here.
Why does it matter?
Thousands, if not millions of trout have been caught on Pflueger Medalists and Hardy Perfects - reels with no drag and traditional arbors. If you're fishing with one of those reels, we're not here to convince you that you have to switch. You don't.
But if you're looking for the the finest and highest performing reel on the market today, read on. The top reels will help you land more fish, have more fun on the water, and give you years of enjoyment. After all, no one needs to drive a Porsche to the grocery store, but it's a lot more fun than a 1990 Ford Tempo.
How we chose reels for our test
We take comments from our readers very seriously (you should leave some at the bottom). One of the most common remarks about our 8-weight shootout was, "I can't believe they didn't test <my favorite reel>." So, we wanted to offer a little more insight into the selection process. Last summer we asked virtually EVERY reel manufacturer to send us a reel. This included small brands that sell to only one shop like Einarsson, to direct sales brands like Allen, to larger manufacturers. We tested at least one reel from every company that sent them to us.
Our goal is to test as many reels as we can, so, if your favorite reel wasn't included and you'd like to see it tested next time, CLICK HERE, to send an e-mail to your favorite manufacturer.
So, what makes a great trout reel?
When we did our 8-weight reel shootout, we started out with a few basic principles, and we're going to do the same this time around. But trout reels are a lot simpler than saltwater reels. So, what makes a great trout reel?
When we asked around, 3 factors stood out as most important. We want our reels to have a fast enough retrieve for any trout that might turn on you, little to no start-up inertia, and the lightest possible weight.
Hey, if you could run down to Cabela's with your Boga Grips to do this test, you wouldn't need us, would you? (tweet this)
Just like last time, all spool measurements were taken using a digital caliper and weights were captured using a digital scale.
Testing drags is tough. But we want to make sure that you have the best possible data. That's why we teamed up with Element to use the most sophisticated testing equipment available to truly understand drag performance. Hey, if you could run down to Cabela's with your Boga Grips to do this test, you wouldn't need us, would you?
Each reel was then filled with 75 yards of backing and then mounted to a universal testing machine. The backing was then attached to the load cell. We then set the machine in motion and measured the force nearly 1000 times per second.
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.
In order to prioritize what was most important, we changed our scoring a bit this year. All three of our key performance factors got double points. Here are the categories:
Sure, every reel in this test can slow down a trout. So why do we care about drag strength? We're not trying to go tarpon fishing with these reels after all. But who would want a Ferrari if it topped out at 75 MPH? We view drag strength as the 'top-speed' in our test. That said, we wanted reels that had AT LEAST 2 lbs of drag (half of 5X tippet strength), and we penalized reels that didn't meet this benchmark.
We measured drag strength by averaging the force after the reel hit its peak (about 2 inches). The top reels had nearly 7lbs of drag, but the Galvan Torque, aptly named, was the only reel to exceed the 7lb mark.
Winner: Galvan Torque
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 fish traveling at 15-20 miles per hour.
Because the drags in trout reels are smaller than their saltwater counterparts, there was a lot more start-up inertia in this test than the last. The best drag systems had less than 1/4 lbs of start-up inertia, or (in order not to penalize reels with more overall drag) less than 10% overall inertia.
Several reels, however, did MUCH better than that, and showed virtually no start-up inertia.
Sealed Drag - New for 2015
A sealed drag is not 100% necessary for freshwater reels. That said, it keeps sand, water, and even ice (when it's cold enough) away from all of the important parts of the reel. This year, we wanted to really find out which drags were truly sealed. So, we did the freeze test. We put all the reels underwater, gave them a few turns, then let them sit for an hour.
After the reels were done soaking, we stuck them in the freezer and left them overnight. The theory being that if any water gets into the drag mechanism, it will freeze up and we'll know that it's really not as sealed as the manufacturers said.
What we found was surprising. There was no reel that didn't pass this test. The frozen water changed the way some of the reels sounded, but there were no "lock-ups", so we awarded full points to all of the sealed drags, but we need to find a better way to test this in the future.
Arbor Size and Retrieval Rate
In terms of pure performance, retrieval rate is one of the most important and noticeable features of a fly reel. When a fish 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 or just reel up as you change spots. 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. Almost all of the fly reels we tested claim to be “large arbor”, but we discovered that there was quite a variation between reels.
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 .75 cubic inches. That’s how much space 75 yards of 20lb Dacron backing takes up. The formula is:
Not surprisingly, the results were very similar. The Orvis was the smallest at 5.72 inches, 31% smaller than the winner. While three inches might not seem like much, if you're reeling in 60' of fly line (think about how many times you do this during a day on the water), the Orvis takes 40 more turns of the reel to do this than the top reel:
Winner: Hardy DD 4000, 8.34 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. This was disputed in another review, so if you'd like more information on narrow vs wide, check out this article.
The narrowest spools came from one of the most classic manufacturers: Abel
Bigger reels are more flexible. They hold more line and give you more options – like being able to put a 6 or 7-weight line on a 5-weight reel. More importantly, you're never going to have to worry about line piling up on a reel that holds 200 yards of backing. 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 “5-weights”, there is clearly no standard here. 75 yards of 20lb Dacron takes up about .75 cubic inches when wound reasonably tightly. The largest reels could hold nearly 250 yards of backing!
Winner: Orvis Mirage III
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. If you make 100 casts in a day, every ounce works out to over 6 extra pounds you need to move.
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.
Look & Feel
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.
Ergonomics - New for 2015
Another area that we felt wasn't adequately covered in our last shootout was ergonomics. Which is to say, how well is the reel designed from a human interaction standpoint. You interact with the reel at 3 key points: the handle, which you are in contact with most, the drag knob, which is used less frequently, but often requires quick and easy access, and the spool change, which is obvious. We assigned 4, 3, and 3 points for each category respectively (for a total of 10).
Handle: The best handles were fairly long - they move your knuckles further away from the spool so you're never touching it. We also liked the curved design on the higher-end Lamson reels, which made it much easier and more comfortable to grasp. The worst handles were really short and hard to grip.
Drag knob: When a fish is cruising into open water and you've left your drag wide open, nothing is more important that getting that adjusted back to a fishable level. This year we saw a lot of new reels that really made a lot of headway here. Namely, the Ross Animas and Sage 2250, which had HUGE easy to grab and adjust drag knobs.
Spool Change: The vast majority of the reels we tested this year had a quick change spool of some sort, and most work really well, but a few were slightly more difficult to line up. Overall, we don't change spools often, so most reels received full points.
Finish a.k.a. The Drop - New for 2015
We wanted this test to be as complete as possible. To do that, we needed to test the durability. So, we dropped each reel 3 times from a height of 3 feet (about the same height as the average tailgate) onto pavement. After all, who hasn't dropped a reel? We then dragged each reel along the pavement for a total of 9' to simulate what would happen to a reel if you placed it on a rock to do some rigging. In each review, we'll talk about divots (holes caused by the drop), scratches (mostly caused by dragging) and damage, which can take the shape of a bent frame or anything that would cause the reel to stop functioning normally.
When it comes to finish quality, one reel stood out with nearly unnoticeable damage.
When we revisited our testing criteria this year, one of the toughest decisions was about whether or not we should include price, and if so, how many points should it get. On the one hand, everyone has a different sense of value, so it should be assigned by the buyer, not us. On the other hand, unlike our 5-weight Rod Shootout, none of the value priced reels did very well when price wasn't considered.
So, we asked ourselves a question: would you rather buy an Orvis Access, or a Nautilus NVG? The answer was resoundingly in favor of the Access, so we knew that we got it just about right.
Winner: Sage 2250
What about warranty?
Originally, we going to score this just like last time, as a % of the reel's price. However, a few things became clear. First, we were virtually negating all of the points given to the less expensive reels, since they inherently had poorer warranties (It costs the same amount to repair a Sage 2250 as it does an 8000 Pro). Second, manufacturers seemed to arbitrarily assign prices, so it wasn't really a fair way to determine quality.
The winners in this category are Hatch, Galvan, and Bozeman, who all have $0 warranties and really stand behind their products. While we didn't score this, it should be taken into account as a tie-breaker.
Last time we did this test, we had a pretty good idea of who would win. This year, there were so many contenders that we had no idea who would emerge victorious. However, when the results were tallied, one reel, above all others, embodied what we were looking for: the Lamson Litespeed IV. It's light, has a huge arbor, and an incredibly strong and smooth drag. Top that off with great ergonomics, Made-in-the-USA quality, and a hard-as-nails finish and we've found our winner!
Picking a winner was easy, but we know not everyone wants to spend $350 on a fly reel. That's where the Orvis Access is really great. It's got a strong, smooth drag and better yet, it's less than half the price of our winner. Now, on to the full results:
The raw data
Reel Notes and Drag Strength Graphs
|1. Lamson Litespeed IV #2|
|2. Orvis Mirage III|
|3. Galvan Torque|
|3. Nautilus FWX 5/6|
|3. Ross Animas 5/6|
|6. Sage 4250|
|7. Ovris Access Mid-Arbor II|
|8. Nautilus NVG 5/6|
|8. Orvis Hydros LA III|
|8. Hatch 4 Plus|
|11. Lamson Speedster 2|
|11. Ross F1 #2|
|11. TFO BVK II|
|14. Sage 2250|
|15. Cheeky Ambush 375|
|15. Galvan Rush Light|
|15. Sage Domain 5|
|18. Abel SD 4/5|
|18. Lamson Guru 2|
|20. Ross Evolution LT #2|
|21. Bozeman RS325|
|22. Hardy DD 4000|
|22. Lamson Remix 2|
|22. Redington Rise 5/6|
|25. Abel Super 4N|
We'd love to hear your feedback on this test. Leave us 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.